Own your band name. If you don’t, somebody will buy the rights to it and forbid you to release music under that name. Antti and I own the name The Impersonators, and that has been very useful during the past two years. Seriously, don’t market your band or put any money towards it until you own the name of the product you are marketing. It’ll all be in vain if you lose the rights to the name.
Rock & Roll has been extremely popular from the 50’s until the 2000’s. But with the rise of Hip Hop, Pop, and electronic dance music, it has seen mainstream decline. But some observers have cited that Rock & Roll may be on the verge of a comeback. The frustration and turmoil of the past few years align well with the message of angst, protest, and rebellion that rock & roll conveys. In this interview series called “Music Stars Helping Rock & Roll Make A Comeback” we are talking to music artists, music groups, and music producers who are helping Rock & Roll make a comeback.
As a part of this series I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Tom Tikka.
Tom Tikka picked up the guitar at the tender age of six after hearing Paul Anka’s “Lonely Boy” in his father’s old Chevrolet. Soon afterwards, he began writing songs. Tom’s infatuation with music only deepened after his aunt’s husband Timo “Oippa” Oinonen introduced him to the concept of lead guitar and even more importantly to the music of such legendary groups as The Beatles and The Doors.
Tikka formed almost as many groups as he disbanded in his late teens and early twenties. Yet, when he finally signed his first recording contract on his 21st birthday, it was a solo deal and not a band effort. He recorded a three-song EP for Olarin Musiikki, a small indie label in Espoo (Finland), under the alias of Tom Spark. Unfortunately, the EP disappeared as quickly as it was released. Consequently, Tikka found himself in square one, without a band or a record deal.
Disappointed, Tom withdrew from music for a few years but began writing songs again once his brother Lappe Holopainen suggested that they form a songwriting team. Lappe had founded a group he was convinced would go far and he needed tunes for his new outfit. This group was Carmen Gray.
Carmen Gray was signed to Sony/BMG in 2005 and during the next nine years, they went on to record three albums and one EP. The group’s entire catalog (including such radio hits as “Lost In My Mind Again”, “Gates Of Loneliness” & “Life Can Be Beautiful”) was penned by Tom Tikka & Lappe Holopainen.
After Carmen Gray disbanded in 2013, Tikka formed his current group The Impersonators with poet Antti Autio. In 2017, The Impersonators signed with FBP, a German label based out of Frankfurt. Together with their producer Janne Saksa, the Josie Award-nominated The Impersonators have released tunes to rave reviews, considerable amount of radio attention and chart success. “Rodeo” rose to #1 on the International iTunes charts and “Scarlett Hell” to #9.
In April 2020, Tom began working with MTS Records and since has released three critically-acclaimed EPs, one album and six iTunes hit singles: “Working Class Voodoo” (#99), “Driving Me Insane” (#2), “Jaded Mind” (#4), “That’s What Winston Churchill Said” (#3), “Heart’s On Fire” (#2) & “Doormat” (#1).
In 2021, Tom Tikka won an ISSA award for International Male Emerging Artist Of The Year. He was also awarded four Josie-Award nominations.
Thank you so much for joining us in this series! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit of the ‘backstory’ of how you grew up?
My mom and dad were wonderful parents. They were crazy about each other and us kids — I have a brother. This didn’t mean that my parents let us do whatever we wanted, quite the opposite actually. They were both very strict, especially my dad who had been a merchant marine as a younger guy. He made sure we behaved. He had very high expectations of us. It was important to him that his boys did well on whatever they set their minds to. My mom was the same way but she was a bit more forgiving. They both were very loving with us though. They also had a great sense of humor. Many a joke was told on Fridays and Saturdays after they’d had a few glasses of wine. And you can just imagine what exciting sailor stories my dad told us kids. He had been everywhere and seen everything. Sadly, he passed away two years ago. We all miss him a great deal.
Adding to the family dynamic was my grandmother who lived with us. She was a huge influence on me because she took care of me when my parents worked. I probably spent a lot more time with her than with my parents growing up. She had seen the horrors of both world wars. In fact, my grandmother almost died in Vyborg when the Russian revolution began in 1917. In those days, Finland was part of the Russian Empire. This is why the March Revolution affected all Finns. Anyway, my grandmother was fifteen then. The schools closed down, and when she was on her way home, Cossacks stormed the streets. The way my grandmother told the story was that they were killing people left and right, riding their horses into the crowd, beheading as many as they could with their sabers. My grandmother was wearing a wooly hat with a long tassel. She got to keep her head but lost the tassel that day and a few tangles of hair. She was lucky. That was the story she always told when I complained about my life. Actually, she kept the broken wooly hat. Now, I have it. It still has her blood. She never washed it. It’s one of my prized possessions.
