When screen composer, songwriter, and producer Hamish Thomson was six years old, growing up in Powell River, B.C., his father – a seasoned bagpipe player – signed him up as a drummer with the local pipe and drum band. Though he was so small he could barely lift his drum, Thomson was hooked. “That was the start of my career in music,” he recalls.
As much as he was enamoured with the music, however, Thomson struggled to read the notes he was supposed to play. Diagnosed with dyslexia and synesthesia (a condition which allows him to see music as colour), Thomson’s earliest teachers encouraged him to feel the music instead, rather than fixating on the notes. “If I slowed down, I could almost see the notes as a painting,” he explains.
But even after completing music school, forming a touring trio, Big Tall Garden, in Vancouver, and signing a deal with Nettwerk Records as a solo electronica artist under the name The Hermit, Thomson continued to grapple with imposter syndrome, worried that he would be “busted” for not being able to read music. Instead, the Nettwerk team asked him where he saw his career going. Though he was only in his mid-20s, even Thomson was surprised by the clarity of his vision: he wanted to be a screen composer.
In time, he began performing to integrated visuals, inviting his audiences to “see and feel the music, and to let them into my brain a bit.” Finally, as his music began to land film placements, Thomson quit his day job and turned his full attention to creating tracks for licensing, and to producing music out of his Vancouver studio, as well as working as a session player.
“Sometimes I couldn’t even see, I was crying so hard”
His first opportunity to compose for the screen came when a film director friend asked Thomson to score his 2016 independent feature, Grand Unified Theory. “My palms started sweating,” he laughs. “I remember thinking, ‘I don’t know if I’m ready.’” But Thomson took up the challenge, drawing on his synesthesia to compose in colours designed to fit the mood of each chapter in the film. “It opened my eyes to trusting in the process, and in myself,” he says.
Soon after, Thomson connected with director Martin Wood, who was preparing to shoot a number of episodes of the television drama Chesapeake Shores for the Hallmark Channel. Without telling Thomson, Wood went to the network and pitched him as the composer for the series. Though it was a longshot, they said yes.
But the day before Thomson learned that he had the gig, he got the worst news of his life: his 14-year-old son, Lachlan, had taken his own life. Two weeks after his son’s death, however, Thomson was in the studio, channelling his grief into the creative process.
“Sometimes I couldn’t even see, I was crying so hard,” he says. “But as soon as I pressed ‘Play,’ I don’t know what happened, but the music just flowed out of me.” He has since scored more than 40 television episodes and movies, including the 2020 Netflix original, Operation Christmas Drop, which involved creating an original score for orchestra.
When work slowed down at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Thomson finally had a chance to take stock of what he’d been through in the last five years. He also found himself with the urge to make music for himself again.
“After Lachlan passed, I felt the urge to write lyrics and sing,” he says, acknowledging that he had not felt vulnerable enough to do so in the past. The result is a new six-song EP, Gone Gone Gone, which sees Thomson delving into his shadow side, and finding his own voice in a new way.
“It has re-stoked that fire within me,” he says. “What a gift it’s been to have these opportunities to be doing film scores, and also to be writing songs again, doing that kind of creation. It’s been really rich to have all of those layers present themselves…to have all of my loves come together.”