Like Steve Earle, TOM SLESS displays bracing honesty in his songwriting, and like Jason Isbell, Sless has a knack for creating a world in which our souls struggle to define themselves.
With ceaseless creativity, an ear for the just-right melody and lyric, and with a passion for song, the singer, songwriter, and guitar slinger writes songs and produces music that evoke his disappointments, hopes, joys, and loves. With a vibe that alternates between the celebratory country rock of Luke Combs, the nod-and-a-wink humor of Sturgill Simpson, and the rough-hewn folksiness of Donovan Woods, Sless carries us along with him on a soulful ride down the winding roads of life and love on his first album, California Dream.
Through canny lyrics and infectious tunes, California Dream captures Sless’s love of LA, the highs and lows of his decision to move there from the East Coast after college, and his struggles to embrace the past and to move forward. Sless shares his passion for performing by recording the album live. “We played these songs live in the room and had everyone together. Most of the vocals were recorded in one room with the band, and the songs were recorded in one take. We did it all in one week: eight songs in five days. I wanted it to have the feel of a live performance.”
California Dream, which Sless co-produced with John Bottrell (Christina Perri, Mike Posner), kicks off with the title track, a Springsteen-like tune, with sparse piano chords and trills reminiscent of “Jungleland” in the opening measures that blossom into a richly layered sound in which the vocals and instruments spiral higher and higher into a cascading chorus proclaiming “I thank God for my California dream.” The ever-ascending chords mimic the hopes and dreams of the lyrics. The rollicking country rocker “Taking Me Back” delivers a good times vibe like Combs’ songs. It rides along a scampering pedal steel guitar as the singer declares “I don’t want to be alone tonight/but I can’t stay here with you/It hasn’t been easy to swallow all that truth/It hasn’t been easy taking me back from you.” The sunny sound of the song belies its emotional complexity. “Although we may want to divorce ourselves from who we once were as we chart a new path,” says Sless, “the people we are today is permanently colored by the experiences we had in the past.” Yet, like the acoustic guitar that drives the song, we all keep chugging along, even as we “swallow all that truth.”
The shimmering pop-inflected “Astronaut,” with its rowdy country-folk chorus, and propelled by searing guitars on the bridge, urges us never to regret the past, but to let go of it and reach out and embrace what you’re supposed to do. Sless says the southern rocker “Ready To” — featuring vocals that recall James Taylor’s — “is about fully embracing the challenge and passion of what I want to be — a singer and songwriter — and embracing the struggle.” The minor chord “Why Oh Why” is, according to Sless, “the dark spot in the album thematically. I wrote it just after the recent Thousand Oaks shooting, and the fires that happened afterward. It explores the dichotomy of choice and fate.” The country crooner “Coming Home,” on which he channels Darius Rucker, celebrates a moment of togetherness, while the guitar-driven “Gimme the Breeze,” celebrates “the breeze that’s the little lift to get you where you need,” according to Sless. He taps into his jam band influences on the album’s closing song, “Too Much on My Mind,” a looping, Grateful Dead-like, exploration of a musical theme driven by the pedal steel of — no relation — Barry Sless (Phil Lesh, Chris Robinson).
The path to California Dream wasn’t always a smooth one, but Sless knew music would be a big part of his life, and he’s never let it out of his sight. The Jersey Shore native moved around a bit when he was young, spending his teens in Baltimore. But no matter where he went, he always had the music in him. As soon as he could walk, he picked up every musical instrument he could find. He eventually took up trumpet in elementary school and then guitar, piano and voice.
As he explored each instrument, Sless started composing music. During middle school, he wrote pieces arranged for orchestra, marching band, jazz band, and string and brass sectionals. “What I loved most about playing in the band and orchestra was paying attention to and understanding the relationship between all of the different elements in each piece, and how they all worked together to produce this beautiful sonic result.” When his parents introduced him to the Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, and Tom Petty, Sless started a journey down a new musical path.
Sless took quickly to his first guitar, an old acoustic he got from his grandfather at the shore in Atlantic City. All the while, Sless continued to compose and write. “My parents bought me this encyclopedic book that had scores for every single song the Beatles wrote. Looking at that book I could see how McCartney’s vocals complemented Harrison’s guitar. Studying that book was the crossover that bridged the classical world and the rock universe for me.” Working so closely with those songs unlocked the songwriter Sless has become today.
Six years ago, Sless moved to LA. “I didn’t know what it was, but I felt like LA was the place where my heart would find itself and things would happen for me in life.” The plan to move across the country was not strictly based on the idea of making music right away, but Sless knew he needed music to be a big part of his life. In 2018, he enrolled in the Musicians Institute in Hollywood. Over the past two years, he’s quickly become a fixture on the Los Angeles singer-songwriter circuit, performing at The Mint, El Cid, The Study, TRiP Santa Monica, and NorthEnd Hollywood, to name a few. “I decided to pour my heart and soul into music in a way that I hadn’t before. I really started engrossing myself into songwriting and taking a new approach to the music I’d been listening to all my life.”
Tom Sless loves the journey he’s been on, and California Dream gives him the chance to share his outlook on life. “This album came out when it did,” he says, “in part because it’s a huge part of my building up to a realization of myself.” Sless’s insightful lyrics and catchy tunes are all about “breaking free of what is happening now, creating your own mindset, and letting yourself go into what makes you feel free, and what you are passionate about.” Tom Sless gets our attention with his music and carries us along on his journey.