Artist to Watch: L.A. Based Musician Liminal
By Kate Ferguson
Liminal (real name Tom Crouch) has been a musician for as long as he can remember. His current sound could be described as alternative indie, experimental even. A clear consistency in Liminal's work has been a dedication to the discovery process, whether that means looking for balance or accepting where it isn't found. I sat down with the U.K. born, L.A. based artist to talk about his connection to music, creation process, and current projects like recent single "Inner Talk / Over Thought."
Let's talk about how you first got started in music.
It’s kind of like I was playing music before I can even remember. I was in a very musical family, both of my parents played, my grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles. So ever since I was a kid music was a thing at family gatherings. I think I started learning piano when I was five or six, I picked the guitar up when I was nine. That’s when it went from being something my parents thought would be good for me to do to me actually perusing it. When I started playing the guitar, from then on it was ‘this is what I want to do.’
You just became aware that’s what you wanted to do with your life?
It’s been tunnel vision since I was nine. This is it. My mum can remember conversations we had, we’d be in the kitchen and I'd be saying “I just need more gigs. I need to be playing live more.” I was nine.
I was in a band from when I was nine to 16, so over the course of those years I was already serious about it. I had great music teachers that really encouraged us. The flame was lit relatively early, being in an environment where people encouraged us to keep playing. Pushing us but not in a forceful way. Just encouraging. We had a great music department at my school, we had a recording studio facility and a performance venue. It was a thriving music department.
Did you start singing at that time as well?
Six months after I started learning guitar it became clear to me that I wanted to sing at the same time. but it was a foreign concept. It's hard to sing and play guitar at the same time when you’re first learning, it’s a very strange concept for your mind to wrap itself around. Before I had a mic stand I had this wardrobe at the front of my room, so I'd swing the door open and tape an empty toilet roll thing to the door. You could put the mic in there so it would be at your height. I did that for a while.
Ironically the first lyric I ever wrote was a song called “Destination” that I wrote with my friend, the first line on the song was “I want to go to Hollywood and slam on my guitar.” I thought that was so cool. Fifteen years later or something I’d actually move to Hollywood and somewhat slam on my guitar.
How would you describe your music now?
An existential hot mess? I don't know. It's definitely in the alternative indie realm. Somewhat cinematic. Genre is a difficult thing to place upon music, especially nowadays with all the sub-genres.
Tell me about your writing process.
Right now I set time aside to write. What I've been doing over the past year or so is going through phases of making little ditties every day for a few weeks or a few months, and then out of those ditties, I'll make songs. It's sort of like fishing for material without having to write a song from start to finish. It's a tiresome process for me because I really go in with lyrics and melody and I want everything to be very intentional. That being said, occasionally the strike of lightning happens where you just have a new song within like a day. But honestly, that only happens to me once every few years, if that. Most of the time, it goes something like this: start an idea one day, create a little universe for it, step away, and then come back with fresh ears and more content to write about and gradually build it from there. Anyone can write a song that sounds like a song, it's very easy to do. But to make a song that makes an authentic impact on first the songwriter and then the listener, that's a different skill that requires a lot more energy, intellect, patience. It can be isolating at times.
Do you write about real experiences?
Yeah, it’s autobiographical. I’m an advocate of metaphors so I kind of like shrouding things in metaphors and play with concepts a little bit. I feel like if songs are so explicit it doesn’t leave the listener any room to form their own story or place their own narrative within a song. I think the powerful thing about good songs is where you can kind of place your own narrative inside of it and find your own world within it. So that’s how I try to write. I can own the subject and sing from a very genuine place about it but also write in a way that leaves other people some space to make it what they want to as well.
Does that ever make you feel vulnerable?
It’s an uphill battle. It’s hard. It’s hard to get the balance right between writing somewhat metaphorically but also in a heartfelt way.
How do you know when a song is done?
