Photo Credit: Rein Kooyman
Jo Loewenthal, Jai Piccone, Thorne Davis & Shaun Johnston make up the famed Aussie band, "Tora." A couple of weeks ago, we caught up with lead vocalist Jo Loewenthal to talk upcoming album "A Force Majeure" (Releasing Sep 3 2021) and the serendipitous events leading to its creation.
Jo, we're big fans of Tora out here in India. I heard you first in early 2018, sometime after the release of "Take a Rest," I'm guessing you guys were still working out of Australia then?
Yeah, that's correct. We were based in Australia up until the start of 2020. Back then, we stayed in the Byron Bay Hinterlands- up on a hill overlooking the ocean. It was a really creative environment, and that's also kind of the way we grew up. So, I think we've absorbed a lot of those vibes, and it has translated into our music. But I feel like our newer music has changed (a bit) as our environment has changed. I guess that's kind of the way it goes. It's like you absorb what's going on around you, which translates into what you're feeling, which ends up in the songs.
Now it's Amsterdam. You got there at an interesting time.
Yeah, we moved to Amsterdam literally one week before the pandemic. We moved to reach America and all the European markets easily because we had tours booked for the whole year. We made the move, and then Boom! It was kind of a blessing in disguise because, after a few weeks of not knowing what to do, we ended up finding a studio, renting it out (for the whole year), and creating a record. We wanted to make an album, but we were thinking, "How are we going to have time to do that in between all this touring?" and it kind of felt like the right thing in retrospect. So now we have this record, and it feels like everything happens for a reason sometimes. We always like to see the positive side of everything. For us, we just made the most of what we could.
I'm sure many people are looking forward to "A Force Majeure" coming out later this year. I feel like this is an album like no other because of the circumstances around its creation; No touring, lockdown, plenty of studio time, and a lot of time with the band. Can you tell us a bit about that?
A direct translation of "Force Majeure" means "A Superior Force," but "Force Majeure" is basically like a clause that voids all contracts. If you have an insurance policy, a force majeure will override an insurance policy; it just overrides everything. For us, that's basically the theme of the album. That's what happened, we had all these plans, and then a superior force just came along and completely changed things. So that's kind of the theme throughout the album, some of them are love songs or heartbreak or personal things, but a lot of them are painted around the bigger picture and coming to terms with the fact that we think we have control, but in the end, a natural disaster can come along and take it out of your hands at any moment. It was a humbling feeling, and that's kind of like a theme throughout the album.
You have two tracks out - "Why won't You Wait" and "When will I learn." Can you tell us about them?
Yeah, these two songs are personal and ones I started writing before the pandemic even existed, so a lot more inwards. I went through a difficult time with my previous relationship. It was a long-distance one, so "Why won't you wait" is about losing someone due to distance. "When will I learn" is self-explanatory - The song is about the mistakes you've made while in love and when you're going to learn not to make those mistakes again. But yeah, both very inward songs.
Would you say these tracks are representative of the rest of the album?
I think sonically, yes. But it's still a very diverse record. With each Tora album, we tend to try and fill the spectrum. It's a mix of chill, upbeat, dark and happy stuff. So it's hard to say that one or two songs are representative of the entire album; they all paint a different picture because it's so broad, sonically and thematically. Sometimes one person will like a song, and another person won't like it as much. But with those two, we were all aligned with in terms of taste; everyone was really happy with them. It made sense to lead with them because they were written long ago. I guess we all had more time to get used to the songs and make music videos for them. I think the sound evolved during the process of making the album, so there are some earlier songs, and I guess there are still some evolutions to come, which will be revealed over time. But those are closest to the old Tora sound.
Are you saying that people will get to listen to a newer Tora sound when the album comes out?
Yeah, I think it does. It's opening up; it's getting broader. People might be surprised when they hear some of the songs on the album.
When do you know that a song is right? You're known for the old Tora sound, and you say this album's going to sound slightly different from what you usually put out. How do you know as a band that this is the right way to go?
Yeah, well, I think with every record, we try to push the boundaries. We're down to always staying outside of the box. We hate the idea that our fans or anyone else can dictate what we make. We always want to push the boundaries and stay true to what we're feeling. I mean, the band name is "Tora," which means 'Now' in Greek, so we're always doing what feels right for us now, which is different to how we were 2-3 years ago. But I think when it comes to figuring out if something is sitting right, it's really just down to the four of us. There's a vetting process where one person might start a song; another person won't like certain things, and so they'll change the things that they don't like. When all four of us are happy with the song, then we know that it's a Tora song. We might like 20-30 songs, then only 10 or 12 of them make it on the album. I guess those are the most potent ideas that we all resonate with, and that's kind of like our compass, I guess. We use our collective taste to determine whether something fits in this project or not. It doesn't work unless everybody's into it; if someone's not feeling a track, then you can't really vibe out on stage together.
