Rod Thomas (@brightlightx2) and I met in early 2013; he had just moved to New York from London, and his publicist Talia was my roommate’s best friend. He’s a synth-pop singer-songwriter who performs under the name Bright Light Bright Light; Talia was talking him up to me, and within a few weeks Rod’s name was mentioned by a few other friends who were meeting him, seeing him perform, and listening to his albums. I booked him for a small April 2013 fundraiser performance that would inadvertently serve as a warm-up to his sold-out Joe’s Pub gig later that night. (For the non-New Yorkers, that’s not a standard pub; it’s a very intimate and prestigious venue, one fit for Adele as she showcased “25” to industry execs last winter.) I would interview him for a @HelloMr profile later that year at his apartment (just two blocks from mine in Crown Heights), and again booked him for a full-fledged concert at another fundraiser in January 2014, since his local fan base is a loyal and excited one. Through these various interactions, we forged a friendship that would blossom once I met my current roommate Tripp (@trippppp), who is one of Rod’s best mates. I’ve spent the last three Christmas Eves with Rod, staking out different restaurants and coffee shops around Crown Heights as we celebrate our respective families’ indifference to a silly traditional holiday. (We both prefer to visit home in warmer months, under less expensive and obligatory conditions, and our parents appreciate the logic.) Benchmarked at each of those Christmas Eves was a reflection on the previous year; being friends with Rod is a treat for this reason, because his talents make for interesting milestones. This last holiday, for instance, as he readied his third album (to be released this summer), we looked back on a year that he spent touring with Elton John, opening 55 shows on the legend’s world tour. The neighbor boy, Rod! Opening for Elton! At least someone had a good 2015….
Rod, 33, grew up between two villages in South Wales, surrounded by farmland and far from any of his friends. He would help his grandparents at their neighboring farm on the weekends, and the idyllic isolation gave him plenty of time to study music, to learn multiple instruments and how to record. He went to university in the Midlands in England, studying English Literature and Creative Writing, then moved to London in 2004, where he started working for PIAS, a record company that distributes lots of big and small independent labels. (In a lovely turn of events, they now distribute Rod’s label, too.) During his two years at PIAS, Rod learned how the industry worked, then decided to seek out new challenges within that arena. He wanted to land a job in music PR, and in the “stop gap” after the PIAS job, he began busking in the London Underground and working at a bar to help pay rent. Without his realizing it, the job search went on hold, and the busking-bartending continued for two years. He set up his own label and released a 7” single on his 24th birthday. Rod admits that there wasn’t a brightly lit path in front of him as his own music career progressed: “I think forward movement has always been my biggest struggle—knowing what to do to keep growing, to keep improving, and keep progressing. Early on, a lot of it was total guesswork—just doing something and seeing what happened.”
“It’s taken me a while to arrive where I am,” Rod says. His sound isn’t the Hot 100, chart-topping kind of pop that would compete with bubblegum divas, so he’s had to push his own career forward whenever execs and labels turn a deaf ear: “I didn’t have anyone funding me, so recording took longer,” he says. “I didn’t have a label or publisher pushing me to other artists, so any connections were from friends and touring together.” That has given him a different approach to the creative process: “All collaborations have felt incredibly natural and rewarding,” he says. “I also feel like I’ve had time to really think about where I wanted to go next, and how I felt about what had gone. There was a little luxury in that steady pace for contemplation, initially. But look, I’m 33 now, and after years of compounding, I’ve been able to build relationships—actual friendships—with great musicians: Elton, all of the Scissor Sisters, John Grant. Some artists have had a much quicker rise to ‘success’—however you want to define it—but I feel like I’ve made genuine and long-lasting connections along the way, all while doing it without the traditional backing. That can only happen with time; it can’t be forced.”
