Tom Alter deeply examines art and life from different perspectives.
The Fraser indie folk singer-songwriter and guitarist candidly depicts the thoughts, feelings and challenges of society’s creative voices on his latest insightful album, Poetry and Protest.
“I realized that so much of what I was writing about were things based on what I had read or had come from memories that had stayed with me for a long time and made me want to write about them. That’s the poetry side of it,” said Alter, who produced, mixed and mastered his own album.
“And the protest side blends in with that because a lot of the poetry is coming out and speaking to important matters. The last song I wrote for this was (the title track), and that was after thinking about this collection of songs. I’m trying to put myself in the shoes of somebody who has a very different experience from me.”
Alter’s Poetry and Protest provides an enlightening narrative filled with bold tales about humanity, sacrifice, loss and compassion. It seamlessly ventures from the vast emptiness of space to the sparsely populated shores of Hudson Bay to the tightly packed streets of Hamtramck.
“The Poetry and Protest idea came from me being out on a walk and thinking about this collection of songs that I was putting together and realizing where the influences for them came from,” said Alter about his sixth album.
“There’s a song, ‘Four Blue Horses,’ that is directly from a Mary Oliver poem, and it comes from Franz Marc’s Blue Horses. She wrote a poem about that series of paintings, and she got so personally involved in the paintings. I just thought, ‘I want to write about this; it was as simple as that.’”
Inside Poetry and Protest
The eloquent title track beckons listeners to view life through an empathic lens as somber cello, pensive electric guitar, ticking cymbals, soft drums, hefty bass and upbeat electric guitar provide sonic guidance.
Alter hopefully sings, “There’s a song/Waiting for your voice to amplify/There are wrongs/You may right if you open up your eyes.”
“What I enjoy about that song is having Sara (Gibson) and Katie (Williamson) on it with me. Sara opens the whole album, which is cool. You hear the cello first. I also intentionally wrote it almost as a dance track,” he said. “I wanted it to have a mix of colors, and I didn’t want it to come out sounding too heavy. It’s very different from every other track on the album. ”
For the album’s second track, Alter quickly transitions to a solitary, atmospheric presence on “Space Junk.” Twirling electric guitar, delicate drums, hopeful acoustic guitar, cosmic bass and placid cello drift into the far reaches of the galaxy.
He calmly sings, “Tens of millions just like me/Searching for a sheltered place to be/A private wave in a tranquil sea/We’re particles in infinity.”
“For ‘Space Junk,’ I was listening to Mike Ward’s song, ‘No Way to Live,’ previously before writing that. The next day after having listened to that song, I read an article about space junk. All of a sudden, I started thinking about discarded things and discarded people,” said Alter, who also dropped a new lyric video for the track.
“The discarded people came from Mike’s song. That day, I wrote ‘Space Junk’ very quickly, and it’s drawing a parallel between discarded things and discarded people.”
After forming deep connections with people, Alter extends that same compassion to wildlife and nature on “Four Blue Horses,” a beautiful tribute to Oliver’s poem and Marc’s paintings. Stomping drums, serene acoustic guitar, solemn percussion, inquisitive electric guitar and forlorn bass encourage a mutual respect within nature.
Alter profoundly sings, “One horse asks for explanation/Why man’s his own predator/What’s the purpose? What is the reason?/Snuffing out a creator.”
“What I found really interesting when I researched Franz Marc … was that he was killed in World War I. That’s what really shaped a lot of the song,” he said. “There are these creatures he created, and they don’t understand why he would die and not be able to create more. It’s a song about a poem, but it’s definitely an anti-war song, too.”
With protest on his side, Alter strongly advocates for equality on the outspoken social justice anthem, “Defiance GA.” Propulsive bass, brave acoustic guitar, thumping drums, crashing cymbals and forthright electric guitar push for freedom and democracy.
He boldly sings, “I’ve done my best to try to live together/And I get the message you want me to read/Still every time you turn around a corner/You’ll stand the chance you’ll see the likes of me.”
“That’s a reaction not just to Georgia’s voting laws, but also voting in general. I’m trying to put myself in the place of somebody who feels like the voting laws are restricting their right,” Alter said.
“It’s similar to ‘Rivers’ Lament’ from the previous album in the sense of ‘I’ve tried to do things the right way, and I’ve tried to get along. And now you’re trying to deprive me of a right, and I’m feeling like maybe I don’t belong here.’”
Alter started crafting the songs for Poetry and Protest in 2020. He recorded the album’s 10 tracks in his home studio and invited After Blue bandmate Katie Williamson to sing on ‘Poetry and Protest,’ ‘Space Junk’ and ‘Anne at Night.’ Her vocals beautifully intertwine with Alter’s to create lush harmonies.
“She came over for just an hour to do these little backups. It was very quick, and she had never heard ‘Anne at Night’ and ‘Poetry and Protest’ before,” said Alter, who released After Blue’s Far Above and Far Away album with Williamson in November.
Along with Williamson, Alter also worked with Ann Arbor cellist Sara Gibson on “Poetry and Protest,” “Space Junk” and “Hudson Bay.” Gibson’s exquisite cello contributions bring an emotional, haunting quality to Alter’s captivating tracks.
“I let her do her thing. That’s all Sara, and it’s all her creativity,” he said.
New Material and Live Shows
Since releasing Poetry and Protest, Alter continues to write and record new material, including a series of songs about love.
“I have a group of songs, some have been around a while and some are brand new. And I put down the acoustic guitar and vocals for all of them and got those tracks recorded,” he said.
“They’re love songs in a way, whether it’s love songs that are more upbeat … and then there’s always the sad side or disillusioned side of love. There’s a song that I wrote called, ‘Love and All That Comes with It,’ and I think that might be the title of the next album.”
Alter doesn’t plan to release the new songs right away. He’s contemplating collaborating with others and possibly releasing several singles first.
“I’m just gonna take my time with this next one. A lot of times I don’t do that. I’m in this big rush to write and record a bunch of stuff, and then I get to the tedious part of mixing and mastering since I do all that myself,” said Alter with a laugh.
In the meantime, Alter is rehearsing for several live performances, including Feb. 4 at Michigan By the Bottle Tasting Room in Auburn Hills, Feb. 12 at The Proving Grounds Coffee & Ice Cream in Royal Oak, and March 4 at Two James Spirits in Detroit for the Corktown Music Festival.
“For Corktown, I’ll definitely try to highlight the tracks off Poetry and Protest and then sprinkle in some of the older ones. I’m hoping somebody will come and play with me on a song or two,” he said.