Has being a part of a band and being in close proximity throughout this lockdown helped with the general mindset, and has that lent itself creatively as well?
Yeah, I think it would be very difficult being a solo artist and trying to create in a time like this. You need external stimulation to inspire, and if you're not getting any of that, it's pretty hard to have ideas. Four minds are better than one. So even when there are fewer things to inspire us, at least there's four of us to take the load off and also to just keep each other's morale up, even if it's by cracking jokes and being a bit silly. In a time like this when everyone in the world has been struggling, having your three best mates with you, especially in a foreign country where everything is new and strange, has helped keep each other grounded. I personally could not have worked alone through a time like this. I think it's different when you're able to travel around and have experiences and still meet people, but if you're restricted to just one city and one place, having other people to bounce ideas off of has been such an important factor for us.
Do you guys miss home?
Definitely! Especially Shaun, the bass player. He loves surfing. He surfs every day when we're at home. So I think for him, it was really tough during the pandemic. I mean, there's not really any waves in the Netherlands. I personally am less of a beach person, so I don't miss it as much. I also already have quite a lot of friends over here from the years of travelling back and forth. As I said, I had a long-distance relationship with a girl from the Netherlands for a long time. I already had a bit of a network and it kind of already feels a bit like home for me. But for the other guys, it was definitely a big change, and I think they're definitely pretty homesick at times. It's $3000 bucks for the hotel quarantine, and then the flight itself is more expensive than usual, so it's not like you can just click your fingers and get over there. I mean, I had friends who flew back to Australia, and their flights got postponed 4 or 5 times. They're like, "I'm going back tomorrow", and it's like ", Nah, pushed back another week". So yeah, a lot of farewell parties over and over again.
As a band, are there musicians that you're inspired by?
Yeah, well, if I was to go back when I was 5 or 10 years old, I was brought up on Brazilian music because my father went there for 25 years. So that influenced my sense of rhythm. But then, in my teens, I really got into John Mayer. I remember going to a John Mayer concert when I was sixteen or something, and it was so inspiring. That was partly what got me into blues guitar, which I guess isn't that much in Tora's music, but John Mayer did slightly inspire the clean guitar tones and stuff. As we evolved in taste, we moved more into the electronic space with artists like Little Dragon from Sweden. I think that one artist that we all unanimously love is James Blake. He's been an inspiration for all of us. So I'd say that's one of the artists that we all agree on the most. Some of the guys really like techno and house music from the Berlin scene, like David August etc. From the more chill side of things, I really like RY X. So yeah, I think we draw tastes and flavours from various parts of the spectrum, and individually the four of us have very different music tastes. As such, our music ends up sounding the way it does because it's like a mash or melting pot of different influences. I think James Blake would probably be like the one that we all vibe with.
With James Blake, do you have a favorite album?
That's a tough question, man - they're all pretty good. I think probably the second album, the one with "Overgrown" and "Retrograde." I really loved the title album, and the first time I heard it, I hated it because I didn't understand it. I was like, "What is this?" then I listened to it a few more times. I was 18 and living in Melbourne, working at a call centre on the tram to work when I heard it for the first time. After a few listens, I was like, "OH." it just completely changed my perspective of music. So I really love the first album, but then I think the reason I like the second album, "Overgrown," is because I was anticipating it. I was already a fan, and then he almost upped himself. It was just so many beautiful songs on the album, so that's the favourite for me.
Speaking of praise, getting the nod from someone like Elton John must've been very reassuring, right? As a band, how'd you deal with the praise?
Very strange, man. To be honest, at first, I didn't believe that Elton John had heard one of our songs. But then, I heard what he said and just felt like, "Wow, okay, we're doing something right". It just reaffirmed how important it is to follow your heart and feelings and not write a song to get streams or fame. "Too Much" (the song) took me like five hours to write and was a very effortless idea that came to me. I was very in touch with my feelings at that time, and I wasn't trying to make something that the people would listen to; I was just going with my gut and my heart, and then Elton John seemed to like it, so it kind of reaffirms that you have to take that approach with music. So, yeah, get as close to your feelings as possible and not worry about the end result. This year you've signed with Believe, right? Have you had representation like this before?