Besides the aforementioned artists, Rod has been able to tour or perform alongside Erasure, Kylie Minogue, and Grace Jones. He and Ana Matronic (of Scissor Sisters fame) covered Pet Shop Boys’ classic “West End Girls” which got glowing reviews from the band. His live performances are most memorable, because he can hit his high notes and always has a surprise in store; he might bring out his animated, equally talented friends, and he played a saxophone at his most recent New York show, to debut a new song from his forthcoming album. At that February 2016 gig, the room was packed with women, gay men, and music industry folks—the same faithful base that has bolstered most of Rod’s idols. “There have been vivid moments, like my first-ever shows in Seattle in 2013 and Chicago in 2015, where I didn’t know what to expect for a turnout. In Seattle it was a packed room, and at Chicago’s ‘Market Days’ festival, I played to a full outdoor lot. I never, ever thought growing up in South Wales that I’d have an audience the other side of the world. You can be comfortable with people coming to a show in a city where you live, or where friends live, but in a new city, finding a waiting fan base is very special.” It’s daunting to know he’s saying this after 10 years of metaphorical busking. If I keep my own writing cap on, I wonder how long it is before I’m not just making ends meet, but actually getting ahead—you know, saving something for my future, maybe being able to buy a house before I’m dead, or getting out of credit card and student loan debt. In that capacity, I’m not even sure Rod is getting ahead yet, but he’s pretty damn happy, and validated. And, since his momentum is still building, it’s hard to tally any real loss.
I ask Rod to reflect on how his approach to the profession has evolved with age. He says he’s calmer now, less concerned with the uncertainty of things, and that time has played a big part in developing his place: “I really felt stressed in my 20s, and at times very lost. It is overwhelming and distressing to realize that there are so many other musicians, especially in London. I did a lot of shows where I saw label people swarming to all the other artists. I would feel like a failure even when things were going well, because I would compare myself to them. Plus, without ever knowing what was coming next, my brain would always be in panic.” He says he needed these experiences for his perspective before he could empower the right change, the right confidence. Rod cites his 2013 move to New York as a turning point, especially as he wrote his second album, 2014’s “Life is Easy”. (Quite the title for someone who’s had to dial it in his whole career.) “That record became more about flipping the perspective from pessimism and anger to optimism and acceptance. It felt like a much better version of me. I feel more confident, both in myself and my music, and I’m having more fun than ever in the creative periods. I think it shows, and it gives me a better approach to everything—personal and professional relationships, songwriting, finances…everything.”
Rod’s songwriting is also a reflection of his growth. His first album was largely spent singing about other people’s experiences: “Feel It” was about Laura Palmer from “Twin Peaks”, while “Grace” and “Moves” were about his friends’ breakups, not his own. Things became much more personal on his second album, as he tapped into his own wealth of emotions for material. “I think my song ‘In Your Care’ is probably the most literal projection of where I was when making my second album, and my journey up to that point,” he says. “I did—and still do—have a horrible sense of guilt for being happy living in a place so very far away from my family and where I come from. I feel more at home in New York than I have anywhere. But I do miss my family and I do wish it were easier to see them. However, we have a great relationship and lots to talk about, and they love New York, so it could be worse. But the child’s guilt of moving away is quite present. I had a very vocal response to that song from a lot of fans and friends, and people who have children. I think it’s the most honest I’d ever been in a song. … On ‘More Than Most’ from that same record, there’s a line that goes ‘Try to take some time out from dreaming what the world could be’. I had finally arrived to a space where I was really enjoying life, so I tried my damn best to stop wishing for things that weren’t happening, to stop missing the moment.” Rod says his upcoming album will be his biggest fusion of artist and person: “Because I had the most fun actually making this record, I feel like it’s the truest reflection of ‘me’. There’s more humor in it, more of the tongue-in-cheek melodrama. Lots of emotion, and lots of the energy that I love to put into my live shows and my DJ sets. I feel like I’ve progressed a lot in this last year, particularly with all the touring, and I know my best creative skills more than I did on the previous album, which itself was an improvement on the first.” I admire this about him—this measurable growth, this awareness and self-audit that positively affects his creativity.
“I’m very grateful for the struggle years,” Rod says. “The busking, with its 6 a.m. alarms to sing to commuters. The bar jobs, the carrying a keyboard, guitar, and bag of equipment on my own for three miles across a city and up hills and through pedestrians to get to a show. It has made me who I am. But Jesus Christ, I don’t wish myself back to my 20s for a second. Right now, I’m making the music that I most want to, in the way I most want to, so that the 45-year-old me can be really fucking proud of what I’ve achieved, with or without other people’s help. I want to look back at my albums and feel like I really gave them everything, but also that I had fun doing them. I’ve given up trying to be something I’m not; I know what kind of man and what kind of musician I am. And now it doesn’t interest me to be angry or pessimistic, so I’m working very hard to forge a life where I can avoid those, and hopefully make it last. I’m very excited to age gracefully towards that.”