The thunderstorm let up and an unusual warmth and moisture was lingering in the early morning air as we arrived in Carlingcott ‒ the beautiful village on the outskirts of Bath where we visited ceramicist Kara Leigh-Ford back in February ‒ to catch-up with Kara’s husband, Tom Corneill, a talented musician and passionate watchmaker.
After savouring a steaming cup of coffee in Kara’s beautiful handmade cups, Tom showed us upstairs to his work space ‒ where he painstakingly mixes new and vintage watch parts and reassembles them by hand to his own unique design ‒ and told us about his long-time passion for watches, about his watchmaking process and experiments, and why the art of watchmaking is a tangible expression of mindfulness.
Our conversation moved swiftly to music, and Tom opened up about how he grew up surrounded by music, about what inspires his lyrics and his performances with the indie-dance band Centrefolds. As our get-together was drawing to a close, Kara took a break from working in her studio and joined us in the front garden, where Tom played for us one of his songs inspired by the Icelandic landscape and shared with us the things that make him “tick” and his dreams and ambitions for the future.
Tom, what were you like as a teenager? What did you want to be or become?
I just wanted to be a singer. I don’t think I ever dreamt of anything else. Me and my guitar were going to change the world with a handful of songs.
What is your most vivid childhood memory?
Being held underwater. It sounds more morbid than it was! My dad took me on a water slide in France after I’d begged all day, I was about 3 at the time. The drop at the end was bigger than Dad realised and he couldn’t let go of me, so he had to hold onto me and try to swim up as quickly as possible. It was probably no more than a few seconds but my most vivid memory is looking up at shadowy figures through the bubbles & water for what seemed like hours. I was terrified at the time but weirdly that memory has always given me a tremendous sense of calm. I love the serenity and aloneness of being under water.
When and how did you get into music? What was your musical journey like?
My Mum, Dad and 3 older sisters played music all day long so I grew up surrounded by everything from Erasure to The Beatles to Elvis Costello to The Carpenters. They ‒ and countless others ‒ have sculpted my writing throughout. My Dad was (and probably still is) the biggest single driver for music. He’s passionate about 60s guitar music and presented me with his Rossetti Solid 7 and a Samick amp (plus a purple and a yellow plectrum!) when I was about 8. My favourite teacher ‒ Miss Gayle ‒ thought me chords and I taught myself from there. Now I write and perform music solo and with a band called Centrefolds who are my brothers in arms.
When it comes to songwriting, what inspires your lyrics?
All my early stuff was the obvious stuff ‒ love & heartbreak ‒ then I started to write more in the third person, looking at other people’s situations, sometimes singing from their perspective and sometimes just commenting from the outside. My most recent project is really different; I am a little obsessed with Iceland after a recent visit so I’m trying to write an album with a soundscape that captures the feel of the Icelandic landscape (wind, ice, rocks, moss, folklore). For the first time ever the lyrics will come as last importance which will be a really interesting exercise for me.
Tell us about your watchmaking venture. What sparked your passion for watches and what do you enjoy most about making them?
I started taking watches apart when I was really young, I’m fascinated with the tiny precision that makes them ‘tick’. During recovery from a back injury a few years ago I had time on my hands (no pun intended) and I started doing it again but this time thought I’d have a go at rebuilding them to my own design. And it worked! I find it incredibly mindful; you have to concentrate on what’s literally right in front of you so it’s all about just you and your chosen subject. No distractions.
Can you talk us through your watchmaking process?
It starts with the dial. I buy vintage dials that are distressed and imperfect ‒ I love the uniqueness that tiny cracks or scratches or rust marks bring to something that’s lived a full life. Then I pair the dial with a case (usually new but not always) and finish it with a lovely strap. My current quest is for the best possible veggie/vegan option so I’m about to experiment with ‘muskin’, a mushroom derivative that looks like beautiful aged leather.
What is your all-time favourite watch?
Rolex Submariner. Easy. The mix of style and functionality is stunning ‒ you can wear it to a black tie event just as comfortably as at the bottom of the sea.
How many watches do you own?
Oops. Well, I have about 25 watches but only about 15 are keepers, the rest are projects or research pieces that I’ll eventually sell on.
How many times a day do you look at your watch?
Several times an hour.
Going back to music, what metaphor would best describe how you feel when you make music?
It’s a bit like driving a journey you’ve never made before. Sometimes it’s quick, sometimes it’s slow, sometimes you can go for a long time without anything really happening. But getting to the end and looking back is a feeling of completion.
Does your mind ever wander when you perform on stage?
Very occasionally, only really if I’m singing someone else’s songs and my brain goes on autopilot. When I’m doing my own stuff or I’m with the band my mind is totally on delivering the message. Each performance is important and different.
Who are your musical heroes?
That’s hard! But I’ll try:
Vocally: Karen Carpenter, Joni Mitchell, Jeff Buckley, Thom Yorke.
Lyrically: Ryan Adams, Joni again, Guy Garvey, The Beatles.
The whole picture: the Beatles, Ryan Adams, Radiohead, David Bowie. But that’s just the start!
Who is a lesser known local musician or band that people should know about?
Simon Allen, Littlemen, Steepways and Sam Eason are all excellent and need to be heard. Blair Chadwick from Steepways also has a fantastic podcast called ‘Blair’s blues and other news’ which is all about greater & lesser known Americana music and is a wonderful source for inspiration.
What are three questions you don't have an answer for?
How many guitars are too many?
How many watches are too many?
Is there such a thing in the universe as perfect balance?
What do you think about the most when you’re alone in your car?
I write songs. It’s my favourite place for trying new lyric & vocal ideas and I often have to pull over and record them.
If your life would be a song, what would you name it?
“The many lives of a small town boy.”
What do you do or where do you go to unwind and get inspired?
Anywhere new that gives time away from the distractions of everyday life. Every time I have a holiday I write loads of songs, blog posts and other bits whether it’s Bali, New York, Italy, Cornwall or Devon... I just need time to get away from things. I’m a sucker for the sea though.
What makes you “tick”?
Nature, animals, people-watching, good times with my crazy family and most of all my brilliant wife, Kara. She enjoys all of these things much the same way I do, she’s the perfect partner in crime and our adventures together is what life is all about, even if that’s just a walk to the shops. I guess our favourite thing is looking at the sea.
What are you working on at the moment?
Three big projects:
1. Building a Rolex Submariner from mixed authentic parts. It’s all my favourite aspects from old and new models and is going to be incredible!!
2. A new sound and possibly new name for my music. It might be a concept album. I’m really embracing my voice as an instrument as opposed to just using it as a vehicle for getting the lyrics out.
3. A new album/EP for Centrefolds. It’s shaping up nicely, we just need to know when to stop.
What do you think the future holds for you? What are some of your biggest dreams?
I would like more people to hear my music and know about my watches. I’m kind of an introverted extrovert, I need attention but only when it suits me! Thinking on a ‘big dream’ scale I guess I’d like my songs on the radio more and to dedicate more time to writing and watchmaking. It feels like all the right things are falling into place for the watchmaking side of things which is great.
And now a Max Frisch question: What do you need in order to be happy?
Food, warmth, something to write on and a partner who ‘gets’ me.
Can you recommend us:
A book: ‘The Forgotten Soldier’ by Guy Sajer.
A song: ‘Aquaplane’ by Centrefolds! Or ‘I can’t make you love me’ by Bon Iver.
A film: ‘The Kings of Summer’
Thank you, Tom, for the insightful conversation and for sharing with us your fascinating journey into music and watchmaking. We wish you all the best in your future endeavours.
Official website: Tom Corneill