As a child, Tom Caufield would listen to his mother sing and play the ukulele.
“I remember being afraid and scared in my crib and my mom rounded the corner with her ukulele, singing ‘Moon River,’” Caufield said. “I remember it was like a burst of flowers, and suddenly, my fear went away, so I started playing music and banging on the piano.”
When he was 8, he took basic classical guitar lessons and never looked back.
Caufield has lived in a number of cities, including New York, Nashville and Winston-Salem. He and his wife, Rebecca Hill, recently moved from California to Clemmons.
“We just love it here,” Caufield said. “We just find it so beautiful.”
On May 4, Caufield, a composer and instrumental guitarist, will release a new album — “Arrive and Disappear.” It is one of about a dozen albums he has done in his contemplative, instrumental music style.
“It’s really born of just watching the natural cycles here in the Carolinas,” Caufield said of “Arrive and Disappear.”
“The organic process,” he added. “The conversation of nature and the way things just emerge so magically, so slowly and overlap. Then suddenly they’re gone. We’ll be in the garden at Tanglewood (Park), and a beautiful bush will bloom, and four days later, it’s gone.”
With “Arrive and Disappear,” Caufield said he tried to acknowledge the pain of the past year during the pandemic and offer some optimism.
He said he hopes he has made something “that will help everyone transition out of this crazy last year and get back to the habits we have in the more social environment.”
Q: How would you describe your art?
Answer: I compose and perform contemplative instrumental music with acoustic guitar at the center. Often it includes cello and other instruments in a supporting role. It’s quiet, slow music that lowers tension and provides a space to pause and reflect. At times the music has a pastoral sound, while at other times, it’s somewhat challenging and cerebral.
My music aims to silence the peripheral, surface noise while engaging the introspective part of listeners, the deeper, more authentic part of themselves. I try and create a wordless narrative, a kind of emotional biography that, taken as a whole, has a literary feeling as if one is reading a book of short stories, imparting a sense of passionate calm. It can work as background music but also contains layers and details that reward close listens.
Q: How have you evolved as an artist?
Answer: When I started out, I was a singer/songwriter. Though I enjoyed that and got pretty good at it, I often felt a sense of artistic dissatisfaction that I couldn’t put my finger on. Then one day in 2011, on a whim, I bought a nylon string guitar, thinking I’d take a break from singing songs and just play. But all kinds of instrumental pieces started pouring out of me — about 20 compositions over three weeks.
I decided to record them to see what they sounded like, and I loved what I heard. I felt like it spoke for me more honestly and vividly than my vocal music had. I decided to put the instrumental music out, and to my pleasure, it found commercial success, getting airplay on SiriusXM and many NPR affiliate radio stations nationwide. As it turns out, I had to lose my voice to find my voice.
Q: Who has influenced your art?
Answer: Writers have had a strong influence on my music. My pastoral, elegiac sound, rich in evocations of rural landscapes, originated from my passionate love of the first serious book I ever read — John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden” — which I got from the bookmobile the summer I turned 12. I became immersed in its naturalism, and it shaped me.
And then several “ideas” authors I read as a teenager also influenced me — Richard Brautigan, Kurt Vonnegut, Milan Kundera — (and) added a cerebral patina to my compositions. Musically, the first things I learned on guitar were simplified classical pieces, and once absorbed, the style of a melodic figure over a verse/chorus/bridge structure has never left me.
As for musical influences, I’ve absorbed things from multi-instrumentalists Mike Oldfield (“Tubular Bells”) and Ólafur Arnalds, guitarist Will Ackerman, composer/pianist Max Richter, sound artist Tim Story, and minimalist Harold Budd. On my new album, I cover an excerpt of Mike Oldfield’s epic 1975 piece, “Ommadawn.”
Q: What is your biggest challenge?
Answer: Not being able to collaborate with other musicians in the studio due to the pandemic. In addition to living closer to my elderly mother, I was looking forward to moving back to the Winston area because one of my favorite musical collaborators, jazz musician Matt Kendrick, lives here. Because of social distancing, Matt and I weren’t able to collaborate on this album, but I definitely hope to get in the studio with him on the next one.
Fortunately, for this album, I was able to collaborate with my favorite cellist, Judy Kang, who is Celine Dion’s resident cellist. Judy has a home studio in Los Angeles and was able to record her part, then send it to me here in Clemmons for the final mix. That allowed a measure of interaction and human connection.
Q: What does art do for you?
Answer: Art breaks undifferentiated time into understandable pieces. It clears away superficial, random information and conveys what is essential about living. It speaks the inarticulate speech of the heart, puts me in touch with my more profound, authentic self, showers the air with beauty, and makes me smile, wonder, think and believe.
Q: Any advice for other artists?
Answer: Everything about you will show up in your art. So live life fully and cultivate yourself in all ways — not just in your work. Own your failures as well as your triumphs. What you read, what you watch, how you treat others accumulates into a total of the overall feeling your work imparts.
Fran Daniel writes about artists — visual, musical, literary and more — weekly in Relish. Send your story ideas to email@example.com or call 336-727-7366.