She’s only 22, but Jessy Tomsko writes songs like someone who has been around for twice that many years. Perhaps that’s because she was raised by musically aware parents, both of whom were involved in the regionally popular rock `n’ roll/hard rock band, Leggs Diamond.
With beautiful diction and an air of confidence and poise that escapes many 22-year-olds, Tomsko says in a phone interview, "I come from a very musical family. I’ve been singing my whole life, and I was into musical theater in high school and opted to go to Westminster Choir College in Princeton."
Tomsko graduated in May, 2007, from Westminster and has a network of singer-songwriter friends in the Princeton-Trenton corridor. She began taking guitar lessons at 17 and then took a year off between high school and college to travel and think about her direction in life. She began writing her own songs while in her freshman year at Westminster, in 2004. She performs on Wednesday, March 19, at the weekly acoustic showcase at KatManDu, produced by Lance Reichert of qbdigital.com, and on Saturday, March 22, at the indie night at Griggstown Pavilion.
Tomsko’s MySpace site, www.myspace.com/jessytomskoproject, sheds light on her approach to the business of being a singer-songwriter in a sea of singer-songwriters around Philadelphia, Trenton, and Princeton: "People with something to say. Music with something to say. Thoughts occurring outside the box. Creation of something out of nothing."
Long since retired from their days in Leggs Diamond, Tomsko’s mother works as a voice teacher in Philadelphia and does a bit of performing, while her father is a computer programmer and published writer of short stories.
"Leggs Diamond did mostly cover stuff and they ended up breaking up in 1983 or so," Tomsko says. "I think my parents worked together for four years or so before getting married."
Despite her musical upbringing, Tomsko says, "I found my own way to folk music. My first big influence in the genre would have to be Ani DiFranco. I discovered her in my junior year in high school [North Penn High School in Lansdale, PA], and then I found out about Joni Mitchell. I wrote poetry in high school and when I was a kid. I thought it would be kind of fun to try to put it to music." She found her uncle’s old guitar in her grandparents’ basement, and she began taking guitar lessons.
Tomsko has attracted the attention of some important people in the music scene in Philadelphia, including the booking agents for the World Cafe, the North Star Bar, and the Grape Street Pub. She hopes to have a five-track EP out this month, and her debut full-length compact disc album released by fall.
"I really like indie music, and I love finding new music online through MySpace," she says, noting the dramatically changed music business for singer-songwriters like herself. "There’s so much good stuff out there online, and this is a whole new age for music – the power is being put back in the hands of the listener, and back into the hands of the musicians, too.
"I think the audience has a lot more power than they realize. I’m always amazed by these MySpace pages. I see how many fans people have and how many plays some people are getting in a day," she continues. "Now I think it’s possible to have a career as a successful musician without being world famous. You can reach a lot of people through the Internet." Gone are the days when serious commercial radio airplay was a requirement for reaching large numbers of listeners.
"You don’t need the radio stations or major label record deals anymore to be able to reach a lot of people," she says, "and hopefully, people who deserve to be with labels will get with record companies."
Tomsko has only been playing out for eight months or so with her band, the Jessy Tomsko Band. She says Sarah Donner, a fellow Westminster Choir College grad, has been very helpful in inviting her to the indie music nights she hosts at Griggstown Pavilion.
"In a typical show, I’ll do some solo stuff, but my bass player is also a wonderful guitar player and a great ukulele player," Tomsko says. She will perform solo at the March 22 Griggstown Pavilion gig.
"Sarah started this indie music night [see U.S. 1, January 10, 2007], booking all kinds of singer-songwriters from around the area. The venue is literally a big barn and can easily fit more than 100 people. And they offer coffee and treats for a dollar," she says. "They are getting a pretty loyal following and they are freakishly attentive to details."
Though she has made rapid progress in the year that she has been on the coffee house circuit, Tomsko says she continues to work, teaching voice students privately on the adjunct faculty at DeSales University in Center Valley, PA, and doing church-related work in a professional choral ensemble.
Tomsko credits good teachers in grade school and high school for her success, and very supportive parents. "My parents always said, `Do whatever you want to do, or maybe you should go to school for education and have a back-up plan. Do what you want to do and we’ll support it, no matter what.’"
Despite the paltry sums most coffee houses and clubs end up paying Tomsko and her bandmates, she is determined to pursue a career, such as it is, as a singer-songwriter. "One of my favorite things is when I play a song and I finish the set, someone comes up and tells me: `Oh my God, you made my cry during that song, you were singing it to me!’ I like that! I see myself as kind of getting into people’s heads and saying things they can’t say for themselves. I really am a big fan of lyrics."
Ultimately, Tomsko adds, songwriting is a therapeutic process for herself as well as an artistic outlet. "I find often times I have a hard time expressing myself verbally, I have a hard time saying what I mean. I never know how to say what I want to say so many times I’ll put it into a song."
Jessy Tomsko, Wednesday, March 19, 6 p.m., acoustic showcase, KatManDu, Waterfront Park, Trenton, and Saturday, March 22, Indie Music Night, Griggstown Pavilion, 373 Bunkerhill Road, Princeton.