Writing since he was 17, Tommy Prine remembers once letting his father see an early song he had written called “Something Like an Angel.” In that moment, Prine remembers his father John encouraging him to write more.
Continuing throughout his teens and into his 20s, Prine, now 26, mostly kept his songs to himself for years and shared some of his music on YouTube over the years. He dove deep into songwriting following his father’s death in 2020 at 73. With his songs being personal journal entries of his life experiences, Prine released his debut single “Ships in the Harbor” and the follow-up “Turning Stones,” co-written with his producer Ruston Kelly, in 2022.
“I feel like I’ve learned more about myself in the last year and a half than I ever have in my life,” said Prine in a previous statement. “And I think that speaks a lot to doing something that I’m passionate about. I love and respect the craft. Just hitting the road and doing what so many people before me have done and will continue to do, it’s really resonated with me. I think it’s transformed me into the person that I need to be.”
Now set to kick off a tour with Todd Snider (Nov. 5-19) and fresh off recording his debut album, set for release in 2023, Prine spoke to American Songwriter about digging deep for those good songs and the realization that writing songs was what he needed to do the rest of his life.
American Songwriter: You’ve been writing since you were a teenager, but “Ships in the Harbor” and “Turning Stones” were the first songs you felt ready to release. How (and when) did these two songs start coming together for you?
Tommy Prine: “Ships in the Harbor” happened first around September of last year . It was after I had already written and recorded my whole record. I was outside with my wife, just chilling in our backyard and I found the melody floating around my head. The first line It must be the morning again came out and my wife was like “that’s a pretty one.” Then she said, “Oh, look, there’s a bluebird there,” because that’s kind of like a thing in our family. Whenever we see a cardinal or a bluebird, the people that we’ve lost are looking after us. So then that’s where that line [And I saw the bluebird again / She pointed it out in the yard on our fence / So it must be leaving soon, as it should] came from. And then after that, I looked at her and said “This one’s about to fall out of me,” and I just went inside, and I wrote the whole thing in like 15 minutes.
It was kind of strange because I was choking up writing the song in the very beginning. I was thinking “why am I getting so emotional writing a song about how I saw a bluebird and the morning and all this stuff?” I didn’t realize what it was until I got to the end of the song and the line about my dad [I’d do anything just to talk to my father / But I guess he was leaving soon, as we do / Yeah, I guess he was passing through, and I am too] came out, and I was like, “Okay, this is what this is about.” That was one of those songs where it’s every songwriter’s favorite time in their entire life when a song just falls in their lap. I didn’t really feel like I wrote it. It’s one of those things where it was just a pretty melody and a pretty song that was somewhere out there, and I was lucky enough to be the vessel that it came through.
“Turning Stones” was something that I wrote this year. I had the majority of it done, but I wasn’t really able to finish it. I had that issue recently where I have a bunch of 65 percent songs that I really like, but I don’t know how to take them home. The person I always call for that is Ruston Kelly, so we finished “Turning Stones.”
We decided to have “Ships in the Harbor” and “Turning Stones” be my debut into recording music.
AS: It’s a big deal to get those first songs out there, into the world.
TP: It’s definitely been a strange feeling. It’s kind of hard to describe. It’s one of those things that you don’t know what it feels like and how your response is going to be until it happens. I daydreamed about it a lot, but it’s very exciting once it happens.
AS: In five to 10 years from now, you may be a completely different songwriter, but from the time you first started piecing together what you thought was a song, and what became a song, how has songwriting changed for you within the past several years?
TP: It’s turned into a way that I process my emotions and some of the harder things I’ve been through. It’s almost like having a bridge to my own therapist to communicate. I have a harder time talking about how things make me feel or processing things that have happened to me. It’s a lot easier for me to write about it, so that’s been a large part of it. It’s combing through my experiences growing up, some decisions that I’ve made, and some things that happened to me. I’m really grateful for writing. It’s been one of the most impactful things on my life.
There was also a sense of urgency that I placed on myself because making the record with Gena Johnson and Ruston Kelly, I knew that they both have their careers and thought “Well, I better get writing so time doesn’t keep passing and they get really busy and we can’t do it,” so I really buckled down pretty all of 2020 and the first half of 2021.
AS: Were most of these written solo or in rounds?
TP: I was doing a bunch of writers’ rounds. I would meet everyone that did the writers’ round with me and co-write with them at some point. A lot of it was a way for me to process my thoughts, emotions, and feelings and my life experiences. It was also just me being really excited about wanting to do this as a job. I’m gonna take this as seriously as possible and do it like a job, do it eight hours a day.
AS: You get to that point where it’s clicking, and the things you want to get out are getting out somehow. Do you find it easier to kind of dig a little deeper now when writing?
TP: I feel like I’m pretty blessed in that regard, where I’ve always been pretty in touch with my emotions and secure being able to express how I’m feeling and express my thoughts on certain things.
Finding someone like Ruston, where he’s also able to go to those places and be honest and vulnerable, has been very beneficial for me because I have a close friend that is also a phenomenal writer and someone I admire. He was also able to go to those spaces with me, whereas, I’ve definitely done some co-writes where people were like, “I don’t want to talk about that. It’s too much.”
Songwriting and the songs that someone comes up with, I think it is in lockstep with who they are as a person and the things and experiences that they’ve had. Like you said, in 10, or 15 years, I’m gonna be a different person and a different songwriter because of the things I’ve experienced, where I’ve been and who I’ve met, and what I’ve seen.
AS: Working with producers Ruston Kelly and Gena Johnson was pivotal in helping you bring these songs to life. How did they both impact the songs on this upcoming album?
TP: Gena I’ve known for quite a few years because she has done some work with my father. She’s an excellent engineer and producer. She was honestly the first person outside of my family that took an interest in me and my songwriting, and my guitar playing and singing. My parents were always very nurturing about creativity, but they also didn’t want it to feel like I was being pressured to do something just because we were in the music industry. They were never pushing me in that regard. They were just allowing me to make music, whereas Gena was like, “Hey, I think you actually have something here. Why don’t you come over to my house and write and hang out, and maybe we’ll make a demo of some of your songs.” She was the first person that emotionally and physically gave me a space for songwriting, singing, and playing. She would invite some of her friends over, who are also songwriters and encourage me to break out of my shell.
When you first start writing songs, it’s all very personal and vulnerable. You don’t want people to think you suck, but she told me to knock that off and get out there and meet people and write with them, so I really am very grateful for how she extended the hand out for me to jump into the music world.
In terms of production, it really helps that me and Gena are such good friends because she knows me on a very personal level. I just brought her and Ruston these songs, just lyrics and chords on a guitar, but they know me as a person. They know the music I like. They know all my wild dreams for music, so they were able to capture that, and really turn it into something that I’m very proud of.
It took two people that I admire very much and love very much. They literally called me on a conference call and said “We’re gonna make your album, and this is what you’re doing with your life.”
AS: What can you share about your debut album?
TP: The best way to describe this record is that this is Tommy Prine introducing himself to the world. And I’m doing that in 11 songs. I lost my dad. These are some of the things that I experienced as a child. I made some mistakes growing up. This is what I learned from those. This is where I am now. This is who I am now. This is my wife. It’s everything.
Growing up with my dad being who he was, we didn’t have the most private life. People knew who I was when I would be going out with my family sometimes and they’d be like, “Oh, you’re John’s son,” so I think there was a sense of “maybe I need to dig a little deeper,” because, you know, I’m not just John Prine’s son. I’m Tommy Prine. I have also had all these life experiences that he didn’t have, like, This is who I am. This is life through my eyes.
Main Photo: Rett Rogers / IVPR