Tom Rosenthal: Britain's Best Unknown Songwriter

He's been recording and releasing for years, but you almost certainly don't know him. You'd do yourself a favour by changing this asap...
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He's been recording and releasing for years, but you almost certainly don't know him. You'd do yourself a favour by changing this asap...


Tom Rosenthal isn’t your ordinary songwriter.   He’s a master of the piano ballad, but you won’t find him singing about his girlfriend, his ex-girlfriend¸ or the girl he wants to be his girlfriend.  He’s far more likely to write something about what it’s like being Yohan Blake coming second to Usain Bolt, or people that read The Communist Manifesto in the bath whenever they are depressed.  It’s not that he’s not interested in life, love and other people. Quite the opposite. Listening to his music makes it clear that this is a fella that has a huge amount of empathy with others that-for wont of a better phrase- gets people. He’s just not interested in being Gary Barlow.

Tom’s career has been bubbling along for a while now, and though you probably don’t know him, he’s making all the right baby steps.  The highest profile exposure he’s had thus far has been a couple of songs on an episode of Skins.  One of them, ‘Take Care’, is a two minute, four-line ditty about keeping the souls of those around you safe; if you think this sounds like it could be a bit contrived, it should be but really isn’t.  Apparently it was at the end of a particularly emotional episode of the program; unfortunately my Skins-watching days died with my predilection for Bombay Bad Boys, but I do know that you must have a heart clad in chicken wire to not have the song stir something in you.

Pretty-but-sad tunes are half of his stock in trade, and if he is to ever find himself playing in front of television cameras it will be these that take him there.  More often than not just him and a piano, the recordings fuzzy as his voice rises and breaks while he ruminates on the minutiae of the human condition (if you'll excuse the hyperbole).  On ‘Forgets Slowly’, accompanied by what might be a ukelele, he looks at life from the perspective of an old couple that are coming to the end of their stretch.  Perhaps not the most original subject on the planet, but he approaches it with a lightness of touch (not to mention a maturity for someone around their mid-20s) that demonstrates he is a man aux fait with the resignedly optimistic nature of the average person: “I made your funeral speech in your head even though you’re not quite dead/And I thought I would have done things differently and/You know what, I’ll do it all over again.”

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Don’t think everything by him is all just mini-weepers though, his other specialities are what the unimaginative among us might call adult nursery rhymes.   Anything from under to a minute to four, they can be generally split into a number of categories; unremarkable people in unremarkable situations, ditties about unremarkable famous people, and remarkably strange tunes about very little at all.    ‘Tony’ is about a carefree fella who lives on a cliff near a beach with a wife who hacks off his wife by not caring that she’s made him dinner; ‘Toby Carr’s Difficult Relationship With Tuna’ concerns a guy called Toby who doesn’t much like…well…it’s all there in the title; “Ray Mears” an ode to the smug, Scoutmaster’s favourite.

Everything is approached with tongue both in and out of cheek (“Ray, he’ll sort you out/ If you can’t light a fire/ He’ll sort you out if you're deep in the mire”).  On the one hand we’re getting throwaway little stories, self-contained vignettes about the apparently mundane that are easy to brush off; on the other each is a tiny snapshot into the lives of the people that we might see every day, but never really know.  Saying that, try to find the deeper meaning in ‘Are You My Sheep’- 45 seconds of Tom shouting the title whilst smashing his piano- and you’ll be stumped or a liar.  The same with ‘Red Red Red’, which sounds like a group of pissed-up actors playing a roleplay game where they discover music for the first time.

He’s also recently just been drip-feeding releases in his ‘Other People’ series, which takes the idea of his songs being individual stories a step further and consists of spoken word pieces put to music, more often than not the ubiquitous piano.   The spoken word portion is by guests, and could be a girl called Zoe talking about a childhood memory she has of being kicked in the face (a memory of something it transpires never actually happened), Simon Amstell badly describing a childhood room, or an older chap recounting about how he once helped an Asian boy that was being chased by skinheads.  Listen to these on headphones and they’ll make you do that thing where you nod a bit, smile and go “n-ahh.”

I’ve worked fairly closely with the music industry for a while and have waded through showers of shit to get to the odd pearl, and Tom is definitely that.  It's for this reason that there is a lack of artist comparison in this piece; the term original is bandied around too often but here it seems completely appropriate.  At a push, you might say he combines the chuck-it-at-the-wall innocence of Brian Wilson and Daniel Johnston, with the melancholy British delivery of Ed Harcourt. But in reality, neither of these quite fit, nor do him justice.  So seek him out; some of it you might not like, some of it might even annoy you, but somewhere in there will be a song that has the all-too-rare capacity to make you feel better about the world.

Tom's Soundcloud page is HERE

Follow David on Twitter- @Gobshout