Tom Alter feels grateful for his loved ones, especially during the pandemic.
The Fraser indie-folk singer-songwriter acknowledges the longtime support of his family and friends on his latest album, Love and All That Comes With It.
“It really does come from my past albums and dealing with all the controversy and disagreement in the world. What has gotten me through these last few years has been love and the relationships with my wife, my family and my friends. In a way, while it seems like a departure, it’s really part of the same story,” Alter said.
“How many times have you spent your whole day watching whatever news channel you watch? I did a lot of that, and what got me away from that and allowed me to deal with things emotionally and intellectually was turning back to the people I could count on in my life.”
Throughout Love and All That Comes With It, Alter revisits past and present relationships alongside reflective lyrics and atmospheric folk-jazz-rock instrumentation. Each track encourages listeners to take an emotional and spiritual look at the love in their lives.
“Some of the songs on the album were written a while ago, but a lot of them were rewritten where I repurposed lyrics and things like that. There were songs I wasn’t happy with, but I liked certain concepts in them,” Alter said.
“The first song really written for this album was ‘Love and All That Comes With It.’ It has the line, ‘With love you can deal with it,’ and it’s a continuation of my previous statements.”
To expand on those statements, we recently chatted with Alter about writing and recording tracks for his recent release.
TSS: On Love and All That Comes With It, you focus on the positive side of love as well as the sad and disillusioned side of it. What was it like to explore those different aspects of love?
TA: This is probably the most personal album I’ve done where much of the inspiration comes from my own true stories and other relationships. They’re relationships I’ve been in and relationships I’ve been close to. There’s been some excitement in those relationships, but just not a lot of different relationships. My wife Heide and I have been married for 30 years, but we both had first marriages and had disillusionment in those first marriages.
I wanted to have an arc on the album, and it starts with the brief introductory song “Only Love.” I wanted to have something that talks about how so much of life is difficult. It’s really only love that’s gonna get you through. I wanted to keep that short and sweet and just set up the rest of the album. I go from the long perspective on the second song “Green Screen,” and then I start more on the early part of a relationship, including “June” and “Beauty is a Beast.” Then the disillusion starts in, but the reason I go to “Forsythia” and the instrumental “Forever Forsythia” is that second chance.
TSS: The opening track “Only Love” reminds listeners that love provides strength, certainty and reassurance in life. How does love continue to help you move forward?
TA: It’s attributed to Heide and how she’s my best friend. We have been through a lot in the last 10 years, especially with dealing with and supporting our parents and our family. My mother got sick in 2009, and that required a lot of attention. Heide had retired from her job, and she was taking her to all the appointments and things like that.
Right before my mother passed away, my mother-in-law had a stroke, and we cared for her for the last three years of her life in our home. Then my dad started to have dementia. While making this album, my father died recently. He got COVID in 2020, and he was failing significantly for the last year. That was definitely in my mind as I was writing this as well. There’s also the support of my immediate siblings and how much they’ve had to pitch in with that and friends as well.
TSS: “Green Screen” proves that love can truly live anywhere and feel like home. How has the love in your life provided you with a sense of home and connection to other places?
TA: It’s about all the experiences that Heide and I have had together and the places that we’ve gone. It’s the second song I wrote as part of this theme. Heide and I do everything together, and she comes to my shows with me and all that.
With all that we’ve been through in the last 10 years, it has limited our ability to have adventures and travel. We can always fall back on those memories, but everything still led to where we are right now. And that’s fantastic, too.
TSS: “Beauty is a Beast” celebrates the love and spiritual connection people find with one another and in nature. How has spending time with others and being in nature inspired you?
TA: For “June” and “Beauty is a Beast,” there are lines that I borrow from Stevie Wonder. I’ve always loved Songs in the Key of Life, and in “June” I say, “As Stevie said, ‘I see us in the park.’” That was an incident early in my relationship with Heide … meeting in a park and that always ran through my head.
For “Beauty is a Beast,” that’s where the “Knocks me off my feet” comes in, and I use that line from Stevie. It’s about nature and those gifts from God, but also how in an early part of a relationship you tend to see those things more. That’s been true in my experience, where all of a sudden, you see art differently, and you read things differently. I don’t know if it’s being in a higher emotional state, or it’s just the energy of something new and exciting.
