Thom Southern started busking in Belfast aged 16. The streets of Belfast are now filled with buskers, but back then, Thom recalls himself and an older man from Limerick as the only two regulars.
Already a singer-songwriter, busking appealed to Thom, as it allowed him to try out his songs on people, seeing what worked and what didn’t.
“I learned how to perform and write songs on the streets of Belfast,” Thom says. “I did like playing Radiohead covers, but I’ve never really been a big fan of playing covers in general. Even today I don’t really like singing other people’s songs. I can’t get into it because it’s not me.
“When I used to busk, I used to like practising my own songs on people and I would test what grabbed people the most. Who came over and gave me money for what song; people must like that song and the way I do that with my voice. It was a great learning curve.”
However, despite his early start on Belfast’s busking scene and his liking for it, Thom very nearly missed a big busking opportunity. One which ultimately catapulted his music career.
“I busked for a couple of years quite a lot. One day someone from the Belfast Council came up and said: ‘There’s a busking competition that we’ve put on, the last submission is tomorrow, did you not know about it? It’s quite a big event, a lot of people are in it.’
I just love music. I didn’t every really think, ‘Oh I could be famous.’
“I did that competition for a week. I won it and it got me a slot in the Belfast Nashville Festival. I won an award through that festival for Young Songwriter of the Year,” he explains.
“I just love music. I didn’t every really think, ‘Oh I could be famous.’ I just loved playing my guitar and performing for people when I was busking. When the festival took me on, I was meeting all these songwriters and they were telling me I was good at what I was doing. I started to think, maybe I could do this.”
The festival also brought Thom to Nashville and while there he got play the famous Bluebird Café, meet Garth Brooks and was on lots of radio shows. From there it was like a domino effect and opportunities kept on coming.
“I found myself in London at 18. I was sort of sucked into it and I never really had a choice,” Thom laughs.
“My sister Lucy, she started singing with me while I was busking. We sort of became known as a brother-sister folk act, playing blues music. She ended up joining me over in London after she finished her A-Levels. We did the classic thing; got management, a record deal and here I am today doing different projects.”
Thom and Lucy’s band was known as Southern. Lucy now goes under the name Lucy Gaffney. With a blues, rock and roll, Indie sound, they toured all over the world with the likes of Jake Bug, The Kooks and Bastille.
We were in the middle of doing our second album
However, Thom and Lucy are now pursuing solo careers, both of which were launched in and around the beginning of the pandemic. This split was more due to the circumstance they found themselves in, rather than any fracture in their relationship. In fact, the pair still work extremely closely. Living together in Liverpool, Thom produces Lucy’s music and they still co-write songs.
“We were in the middle of doing our second album. I had 30 songs on hand and Lucy had 30 songs on hand. We both just made the decision, why don’t we split this up and have two projects going side-by-side, but still continue to write and produce it together.
“It was more just like a sensible decision rather than a classic breakup. We’re still in a band together in our heads, but to the outside world we’re separated.”
On working with a sibling, Thom is very complimentary. “I think you sort of evolve together and grow up together. I think we just have a very fluid relationship as well. We just have this incredible flow with our creativity together.
“That’s probably the biggest asset working with a family member; you’ve known each other your whole lives. So when it comes to the music, it’s very easy to get what you want out of one another.”
Thom describes his solo music as “alt-rock, indie, shoegaze influenced”, laughing that really he doesn’t know what tag to put on it. In March he released his third single, Soul Singer. Self-penned, the song is an ode to nostalgic summer road trips, influenced by holidays taken in Mayo and Galway.
“I think most people are suckers for nostalgia. It’s kind of like a blessing and a curse. It stops you from moving forward sometimes, but it also completes your identity. It’s nice to remember who you used to be and learn from it,” Thom deduces.
Going forward, Thom wants to continue doing what he’s doing – writing songs and producing music. Also, like just about everyone else, he’s very much looking forward to getting back out gigging. Sooner rather than later, hopefully!