Tomato/Tomato: Making it work on the road less travelled
Who says you can’t have it all? Marriage. A family. A rewarding career doing what you love (which happens to be making and playing music.) And adventure on the road, including a band tour of Australia this past summer with your daughter along for the ride.
John and Lisa McLaggan, aka Tomato/Tomato, have managed to chart an adventurous and enviable life and musical journey together.
Lisa grew up in Chicago; John came from New Brunswick. They met in graduate school at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston; fell in love; got married; taught concurrently at Nova Scotia’s St. Francis Xavier University; had a daughter, Lucy… and made a lot of music together.
On stage, the couple stuck to their roots in jazz. But at home, they were always harmonizing on folk songs, and Lisa thought they might bring some of that to their shows. John initially dismissed the idea, but one day they were hired to lead a parade of kids around the local zoo, and John needed something more suited to parading than his sax. He dug out his guitar. Soon after, Lisa came across a street band on YouTube which featured a washboard player. It looked like a lot of fun. That Mother’s Day she opened her gift from John to discover her very own washboard.
“John and I have both studied music our whole lives,” says Lisa. “But when he picked up the guitar and I picked up the washboard, everything changed.”
That was nearly five years ago. The couple began playing as Tomato/Tomato in local venues, and within a year, they’d been named the regional winners of CBC’s Searchlight Competition.
More awards – and a growing fan base – followed. Lisa’s washboard got outfitted with a couple of aluminum cans and a cymbal. (She also plays the kick drum and snare with her feet.) And they developed a unique mix of bluegrass, jazz, blues and folk that is decidedly hooky. They love it when they can get people stomping their feet… or letting out unrestrained hoots ‘n’ hollers.
In a promotional video for their most recent album, “I Go Where You Go”, they kid around as they attempt to describe Tomato/Tomato – ending up with “washboard-infused old-timey roots duo.”
Recently, a friend called Lisa a momsician. It rang true. Daughter Lucy has been duly christened Cherry Tomato, and she’s always been at as many shows as possible. When Tomato/Tomato returned to Australia for three weeks this past summer as part of a five-week tour, they brought her along.
“We were those people who were picking the brains of our fellow musician parent tribe – asking for tips and tricks to make it all go smoothly,” Lisa writes on their blog. “More than tips, we were really just looking for validation. ‘Was it okay?’ ‘How did it go?’ ‘Would you do it again?’
“The short answer to all of those questions is: FANTASTIC. And YES.”
Cherry Tomato sports her brown Kid’s Blunnies most places she travels. “You can catch us rocking our Blundstones both on and off the stage,” says Lisa. “Our boots have been with us all across Canada and across the world to Australia. They have happily danced with us in the rain, kept us warm in the winter, kept us comfortable on 14-hour plane rides, and are our go-to picks when heading out for a hike. I think if they were talking and repeating stories – all you would hear is joyous laughter.”
Lisa gets inspiration from the emotional side of her life, including being a mother – and the couple’s unique family take on a musical career has been rewarding in many ways. She has no reservations. “It’s definitely a road less traveled and there is always risk involved. But it’s been very organic. It makes perfect sense, and it’s what we’ve been working our whole lives to do.”
She says the adventure of playing live is invigorating. “I would say that stage fright is normal – it means you care about what you’re doing and want to do your best. It’s very freeing to just let yourself feel your nerves fully and embrace them as a positive energy.”
Her advice to young musicians: “Always take opportunities to play with other musicians. Eat, sleep, and breathe it. Practice. Go see live music. Sing in the shower. Transcribe albums. Hang out with other musicians. Dork out on YouTube. Host a jam session. Study lyrics. Read artist biographies. Just really live it, ya know?”
Their hard work and diverse musical tastes come together in Tomato/Tomato. “We relate to being very hard workers, and try to be accessible to all listeners. Just like Blundstones…they are so durable, can withstand a lot of hard work, and there’s a style and colour for everyone!”