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Tommy Emmanuel: Plugged In

Two-time Grammy nominee and virtuoso guitarist Tommy Emmanuel plays finger style like nobody’s business. His passion and his connection to his art and his audience combine for an unparalleled musical experience. Inside Moravian sat down with Emmanuel in his small, spare dressing room at Foy Concert Hall pre-performance on February 11 to learn just how this humble, overtly optimistic man with his silver hair and infectious smile has become master of his instrument and his audience.

Inside Moravian: You say, “When I play I feel like I’m plugged into something. I don’t know what it is, and I don’t really want to know. I just want to know that it’s there.” Can you describe what it means to be “plugged in”? Is it being in the zone? Is it whatHungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would call flow?

Tommy Emmanuel: It’s being in the zone, being inspired, feeling like you want to create in the moment while you’re there. It allows me to express myself to the audience in a way in which I don’t need to say any words and they get it. That’s part of the attraction and the magic of music to me.

Being plugged in I can feel that something’s happening out there to the audience and I don’t know what it is, but once I start playing, the train’s left the station and everybody’s on it. We’re all together no matter whether you want to be or not. Even if I play just single notes, the audience is still with me because it’s still there. I use the molecules.

IM: Then being plugged into something means being plugged into the audience? Does it happen when you play alone?

TE: It can. It depends on what I’m working on. The other day I wrote a piece really quickly, and I recorded it on my phone. I immediately played it back and I thought, wow, that sounds like I put a lot of time in it, but it just poured out of me in three minutes. When that happens, you know it’s genuine inspiration. I can’t write unless I’m inspired.

In life in general we all sometimes get mudded up inside and need something to un-dam us emotionally, and that’s usually a song, a story, a film--something that will make us cry, make us laugh or both. I definitely need that a lot. My mind is filled with so many things. I’m trying to create new songs all the time and I work so much.

IM: And what inspires you?

TE: It’s tied up with the emotion of seeing something that’s so beautifully done. If I want to be inspired, I’ll watch someone at the peak of his or her game, doing what he or she does. Muhammad Ali, Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg—these are people on an extraordinary level. I saw the film “Bridge of Spies,” and it transformed me. I wrote a song straight away. The film Lincoln transported me totally. I had a dream that I was a little boy with my grandparents, and I wrote a song right away called “Old Photographs.”

IM: That inspiration, that feeling of being plugged in, is it God?

TE: I’ve never thought I had a divine connection. The connection is between us because we’re here and we’re together and we’re supposed to love everybody and accept everybody. I walk out onto the stage and I try to love everybody first and then they love me back. I’m not an ego-driven person. My heart is so in it that you won’t be able to resist it, and that’s a genuine, honest, vulnerable statement.

That’s the way love is supposed to work. We’re supposed to be open and vulnerable. You have to be willing to let all your walls down and be the real you, totally exposed.

IM: What advice do you have for young musicians who want to be able to plug in?

TE:  You have to have a big desire to do well. People ask me all the time, why do you work so hard? Well it’s because I’m trying to get good at it. Then if you’re being honest and playing from your heart everyone will love it.

When I come across guys and girls who worry too much about whether they’re going to look cool, I tell them, just play from your heart. People will get it. Don’t try to put on a show. don’t try to give us something that isn’t real because we’ll see straight through it. It’s all about the feeling of the music.

The commitment to every note is what people feel. As with anything else that you try to excel at, you have to put the work in. You have to be constantly learning, looking at where you’re going and trying to get better every day. Try to beat yesterday today; that’s a big part of it.

I put everything on the line with every ounce of energy.

It’s a mixture of everything. I try to be as prepared as I can be, healthy, happy, productive. The sound is how I like it, I’m dead in tune, I’m ready to play, and I’m hoping for the magic.

IM: Reviewers say that hearing you play is like listening to an entire band. And your adeptness at finger style [plucking the guitar strings using the fingers of both hands] allows you to do that.

TE: When I’m writing or playing, I’m thinking like a band. The melody has to tell a story and the music beneath has to support it and create the texture and the backdrop. The song has a sound scape. I try to imagine it in a cinematic way. It’s not just a guy playing the guitar. It’s much deeper than that.

IM: Do you have any other advice for the young artists here at Moravian College?

TE: I’ve been in the business a long time and been around a lot of great people. If there’s anything I’ve learned from them, it’s just be yourself. It’s got to be real.

When I was a boy I wanted to be like Chet Atkins. I got all his records and tried to work out his style. I worked and worked and worked, but when we met, I really didn’t sound like him. He was listening to me play and he’d say “I didn’t to that…I didn’t do that….” He was telling me that I had my own voice.

I was 33 when I just decided I’m going to be happy with who I am, with how I play—this is my voice. I will never be able to play like Joe Satriani, and I don’t think he wants me to play like him.

Don’t misunderstand, it’s right that we all start out emulating someone--someone who lights you up. It gives you direction. It’s not the speed you go, it’s the direction. Someone shines the beacon, shows you the way. You want to be like them. You work out all their stuff, but eventually you find your own way.

IM: You say, “I know why I’m here. I know it’s not brain surgery, I know I’m not saving someone’s life. I’m just a musician trying to do his best."

TE: I’m a tiny part of the cog. I’ve got to do my part the same as you. I really admire doctors, nurses, fireman--people involved in the really hard side of life—but it’s not my calling. My calling is to play for you; when I play something good happens to you and that’s why I play.

I call it the happiness business. I play and you get happy. I play and you’re not thinking about your troubles. Life is hard—you’re on an 11. When I play, you’re getting a break. It’s not just about playing the instrument. It’s all the love behind it.

At Thursday night’s performance, Tommy Emmanuel was indeed plugged in. We felt the love.