Los Angeles-based singer and songwriter Tomi, real name Pam Autuori, describes her upbringing as one of “a queer kid in the suburbs.” Those were the suburbs of Connecticut, and her surroundings were not the most enlightened. It’s no surprise, then, that as soon as she was able, she flew the nest and went to New York. A little later, she ended up right here.
“I think growing up, it was a different time,” she says. “When I came out, it was very hush hush. Don’t talk about it, don’t hold your girlfriend’s hand, don’t invite your girlfriend to prom – it was a lot of that. Very shame-based. L.A. is the gayest place I’ve ever lived – I’m shocked. I love it so much. Everyone just seems to be themselves and express themselves fully, which I think should be encouraged. I like living in places where people can be free and not be confined or feel shame.”
Tomi started writing music when she was a mere 12 years old, performing shows in her native West Hartford, Connecticut. Things got serious when she hit high school.
“I opened up for Ani DiFranco and whichever acts were coming through the city,” she says. “The venue was really great and let me open up, and I got really into it. I just loved writing and performing. Eventually, I went to Berklee College of Music for about a year and a half. In and out, real quick. Then I moved to New York for about 10 years to do the hustle and play as much as possible. My whole goal was to play as much as possible and be in the live setting, in the live world. I still feel like that’s the most life-fulfilling – the collaboration of it. Then I moved to L.A.”
The folk-inspired artist took the name “Tomi” from a pet lizard. We conducted this interview via Zoom initially, then by phone due to some technical difficulties, and this writer felt he must have misheard this nugget. But it is indeed true – she’s named after her lizard. Besides her reptile, Tomi takes influence from great singer/songwriters such as Joni Mitchell, Bruce Springsteen, and Harry Nilsson. All of that can be heard on her new EP, Sweet Sweet Honey.
“That’s the first record that I fully produced and wrote myself,” she says. “I have two EPs out already that I wrote and produced mostly myself, but I had a lot of people come in and collaborate on that so this is definitely the first one that I really did run away and live in a hole for three months. I didn’t really talk to anybody and just wrote this record as a healing exercise. It’s my first solo solo record.”
The themes on the new EP are incredibly personal. As she points out, everyone has gone through stuff over the course of this pandemic so far. On top of it all though, she went through the breakup of a long-term relationship.
“I moved out of the house that I shared with my long-term partner,” she says. “It was just a really big feeling of loss, grief, and failure. I ended up flying from L.A. back home, peak pandemic. I stayed in Connecticut where I grew up, then I went to Brooklyn and really — the themes of the record are about grief, loss, healing, and reflection. Mindfulness, and really slowing down around pain and around regret, and just trying really hard to love yourself again. I think a lot of the themes revolve around a desire to have a future that’s already gone. A desire to live in this beautiful suburban life. I think it’s understanding that life doesn’t always work out in the way that you think it’s going to, and coming to terms with that reality check.”
The first single from the EP is “Lemon Tree,” an epic seven-minute song written in two parts. That’s a “Bohemian Rhapsody”-esque brave choice.
“The first part is about forgiveness,” she says. “When you’re in a long-term relationship, there are so many moving parts. There can be a lot of miscommunications, a lot of things that are unclear until you step away and have time to have space and look back. ‘Lemon Tree’ is a song about memory. I wrote it because I wanted to hang onto these beautiful moments and these small moments in the relationship to really put them somewhere and give them a place that I can go back to if I wanted to live with the memory of them again. The second half is a plea for forgiveness, and just really wanting to show that love is still there and doesn’t go away, even if the people aren’t together.”
The video for the song is intriguing too, created from old home videos she found while holed up back in Connecticut with her family.
“I got them all transferred to DVDs,” she says. “Back in the day, we’re talking about the early ‘90s, my parents would just film us playing in the yard. I don’t film simple and mundane things anymore, so I found it really interesting just how simple life seemed and I wanted to capture those memories. It reflects the song the whole time. In the video, everything’s getting distorted and you’re losing track which I found really beautiful because memory is such a mystery to me. It’s pretty much just a fantasy. You don’t really know the reality of it.”
On October 9, Tomi will bring that depth and emotion to the Hotel Cafe, where she will play the EP in full.
“It’s all stripped down,” she says. “I have a guitarist and pedal steel. Some Nashville vibes. I really want to showcase the songs in a way that really brings them to life and shows the writing process, which was all just guitar, vocal, singing into a tape recorder. That’s the vibe of the show. Very intimate, and hopefully we’ll shed some tears.”
With that done, Tomi is looking to release an album next year and, pandemic-allowing, play a lot more shows. She says in conclusion: “I have a lot of music that I wrote over the last year so it’s been at least creatively stimulating.”
Sweeter Than Honey: Tomi’s single “Lemon Tree” is out now. The EP Sweet, Sweet Honey is out October 8.