Sometimes I’ll stretch my definition of ‘country music’ to include artists who aren’t at all country but who I think the country music audience might like – storytellers who write great songs and whose musical style is not too far away from country. And the definition is happily stretched when the artist concerned is someone as esteemed as Don McGlashan, who hails from across the ditch. McGlashan was the singer-songwriter for the Mutton Birds and has since released three solo albums, the latest of which is the magnificent Lucky Stars. Don McGlashan is about to tour Australia to support the album, and I spoke to him recently.
Having read your bio I thought I’d start by saying that you seem to be a bit of an underachiever. I’m not sure you’ve quite done enough in your life – scoring movies, recording albums …
[Laughs] I talked to Stuart Coupe the other day and he seriously accused me of being lazy, but that’s mainly because the solo album output’s pretty low. I promised to fix that up. There’s been three solo albums since 1999, which is a bit … yeah, that’s scandalous. But I have been doing other things.
Well, you absolutely have. Given that you have these different aspects to your work, and they are quite diverse, do you need to shift gears in order to write and record songs for yourself? Does it require becoming more introspective?
I’m generally sketching stuff no matter what I’m doing. If I’m collaborating with somebody on a film or busy doing something else, I’ve generally got a journal that’s gradually filling up with song ideas and it’s just a question of when I can sit down and give myself space to make them into songs. Sometimes it is consciously putting myself into a more introspective place and sometimes it’s just to do with the vagaries of being a freelance musician in a little country like New Zealand, where there’s quite a bit of work but you’ve got to duck and dive. So that’s probably the answer to that one. It certainly is a different set of skills, though. I guess I’ve always considered myself a songwriter and singer who does other stuff in between gigs rather than the other way round.
Given that you’ve done a few different things, I guess partly it requires being able to think of how the audience is different each time. So the audience for this album is not exactly the same as the audience for a film score or working on a different sort of project. So do you have that sense of audience when you’re creating?
When I’m collaborating with somebody it’s clear because the whole apparatus of the project is set up and I’m just coming in and contributing ideas to something that’s already up and running. I must say that when I’m sitting down to write my own songs it’s more for me. Picking up a guitar is a kind of healing thing for me; if I’m wandering round the house not feeling very good, I tend to pick up the guitar and feel better. Then I suppose having written something, having got a song out – I’m quite slow, I don’t write fast – actually taking that to an audience completes the circle. But I’m not entirely sure that I’m thinking of an audience when I’m writing a song. Certainly when I’ve been in bands and when I’ve been working with other musicians, I think of them. With the Mutton Birds, which was a ten-year band, after about three or four years I’d sit down to write and I’d think, David, the guitarist, would have fun with this bit here and Alan’s going to think up a cool bass line for this bit here. So it’s more like that, I think, than thinking of an audience.
What you’ve just described with the Mutton Birds kind of goes against the idea of the egotistical singer-songwriter who just wants everything in his own image. That’s a real sense of serving the bigger purpose when you write like that.
We became a very democratic band and I think to some degree you have to, if you’ve been going for a while. We were living in vans and travelling all over the place together, and we really tied ourselves to each other’s wagons in terms of our careers. And we started the band quite late, too – I was twenty-nine when I started it. The other guys were younger. But it wasn’t just goofing off and having fun down the pub with the guys – although there was plenty of that. So we did end up taking quite a lot of notice of each other. Even now with Lucky Stars, this album, I got a real kick out of collaborating with the guitarist, Tom Rodwell, on it, because he’s got a particular style – a whole bunch of styles – and he means every note that he plays. And that kicked me up a gear, I think. Once I realised that I was going to get the drummer that I’ve been working with for quite a few years [Chris O’Connor] to work over the top of some of the rhythms that I’d already laid down, that changed it again. We’ve been doing some stuff live, just as a three-piece. I’d really love to bring that to Australia when I can afford to. Right now these gigs that are coming up are solo. But I think it’s a really cool band and it’s changing the way that I write.
I suppose it’s a different experience to the Mutton Birds, though – do you miss that sense of the travelling band of brothers?
It’s got a lot going for it and certainly during the Mutton Birds period I wrote enough songs to put out four albums in the ten years we were going, and that’s probably the highest output that I’ve ever had. So it was certainly good for me. But I’m touring a lot, and even if it’s solo there’s usually a tour manager and a sound person, so it’s still fun, it’s still really companionable getting around the country. In fact, these last few months of touring have been some of the best that I’ve ever done. Something about arriving at where I want to be. I’ve given away a lot of the other work that I used to do. My kids are grown up now so I don’t need to rush out and earn as much as I used to, doing film scores and TV scores, so there’s a really enjoyable simplicity to my life at the moment and I’m getting a real kick out of it. Also we were touring in the spring – we headed around New Zealand just as the blossoms were coming out.