In the past, we were working with a small company from Australia called 'Lustre'. It was our previous manager's set-up and a pretty small operation. It was done because we wanted to stay independent, keep things small scale and build it up organically. It was never a big deal, we kind of intentionally kept things very in-house, and as a small operation, because we wanted to build the project organically and not overmarket things before people were ready, I guess. Kind of build popularity through word of mouth, so yeah, in the past, we didn't really have any major representation on the label side. That was an intentional decision, but it definitely has been a huge shift working with a company like "Believe" now. Already by just releasing the first two songs, we've seen a massive uptick on all platforms. It feels like a big step up for us, so we're pretty excited to see how the whole campaign goes. Already things are starting to move a lot faster. We didn't want to be overly marketed to people; we needed to already be in people's consciousness before being pushed from every angle.
I'm assuming that there might be a few more collaborations now that you're signed on to Believe?
Man, there are so many good artists on Believe. As you said, you join a family pretty much and become part of a bigger organism. It's definitely opening new doors. The collaboration thing up until now has still been pretty difficult because you have to do songwriting sessions through FaceTime. It's not the same vibe as being in the room with someone. So far, we haven't done a whole lot, but there are a couple of things in the works. Nothing that we're allowed to talk about just yet. (laughs)
So basically, there will be collaborations on the new album?
Yeah, there are three amazing vocalists who are all close friends of ours who are featuring on the new album, and they're all female. We just love having female voices in our music, it kind of adds an extra dimension, and it inspires us in a different way.
Do you own a record player, by any chance?
I don't have one in Amsterdam, but Jai does. I'm going to be house-sitting for him for the next month while he's away, so technically, I do have a record player (laughs).
Do you guys visit record stores when you're on tour in different cities? Any hidden gems in Jai's crates?
That's a good question. To be honest, Jai is a vinyl collector, and I think a lot of his collection is back in Australia. Whenever we're on tour, we go to record shops, and he'll always get one or two. There are definitely gems. Whenever we're at his place, he'll always be mixing and just dropping all kinds of dope tracks. It's interesting that you mentioned vinyl because we are in Berlin right now, staying at one of our label head's houses (we have a label in Germany as well, separate to Believe). The test press for our new vinyl literally arrived today. We were just listening to it to see if it's ready to be manufactured.
Photo Credit: Rein Kooyman
As a band with two albums in and another one on the way, have you guys ever talked about your broader goals, what you want to achieve with your music?
This is a question that comes up a lot, especially when you're working with a new manager and new labels. The first question they have is, "What's the vision?" "What's the bigger picture plan?" It took years for us to reach a point of sustainability. The answer was always first and foremost, "We just want to be able to sustain ourselves with music." We're in that position now after many years where we've reached sustainability. I think the bigger picture vision is for us to perform in all parts of the world and make music that can help people through hard times. I don't think any of us have specific things on the bucket list. Obviously, it will be nice to play at Coachella or something like that, but the desire for fame does not necessarily drive us, or that's not the goal for us. It's more about how we can positively impact people's lives while not compromising creatively. For us, the vision is never to be told how to make our music and to stay true to our own expression. For me, making music is like therapy. It's the way that I understand myself. So if other people can get relief from listening to it, then that's the goal.
If you could be a fly on the wall at any studio session of any artist, past or present, who would it be and why?
It would've been pretty amazing to see Jimi Hendrix going at it back in the day. I think part of what makes a studio session exciting is not just the sound. Jimi Hendrix made the guitar sound like a completely different instrument at times. I don't even know how he did it. But, I also think, personality-wise, based on everything I've heard about him and seen, I think Jimi was on a very similar wavelength to the way I think - Just really going off feeling and maybe a little abstract-minded. I think he would've been a really interesting person to be around, and it would've been fascinating to see his creative process.
What's the best piece of advice you've gotten?
Do it for the right reasons. Don't make music to make money or be famous. Make music cause you love to, and don't sell yourself to the devil. It's okay to make money and get by, but as long as you hold authenticity as your primary value and you know that what you're making resonates with you, then everything else falls into place. But you need patience, and you need a willingness to work way harder than you can ever imagine. You're going to be doing ten-hour days for ten years. They say it takes ten years to be an overnight success. Be prepared to do the hard work. I guess it doesn't feel like work because you're doing it out of passion and love. Stay close to your heart and make what feels true to yourself and not what someone in a suit wants.
On July 1, Tora released their newest single "Call on Me".Words by Akhil Hemdev & Keerthana Sudarshan