Sandi Thom: 'The world is full of doubters, and always has been'

She was catapulted to fame by a series of webcast gigs that some critics thought too good to be true. Here, Sandi Thom explains why they were wrong - and why she's still angry at her treatment by the British press.
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The Independent Online

It may be the last weekend in July, traditionally a high summer month, but all the way up here in Aberdeen, the cloud cover is so thick and gloomy it may as well be October. Sandi Thom, a native of these parts, is here to play at the Wickerman Festival over on the south-west coast, but she is using this rare pitstop north to pop in on her family on the opposite end of the country, even if it requires a six-hour drive to get from one place to the other. Curiously, I have been invited to join her for the first part of what should remain a rather personal day. I see her by the check-in desk at Heathrow just after 8am, sleep in her eyes, a yawn slowly erupting from her mouth. Although I have interviewed her before, about a month ago, it was on the telephone and so she won't be recognising me. I refrain from introducing myself right now, largely because her heavily freckled face looks like thunder. Perhaps she isn't a morning person. Little over an hour later, at the baggage carousel in Aberdeen, she will confirm this.

"Up at five o'clock this morning," she mumbles after an awkward shaking of hands. "These days, it's always up at five o'clock in the morning. You know, I don't think there would be a person alive who wouldn't be thoroughly sick of all these dawn starts. Don't get me wrong," she says, raising a palm in defence, "I expect it, I understand that it's a part of all ... all this, but I'm just sick of being tired all the time. It's - what?" She checks her watch. "Ten in the morning now. I've been up five hours already."

Her baggage arrives, and our group (tour manager, make-up artist, PR, me and the Independent photographer) make our way outside where two people carriers are waiting to spirit us to Macduff, Banffshire, where Thom once lived and her grandmother still does. The photographer and I take one car, she and her team the other. Before the hour-long journey, coffee is suggested. This is a good idea. Perhaps the caffeine will prove revitalising.

Sixty minutes of winding roads later, we arrive in Macduff. A tiny dot on the map, in real life the place is an enclave of humble village life that clings for all its worth to Scotland's rugged east coast. There is a dock, a fishing bay and, opposite, the kind of tea shoppes that Londoners would consider quaint. Here, nobody drinks frappuccinos. Up a steep hill we go, and then turn into the road on which Thom's grandmother lives. As we pull up, members of her extended family congregate outside the front door, and at the very centre stands the 91-year-old matriarch, whose eyes light up at the sight of the granddaughter who went to London to become a pop star. Hugs and kisses are exchanged, familial bonhomie even courteously extended to the visiting members of the press. We are ushered in and offered tea, cheese sandwiches and chocolate cake. While Thom disappears into a bedroom, where her make-up artist will apply heavy gothic kohl to her eyes, her tiny grandmother takes me into the kitchen and points to the back doorstep.

"There," she says. "That's where she'd stand, Sandi, singing her little heart out when she was but a wee girl. Always a wonderful voice."

One of her aunts, a music teacher at a nearby school, tells me that she knew her niece would become musical the very moment she first rested her fingers on the piano. "We're a musical family anyway," she points out. "All of us either play something or we sing, but Sandi? Sandi was different - special. I always knew her talent would take her places."

Thom's talent has indeed taken her places. Not just to London where, in support of her recent No1 single and album, the 25-year-old is all over TV and radio, but also, via the web, as far afield as Russia, Pakistan and New Zealand.

"Yeah," she will say to me later, the thunder returning to her face, "but you all doubt that, don't you? You think I'm nothing but hype."

Personally, I tell her, I thought nothing of the sort, but she isn't having it. It appears, perhaps with good reason, that she mistrusts me the way she mistrusts all media these days, and is only tolerating my presence in her family home because her record company has told her to. Just three months in showbiz, and already the woman has had enough. Our time together is about to become rather fractious.

Initially, it was all a fairytale for Thom, and it went something like this. Scottish folkie moves to London to seek her fortune and promptly signs a small publishing deal. Her nostalgia-pining debut single, "I Wish I Was A Punk Rocker (With Flowers In My Hair)" is released on a tiny independent label and reaches a very commendable 55 in the charts. She plans to go out on a proper British tour, her first, but can't afford this and so sets up a series of webcasts from her bedsit instead, where she hopes her music will reach fans across the country and, who knows, beyond. She bills this "21 Nights From Tooting", and initially attracts a few hundred people each time. Word-of-mouth spreads, and within two weeks she is reaching 86,000. A Sunday broadsheet picks up on the story and the following day the number of views peaks at 92,000.

This, naturally, alerted both the record industry and the media. Thom promptly signed a million-pound recording contract with RCA f in April of this year, and was celebrated by every newspaper, many covering her not merely in the arts section, but on the front page. But then came the doubters. "Was Sandi Thom's effortless rise just too good to be true?" asked this newspaper at the end of May, critics now suggesting that the number of people she claims to have reached online had been vastly exaggerated by an opportunistic PR company to get column inches for their new artist. Within weeks, however, "Punk Rocker" had been re-released and was at No1. Shortly after, her debut album, Smile ... It Confuses People also topped the charts, clearing 100,000 copies in a matter of days, and hurtling towards platinum status.

"All that was just incredible," Thom says now, "like a dream. I always liked to think I would get my music heard, if only because I've always been very determined to succeed, but I can't quite believe it all happened so quickly."

