Interview: Tracy McNeil

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Melbourne-based singer-songwriter Tracy McNeil recently released the outstanding album Thieves with her band, The GoodLife. Recently I spoke to her about recording with producer Shane O’Mara and about her musical life in her home country, Canada.

Your style has been described as country/roots/folk but I thought I’d ask: ‘Why country music?’ – if you classify yourself that way.
I guess I fell into it. My dad was heavily into country music when I was a kid, growing up, and Mum listened to country music but she was more Fleetwood Mac and he was more Conway Twitty. She’s city, he’s country. But they met in the middle. We didn’t grow up together – they separated when I was a kid but we were all still close and I saw Dad a lot. So the musical influence starts there. Lots of records – Neil Young, you know, the classics that you’d have around the house. Growing up listening to that. Then I think it was in my late twenties I was going to a lot of bluegrass nights and I got sucked into the country community in Montreal, of all places, in  Quebec, a French-speaking province. Sunday nights, go to bluegrass nights. I wasn’t even playing, I was just fiddling on guitar. I wasn’t even really writing. And I sat down after going to a bunch of those, and I’d written a few songs, but not taking it seriously, and I think that sparked it. I just wanted to try writing a few songs, and let’s try writing some country songs. And that was quite a while ago now. Room Where She Lives was my first solo album and it was very country. I was hanging around in Toronto and enlisted a bunch of incredible musicians – including my brother, who played all the mandolin. And then I moved to Australia three days after launching that record, and really to got to learn the craft of performing and writing here, I feel. I was really new at it when I was in Canada. I only did it for just under a year for real, playing gigs and making a record. So it still feels quite new to me. But the albums got rockier over time. Each record kind of expanded and I guess just writing from wherever I was coming from emotionally and not worrying about genre so much, and it tended to take me further out of classic country and more into Americana, I guess you could call it, quote-unquote.
Alt-country, as I like to call it in Australia.
I hear you. Alt-country, that’s what it is. I think Nobody Ever Leaves, my last record, ventured into the more kind of rock territory, a bit poppier as well in terms of hooks and melodies. And this album just carries on with that, I reckon.
I spent a year living in Vancouver and I did volunteer work at CiTR, the University of British Columbia’s radio station, so I was exposed to a lot of Canadian music and came to really respect not only the culture around Canadian creators but also there was very identifiably that East Coast, Maritime Provinces traditional music culture which meant that you could be a fiddler and be popular in the charts. So it’s always interested me – Canadian artists, I think there’s a really layered history and respect for artistry amongst musicians and songwriters that means that a lot of Canadian artists tend to emerge almost fully formed, if that makes sense. And just thinking of you launching into Toronto, the biggest city in Canada – which is a big deal, it’s like trying to launch something in Sydney or Melbourne here – but that sense of coming from that really solid Canadian background is what I hear in your music.
There is a Canadian-specific kind of sound and it’s really hard for me – I’m not articulate enough – to pinpoint it but I know it when I hear it, and I know that there’s some of that going on in me because it’s where I was born and it’s what I’ve listened to. I’m never going to sound like an Australian artist making Australian music. There might be flashes of it because I’ve lived here for nine years now, and I’m so influenced by the Suze Espies, the Mia Dysons, the women that are creating here – they are uniquely Australian, they’re not going to sound like … No one in Canada’s going to sound like they’re Australian. So you get a mix of both of those worlds, I think, with my particular songs, and then the band, of course, brings it to that next level because they’re all Australian. But there is something interesting going on. It doesn’t sound like an Australian artist but it doesn’t sound necessarily like a Canadian artist [laughs]. A lot of people have been asking me, ‘What’s music like in Canada? What’s the scene like, what’s the sound like?’ In one sense I’m a bit out of touch because I haven’t lived there, but from what I remember and what I have heard of recent stuff, it’s a little more polished, perhaps. There’s less jangle, there’s less grit. It’s a lot more produced. It doesn’t mean it’s not good – it’s just a different flavour.
There are communities, I guess. When I was there, there was the Halifax community that Sloan had almost single-handedly founded. There was music in Montreal, there was prairies and Vancouver stuff going on, and perhaps in Australia what we’ve lacked thus far is those communities. The Melbourne alt-country scene at the moment – of which you’re obviously a part – I can see the members of it collaborating, competing in a good way and using each other as reference, and the only other way that’s really happened here is Tamworth, but that happens once a year, and even on the Central Coast of New South Wales, where a lot of country artists live, they’re not necessarily performing in that space. So really Melbourne, from my perspective, is it.
Yes, absolutely. I guess, is it the age of the country? Canada’s just as spread out and it’s a huge country. But you do have a small music scene in Queensland – Dan Parsons is from Brisbane, Steve Grady. They’re all migrating down to Melbourne, of course. But there’s a little pocket there of people making great music. And you’ve got Ruby Boots from Western Australia. But it all does seem to centre around Melbourne.
Canadian culture has been more mature in several areas in a way that we haven’t been – until

now. I think we’re starting to grow up.

