Robert Thomas may not be a household name, but you have undoubtedly heard his music. Having written songs for the likes of Kenny Rogers, Bonnie Raitt, Joe Cocker, Sheena Easton, The Dixie Chicks, and Roch Voisine, Thomas has also performed and recorded with a who’s who of A-list Canadian and U.S. artists.
If this does well, there are a couple hundred more tunes to put on albums. I hope that it flies and that people really connect with this stuff and that we can keep doing it and just growing the audience. – Robert Thomas
But Thomas’s musical anonymity is about to change as the Halifax-born songwriter is stepping out with his band, The Session Men, for an Atlantic Canada tour, performing from their new album Parallel Lines, including an April 28 stop at The Carleton in Halifax.
“I’ve always written for publishing, and I’ve done a lot of writer circles and seminars and that sort of thing over the years, but never really put this stuff out under my name, always sending it out for other people,” says Thomas. “Some of them get recorded, and some of the really great tunes songs don’t get recorded at all.”
In talking with his long-time collaborator and a member of The Session Men, Ray Legere, the two came up with the idea to record some of those songs under his name and record them as originally written.
“Over a couple of years, we went back through the catalogue and picked the songs we really liked and put them on Parallel Lines,” he says.
Considering himself primarily a lyricist, Thomas says being able to record the songs as he initially intended was a joy.
“Sometimes things can be very rushed in recording sessions,” he says. “There are deadlines, and things get thrown together very quickly. All these great players come in, read the chart, and play the song to the point where a lot of times, the feeling is lost, and it’s not the arrangement you had in mind. It’s what the producer had in mind for that artist.”
Revisiting his discography for the new album, Parallel Lines became a way to go back and present the songs in their original form. “Many of them are very stripped down with minimal percussion, mostly guitar, fiddle, mandolin, bass, and backing vocals,” he says.
Helping to create that original sound is The Session Men, a trio of New Brunswick musicians including Legere, Jon Arseneau and Maxime Forbes. In their own right, they have collectively played with talents such as Alison Krauss, Tony Rice, Doc Watson, Rita MacNeil, The Rankins, Natalie MacMaster, Michelle Shocked and The Chieftains.
“Rehearsals have been just terrific, and I’ve never had so much fun as I have had playing these songs with these three guys,” says Thomas. “I’ve played and written with many people, but sometimes there’s an alchemy that you can’t explain, and what I hear in my headphones to sing to is just marvellous. It’s just a joy.”
And while this upcoming Atlantic Canada tour will be the first time the four have toured together, they have known and worked together in various capacities for a long time. “It was one of those things sitting in front of our noses for twenty years and just didn’t occur to us to do it until now,” he says.
The title for the album comes from having Thomas’s work compared to such artists as Stan Rogers, Harry Chapin and John Prime over his 40-plus songwriting career.
“I love those guys, and they have all hugely influenced me, and now that they’re all gone, I thought it would be neat to carry on that line,” says Thomas. “You can’t replace their line, but you can creatively follow in a parallel way.”
The upcoming Halifax stop will also be a bit of a homecoming for Thomas, who returns after a twenty-year absence.
Born in Halifax, Thomas left for Winnipeg with his parents as a young kid before heading out to Los Angeles and eventually to Nashville and New York.
And while Thomas says he did not come from a musical family, he does remember long car rides with his parents in California’s rush-hour traffic that always included music.
“My dad always had an eight-track player in his car, and we would listen to everything,” he says. “So they’re playing these great songs over and over again with me in the back seat, and it must have been kind of encyclopedic.”
It also helped, even at his young age, that Thomas enjoyed his parent’s taste in music, including everything from Johnny Cash, Simon and Garfunkel and Engelbert Humperdinck to Nancy Sinatra and Burt Bacharach.
“I remember singing in bed at night under the covers pretending I was Frank Sinatra, singing The Impossible Dream and trying to learn that the trills on the voice,” he says.
Thomas’s mother would also take him to see whatever musical acts were coming through town.
“She loved the Irish Rovers, the Clancy Brothers, and Tommy Makem, and she would take me to all those shows,” he says. “And I remember like it was yesterday just how magical it was.
And while Thomas claims to have now retired to New Brunswick, the new album and tour would suggest otherwise. But it all appears to be by design after watching his mother’s long recovery from a stroke.
“She recovered well, but she didn’t have any hobbies and looking back at how tough that was I knew I had to do something in retirement,” he says. “So I thought it would be fun to go out and hopefully find an audience that likes this music.”
Parallel Lines, available on all streaming platforms on April 18, may also be a pre-cursor for more music recorded under his name.
“If this does well, there are a couple hundred more tunes to put on albums,” says Thomas. “I hope that it flies and that people really connect with this stuff and that we can keep doing it and just growing the audience.”
Robert Thomas and The Session Men get their Atlantic Canada tour underway with an April 22 performance on Facebook Live and will make a stop at The Carleton in Halifax on April 28. Visit robertthomasandthesessionmen.com for tickets and more information.