This is what I loved about my childhood home. There were so many stories and all this incredible warmth. Don’t get me wrong, we bickered too. Even my dad could be really dramatic when he chose to, but nobody stayed mad at each other for a very long time, half an hour tops. We always laughed the negativity away. This was the great thing about my parents by the way. They could really go at it, have an intense row for ten minutes and then an hour later they were making dinner, telling jokes and hugging. Great memories.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
Elvis and Beatles movies, the prospect of success. I was eight or nine when I watched A Hard Day’s Night. There was a rerun of it on TV. I still remember the beginning. The Beatles were running away from a group of teen girls, trying to shake them off their trail, hiding in photo and phone booths. Lennon had a fake beard and moustache. It was very exciting to watch that and so I remember making a conscious attempt to learn how to write songs. I already knew the very basics of guitar by then, enough to start putting songs together in any case. I learned to adore music as time went by and I learned more and more about writing and recording but in the beginning, it was just about being idolized by pretty girls. That was the draw. Sounds silly, I know.
Of course, I was very fortunate to get to work with a large record company at an age when I could dedicate myself to music and work my buns off. They were the ones who put me in contact with record producers and professional songwriters. In the beginning, I didn’t really know the game at all. These were the people that ultimately taught me everything I know about music and more importantly, about the music industry. From them I also learned discipline. They sort of forced me into this habit of writing a song a day. And I still think it’s a great piece of advice. By doing that, you come up with a really strong tune once a month or something like that because most melodies you produce don’t really sound that special after a few weeks. That’s still my approach: I write something every day. This was something my dad always encouraged as well. He advised me not to wait for inspiration but rather work hard at my craft.
Are you able to share a story with us about what first attracted you to Rock & Roll in particular?
The initial attraction was the music itself. I was six when I heard Paul Anka for the first time in my dad’s Chevrolet. I just fell in love with the songs and the sound. My parent’s had all the great albums of the sixties and the seventies, and I remember just being completely mesmerized by these records. I actually listened to my dad’s copy of Louis Armstrong’s “Louis And The Good Book” the other day. My favorite track on it was and still is “Go Down Moses”.
As a former merchant marine, my dad was not a religious person by any standards. I have a fun memory of his sailor buddies and him paying a drinking game with this particular song. Every time the choir sang the line “Let my people go”, all the sailors in the house would down one shot. They had them lined up all over our living room. It was always in good stride and everybody was always happy. I loved hanging out with the big boys and listening to their stories.
Lots of artists find rock’n’roll when they are in their teens, which is understandable. After all, this is music that tells you not to listen to your parents or teachers. However, I was so young that teenage rebellion had nothing to do with my initial love affair with the genre. I just realized that I understood the songs my parents were listening to at a much deeper level than they did. Already at six, I could take a song apart. I’d be listening to The Beatles “Taxman” for instance about a hundred times in a row, each time focusing on something different. I wanted to hear each and every segment separately, so I blocked everything else out in my head when I was listening to the drums, for instance. I remember my mom being worried that there was something wrong with me. I’d just sit and listen to music, the same songs over and over again. As a father of six kids now, I can see how that might be a bit concerning but that’s how it all began for me. By the time I was nine, I had already written quite a few songs, none of which were any good, but I was driven and determined to be become a songwriter. There was no stopping me at that point anymore.
Can you tell us the most interesting or most funny story that happened to you since you began your Rock & Roll career?
A long time ago, as a young dude, I went to Morocco to write some songs, I was looking for inspiration. I had just gotten my very first recording contract and felt that to grow as a songwriter, I needed to see the world and experience far-away, exotic places.
I remember trying to figure out where to go on a rainy and dreary autumn day. I was listening to that first Crosby, Stills & Nash album and the track “Marrakesh Express” came on. The songs opening lines are:
Looking at the world through the sunset in your eyes
Travelling the train through clear Moroccan skies
Well, my destination was set there and then.“Whatever works for Graham Nash, works for me,”I thought.
