Talking Music: Tom Van Can of First Congress – Part 1

South Wales based band First Congress are currently enjoying airplay across the UK with two summer singles.

The band are led by lyricist and composer Tom Van Can (whose family hail from Cardiff and Bristol) and fronted by Neath’s Bronwen Lewis. Their first two singles Another Life and Help Yourself have already had exposure on BBC Introducing, as well as been A-listed on Radio Wales, with Wynne Evans and Eleri Sion providing regular plays. Help Yourself, which is also featured on the forthcoming album, On A Promise.

In the first part of our interview with Tom Van Can, Andy Howells finds out about the beginnings of First Congress and their latest releases.

Tom Van Can of First CongressTom Van Can of First Congress

Tom Van Can of First Congress

How did you come together as a band?
I used to be a film director although I was a musician from the age of eleven and I wrote songs and scores for my films and other movies.  Five years ago, I got cancer and couldn’t get insured to direct my own films – I was about to make a feature set in Wales and Memphis about 60s southern soul – we had LA producers BonaFide who made Little Miss Sunshine and great actors like Clare Foy (The Crown) and Andrea Riseborough set to star.  

But the insurance company had to satisfy themselves that I would survive the shoot and they said, ‘no go’ so I had to step away from what had been my life’s work.  Luckily, I had been writing the music for the film and hooked up with soul greats Mavis Staples, Ann Peebles and William Bell.  Plus, over here fab singers like Yola Carter and players like Stew Jackson (Massive Attack) so I redirected the erratic energies I had into something I didn’t need an insurance company to allow me to do – music.

I met Bronwen Lewis after seeing her on The Voice and we got on really well. She has a great voice but also the emotional understanding of a woman twice her age.  I was lucky enough to meet up with John Reynolds who is Sinead O’Connor’s producer and works with Eno, U2, Hozier, Robert Plant and we decided to make an album together. If I hadn’t got cancer this album would never have happened. 

How would you describe your music?
John (Reynolds) and I always start with the lyric and I just write a song that best conveys the intention of that lyric.  Some bands start with the groove or the music and lyrics are the last ingredient and they make great music that way – we do things from the story of the song first – it’s just our preference not better. 

When we started we thought we’d make a Lou Reed New York style album we never thought we’d make a pop album that would be playlisted on Radio 2 and Radio Wales.  Just shows how wrong you can be!

Tell us about your latest releases?
We have two singles out at the moment – like an old school double A-side – Help Yourself and In Another Life – both tracks have been A-listed on Radio Wales – In Another Life which Wynne Evans called ‘Epic & anthemic and Eleri Sion described as ‘Brilliant’ is about that bittersweet feeling of falling in love with someone when you’re not available and wondering what life could’ve been like – not regretting the life you have but almost wishing you could live two lives at once or your life over again – it also can be interpreted as a song that yearns for freedom generally.  We are recording 24 foreign language versions of In Another Life including cuts in languages of oppressed people trying to be self-determining like Kurdish.

Help Yourself is a jaunty summer single – we wanted it to sound like the song you’d choose to play as you jumped in the car and drove off to a festival – its happy go lucky feel belies a much darker lyric though so it can be taken on several levels.

  • For further details about First Congress visit their website at and read the second part of this interview with Tom Van Can on Entertainment South Wales tomorrow.