I’ve been able to rely on that more in this highly emotional state in the last couple of years and take some refuge in that. I do look at it as seeing God’s creation. Sometimes, it’s like, “Hey Bud, you’re worried about this, but let me smack you in the face with this image.” I had that lyric, “Beauty is a beast,” because it can just stop you in your tracks and get you to pay attention to what’s important.
TSS: “So Enough” chronicles the disintegration of a long-term relationship and reveals how one partner feels satisfied while the other does not. How did this song come about for you?
TA: This is based on a couple of past relationships and my first marriage in a way. We got married when we were 21, and I was working a full-time job, playing part-time in a wedding band, and taking two or three courses. That lasted until I was 28, and my ex-wife got used to being alone a lot and having a whole different set of friends. When everything stopped at one time, except for my full-time job, we realized we wanted totally different things. That’s the personal side.
I also had those types of relationships first based on the idea of “OK, it’s fine; we just love being together and all that.” Then it was, “You love being together and at home a little more than I do. I want to go out and do this or that and go here and there.” That’s where the worm turns a little bit in the album.
TSS: “Forsythia” and the companion instrumental “Forever Forsythia” serve as promising symbols of love and hope. How did the forsythia bush inspire these two tracks and provide you with a sense of renewal each spring?
TA: A forsythia bush represents getting a second chance in life and serves as an analogy for a rekindling of romance and love. Even though you may have had a bad experience, there’s that second chance whether it be with the same person or a new person. When you look at a forsythia bush in February, you think there’s no way this thing is coming back. When it does, there’s that rush of gold that just blooms and is spectacular. It’s breathtaking in a way.
TSS: When did you start writing the 11 tracks for Love and All That Comes With It?
TA: I really took my time writing the songs and doing the sequencing. There are some things that I ended up not using—probably about three or four songs—and I don’t know if I ever will.
TSS: How did you approach recording the tracks for the album?
TA: I always start with just an acoustic guitar track and a click track. Usually, the vocals are the last thing I add, but this time I did the acoustic guitar track and the vocals first. I’ve found a lot of times I would put in instrumentation that would then be over top of the vocals. Once the acoustic guitar and vocals were done, then I got my electric guitar out and tried different effects and then tried the keyboards.
TSS: What was it like to mix and master Love and All That Comes With It?
The other thing I took more time on than I ever have is the mixing and mastering. I work totally on GarageBand … and every time I think that I should upgrade, I don’t find anything I can’t do on there. Primarily, I’m playing instruments except for the drums, which are programmed, and I spend a lot of time on those.
As far as the mixing and mastering goes, this is my seventh solo project, and After Blue has had four. I’ve done the mixing and mastering on all of them. But I never felt like I knew what I was doing, and it was always so much time going back and listening. I took an online course, and that helped me so much. I actually made an Excel spreadsheet as I went through the course step by step and did one song completely.
The guy who teaches the course is amazing … his name is Colin Cross. I could ask him questions, and I’d get an email back the next day. I could also share stages of the mixing process with him, and he would comment on them. The whole time from the beginning of mixing to the end of mastering took me four months.
TA: Will is just an amazing player, and I just kept thinking, “I have to ask him.” And I did, and he said, “Yeah, I’ll do it,” and he came right over. I had sent him “June,” and there was a spike in cases, so we were out in my garage. It was 50 degrees out with the garage door open while we were recording. It sounds like a grand piano on the recording, but it’s his electric piano plugged straight into the computer. We spent a lot of time on “June,” and I was able to take out part of what he did and make that the introduction.
For “Phosphene,” I did like three takes on his solo and maybe pieced some things together, but he had never heard the song before. That was so fun to have him do that, and we got it done in like an hour.
TA: Anthony and I weren’t in the same room. He recorded in his home studio, and I recorded [in mine] and sent him the tracks. He sent me back so much more than I would have ever expected. I was able to use about 20 percent of what he sent me. He sang the whole song through, and he did the harmonies on it. He also constructed the harmonies on the part that Katie could add to.
When I was doing the mixing, it was like, “OK, what ends up on the floor? What stays in?” I still wanted to have it be a Tom Alter song. My inspiration for that was an old Keb’ Mo’ song … he had Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt on it. I liked how he had them come in and sing a couple of lines of the song. I knew I wanted as many voices as I could get on at the end. I probably could have added a choir, but they did the job of a choir.
TSS: What’s up next for you? Any plans to write or record new material?
TA: I’m thinking of doing a year of singles. I have about five songs that I can record now. The other thing I’m toying with is doing an album of standards. It would just be solo guitar and voice.