Well, that’s just nauseating! [laughs] As in nauseatingly beautiful. What a wonderful thing to do.
[Laughs] It can be nauseatingly nauseating if you want.
I’m listening to your talking about your experience touring this album and also note that you’ve said that it’s more personal than your previous work and you didn’t adopt characters on it, and I wonder if some of that comfort you’re feeling in the work you’re doing now is because of that – because of you stepping to the forefront as a narrator of your stories.
There’s a link, certainly. And it’s probably just arriving at the age I’m at. There’s a lot to be said for all the different songwriting devices that you can employ, like creating a narrator. Sometimes I’m motivated to write a protest song about something or write an angry song about something and it’s easier in a way for me – just because of the way I’m made – to create a negative persona and have that person try to explain themselves and fail. I find that really interesting and I’ve done a few songs like that. Some people can write a direct ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ type of protest song and I’ve never been able to do that, but I do enjoy that more kind of short-storyish unreliable narrator type of vibe. So I’m not going to give it up completely, I’m going to come back to it certainly. But the fact of this album, everything came out and seemed to be more direct and shorter songs – songs which didn’t take the audience through a story. It’s great to stand up and do that stuff. And also there’s a few other indicators – I don’t think I’ve ever had the confidence to play the whole album from go to whoa when I’ve just made a new album. It’s more traditional to hide the new songs in amongst the old songs so that you don’t frighten the horses. But for this album, the first tour that we went out with, with the three-piece band, that’s what we did: the first half of the show was just the album in order, then everybody went away and had a drink, and the second half of the show was more familiar stuff. And it felt great. We’ve never done that before and it felt fantastic. So maybe it’s to do with the nature of this album and maybe it’s to do with where I’m at, at the moment.
I guess songs change form, in a way, as you perform them to others – you can discover different things in them. Have you found that these songs are still very much as they were when you wrote them, or have they changed a bit?
Well, they’re growing, and I think that’s the cool risk you take when you decide that you’re going to play all the new ones, because you don’t leave the problematic ones in the fridge to take out later. So that’s really exciting. There’s a song called ‘For Your Touch’ on the album and I could have left that out, I suppose, and not played it live, but I’ve really been getting a kick out of playing it live and learning more about how to sing it. It’s right at the edge of my ability to sing, so that’s a real challenge, and just starting it and thinking, Do I have those notes tonight after all that whiskey? [laughs] After all that chatting I did to people after the show, do I actually have those falsetto notes? And then, if I haven’t got them, finding some other kind of thing that still sells that idea. So it’s been a real blast.
Now there’s a line in one of these songs, about dropping your weapons – and just to take it out of the context of the song … a creative life has its challenges and I wonder what sort of weapons you’ve had to wield over the course of your creative life and what have you now learned to let go of or had to let go of?
Well, I’m very good at wielding weapons against myself. Certainly, when I was going through the rock ’n’ roll life of major labels – because the Mutton Birds signed to Virgin UK so we had guys in the employ of the record company coming in and trying to coach us – me, particularly – in how to do interviews and not be self-deprecating. [Laughs] All that sort of palaver. And I came out of that feeling like I’d just been through a wringer. I suppose in order to get through there’s a sort of ‘put your head down, get up on stage, do the photographs, try to manufacture the self-belief or manufacture the impression of self-belief even if it’s not there’. And that’s a weapon that it’s good to get rid of.
It’s exhausting, I would think, having to do that.
It is exhausting. And the thing is, you write for yourself – you’re an artist because you want to be an artist – and all the rewards are there in the act of making something that you’re proud of and putting it out in front of a few people. All the rewards are there and all the other ones are just ancillary, they’re all to do with other people who might want to make money out of what you do. And that’s the thing that’s got to sustain you, and it has sustained me. It’s got to the point that I just love what I do. I’m lucky that I’m famous enough in New Zealand and, to a lesser degree, in other parts of the world that people will come to the gigs. Not famous enough that it’s inconvenient.
Australian tour dates:
11 November – Smith’s Alternative Bookshop, Canberra ACT
12 November – Petersham Bowling Club, Sydney NSW
13 November – Clarendon Guesthouse, Katoomba NSW
14 November – Melbourne Folk Club, Vic.