by Jacquelyn Thayer
For musician and photographer Tom Wehrle, it was a particular song that kindled his creative flame.
“Back in 1990 there was a song on the radio that I thought was so cool I just had to learn how to play it on the piano,” says Wehrle, 33. “That song was ‘For You’ by Michael W. Smith. Since I showed some interest in playing piano, my mom thought it would be a good idea for me to take lessons. So I did, for a few weeks before I stopped taking them. I didn’t like it all. I wanted to learn how to play songs that were on the radio – cool songs – not ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb.’ So from there on, I was pretty much self-taught.” Smith remains a favorite today of the longtime St. Louis resident, along with artists and songwriters including Coldplay, Ryan Tedder (OneRepublic) and Jon Foreman (Switchfoot).
For his last album, 2010’s ‘Mad City Tragedy,’ Wehrle took on the ambitious endeavor of personally handling all aspects of production. “I had always thought it would be really cool to do everything on an entire project, so for some reason, I made a proclamation that I was going to,” he says. The effort turned out to be more challenging than anticipated.
“Normally for other projects I can just call in some friends to play on it, and you can really get some different ideas and places to take a song, which I love. Since I did that all for ‘Mad City Tragedy,’ I normally second guess myself, but for that project I just went with my gut and tried to have fun with it. It’s an interesting project, as the first two songs are really poppy and then it kinda mellows out into more of singer/songwriter type of project. But I love all the songs for what they are on it. It was fun to step outside the box a little for me.”
As an independent singer and songwriter, Wehrle values the freedom to follow his own path, but also acknowledges the downside of lacking outside input. “I think the biggest con, however,” he says, “is having to do everything yourself. Whether it be my music or photography work…I’m not a marketing guru or anything like that. And time spent trying to get work, or book gigs would be better served working on what I am best at, which I think is creating. I think the stereotype of being independent as being so much better or cooler than being represented is a little overblown, as I think artists are better at creating, not going out and marketing themselves or trying to get money to make a record, or even working a week on their taxes.”
For Wehrle, the highlight of his work as a musician has come not so much in measurable outward success, but in something more personal. “It’s been the letters and messages I’ve gotten from people about how some of the songs I’ve written have impacted their life,” he admits. “One in particular that stands out was a letter I received probably a year after I talked to someone – maybe longer, I don’t remember exactly – and the first time they heard my music was when they were writing a suicide letter. They said they wrote me a message and I replied, and I don’t even remember that first interaction, but hearing that a year or so later after the fact makes you realize how much of an impact you can make. When I first started writing songs and recording them by myself I never thought ‘Oh, millions of people are going to one day hear this’ or ‘This song is gonna take me around the country playing shows’ – it just isn’t a thought, but turns into a reality, and it’s very humbling.”
Wehrle’s second career in photography has him focusing on subjects including events, landscape and portraiture. “I had always enjoyed photography, but I finally bought a DSLR back in 2008 and things kinda just took off from there,” he notes. In 2009, courtesy of a lead from his brother, Wehrle learned of an opening with U.S. Figure Skating (USFS), which has placed him at the biggest events on the federation’s schedule, including the U.S. Figure Skating Championships and U.S.-based international events such as Skate America and 2012’s Four Continents Figure Skating Championships.
“Long story short, I wear multiple hats when doing the USFS jobs,” says Wehrle. “As I started off just capturing video, to now streaming some of the events live on icenetwork.com and also shooting behind the scenes footage for the bigger competitions.”
Wehrle’s work has included production of a few behind-the-scenes competition videos set to his own music, a matter largely of convenience. “The main reason I’ve used my songs is because of just not wanting to get in trouble with YouTube and licensing issues you can have with using content you don’t own the rights to,” he notes. The popularity of the videos – with those featuring his songs capturing a total at present of nearly 32,000 hits – may have also carried the benefit of exposing his musical work to a wider, albeit niche, audience.
2011 Skate America – Backstage & Behind the Scenes Ice Dancing feat. “I Got You”
That synergy aside, his pursuits in music and photography may seem removed from one another, but Wehrle notes some similarities. “I never want to write the same song twice, just like I don’t want to take the same photograph twice. That’s a thought that’s always in my head – ‘Have I done this same thing before?’ and then also ‘Is there another way I could say this, or do this?’ if I feel it isn’t very creative.
“The bottom line is, no matter what songwriter you are, you can only ever write the song you write once. So you better say what you want, and do what you want with the song. Same thing can be applied with photography as you’re only going to be in that one situation, at that particular time once in your life. It’s never going to ever be what it is at that moment again…ever.”