Tom Carleno first picked up the guitar in 1977 at age 14. From then on he knew what he wanted to do with his life. During those early days, he studied with a few private teachers. Most notable was his cousin, Paul Musso, who started him on his musical path. Wanting to become not only a guitarist, but a songwriter as well, Tom began writing music early on. He played in various rock bands in high school and college. A big turning point came in 1982 when he met guitarist Steve Mesplé, later of the band Wind Machine. That was the beginning of eight years of private study with Steve. It was during these lessons that Tom learned fingerstyle technique and the use of alternate tunings. This soon became the foundation of his playing and compositions. He had finally found the creativity and voice he had been searching for. He immersed himself in learning different guitar tunings and writing fingerstyle guitar pieces.
He was still looking for a vehicle to showcase his music when the next major life event occurred. In 1989 he met violinist Josie Quick, who became Tom’s musical and life partner. They began collaborating on Tom’s early compositions and soon formed the ensemble, Perpetual Motion. They are still going strong more than 30 years and seven albums later.
In 2009 Tom realized it was time to record a solo album. He began a four-year journey of introspection and self-discovery. This culminated in the 2013 release of Perfect Imperfection. The album contains solo guitar compositions and arrangements from over 25 years of his musical life. Perfect Imperfection garnered critical acclaim and received international airplay. In the 2013 Zone Music Reporter Awards it won Best Instrumental – Acoustic Album and was nominated for Best New Artist. Tom’s other awards include Best Instrumental in the 2009 SongDoor International Songwriting Competition for his solo piece, “Child’s Play”, and Honorable Mention in the 2007 Unisong Songwriting Contest Jazz category for the Perpetual Motion song “Por Causa de Você”.
Tom and Josie were members of the Colorado-based band, Coyote Poets of the Universe. In 2018 they appeared on the CPU album Strange Lullaby. They have done session recording for the electronic ensemble Sensitive Chaos and New Age artist Timothy Wenzel.
Tom is currently working on a new solo album and a new album with Perpetual Motion.
An Interview with Tom Carleno
What inspired you to play the guitar?
Watching my cousin Paul Musso perform a great Jose Feliciano impersonation at a family get together really struck me. I thought “I want to be able to entertain people like he does.” The next week I asked Paul if he would teach me how to play the guitar. He agreed to, and for a dollar a half-hour, every Friday after school we would go to his house for a guitar lesson.
How did you realize it was what you wanted to do with the rest of your life? was it an event, or what?
I could never see myself having a regular, 9 to 5 type of job. There was nothing that interested me enough to want to make a living doing it as much as music did. Early on, though, I didn’t know how to go about making a living as a musician, so I just spent my time learning my instrument and hoped I would figure that part out later. I became enamored with the idea of being a rock star.
What was your first gig?
I was in high school and playing with my first band. We were playing for another school’s dance.
What was your first paid gig?
I honestly don’t remember.
What was your first band, any funny stories or horror stories?
The Blind Man’s Band. It was the band my cousin Paul had formed a year or two earlier, and he asked me to join. We had two guitars, keyboards and drums, no bass player. I remember a party we played where our keyboardist didn’t show up, although we had hauled his electric piano there for him. We had a girl singing back up and she sat behind the piano and sang into the mic that was set up for the keyboard player. Someone at the party complimented her on her piano playing, even though she never touched the keys the entire night! It was also with this band that I made my first attempt at singing. I was singing ‘Pinball Wizard’ by The Who when, as happens with most teenage boys, my voice suddenly cracked as I was trying to hit a high note. The rest of the band members were laughing so hard they couldn’t keep playing the song. Fortunately for me it happened during a rehearsal instead of a gig!
What inspired you to explore fingerstyle guitar and open tunings?
I studied guitar and composition with Steve Mesple’ from 1982-90. I had dabbled a bit with fingerstyle guitar before, but Steve really taught me the proper technique. When he introduced me to alternate tunings I took to them immediately and wanted to learn as much about them as I could. I found I could write songs easily using different tunings. They just sparked my creative side. I enjoyed discovering, or even inventing, new chord voicings using alternate tunings.
How did you make the transition from wanna be rock star to acoustic musician?
After attempting to form many rock bands that all eventually faded out, I decided to find one musician that I could collaborate with and then build a band around that foundation. I figured it would be easier to do that with one person than with four or five. I assumed it would be another guitarist, but then I met Josie Quick, a violinist. It was the late ’80s and by this time I had been playing and writing acoustic music in open tunings for a couple of years and it occurred to me that a violin would sound great with acoustic guitar. I asked Josie if she wanted to get together and try some stuff out and we began working up a few songs. I started writing parts for her to play over my existing songs and eventually writing many new tunes for us. Two great things came from that collaboration – we formed a band called Perpetual Motion that has been performing and recording for over twenty years, and Josie and I became best friends and partners, in music and in life. We got married in 1992.
Why are you doing a solo CD now? What inspired you to do it?
I have wanted to record a solo CD for years, but my work with Perpetual Motion took center stage. But in 2008 I began to think that I should really pursue this project. I had been writing more solo guitar pieces and it felt like it was time to record them.
How is recording a solo album different from recording a band?
With a band, It takes a lot of work on everyone’s part but each musician is focused on their part. I don’t have to worry about the bass, drums or violin because I know the other players know their stuff. I can concentrate on the guitar parts and fitting in with the ensemble. Recording as a solo guitarist is different – it’s all me. As a soloist I’m obviously playing melody, bass and harmony all together. As a soloist, I am always playing all the parts. So I decided the best approach would be to get two or three songs ready, book some studio time and record them, then get two or three more songs ready, book another session, and so on. I knew this approach would take a while, but hey, I was in no hurry.
You decided to call your album “Perfect Imperfection”. How did you come up with that title?
I used to think perfection was when you performed a task perfectly from start to finish and were left with absolutely no doubts about what you accomplished. I thought that perfectionists were people who were able to do just that. I did not think that I was a perfectionist.But then it occurred to me that maybe a perfectionist was a person who strives so hard for perfection that they think they never quite attain it no matter how close they might come.Josie, who meditates daily and calls herself a half-assed Buddhist, likes to say that nothing is perfect. That is what makes life so perfect – that everything is imperfect. Nature is perfect only in it’s imperfection. That got me to thinking that perfection to one person is not the same as to another, so nothing can be perfect if everyone is different.