In Speight of it all
Singer-songwriter Tom Speight told David Hennessy about not stopping Crohn’s disease from playing with Ed Sheeran and Snow Patrol and his Irish family background
“It felt like doomsday,” London singer-songwriter Tom Speight remembers being diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, a debilitating condition with no known cure that causes the body to start attacking itself.
The condition makes the lining of the digestive system become inflamed and often ulcerated, causing abdominal pain, diarrhoea, fatigue and potentially dangerous weight loss.
Flare-ups can be prolonged, leading to many who suffer with it having to take more than five weeks sick leave a year.
Tom has played with big names like Ed Sheeran, Snow Patrol and Travis but the 34-year-old south London songwriter’s biggest challenges have come away from the stage.
“It felt like, ‘This is over for me’. If you think about the rock ‘n’ roll dream, having a chronic bowel disease doesn’t really align with that.”
Tom was 19 years old and studying music at Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts when he was given the devastating diagnosis.
He had gone to his GP about his loss of appetite and weight loss. Even when he was diagnosed, Tom found it hard to accept.
“I think I was probably in denial for a couple of years because at first I didn’t really know the severity of what having Crohn’s meant and then I didn’t take it as seriously maybe as I should.
“You just block it out really and then it comes up to haunt you but I’m in a good place at the minute. Obviously it’s a chronic illness. It’s never going to fully go away.
“You can’t get away from it and you can’t beat it so you have to just do your best to manage it really.”
Tom has learned to manage the disease by managing his diet, ensuring he gets enough exercise and gets to bed early.
“I think it has been a learning thing as I’ve gone on with my career and trying to get to grips with the disease. What I would say is that I’m very thankful when I am healthy and playing shows.”
He hopes that his speaking about the condition may help someone else getting such a diasgnosis to see it need not be such a ‘doomsday’ scenario.
“I think I was a 19-year-old lad and I saw there was a fellow musician who kind of had a hold on it I would be really happy with it, it would be like there was light at the end of the tunnel.
“Without sounding too w*nky or anything, I’m kind of an ambassador for Crohn’s and Colitis so I try and do as much fundraising and public speaking about it as I can. You would be surprised by how many people get in contact and just share their stories and stuff.”
And Tom hasn’t let the disease hold him back.
Supporting Snow Patrol was surreal for the fact that he got the opportunity when he was not long out of a hospital bed having suffered a severe flare-up of the disease.
It was in April 2018 and Tom was three weeks into recording his first album, Collide. He ended up in hospital for two months.
While he was in hospital, Tom wrote a list of everything he wanted to achieve with his music unaware that a golden opportunity was about to come his way.
“That’s the most surreal story I’ve got. I was in hospital for two months battling the Crohn’s. I had a (bowel) perforation and stuff and four days after getting out of hospital I was in a place where I was just about recovering but I got the opportunity to tour with Snow Patrol.
“I just said to myself, ‘I’ve got to do this. I’m not going to let Crohn’s get in my way. I’ve already been in hospital for two months’. So I ended up supporting Snow Patrol and that was kind of the maddest experience going from being in isolation for two months and then playing to 2,000 people supporting your childhood heroes. Overwhelming really.
“I will never let Crohn’s define me. It’s something I’ve learnt to live with and I’ve become a stronger person because of the illness and more determined than ever to be the best version of myself.
“It’s never going to fully go away but I’m in remission and I’m stable so I’m just itching to start touring again really.”
Within two months of leaving hospital, Tom released his album Collide, and went on to play 100 gigs in 22 countries.
He now amasses almost one million listens a month on Spotify.
Tom has also toured with Travis including in Ireland.
“They’re just normal guys really. They feel like mates. You learn from them every night which is a pretty amazing thing.
“I remember when we supported Travis for the first time and Fran, the lead singer- He didn’t have to- He came down before we played our first show and he was like, ‘I just want to say it’s so great that you’re on tour’. Super welcoming really. We played the Olympia in Dublin. It’s great, amazing. We actually went into the crowd on that one as well. We went unplugged and then did an unplugged song. Very cool.
“I’ve toured Ireland quite a bit and I wrote some of my first album in Northern Ireland. There’s a great energy from the crowd in Ireland: Really welcoming, super energetic and friendly. I think the good thing about my music is there is kind of a folk element and I think that really resonates with the Irish crowds. I think the power of a good song is always important to them.”