When in Tangier, I began writing and exploring. However, that is not the funny part of the story. The funny part has to do with these extremely pretty Swedish chicks who were staying at the same hotel as me. I befriended them by the pool, and we hung out quite a bit. One day towards the end of my stay in those parts, trying to impress the girls, I drank camel milk, not realizing it’s one of the most powerful laxatives in the universe. In my defense, they lied to me. The way they were describing the effects of this rather exotic drink, it sounded like it was the eighth wonder of the world. If memory serves, they said it would give me a buzz. Of course, what they failed to mention was what kind of a buzz I would be getting out of it. I’ll tell you something, camel milk works quickly and without a warning and I will never, ever drink it again. Enough said.
What would you advise a young person who wants to emulate your success?
I would ask them to think very hard about what success really is. Is it swimming in money and dressing in flashy clothes and having your face on the cover of Time Magazine or is it, for instance, making great records and finding your own sound/style. Truth be told, it’s probably a bit of both but my point is that success means different things to different people. And to make this even more difficult, I think how you define success alters also with age. People in their forties see success entirely differently than their twenty-something counterparts.
However, I guess the advice I’d give is that when it comes to music, stick to your guns and make the type of music you like. You can’t please everyone anyway. It really doesn’t matter if you make wooden records or golden records. The most important thing is that you can take pride in your art. If you manage to do this, you’ll create an amazing catalog of music and you’ll never regret any part of it.
My goal has always been to find an audience that nods their heads to what I’m doing. I don’t really care if it’s a small audience or a huge audience. As long as I’m able to provide folks with an occasional escape from reality or a cool moment where they can pour themselves a drink, close their eyes and enjoy a few tracks by me, I’m on cloud nine.
I’m pretty sure that a lot of musicians burn out chasing after the wrong thing. It’s very easy to do that because everyone who ever goes as far as signing a recording contract will have at least a small attraction to becoming famous and being worshipped by fans and critics alike. If you don’t grow out of that and realize that cutting records is a job like everything else, you will probably end up disillusioned and miserable. I’ve seen it happen to quite a few people.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There are so many who have helped me along the way, but one individual without whom I wouldn’t be where I am today is Carmen Gray’s manager Peter Kokljuschkin. He was singlehandedly responsible for making Carmen Gray famous, and without him, my songs might not have made it to the radio.
When Carmen Gray was dropped by Sony/BMG after the group’s second album failed to chart, Peter risked a huge amount of money by paying for the third album himself. That’s how much he believed in the band and the songs. And it turned out his hunch was right. “Gates Of Loneliness” became the group’s biggest hit and his risk paid off. Of course he had no way of knowing that. It could have all gone to hell and he could have ended up losing a lot. I suppose we all got a lucky break as well. Nevertheless, because of Peter’s bravado, my confidence as a songwriter grew, as did my brother’s, and we realized that we have a future in the music business. I’m forever grateful for that.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
Well, my debut solo album “This Is My Happy Face” just came out. I’m very proud of it. Both my producer Janne Saksa and my label head Michael Stover, who was the executive producer on the album, worked very hard with me to polish it up. The whole process took about a year. The very first song I wrote for the album was the first single “Heart’s On Fire”, and that was about a year ago. From then on, it was just writing and recording feverishly. I recorded fifteen songs for the album but only ten made the cut. We were aiming for a cohesive whole and I think we achieved that goal in the end.
My next undertaking will be The Impersonators’ second album. I’m really looking forward to that. Antti and I have some great songs we’ve written and I can’t wait to put them out.
Are you able to summarize the message of Rock & Roll in a sentence? Why do you think that message is more relevant now than it’s been in a while?
I can summarize it in one word: rebellion. I suppose that’s been the main message all along. I’m talking about real rock’n’roll, not necessarily heavy rock with its Gothic undertows or the modern bubblegum version of rock’n’roll, which is about as cute as Bobby Darin was in the fifties and has very little to do with the genre.
Anyway, regardless of the lyrics of a real rock’n’roll song, it’s bound to be a demonstration against prevailing standards or customs. If it’s a protest song, it’ll protest against the prevailing trends in politics; if it’s a song about school, it’ll give you a list of way cooler things to do than study for your midterms; if it’s about rules, it’ll teach you how to break them; if it’s about love, it’s really about lust; if it’s about driving, it’ll be about crashing your car. To me, that’s the excitement and the essence of it.
