It was during the cold, short days at the start of 2006 that Sandi Thom had her Eureka! moment. Instead of driving to gigs up and down the country with her band in her clapped-out car, as she had done for years, the singer from Scotland resolved to try a different approach. She bought a webcam, and announced a run of 21 shows to be performed on consecutive nights during February and March in the basement of her flat in Tooting, South London. The audience capacity in the flat itself was limited to just six people. But the half-hour shows were to be broadcast, free of charge, via her website at www.sandithom.com. The first night, 70 people tuned in to watch, the next night it went up to 670. And by the middle of the second week she was performing to a peak audience of 70,000. By then, the suits from every major record label had visited the flat to see the show for themselves. What they heard was a singer with a sensational voice - strong and expressive enough to fill the largest theatres, but also warm and soulful enough to win over hearts and minds in the most intimate of settings. All the record companies put in offers, and a fortnight after finishing her virtual tour Thom signed a recording contract with RCA executive Craig Logan, live in front of her webcam audience.
Even before her debut album, *Smile... It Confuses People* is released on June 5, preceded by a single, *I Wish I Was A Punk Rocker* on May 22, Sandi Thom is a phenomenon. The company is calling it "the first webcast signing in major record label history" and she has become the overnight internet star who won a global audience and a megabucks handshake thanks to her investment in a £60 webcam. Needless to say, the story goes a little deeper than that.
Now 24, Sandi Thom has spent half a lifetime writing songs and performing gigs. She actually began learning her craft at the age of three. Sandi grew up in a small fishing village called Banff on the North East coast of Scotland. She was shy at school. Her report cards said she was a daydreamer, which was probably true. Her mother came from a musical background. Her father, a fisherman who became a helicopter pilot, used to sing and play guitar in a band.
"The first thing I remember was listening to my Dad's Stevie Wonder records when I was little, on vinyl," Sandi says. "I grew up on him and Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin, these amazing singers. I've always been influenced by soul singers along with the singer-songwriter artists, like Dylan, Carole King. It was a funny mixture that I'm sure influenced the way I sing now."
"I started writing songs when I was 11 or 12," Sandi says. "I wanted to find a way to express my feelings about the changing circumstances in my life. I've got recordings of some of them and the lyrics are all to do with that subject. Titles like *Where Do I Belong?* and that sort of thing."
When she was 14, Sandi joined a local covers band called the Residents who played pubs, social clubs, weddings, you name it. The rest of the band were all middle-aged semi-professionals, but she fitted in fine, playing keys and singing - often in four-part harmonies - and learning a repertoire of classic pop and rock songs by artists such as Roy Orbison, the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac and many others. The group's residency at the Harbour Bar in the village of Gourdon became a popular local attraction and the band would clear as much as £200 a night between the six of them. "That's a nice little earner when you're 14," Sandi says. "And you got free drinks. I really loved it and I loved the people. I still keep in touch and sometimes I'll go back to the village hall and we'll start playing a few of the old tunes."
A singing teacher in Aberdeen suggested she should apply for a place at the Liverpool Institute of the Performing Arts, which she successfully did. When she arrived, she found, once again, that she was the youngest person there. "I was 17 and at that time there were a lot of older and mature students. I remember crying for hours, I was so homesick. But then I got into it. I loved Liverpool. The people there are lovely. I was never that competitive. I was certainly not the type to go dancing on tables and singing out loud 'Look at me, I'm fantastic!' I did a lot of songwriting and I learned to play the guitar while I was there. And I joined a gospel choir which got me more and more into singing harmony." The choir, which was called Love And Joy, once performed at Anfield singing *You'll Never Walk Alone* to a crowd of 40,000 people.
While at LIPA Sandi also assembled the group of musicians with whom she continues to perform to this day. "That was when I started writing for the band," she says, "And that's an entirely different thing from me just sitting in a room with a guitar singing tales of woe. I've worked with them for six years and we have got a tremendous rapport. They are more than my band. They are my support unit."
After graduating, the hard graft began. A period of hustling for work in the music business landed her several jobs as a session singer and a publishing deal with Windswept Pacific Music. Then, while singing at one of her own gigs in Glasgow she was approached by the independent label Viking Legacy Records, based in Orkney, who offered her a deal. She began recording the songs which would comprise her debut album and toured as support with Nizlopi and the Proclaimers among others, while playing numerous gigs of her own.
It was earlier this year, after she had just driven through the night from a gig in York to a venue in Wales, when her car broke down. An emergency repair enabled her to limp back to London with her exhaust pipe attached by a coat hanger. "Oh, for God's sake, there must be some other way to do this," she thought. At which point the idea of installing a webcam in her basement popped into her head.
Now, thanks to the years of hard work, honing a talent that was immediately obvious to those who tuned into her webcasts, Sandi is on the verge of stardom, at last. Her first single for RCA, *I Wish I Was A Punk Rocker* is a feisty, folky evocation of a bygone era which was inspired, somewhat unexpectedly, by the loss of her mobile phone. Sung against a clattering backdrop of shakers, handclaps and boots banging on a wooden floor the poignant lyric recalls what Sandi fondly imagines to have been a better time when: "the head of state didn't play guitar/Not everybody drove a car/When music really mattered and radio was king."
The song's bittersweet payoff line - "I was born too late to a world that doesn't care" - clearly comes from the heart. But in reality Sandi Thom has arrived in exactly the right place at the right time. And already the world is starting to care.