‘Success isn’t easy in a second language’

This week in My Spain we talk to Madrid-based musician Aaron Thomas about life in the big smoke, the crisis, and how he nearly gave up music before he recorded his newly-minted third album.

'Success isn't easy in a second language'
Madrid-based Aaron Thomas says the city has grown quieter during the crisis but is still very much alive. Photo: Nickie Divine
Where are you from originally?
I'm from Sydney, Australia.
So how did you end up playing music in Madrid?
I followed my future wife here. She'd come here for a year and a half and then when she went back for a visit to Australia, we got back together. So I decided to follow her over and take the plunge. It was love.
Were you already playing music?

I was playing in Sydney and Melbourne and I also toured around Australia's pub scene with a band called Peregrine. But it was not very goal-oriented.
And when did you get serious about music?
Probably when I came to Spain. I think it was necessity: most big steps come out of moments when you're against the wall. The only things I could see myself doing here were working in a bar or teaching English. So I applied myself a bit more.
Has Spain been good for your music career?
I was thinking recently: "Music sucks, it´s really difficult here in Spain." But then I thought I've done three albums and an EP and a soundtrack and I'm really happy to have achieved that here, because it's not easy in a second language. You don't feel as confident, especially at the beginning.
You nearly gave up music, didn't you?
People in Spain were very interested in my first album and I recorded my second album (Made of Wood) with a well-known Icelandic producer Valgeir Sigurðsson, which was a real honour. I expected it to do good things, but for whatever reason it didn't work out.
I don't know whether it's to do with not being from here or whether it's a language thing. You lose a big part of your song when people don't understand your lyrics.
So what happened next?
Well my audiences were getting smaller and smaller. I doubted my own work ethic. Then I did the soundtrack for a Spanish film and I got really excited about that. Writing quickly  reinvigorated me.

Then my record label boss Mark Kitcatt approached me about doing another album and the songs just came out when I wasn't expecting them. 

You've just released the new album called The Blues and Greens. What's it about?

It's a lot to do with my marriage and my personal life and being worried about money and about the future and being in an unproductive rut. It was about me recognizing the need for change. It's probably my most personal record.

Are the reactions to your music different in Spain and Australia?
All the foreigners like one group of songs and all the Spaniards like a different set. Most foreigners say Out of your Hands is the hit: "That´s the song!" or (the mournful) Turn to the Devil, which they loved in Sydney. But that song is so lyrically heavy that people here don't get it. They like (the melodic) Kamikaze.
How is the Madrid music scene in general?
It's fairly eclectic, and it can be a little cliquey at times. But that's not always true. There are lots of people with mixed heritage and foreigners joining in too. My band at the moment is French, Spanish, Scottish, English, American and Australian.
Who would you recommend seeing at the moment?
I like Alondra Bentley, she's half-Spanish and half-English and does some really nice arrangements. Then there's Alex Ferrera from the Dominican Republic. Julio de la Rosa is very good, very intense. Then Marcus Doo and the Secret Family is really good. 
And what venues should people go to?
The Wurlitzer Ballroom just off Gran Via is great. There are also little places like the Costello Club for singer-songwriters and for rock there is Siroco and Sala Sol and Moby Dick.
How would you describe Madrid to an outsider?
It's gone through such a big change in the last ten years. Five years ago I would have had a completely different answer.
But it's still a real party town and it's a very social place. Madrid's very Spanish and it's very open. It's alive. It's more in your face and a bit less reserved which is healthy.
Do you still like the place?
I do, but I don't know if I like it as much as I used to, mainly because of the crisis. Things feel heavier than they did before. But it still has that life. I will always enjoy the terraces and the cold beers and the beautiful old buildings and the willingness to talk and share. 

Do you ever get homesick?
I feel a little out of place, as much in Australia as here in Spain, maybe even a little more so there. Living away from home, you start to change your ideas about what's acceptable and what's considered right and wrong and you start to see it's all accidental and quite ridiculous what we hold onto.
But I'll never feel Spanish and that provides me with enough anger once in a while to write a song that's a bit more intense and also enough feeling of isolation to get me in a useful introspective mood.
Aaron Thomas's latest album The Blues and Greens is available at FNAC and El Corte Inglés and online through iTunes and Spotify.   

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