This is why I’m here - Regional News | Connecting Wellington
 Issue 211

Photo by Simone Cecchetti

This is why I’m here by Madelaine Empson

World-renowned Australian guitarist Tommy Emmanuel has always told people, “Dress up, show up, do your best, and anything is possible.”

“I’ve never expected people to just hand something to me”, he tells me over Zoom. “I’ve always felt that somehow, the right people will be put in my path when the time is right, when I’m ready. I had to keep building it; I had to keep building me, getting better, expanding my knowledge, my repertoire, my abilities. And sure enough, after a lot of hard work, I found the right management, the right people. It just took a long time.”

The hard work, as they say, paid off. Appointed a Member of the Order of Australia in 2010, inducted into the Australian Roll of Renown in 2011, and listed by MusicRadar as one of the 10 best acoustic guitarists in the world, Tommy Emmanuel has more strings to his guitar than I have words in this article. Touring Europe with Tina Turner as a member of Dragon, performing with his brother Phil at the closing ceremony of the Summer Olympics in Sydney, being hailed a Certified Guitar Player by Chet Atkins… not to mention honing a jaw-dropping fingerpicking technique that has captivated audiences the world over.

Now, it’s New Zealand’s turn. On the 5th of April at The Opera House, An Evening with Tommy Emmanuel will see the living legend perform tracks from his extensive catalogue as he shares stories and highlights from his illustrious career.

Here’s a teaser!

Let’s jump straight into it –


What kind of music were you into in the early days?

The first music we were really into was instrumental music by a band from England called The Shadows, and a young man from New Zealand called Peter Posa – he was one of our early influences, and his records in the mid to late 60s were fabulous. I also listened to a lot of other rock ‘n’ roll music, rockabilly music, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Skeeter Davis. We listened to The Beatles a lot, although my mother tried very hard to discourage us from that. She said, ‘Don’t listen to that rubbish.’ Many years later she was at one of my shows, and I played a real slow version of Michelle from Paul McCartney. After the show, she said, ‘What was that beautiful song?’ I said, ‘It’s a Beatles song, Mum!’

So she ate her words!

It was so funny. The early music was instrumental, but very melodic. I’m a lot older than you, so you haven’t lived in the era where there were lots of instrumentals on the radio, and they were hits. You don’t hear that these days. I think the last instrumental that really did well on rock ‘n’ roll radio was Joe Satriani’s Always With Me, Always With You in, what, 86? A long time ago.

I’m very fortunate that I don’t have to rely on radio hits to draw a crowd. I’ve spent my whole life building an audience from the ground up.

Speaking of building your audience. Please tell me about skyrocketing your solo career by opening for John Denver!

This was back in 88, and I had played with my band until that point. I came out almost as an unknown solo act – musicians would have known me, but the public didn’t know me as Tommy Emmanuel, the guitar player. There were like, 20,000 people a show, and it was an incredible tour. John, what an incredible guy. I played my set at the first show in Darwin, and when I came off, John was sitting in my dressing room. I said, ‘Hi! You’re the star of the show! What are you doing in my dressing room!’ And he said, ‘Well, I’ve never seen anything like that in my life, and I want you to play with me.’ And I said, ‘What!’ He’d just married an Australian, and there’s a song in the show that he’d written called Sing Australia. He said, ‘I want you to listen to it tonight, just hear how it goes. Tomorrow, when we get to Sydney, I’ll run it down with you and I won’t introduce you – when I go to sing the song, you just walk out and pick up that guitar and start playing with me.’


It was a beautiful thing, and he was really the first megastar that – he insisted that I travel with him, play with him, that I be a part of the photographic things that were going on for magazines, that I ride with him in his car, his limousine from the hotel to the venue. He was such an incredibly kind person, and was always like that, up until he died. I’d have to say, when I opened for Michael Bolton, he was so nice to me and did the same thing. There are artists out there who are like that.

What have been some of the other highlights of your incredible career so far?

There are way too many! Some of the highlights are the people that I’ve been involved with. Working with John Farnham was one of the greatest pleasures of my life – when we got the tour opening for Stevie Wonder, I witnessed such greatness every day being on the road with John, and hanging around Stevie and his band. It inspired me so much, I went away and wrote so many songs just because I’d been around him.

Let’s jump onto the tour. What are your memories of playing in Wellington and what are you most looking forward to about coming back to New Zealand?

Well, the best cup of coffee in the world is in Wellington. Ain’t that the truth? I think the first time I played Wellington, it might’ve been in the 80s when I was in Dragon. They’re apparently touring – their 50th anniversary of Dragon is going to be in April as well!

With the concert spanning your repertoire, how do you think your latest album Accomplice Two (2023) compares and contrasts with your 1979 debut From Out of Nowhere?

Oh, that one!

Yeah, that one!

Well, I think I’m a better songwriter than I was back then. I still play a couple of the songs that I wrote in the 70s, and people still love them, so they must be alright. I know that as a songwriter, I spent probably the first 15 years writing 15 years’ worth of forgetful stuff, because I can’t remember it. But it started to stick in the late 70s, early 80s. Things started to take shape and I think I learned my craft a lot better, and I continue to hone that.

I think I’ve evolved because I’ve been involved with songwriting, arrangement, production, all that stuff. Being a record producer has really helped me in my songwriting and making my own albums, and also being tough on myself. When I’ve written a song, I come up with all these things and then I record it and put my producer’s cap on, and go immediately, ‘Oof! Okay, that’s gotta go. I don’t need that, why am I playing that?’ And all of a sudden, I’ve got the meat and potaters and I’m telling the listener the story without all these frills. I wrote a song a few months ago for my next project – a solo album. I couldn’t get the middle part of it to sound satisfying to me, and I realised that I was trying to be too clever. So, I dropped it and ended up writing a second bridge. I know how to listen without being a musical nerd, you know what I mean? I can describe stuff to you that will be nauseatingly nerdy, but I try not to do that as a composer, player, producer. When people say, ‘Oh, I don’t know about this new Beatles song, the sound, bla bla,’ that’s them trying to be nerds. Get lost with your nerdiness. Listen to how good the song is, and listen: every box is ticked. It’s got an incredible melody, a great, simple message, it’s played perfectly, it’s sung perfectly, there’s little surprises along the way…

All I want is that my instincts are satisfied, and so, I always trust my instincts – first of all, we were born with them, and then they were sharpened by our life, by our experiences.

Why do you do what you do?

I figured this out a long time ago. If you’re in the audience or you’re listening to me, something happens to you – I don’t know what it is, but I know that it’s good. I play because it benefits you. And when it benefits you, and I see that, that’s when I’m fulfilled. That’s when I know, this is why I’m here. It’s a great reason for being.

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