The Scotsman Sessions #400: Dylan John Thomas

Welcome to the Scotsman Sessions, a series of short video performances from artists all around the country introduced by our critics. This week, for our 400th session, Glasgow-based singer-songwriter Dylan John Thomas performs the track Yesterday Is Gone, taken from his self-titled new album. Interview by by Fiona Shepherd

The Scotsman Sessions reaches its 400th edition in the fine company of one of Scotland’s most accomplished rising stars. Glasgow-based singer/songwriter Dylan John Thomas has just released his debut self-titled album, a bumper 13 tracks of well-kent tunes dispensed in just over 40 minutes. For his burgeoning fanbase, the album is a document of the set they have sung along to at Thomas’s impressive six sold out Barrowland shows to date. For the uninitiated, it will be a journey of discovery taking in his influences, from mentor Gerry Cinnamon to Two Tone titans The Specials to the man (in black) who started it all, Johnny Cash.

Thomas grew up in care and came to his obsession with music through the video games he played in his foster homes. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater was a favourite, with Cash’s Ring of Fire featuring repeatedly on the soundtrack. “I remember jumping about the room singing it and that was the first proper memory I have of getting into music,” says Thomas. “It sparked something in me.”

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Thomas asked for “a wee Argos guitar” for Christmas and set about learning to play the song, the first step on an ambitious, focussed journey he characterises as “a bit of graft and a bit of luck and meeting some nice people who can help you out.”

Thomas is a gifted player. His guitar heroes – Paul Simon, Lindsey Buckingham, Mark Knopfler – are all virtuosos but not the usual suspects. “I always lean towards the fingerpicking side of it,” he says. “I know there are some great soloists out there but I was obsessed with how you could make your guitar sound like two guitars like the blues musicians where you had your thumb on the bass notes and were picking out your melodies on the higher strings. What I think is interesting is if you can then make that into a three-minute contemporary pop piece – songs like Romeo & Juliet and The Boxer. That’s what I got obsessed with – these techniques sitting within the structure of a standard pop song rather than a ten-minute virtuoso piece.”

It is the songs which have sealed Thomas’s rising reputation as a troubadour – strong on melody and hooklines but with tightly plotted arrangements sparked to life by his band to create celebratory shows, whatever the subject matter of the lyrics.

Thomas is already way ahead of many of his contemporaries in profile – not many artists can sell out Barrowland before they have released an album – but this is simply the fruition of a conscientious plan hatched from his bedroom to be able to tour. As such, he is a ten-year overnight sensation who cut his teeth on the busking and open mic scenes of Glasgow.

“The idea was to do an apprenticeship playing in front of people every day, trying to get rid of the nerves and shaky voice,” he says of his busking stints outside Marks & Spencer on Argyle Street.

Dylan John Thomas performs Scotsman Session #400Dylan John Thomas performs Scotsman Session #400
Dylan John Thomas performs Scotsman Session #400

From here, Thomas graduated to the open mic circuit in the city where he caught the ear of an older jobbing musician, Gerry Cinnamon. Cinnamon would go on to huge success, selling out two nights at Hampden Park, a rare feat for a solo performer, but he spotted a callow kindred spirit in Thomas.

“Growing up, I didn’t have anybody to speak to and Gerry saw that, this young boy jumping about the gigging scene, needing a bit of direction,” says Thomas. “He helped me figure out my way musically but also life in general. Having somebody there like Gerry who could look out for me, give me advice and take me under his wing, that was special.”

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Thomas enhanced his skills on a sound production course at Riverside College, where he met bandmate Cam Robinson. Bassist Steven Liddle and keyboard player Liam Cassidy complete the line-up who accompanied Thomas on live adventures, building a following – including a lightning-fast sell-out at King Tut’s – until the pandemic hit. Forced off the road, the ever-industrious Thomas took the time to develop his songwriting, including confronting his troubled childhood.

“It was going to come out one way or another and it’s better that it came out in a song,” he says. “For me it was probably the only way I was going to be able to process it.”

Dylan John Thomas PIC: Anthony MooneyDylan John Thomas PIC: Anthony Mooney
Dylan John Thomas PIC: Anthony Mooney

Unusually for an artist at his breaking level, Thomas continues to write entirely on his own, eschewing the co-writer route taken by many of his singer-songwriter contemporaries. “I had offers when I was younger of record deals asking me to go in with writers but I just wanted to write my own tunes because I knew there was things in me that I had to get out for my own release,” he says. “Some of the stuff I’m talking about I would find difficult to get out if I was in a room with somebody, especially talking about foster care.”

Even now, Thomas will not go into details of his experiences in care but he lays it out candidly enough on album closer Wake Up Ma: “Fifteen foster homes, three meals a day, can't fill the hole left in my heart”.

As for his Scotsman Session, Thomas has chosen the more freewheeling and optimistic former single Yesterday Is Gone, saying “I just like the tune. I was listening to a lot of synth music and watching a lot of Ryan Gosling films at the time!”

Dylan John Thomas is out now on Ignition Records