There are some people that say a song is never done but I don't know if I agree with that sentiment. I myself know when a song is done when I tap out of energy to be able to keep refining it. There will be a period when I think that a version of a song is done and I'll live with it for a while. I'll listen to it for a few weeks or a few months and start to realize the things I want to change, and then it gets to a point where I'm ready to move on to the next. Trying to perfect all your songs…you’re only going to have one song to your name. The perfect song only exists for a short season. Then your frame of reference changes. Your emotional landscape changes and then the song means something different to you. I’d rather look at the forward trajectory. This is all I have to give right now. In two months I'll have more to give but that's not for this project, that's for the next. Otherwise, you'll get caught in a spiral on perfectionism. That's not a fun route to go down.
How do you find balance in keeping a creative life?
It’s hard. Especially the reality of being a musician living in L.A. I'm working towards curating a lifestyle where my creativity is at the forefront of what I do but the reality is that I'm only been out here for a year, making rent every month means I have to be doing other sessions stuff, working on a bunch of other peoples projects. Which is great, it's cool to play with other people and make music in different environments, but I haven’t found the perfect balance yet of being creative and being taken out of my comfort zone. It's either like I have too much time to work alone in my room or I stretch myself too thin playing for other people and losing a sense of my creative self. I don't know if that balance necessarily exists, I feel like there’s always going to be the tension. I try to find a routine of plugging in a couple hours every day amongst the chaos of being involved in other projects. Pen to paper, if it's a 30-second piece of music, it goes a long way. I try to maintain that.
Tell me about the creative direction for your music videos.
In terms of visuals, I work with people because I see their creative eye and their creative vision. I want them to do their thing. There are so many intricate details that go into my songwriting and the music, but the thing nowadays is how you brand something...that’s where I feel like I run out of steam. I expended all my vision on how this sounds sonically so I try to write with people who I think in some kind of weird esoteric way...their work visually represents my work song sonically. I go with those people.
So with Jake Williams who directed the "Inner Talk / Over Thought" video, I just knew that his aesthetic and the kind of grittiness and glitchiness to the shorts that he was making and some of the other stuff that he had done, that he would understand. So we met up and came up with a loose narrative. We mainly wanted the video to be sort of more chaotic than it was as a narrative. The song itself is a response to being flung into chaos.
What's it like to repeatedly perform the same song?
Songs are interesting in the sense that what you initially write about and the initial inspiration can shapeshift and maybe go behind the clouds for a minute, but then in a different season of life you can listen to the song again and it can mean something completely different to you. You find new life in it. That's happened to me a few times. It's definitely hard to maintain a connection to some of the songs...at that point when you’re playing it live you’re doing it for other peoples enjoyment. You’re not necessarily playing it over and over again because it artistically fulfills you. So there has to be a degree of separation where the notion of playing live is for other people versus your own inspiration. I know that for some people, live playing is where the songs make the most sense. I love the bands that do different arrangements live than they did on the record. That's a way to keep further interpreting the song that's both for the band and for the audience. Everyone is getting a new experience. It’s like dressing the song up differently.
Do you perform with a band?
Liminal can either be a solo thing or one of my best friends Jordan plays with me and we do sort of like a duo setup where we both play guitars and jump around on instruments. Then there is a trio version where there are interpretations of bass, drums, and guitar. In the future, there’s going to be more different stages of setup. Where all of the songs are going to be represented in different sonic ways that are inspired by the setup.
Where did the name Liminal come from?
The concept of liminality I first heard on a podcast. I’m drawn to words I don't know. It phonetically sounds cool, and when I Googled it, it was sort of like the space between having left something and not yet arrived at something else. It seemed to be such an interesting concept. I ended up writing a song called "Liminal," and then a year ago or so I was trying to figure out if I wanted to have an artist name or keep using my own name…I never felt comfortable using my own name. It feels too close to home and somewhat restrictive. I think the expectation when you use your name is to be singer/songwriter-y and I didn’t want to be restricted to that. I wanted to be a bit more broad with the artistic scope, be a producer, a composer. A friend of mine suggested that I call myself Liminal. It was a mind-blowing moment, it made so much sense. It’s nice to have a degree of separation. Having that as your moniker means you can always be changing, you can always be shaping.