Brooklyn-based TOMI, formerly “Pam the secretary,” released her new EP, What Kind Of Love, May 18th via RCA Records. Her band will be touring throughout 2018.
Gig Economy is a Talkhouse series in which artists tell us about their work histories, from part-time pasts to the present tense, in order to demystify the many different paths that can lead to a career as a working musician. Here, the singer-songwriter TOMI tells us about being an office secretary whose literal name is Pam.
—Amy Rose Spiegel, Editor-in-Chief, Talkhouse Music
After years of working dead-end day jobs to support my “music thing,” I’d resigned myself to the fact that my mornings would forever start with “Good morning, this is Pam speaking. How may I help you?” Luckily, I think, I’ve managed to leave “Pam the secretary” at the office. My EP, What Kind Of Love, came out May 18. For a while, I thought that would never happen.
I left Berklee College of Music in 2011, a few months after I met my drummer, Jacob Schreiber. We formed a rock duo, XNY (get it…chromosomes) and, in no time, played all of the local venues in Boston. We decided to pack up our studio apartments and move to Brooklyn. We made a pact to play at least two shows a week at any venue that would have us. Most of those bars are closed now: Trash Bar, Spike Hill, Bar Matchless, Lit Lounge (which is now The Cock). Most of these gigs were pay-to-play; we had to “bring 10 people” or we would pay the difference. As city newbies, this proved to be quite the challenge, and I quickly realized I had to get a “real” job to support what I’d taken to calling my “music thing.”
I took the first job I was offered as a secretary for a chiropractic office in the middle of the Hasidic neighborhood in Williamsburg. I wore scrubs every day, answered phones, and once even took an awkward work trip to Orlando to attend a chiropractic conference, for some reason. Every night at 9 PM, I clocked out, took the bus to our rehearsal space in Bushwick, played through a 25-minute set, and headed to one of the local venues to play that set to ten drunk hipsters. At our last Trash Bar show (RIP), I spotted two of our chiropractic patients in the crowd, jumping around to our songs. It was a killer send-off.
After a year at the chiropractic office, I was offered a secretary position at a Midtown investment firm. Word must have gotten around about my secretarial skills… At the interview my boss, Elaine, asked why I wanted the job. I explained that I wanted to support my music career; she smiled and said, “That’s cute.” I got the job.
Elaine eventually offered me a full-time position in another department, but I politely declined because, as I told her, I didn’t “want responsibility.” I carried on with my second life as a secretary. Jacob and I still had our two-show-a-week pact and, as the bars started closing in Brooklyn, we began venturing elsewhere. We drove up to Boston to play The Middle East for 40 minutes, just to turn around and drive back home when it was over. I had to be at the investment firm at 8 AM the next day. We played a monthly residency at The Rail House in Rahway and scattered gigs in Long Island and Philly. I spent my mornings running 15 minutes late and a little drunk from the night before (fortunately, a morning buzz really helped with the “Good morning!” chipper voice). I was stuck in a 24/7 rotating performance. I had to be fake friendly to strangers all day and then play passionate shows to strangers at night. One of my coworkers used to call me Peter Parker: Ballet flats from 8 to 5, leather boots and ripped tights at night.
I didn’t mind being a secretary once I learned the tricks of the trade. When a client walked into the office, I smiled and said, “Do you want me to hang your coat…or do you just want to keep it?” They always kept it. This was usually followed by, “Can I make you a coffee…or do you just want a water?” They always chose the water. My day was full of “How are you”’ and “I’m great!” and forced smiles. I felt like I lived in a freaking sitcom…not to mention the very popular one about an office that also starred a secretary named Pam.
I played shows constantly, but I had insane writer’s block. I couldn’t find the alone time to write, and I was too exhausted to digest how I was feeling. One evening, I got home from work and went upstairs to change into my “show outfit” before a gig. When I walked downstairs, Jacob’s jaw dropped: I was so tired I had forgotten to put pants on.
Working in an office is a time warp. Every day is the same routine; a month goes by, and it feels like a week. As I lost track of time, I started to lose momentum in our band. In the extra hours I had at work, I wrote pages and pages of lyrics to try to figure out what was going on in my head: Why couldn’t I write music? Why couldn’t I seem to quit this job? Why wasn’t the band working? The minute I started asking questions, I decided I needed to run away. I left New York for the week and went to Los Angeles to crash on my friend Jack’s couch and, I hoped, write music. A few nights into my stay, Jack ran into the living room to check on me. He had woken up from a dream in which I’d fled, leaving a note on the couch that said “I’m sorry.” That was the day I wrote “Every Morning I Feel Like Running Away.” This song broke the spell of my writers block and finally released the “9 to 5” anxiety I had bottled up over the last few years and the question: Would I ever make it out alive? “Every Morning I Feel Like Running Away” brought me back to life.
When I returned home, I was fired from the investment firm. While I was in Los Angeles, “someone” (me) forgot to fill the mouthwash in the men’s bathroom…or at least that’s what they told me. (This is true.) I cried in Elaine’s office in an attempt to induce emotion in her—it didn’t work—but, really, I was relieved by the timing. She apologized to me by having me order 100 mini cupcakes for my going-away party. It was a fitting send-off.
A few weeks after I was fired, I signed my first record deal. I began this new chapter as TOMI. I don’t know if it was the two-show-a-week pact or the endless hours smiling at strangers, but something kept me going through those years. I wrote “Think About It” and “Coming Around” that year, too. Both songs are on the new EP, and both songs reflect the time I was living this strange dual life. “Pam the secretary” wasn’t all that bad, but I much prefer the girl in ripped tights and cheap red lipstick.
* Names have been changed.