Tom Sharpe, Composer, Performer

Musician Tom Sharpe breaks out solo

by HPBonfiglio

SOUTH HAVEN – If you’ve seen former Styx frontman Dennis DeYoung or Mannheim Steamroller in concert during the past decade, it would be easy to confuse Tom Sharpe as the drummer.

Until recently, he did sit behind the drum kit for both of those bands. But in that same decade, the multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and composer had been quietly crafting his new album, “Lifting the World: A Symphony.”

Released late last year, the album features Sharpe blending percussion elements, piano, strings, a choir and more for an ambitious piece of work that is an amalgam of classical and world music anchored by its structure, percussion and clean melodies.

In many ways, “Lifting the World” is the culmination of a musical career that began in Detroit, took Sharpe to Interlochen Center for the Arts and DePaul University, before winning the prestigious John Lennon Songwriting Contest with the first song he wrote (“Like Setting Myself on Fire”), and joining DeYoung and Mannheim Steamroller on tour.

Sharpe, who wrote, performed, mixed and mastered the entire album himself at his home studio, has been translating the work into an equally ambitious solo show, including an evening patio concert on Saturday presented by Foundry Hall at the Warren Center, 540 Williams St.

Q Let’s start with the album, “Lifting the World: A Symphony.” How long have you been working on it, and how, as a solo musician, do you perform it live?

A I think I started the piano recordings in 2005 and released the album at the end of 2014. I’m on tour a lot so it has been something I’ve been able to work on in small chunks. But a result of that is I didn’t rush it. I was able to put in the work to really make this what I wanted. The pieces developed over time and the themes were fully explored and expanded upon. …

One of the things I think is intriguing is wondering how one person is going to pull this off live, because it is a full-length symphony with an orchestra and a choir and tons of percussion and keyboards. …

I’m not trying to recreate the album. And I don’t play to a bunch of recorded tracks. The idea is to keep it real.

What I do is take some of the symphony themes and play them throughout the concert so you’re getting a lot of the album without having to run it in its entirety. …

It’s a keyboard setup where I have drums and percussion instruments all around and I kind of go back and forth between electronic instruments, ethnic instruments, orchestral instruments. I’ll have one hand playing keyboard and one hand playing drums and my feet are doing something different so a lot of sounds coming at you at once.

Q Did you set out to write it as a symphony or did it just evolve?

A The honest answer is this is music that comes from my heart, and I don’t know how it got there. I look back on some of this and I wonder how it happened. How did I write this stuff with all the blending of these genres and cultures?

I’m just a simple guy. I’m not calculating this music. It’s the energy I have in me that is making this happen. It’s almost like this stuff finds me. I’m letting things flow instead of trying to control everything.

Q Growing up in Detroit, when did you know music was more than just a hobby for you?

A I don’t know if it was ever just a hobby for me. I knew as a 5-year-old that music was going to be a big part of my life. That is when I started on piano. I never thought of anything other than being a musician. …

I had the formal training since then. I went to Interlochen as a camper and went there in high school as well. I was recruited to DePaul University and that brought me to Chicago.

Really my whole educational path has been on music and I’m really very fortunate about that because you never known when you are going to need that training. … It was in high school that I had to make a choice of what direction I was going to study, and I was more drawn to percussion. Of course, now, when I’m composing I’m so thankful for my piano background because all of this work is fully composed, even if it leans a little more toward percussion than other composers do there are melodies and harmonies and all of that structure within all of my pieces.

Q The title track on your 2002 debut album, “Like Setting Myself on Fire,” was voted “Grand Prize Winner – World Music Song of the Year” at the John Lennon Songwriting Contest. How did that propel your career?

A That was kind of the first thing outside of school that set me apart as a musician. When presenters saw that on my resume it was one of the things that made them have a look at me. …

But really writing that whole album was really a breakout for me. Before that time I was playing in orchestras and rock bands and hadn’t really thought much about writing my own music, but once I wrote that album I realized that’s where my true path was – not just to play parts but to play and record and write my own music. It was the first time I realized this is what I was meant to do with my life.

Q For the past eight years you have toured with both Mannheim Steamroller and Dennis DeYoung of Styx fame. You left Dennis last year, but have stayed with Mannheim Steamroller. Can you tell me about touring with them both and why it was time to choose between them?

A One minute I was a 10-year-old kid listening to Styx songs and then all of a sudden I’m playing them in Dennis DeYoung’s band.

Being with Dennis led me to Mannheim Steamroller, but that happened so fast that I wasn’t really ready to give anything up.

I did juggle to make both of those tours work for eight years, but at the end of last year the schedules had just too much overlap. I knew if that ever happened I would have to make a choice, which was tough, but it seemed like the timing was right to leave Dennis. …

This will be my ninth year with Mannheim Steamroller, and I don’t take that for granted for one minute. I worked very hard to get where I am, but I’m very fortunate how it worked out. I’m just a very grateful guy doing what I love.