Thursday, May 23, 2013

Q&A: Neil McSweeney on 'The Seventeen' EP

Pictured: Neil McSweeney; Photo: Andy Brown
U.K. singer/songwriter Neil McSweeney might just have the best summer EP you haven't heard. He's set to release The Seventeen EP May 27 in the run up to his third full length album slated for September. The EP showcases some of McSweeney's best qualities including lovely guitar playing and wistful songwriting– Zach Braff would have wanted to squeeze one of these tunes onto the Garden State soundtrack. That said, I got to talk to McSweeney via email about the EP, his musical style, and the irresistible urge to write songs. 

TMI: How did you get started? How long have you been playing and writing songs?

McSweeney: I started lugging a little practice amp about on foot to rehearsals when I was a kid. Me and a school friend formed a band. Everyone else in the band eventually moved on from music making and I just couldn’t. I tried to live without it for a couple of years, go straight so to speak, but I felt the loss; I’d become obsessed with the songwriting more than any other aspect of it. The most interesting thing when I stopped doing it so much was how much great stuff I heard. I think when you’re focused on writing and honing your own sound, you listen very critically and analytically to other people’s music. And I got a break from that for a bit – where I could just listen as a fan – it was great. But then it meant I had to get back into it. I’ve been writing, playing, and recording with some serious intent for the best part of a decade now.

Your press materials mentioned that "We Are Here" is about the generational need to make a mark, can you expand on that?

I can expand on it a bit. But it can be a bit dangerous to a lyric to spell it out too much. My songs tend to be a little careworn. And for this EP I wanted to do something that had a bit of confidence about it. Each little simile relates in some way to an image or idea from a period in my late teens and early twenties where I and my friends felt deep down (despite a lot of surface insecurity) that we could have a big impact on the world. But some of that confidence necessarily involved a destructive or dismissive impulse towards the achievements of the previous generation and a fairly selective approach to evidence and reason.

Tell me about why you decided to cover Townes Van Zandt's "To Live is to Fly."

I first heard that song on a Cowboy Junkies tape maybe twenty years ago and that was the only version I knew until fairly recently. If I’m going to cover a song, then the lyric has to feel like it fits somehow with my own material – this lyric says exactly what I wanted to say but Van Zandt did it first and did it so well it doesn’t need doing again. However, musically, for me to want to cover something, I need also to be able to play and sing it in a way that fits with my style. I had to rework the song quite dramatically from both the Junkies version and the Townes original, but because it’s a great song, I think it survives my mauling.

What's your songwriting process like?  

My approach varies a bit. The three originals on this record were actually fairly atypical as they were written quite quickly together as a batch. I signed up for a thing called February Album Writing Month. It was just on a whim – I’d never heard of it and then a link to the website popped into my field of vision on the evening of 31st January, so I thought I’d give it a go. It usually takes me a year or two to write an album and another year to record and release the thing, so a month was a bit optimistic. But I enjoyed the challenge. And whilst I didn’t generate an album I did demo a few tracks that were worth finishing.

The melody line in a song relies more on serendipity than hard slog - the more worked the line, the less immediate it usually is. So, if I’m trying to find a musical thread to pull I usually just sit with the guitar and let my voice wander around while I play. Something always comes before too long and the more relaxed I am the better.

In a perfect situation, a lyrical phrase will arrive along with the melodic hook. This often works best because the lyric and the musical frame are in agreement. Then there often comes a fairly extended period of reflection where I wonder what that phrase could be about – I imagine the context in which someone would sing that line in that way. I cast around through my experience to try to find something true that is worth saying that could include the line. Sometimes at this stage the original line gets altered to fit my developing idea about the meaning of the song.

Once we’re in seemingly purposeful territory I set about refining and completing the lyric. I can’t do this ‘til I’ve persuaded myself there’s a need for a song like this in the world. I don’t write using a flip chart and a rhyming dictionary, fitting words to syllables mechanically to complete the song at all costs. I reflect on what feels meaningful and true and if the lyric has a hollow heart then I’ll discard it.

I really love your guitar work on the EP, how did you develop your style? What influenced it?

Thank you kindly. Well, I think the foundation of my style came from two things. The first was finding myself without a band and trying to build melodic parts into my playing that might hold the listener’s attention better than just strumming along. And the second was seeing Dave Rawlings play with Gillian Welch about ten years ago in Sheffield. I tried to create the impression of that sound in my playing – I never got close to playing like him but it certainly influenced me. The only other guitar playing I’ve ever really loved is J Mascis’. Oh, and I enjoy watching Jonny Kearney (an English folk guitarist) play. With all these three guys it’s really the strength of the songs and the way their playing complements and supports the songs. I can’t compete with any of them but I have recently paid some attention to getting a bit better – I even practiced a bit for this EP (and I never usually practice).

Do you see a progression from your 2009 album Shoreline? If so, can you talk about that?

I think there is progression there definitely. Mainly in my own developing certainty of what it is I’m trying to do as a songwriter and as a musician. Also, the EP was recorded with a confidence and clarity of purpose that was missing sometimes on the previous records. Being a completely independent musician means working with very loose deadlines most of the time. This is vital ‘cos the budget is so small (you can only ever have two of the following – Good, Cheap and Quick). With the EP we booked the launch before it was recorded to apply some pressure to the process and fortunately, having come straight out of the sessions for the next full album, it all just worked really smoothly.

Your third album Cargo will be out in September, what can we expect?

Well, I reckon it’s the best thing I’ve yet done. If The Seventeen is a summer record, then Cargo is winter. The songs deal in various ways with that difficult, sometimes bleak, period that we’re all familiar with. The thing about winter for me is that, when you’re in it, it feels like it’ll never end – it’s more like a destination than a road. But in fact it’s just as transitory as every other season. And just as necessary.

The arrangements of the tracks are pretty subtle in the main but feature some very fine musicians, mainly from the traditional folk scene, but not entirely. There’s concertina and fiddle and banjo and mandolin, but also synth, musical saw, lap steel and touches of ragged distortion here and there.

Photo: Chris Saunders
You've got some tour dates coming up through the summer. Tell me about your live shows. 

I’m doing some of these solo and some with my band. In both cases I’ll be playing a fair bit of stuff from the EP and the album, plus a handful of my older songs. The band is a selection of some of the people who played on the record and includes Matt Boulter, Sam Sweeney, Lucy Farrell and Andy Seward. I love playing live and have been known to ramble on a bit between tunes. I think that’s because I like to think of gigs as being a collaboration between the folk in the room and the musicians on stage and when people really get involved you can get a sense of genuine warmth in the room. I think that’s special.

Connect with Neil McSweeney:
Twitter: @NeilMcSweeney

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