Real Thing Happening

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by Jack Diamond 

DIAMOND makes a visit to TOBI EARNSHAW’S Phnom Penh Hotel to chat
with a Grammy-nominated teenage sensation likened to a British Justin
Bieber. He finds an amazingly mature 18 year-old musician who refuses
to ‘act like a star’ and gets just as excited about teaching a
songwriting workshop in a Cambodian school as he does about sharing
stages with multi-platinum rock stars. Refreshingly, this hugely
talented singer/songwriter/guitarist takes himself as seriously as a
Womble playing a Gibson Flying V (more about Wombles later).
I was
actually sliding back and forwards on the floor between the
whiteboard and the guitar. I think I was more excited than the kids.
We did a mind map, ‘write at least three things down that you can
think of. Now I want you to use as many of these as possible and go
and write a song’ …and they all just loved it. It was hilarious
what they were coming out with.”
students at iCAN International School in Phnom Penh were very much
into One Direction, One Republic… everything beginning with One!
But then also bands like Evanescence, Linkin Park, people that I
wouldn’t have thought of. There were some really good kids there
actually, some of them had the confidence to get up and sing and
write a song and play it.
something I’ve done in England as well. The kids in Cambodia are
different. When I’m at home teaching, there are some kids who
really want to do it but some of them are so unbelievably
disrespectful to each other. Usually the older kids are disruptive. I
remember when I was in school I was no different, to be honest… I
didn’t really listen much. I’d rather sit at the back of the
class with my guitar.

I used
to be the antisocial one who would sit at school listening to Jimi
Hendrix while everyone was listening to the top 20 hits or whatever.
I was always the guitar guy. I was the only kid in school learning
Stevie Ray Vaughan or the solo from Hotel California. I had a teacher
at the time who was into all that stuff. It wasn’t always
necessarily the music that I loved but the sound of the guitar, the
sound that they could make with the guitar.
Sitting on
the stage of Memphis Pub in the heart of Phnom Penh Riverside, Tobi
is making this Saturday night his own. Dressed, by his own admission,
“like a tourist” in shorts and trainers, he sips on a cold bottle
of beer and makes jokes between songs. He can’t stop smiling. The
expat crowd warm quickly to Tobi’s personality, and the musicians
in the audience stare intrigued at the stage, trying to figure out if
it is really just a couple of kids with guitars up there making this
huge, groovy sound.
picked up a moderately-priced acoustic guitar from Madison Music
Center on Monivong boulevard, which he thinks plays nearly as good as
his Martin back home. Tonight’s aural evidence certainly backs up
his claim. He is accompanied by his compatriot Aidan, who bought a
bass for $80. The guys didn’t bring any instruments to Cambodia
from UK, preferring to “throw ourselves in at the deep end” and
sort it out when they got here. And whatever gear they have bought
will be donated to charity Cam Kids once they have finished a short
run of shows in Phnom Penh.
When the
kid who sat at the back of the class learning guitar launches into
his cover of John Mayer’s ‘Neon’, you can see the result of all
those years spent avoiding Maths and English lessons. He attacks his
Cambodian-manufactured instrument with a powerful fingerstyle,
smashing his thumb down on his bass string for off-beats that would
make Flea proud.
breaks a string during a song and grabs one of the many vintage axes
hanging from the Memphis Pub wall. Without breaking his musical
stride he tosses the offending guitar to one side and begins the
closing number of tonight’s show, knowing that his trusted Roadie,
Manager and all-round good guy David Earnshaw will be on hand to deal
with the broken string. And yes, David is also his father. “Yeh, I
don’t know how that works either”, says Tobi. From the point of
view of the excited audience at Memphis Pub, it seems like it’s
working out pretty good.
The last
number of his set is Tobi’s ‘The Real Thing’, a track from his
first album ‘Spirit in Me’, the songs which earned him those
Grammy nominations and comparisons with Justin Bieber. Tonight Tobi
swaps choruses between his own composition and Free’s ‘All Right
Now’, as a cheeky, crowd-pleasing nod towards his label boss,
record producer and mentor Andy Fraser. The legendary Free bass
player signed Tobi to his McTrax imprint at age 15.
listen to Andy’s music, everything he plays is quite simple, it’s
the way you do it and where you put it that’s important. We’ve
just finished the second album. There’s a big difference from the
first. A lot of critics, because I was only 14 or 15 when I wrote the
stuff, they said a lot of the material was quite naive. I hope that
this year it’s progressed on. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea,
but as long as I find someone somewhere who really likes it…

played the stuff live. Seeing as the audience came down to see Andy,
and most of the stuff was my songs, the response I got was
incredible. I was thinking ‘they’ve come down to see a Free
tribute act’…but then people are asking for my autograph, buying
my CDs.

When you
play your music live, that’s when it all comes together. One night
playing with a great band is ten times better than a week sitting in
your room on your own playing guitar. Each guitarist I meet I pick
something up from, and that’s the main thing. Even if it’s just
one thing, I could write a new song with that one thing they’ve
taught me.

I play
with different musicians all the time. Just recently on this tour we
did in England I played with Chris Spedding. He had a hit called
‘Motor Bikin’ and he was one of the original Wombles [British
Novelty Pop act of the 1970s]. He never mentioned that to anyone, but
he was the Womble with the Flying V. He is a great guitarist, he
plays with Brian May, he is one of those musicians that you don’t
know but he’s played with everyone. He gets an incredible sound out
of his guitar.

If Andy
wasn’t there, I’d go on stage in a Nike tracksuit and t-shirt! He
says ‘You’ve got to act like a star to be a star’. I’m
like… I’m from Barnet! I’m a guitarist from Barnet, I’m not a
star! I don’t think I’ve ever felt like a star. Until I’m happy
with my own music, I’m never going to be the whole ‘star’ that
some people want me to be. But now it seems like its half the thing,
you have to have the whole persona, if you want to be a musician or
not, you’ve got to have the style, you’ve got to have this and
that. It’s the hard bit for me, I’m just so used to being me.
Tobi was
invited to Phnom Penh by iCAN British International School to work
with the children there. He accepted the invitation and added some
gigs into the schedule, the last of which is at Paddy Rice this
coming Tuesday the 27th August. Then a flight home to the
UK followed by a promotional campaign for his new album, ‘The
World’. Before he leaves the Kingdom of Wonder he is determined to
hire a motorbike and explore a little more of the landscape.
people are all really nice here, you ask them a question and they’re
happy to see you, happy to speak with you. I didn’t have
expectations before coming. When I turned up I was like ‘this is
cool’, I wasn’t told anything, I didn’t research much, I just
came over. The first couple of days I was here felt like a week
because you just take so much in, you’re like… this is different!
Have I seen anything crazy? There’s nothing crazy about three guys
on a scooter, transporting live chickens. And the amount they put on
those Tuk-tuks…

I’m in
Cambodia, and I love it. I’ve found a new place to come every year,
if I can afford it!

At iCAN we
did a little garden party for the parents and the teachers and Euan
Gray got up and jammed with me. He’s a lot of fun and he’s a
wicked Sax player as well. Its funny, when I think about how long
I’ve been here and I already feel like part of a circle, its
amazing. There’s so many people dotted around, its amazing how many
people you see coming to the music nights. Everyone is from a
different country, you hear all these accents, all these different

It feels
like I should be staying here!