ABOUT Tommy Dempsey
Tommy Dempsey is the kind of artist who would rather earn his keep hauling couches up four flights of stairs than do anything that felt remotely dishonest. That commitment to integrity is the backbone of 11:11, Dempsey's rousing debut album – an album five years in the making because, as Dempsey himself puts it, "I wanted this to be the album I wanted to make. I didn't care if it took years."
Other artists give lip service to high artistic ideals, but Dempsey knows that of which he speaks. As lead vocalist for Boston favorites In the Pink, Dempsey found himself, in the early '90s, a heartbeat from the rock and roll dream -- riding the momentum that comes with a hit single, escalating popularity and a high-profile major label contract. But as the band's fortunes rose, Dempsey got restless. "Music is something that's very important to me," he says. "And I'm the type of person where, if I'm not happy with the music I'm making, I'm done. I felt almost fraudulent at that time – I felt like everyone else in the band was making music for different reasons than I did. I remember thinking, 'This is really cool, but I don't feel like I belong here.'"
So as the band imploded, Dempsey simply let it die, taking the intervening years to grow as both a musician and a songwriter. His first move was to try again with another band, releasing two albums as part of the band Superzero and embarked on an extensive tour of Japan. But it soon became clear that no matter of international success was going to make Dempsey happy unless he was following his own muse.
He took his first tentative steps toward that goal in 2002, releasing an EP called "fivesongs" -- and a subsequent live EP called "livesongs" -- that helped him begin to establish his identity as a songwriter. "It still wasn't quite what I envisioned," Dempsey admits, "but it gave me the confidence that I could go it alone in a legitimate way."
It wasn't long before Dempsey began to put the full force of his energies toward a record that reflected his musical taste and his artistic point of view. On "11:11", he emerges as a songwriter who splits the difference between the raggedness of Paul Westerberg and the keen pop ear of Butch Walkerand Alex Chilton, someone who is equally at home with life's certainties (the destructiveness of cynicism in "Keep Guard") -- and uncertainties (the brevity of life in "Gone Unanswered").
As it turns out, the exploration of duality is one of "11:11"'s major themes. "I'm a Gemini," Dempsey explains, "My favorite songwriters always have a lot of different meanings going on of a lot of different levels. I like the idea of dichotomies – in a lot of my lyrics, you have one thing happening on the surface, but then there's something else – something darker – happening right underneath." Even its title – a number Dempsey found himself seeing over and over during the making of the record – hints at that duality: two lines, a colon, and their reflection on the other side.
Throughout, Dempsey pairs those keen observations to bright, tuneful pop, nesting difficult truths inside big, beaming melodies. "Everything At All" glides along on a broad acoustic strum, gradually taking flight and opening up to a radiant chorus. "Look Ma, No Machines" finds Dempsey struggling to live in the moment against a steady guitar chug and tight, buzzing synthesizers. "Hello Like Goodbye," cut in a single take in Dempsey's bedroom, doesn't need any additional instrumentation: just a simple acoustic guitar and Dempsey's bare, pleading vocal.
The record was recorded with longtime guitarist Pedro Silva, whose influence on the record was crucial to its completion. "Pedro was hugely instrumental in this," Dempsey emphasizes, "And he really helped me realize my vision. I could say to him, 'I'm really looking for some kind of strange sound right here at the end of this song,' and he'd come back the next day with the exact thing I was looking for and more. The record would have not come out the same way without him."
You can hear those little flourishes throughout "11:11": the wobbling, psychedelic vocal snatch that opens "Thin Skin & Lazy Bones," the string section that waltzes up the center of "Gasoline," the mistlike synthesizers that appear, ghostlike, near the end of "Underground." All of these little details reflect Dempsey and Silva's close focus and attention to detail.
"This record is so personal to me," Dempsey says. "I hope that’s something that will come across. I didn’t reinvent the wheel or anything, but I feel like I really created something that's unique to myself."