Tom has also collaborated with a big name in Irish music as Strangers Now and Lost To Me, two tracks of his debut album, were co-written with Meath songstress Lisa Hannigan.
“She’s an absolute dream. You know when they say, ‘Don’t meet your heroes’? I couldn’t have asked for more. She was great.
“The reason that I have duo male and female vocals on my music is down to Damien Rice and Lisa. That’s how I initially started working with Lisa. I reached out to her and said, ‘The reason I have female vocalists on my music is because of you’.
“We did two songs. We wrote one song called Strangers Now which has made the Radio 2 playlist and I think it’s had a couple of million of streams now which is kind of crazy.
“And then I was heavily influenced by U2 as well more on this second record and then obviously. Is David Gray seen as an honourary Irishman? Damien Rice, David Gray were kind of the basis of my childhood of initially getting into songwriting really.”
Tom has a strong Irish background on his father’s side of the family. His father’s mother’s maiden name was Brennan and three of his father’s grandparents came from the Dublin area.
“My dad has got a very heavily-rooted Irish family. Three of his four grandparents were Irish. I think I’m a quarter Irish or something.
“A few of the family members have passed away now but I did go over to Ireland when I was younger, just a couple of days here and there.
“It’s sad because my parents were late to the game. I think my dad was about 39 when I was born so It did mean I didn’t get a lot of time with my grandparents which is sad.
“You know that thing where you know you’ve lived that moment but you can’t really remember it?”
Of playing with Ed Sheeran, Tom says, “That was in the earlier days of his career before he became a giant rock star. He’s great.
“He was a nice guy. Again, just a very normal guy. I think most of the people I’ve worked with have been regular kind of guys.
“I don’t have any horror stories really. I feel very lucky. No bad reports.”
Tom studied at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts which was established by Sir Paul McCartney. The former Beatles star endorsed Tom’s songwriting saying, ‘I wouldn’t change a thing’.
“I got an opportunity to sing with him and share my songs with him, like a one-on-one masterclass and that was definitely up there in terms of surreal moments.
“He didn’t really say anything negative. He was very complimentary. He just said, ‘Can you play us some more?’ And I ended up playing six songs to him and then he would sing along and jam.
“I’m a huge Beatles fan so it was a bit of a dream. I would love to have his energy and love for music at his age, quite incredible really.”
The dream came early in Tom’s battle with the illness and he says when he looks at a picture of himself and Sir Paul that he looks ‘painfully skinny’.
Tom steers clear of alcohol, cigarettes and drugs which make his lifestyle far from the rock ‘n’ roll stereotype but he says this is little more than a cliche these days anyway.
“I think the whole rock ‘n’ roll thing has changed in the last 20 years. I think because of the amount of shows people have to play I feel like you kind of have to be healthier. If you’re getting wrecked every night, I don’t see how you can play 100 shows a year.
“I think people are a bit more health conscious and I think the whole rock ‘n’ roll myth has never really appealed to me, that whole lifestyle. I don’t feel like I’m missing out. I feel like playing Glastonbury and playing to sold out crowds, that’s more rock ‘n’ roll to me.
“If you’re having a flare up, that is incredibly difficult but the most important thing to me is playing live and being healthy so I set aside time to get as much rest as I can before I gig. My main focus is just putting on a good show.”
Tom says he is itching to get back out on the road and although he has yet to release his second album he is already looking to record the third.
“I feel like I got the better end of the deal because I had just come off finishing my first record so I had done all the touring. always thought of 2020 as kind of a quiet year so I just spent a year recording. I was meant to play a few things like Glastonbury which I was obviously disappointed but I’m sure there’s plenty of time to go back and play that again.
“I spent the year writing, recording my second album. We’re actually going to go and record the third one just due to the lack of gigs in the summer so it’s been extremely productive and I can’t really complain. I feel quite lucky that it didn’t happen a year before.
“I would like to release the album in September and then hopefully tour next year from February onwards. Do a UK and Ireland tour and then go to Europe and then go back to Brazil and then America. That would be a dream. I just hope the touring market is back up and running.”
The single Soak Up is out now.
The album Everything is Waiting for You is out on 24 September.
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