In terms of relevance, I’m not sure if that message was ever relevant. Well, perhaps the relevance comes from the fact that it’s the other side of the coin, another way to approach life. There’s nothing wrong about conformism. It’s just that there has to be a counterforce to it. Just like you have the opposition in the parliament. You know, the voice that says: “Are you sure this is the right and the only way to do things?” To me, metaphorically speaking, rock’n’roll is the opposition party in life. It reminds everyone that not everything in life is cute and cuddly and that not every war is justified. Yet, its most important manifestation is: be true to yourself and find your own version of life and happiness.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- Never sign anything without having a lawyer look at it first. I’ve signed contracts that actually forbid me to re-record or release some of my songs without the consent of the label. I’ve also signed contracts without end dates. I’ve learned all of this the hard way. I’m lucky now to be working with a bunch of great people but this hasn’t always been the case.
- Own your band name. If you don’t, somebody will buy the rights to it and forbid you to release music under that name. Antti and I own the name The Impersonators, and that has been very useful during the past two years. Seriously, don’t market your band or put any money towards it until you own the name of the product you are marketing. It’ll all be in vain if you lose the rights to the name.
- Work hard at finding the right people to help you. Without the help of someone who has the right connections, your chances of getting anywhere are very limited, if not nonexistent. There are always exceptions to the rule but let’s face it, those are few and far between. In addition, in real life, nobody becomes a super star by accident: stories are stories, reality is reality. Don’t believe everything you read.
- Stick with the music you like because that’s where your ultimate strength lies. So many bands and writers start writing and producing tracks that they feel improve their chances to get signed. However, if it isn’t the real you, it will not be the best you, and this usually means that there are people to whom the music style you are copying comes naturally, which gives them a huge advantage over you.
- If you want to succeed even a little bit, you can’t really have anything in your life that’s more important than music. It sounds awful but yet, it’s true. This statement will mean different things to different people, so I won’t start elaborating on it except to say that I’ve blown off quite a few hot dates just to finish a song I was writing. If anyone I’ve stood up in my late teens is reading this, I’m sorry.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I think if I had to choose just one movement, it would have to do with trying to make sure that all children around the world have equal access to school services, regardless of their gender, race, religion, ethnicity or socio-economic status. I believe this wouldn’t just further equal human rights, it would ultimately help us deal with all sorts of predicaments we are facing still today, such as the shortage of skilled healthcare workers in the developing countries and also, environmental issues.
We should at least make sure that the level of literacy around the globe increases. A person who cannot read is also a person who usually has no way of finding out about their responsibilities, rights and duties. There was a good program about this on TV a few months ago. It dealt with how there was a village somewhere in Africa where the villagers hadn’t been educated about their right to vote. It was an interesting documentary, albeit a slightly disturbing one.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I have two. Abe Lincoln’s: “And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count; it’s the life in your years.” And then there is John Lennon’s: “Life is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans.”
These are both very true and are great grains of wisdom. I try to remember both at all times. The lesson you can learn from them is clear. You can’t always plan everything and more importantly, don’t waste life, it’ll come to an end at some point and when it does, it’s better to have lived fifty happy years than two hundred half-assed and unsatisfactory years.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys or Paul McCartney of The Beatles. If I had to choose only one, I suppose it’d be Paul McCartney. It’s a tough call but meeting McCartney would be a dream come true. I love The Beatles, Wings and his solo records. A few weeks ago, I put his brilliant Chaos And Creation In The Backyard album in my CD player — it’s still there. It’d be awesome to have dinner or a drink with him and talk about life and music. Based on his interviews, McCartney comes across as a great guy. Hanging out with him would be very cool no doubt.
I also admire the way McCartney has been able to keep the business side of his career in check. I read one of the many books written about him recently, in which McCartney is explaining how he got into music publishing. Since it was impossible for him to own the rights to his own songs after The Beatles split, he began buying publishing rights to the songs of artists he admires and respects. Obviously it’s going for the business end of things a bit, but when you think about it, is there really a better way for an established artist to make financial investments? I like that idea very much.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
The best place to find out about my comings and goings is my website: www.tomtikka.com
It’ll have all the info you need: links to the social media sites, lyrics, music videos and pictures.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!
Thank you. The pleasure was all mine.