Ian Brown, Thom's manager (previous clients: Eva Cassidy and the upcoming UK singer-songwriter Thea Gilmore) was, until just five years ago, a full-time pig farmer. He cites the webcasts' unparalleled success as the reason why she became quite so newsworthy.

"Of course, there was an element of luck to it as well," he admits. "It was a slack news week. World War III hadn't broken out, nobody major had died, no Siamese twins were separated. And so the papers had to write about something, and they chose to write about Sandi." He laughs loudly. "And it makes sense, right? Think about it. The web is horny right now; everybody wants some of its action, and here Sandi was, turning it all to her advantage. Clever girl."

But criticism continued to flow throughout the press. If she were really so cash-strapped that she couldn't afford to tour, then neither, said the internet experts, would she have been able to afford the bandwidth big enough to have reached that many people online. (In fact, Creative Tank, the streaming company, absorbed most of the costs as a favour to Thom's management.) Meanwhile, those unconcerned with her internet claims were turning their attentions to her music. Given its rapidly escalating sales figures, pundits began to pick the songs on her album apart, as if looking for a discernible reason why she had tapped into the zeitgeist with such alacrity. When all they found was a very pretty modern folk record, they became perhaps unfairly scornful. Understandably, Thom has been on the defensive ever since.

"Look, if you want me to explain to you exactly how we were able to reach the figures we did, I will," she says, pointing out that Creative Tank are now working with The Who and reaching even wider online audiences, "but it's just as easy for me to say that the world is full of doubters, and always has been. Something incredible happens; people question it. When Elvis died, people thought he was still alive. And when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, people said it was only the Nevada Desert. So why is this is any different?"

The question, it seems, is rhetorical, for she ploughs on.

"I genuinely did do my 21 nights from my basement, and I reached people all over the world. I touched them with my music, it happened, and that's a fact. But if certain people don't want to believe it, then fine. On you go. I don't need to waste my time trying to convince them otherwise."

When I speak to Brown a few days later, he feels it necessary to apologise for Thom's attitude which, he says, results from her unfair treatment at the hands of the media.

"If she was a bit prickly towards you, I hope you forgive us and understand why," he says. "Put yourself in her position. There she was, one week, No1 in the charts, being celebrated by everybody, and it was a magical feeling. But the next week, everybody under the sun had turned on her. It's no fun, trust me. If you could meet her away from all this, you'd love her, you really would. You should see her in the pub, drinking beer and smoking a cigar - Sandi loves her cigars. You'd reckon she was fantastic company. But what she is doing now is developing a thick skin in order to survive in this business." Brown sighs, because her pain is his pain too. "You can understand that, right?"

When she was 18 years old, Sandi Thom left Scotland and enrolled in Paul McCartney's Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts (Lipa). She specialised in music, and wrote her thesis on The Rise of Popular Music Through the Ages. The following summer, she busked around Europe with a guitar, a friend and a video camera, and on graduation moved to London where she started working with a fellow Scot, John McLachlan, a pop songwriter who had previously collaborated with Busted, Blue and McFly. It was McLachlan who introduced her to Brown, himself then on the lookout for "a Christina Aguilera type, but with folk roots". Presumably Thom fitted this bill, because he took her on. She secured a publishing deal and began to work with musician friends from Lipa (including the keyboard player Jake Field, now her boyfriend) on what would become her debut album. At this stage, she was happy, positive, buoyant. Success, if and when it came, she was convinced, would be fun.

And in Macduff, at least, it is. Though she scowls while posing barefoot on some craggy rocks for the photographer, Thom is ready with a smile when a group of local children approach her to nervously request autographs. She spends upwards of 20 minutes writing, "BIG LOVE, SANDI THOM" on arms, football shirts and scraps of paper. Afterwards, as we share a small tour bus that will take me back to Aberdeen airport and her on to the Wickerman Festival, she says that this is the best part of what she already considers a job.

"This is the bit I like, the connecting with people. I love to touch people with my music, because for me, music is a gift that I can give out to everyone, and I love that, I really do. It's what I got into music for in the first place." Now she frowns. "But the whole business side of it, all this - well, I could happily do without it."

We spend almost an hour talking, Thom looking me squarely in the eye throughout, and rarely blinking. She seems adamant not to thaw, to remain wary and flinty, as if ready for a fight, or at the very least a verbal showdown. I try to be nice, chatty, non-confrontational. At one point, I ask her what she does to relax, and she tells me yoga.

"I've got to the stage where I can balance on my head for several minutes at a time while crossing my legs in the air," she notes. "Wrapping limbs around limbs makes me calm. But I don't have much time for yoga anymore, unfortunately. Too much of this [promotion]."

To her palpable relief, we eventually arrive at Aberdeen airport and the bus pulls over to let me out. Before I leave, she has a question.

"We've spoken before, haven't we?" she asks, and I tell her yes, that I interviewed her on the phone several weeks previously (in what was, if memory serves, a pleasant, incident-free, chat). The frown returns, and her eyes ooze disdain.

"I knew it," she says. "You have the same voice as you did last time."

A curious thing to say, but nevertheless true. I do have the same voice as I did last time. Thom smiles curtly, and her bus pulls away.

Sandi Thom's new single, 'What If I'm Right?', is released on Monday. Her album, 'Smile ... It Confuses People' is out now. To order it at a special price (with free p&p) call Independent Music on 01634 832789