I don’t know the answers to it but it could be partly that. You talked about Halifax and east coast Canada – that’s all Celtic influence, as there is in Australia, in folk song and tradition and fiddle music, and that is so prevalent there. But then you’ve got a Cajun influence and Francophone, French, Parisian [feel] in Quebec. I lived for five years in Montreal and the musicians you would hear would have a huge – they’re singing French, almost Celtic-slash-country music. It’s got this weird fusion. And then west coast – I lived there for another five years. I kind of lived across the country [laughs]. Musically there I guess I would equate it more to the John Butler, that north end of Australia, that hippy – forgive me for saying that – vibe. The country scene [there] is probably five people. There’s no real alt-country scene so much. At least there wasn’t when I was there and I don’t know that it’s really built itself that much. You drink a lot of smoothies, you want to rollerblade around, you want to be healthy, you want to go up in the mountains and down a logging road and have the most pristine camping conditions, put your beer in a cold river with some rocks – that’s what you go to Vancouver for, not really for the music scene. But it exists. There are pockets all across the country.
One of my questions was going to be, ‘What’s your musical lineage?’ and I guess this is part of it – this is you being in all these places and seeing what’s going on, and then when it comes to creating your own music you can draw on what you need to make the song work.
On the one hand I’m not trying to write to a genre at the moment, at all. I think on my first album I did: I want to write a country album – let’s see if I can do it. I’d written maybe five songs in my life since I was eighteen – I started making up joke songs about my friends that probably weren’t even that nice. University, I’d go and lock myself in a stairwell because of the acoustics and do some weird open tuning and write stuff. But I never took it seriously and I was far too embarrassed and nervous to do it in front of anyone else. But I think those early days of my songwriting – when I didn’t know what genre it was – when we rented recording gear in my early twenties and thought let’s just record these songs – my brother, myself and a friend of mine – I wasn’t thinking about genre. Was it country? Was it rock? I didn’t know. It’s just what I was writing. And I feel like the older I get, the more I’m drawing from that original place where I was writing. I don’t give a crap if it’s a country song – sometimes they are, and if it suits, and it works, it is. If it’s more of a pop song, you know, that’s what it is. If it’s rock … I didn’t know how this was all going to fit together in the end. I had a song with ‘Ashes’ that was completely country classic with a minor twist. And then something like ‘Paradise’ that has that Fleetwood Mac-y vibe. It’s all over the shop and a lot of it I wrote on the piano, and I can’t even play the piano. I can just play a few chords here or there. And I thought, I’m at school – I have a day job, I’m a high school teacher, and I have access to a piano right beside my classroom, and I’d just go in there and nut out some chords and at my mum’s back in Canada use her piano. So three songs were written on the piano and a couple without even a guitar in my hands. It’s all come from different places – where I am at the time, what’s going on emotionally, personally. It’s all very, very personal – if it’s not happening to me, it’s happening to someone around me [on] this record in particular. So if there’s a basket it fits into, I don’t know [laughs].
Well, except you said it’s all over the place but I’d disagree – what makes it sound very cohesive is that it’s coming from an authentic place in you and it is, as you identified, that you’re writing from that original place you wrote from. I wouldn’t pin a genre on it either, so I guess that’s where it gets hard for people who don’t know your music – but for me it sounds like a body of work that completely belongs together.
Oh, well that’s great. And nothing exists in a vacuum, and I can sit here and say I feel that the older I’m getting, the more I’m writing from that authentic place that I was writing from when I didn’t know what a chord was and I was making sounds and putting lyrics to it in a stairwell – and it got a little bit more developed than that – but when I wasn’t writing to any genre specifically. But at the same time the other side of that coin is that there are five people in that room and we’re all listening to similar music. We’ve all grown up on Fleetwood Mac. We’ve all listened to that West Coast [USA] music – War on Drugs was our influence for the drum sound on ‘Paradise’ and nothing to do with Fleetwood Mac. So the stuff we’re listening to – War on Drugs, Shovels and Rope, all these Americana bands from the US – are old references to seventies bands we all love and contemporary bands that capture that West Coast sound beautifully. So it’s all in there as well – it’s not like I’m sitting in a dark room not thinking about stuff and listening to Jenny Lewis. So we all listen to the same stuff, and at the end of the day when I bring the songs in and we start playing them as a band, we know the sound.
And then, of course, Shane O’Mara comes in to produce it, and it sounds like he was a collaborator as well – there were the five of you in the band deciding what to do but he sound like he had some decisions too.
Yeah, he did. It was a real co-production. The reason we went with Shane, in addition to the fact that he’s the most amazing human being – I just love him and we just laugh our butts off, we had so much fun laughing – he just pulls the most incredible sound and his guitar sounds. Dan and Luke were in paradise because they could just look at the wall and there were, like, 200 pedals to pick, and Shane was instrumental in finding just the right one for that song. You’ve got five people who often really know what they want and what they want it to sound like, and you’ve got Shane, who’s got this wealth of experience as well but coming from a different place in terms of his influences or his sound aesthetic, [which] is a little different to ours. So we had to meet in the middle in some places. But all that beautiful, swirly bridge stuff, when it gets dreamy, that’s Shane [saying], ‘We need a dreamy bridge – let’s make it happen. What are we going to do?’ And he would just have the best ideas, and structurally too. He led us down some paths that we maybe wouldn’t have gone on before. He was awesome, and it was a great collaboration. A perfect fit, I think, to make this record.
But as the creator, does it ever feel confronting that you’ve got this essentially outside person coming to you and saying, ‘This is how Iinterpret your material?’
Well, that’s why it’s co-production – I’m a control freak. It wasn’t like I said, ‘Here’s some songs – do whatever you want.’ And I think Shane is really used to working that way. He’s used to people going, ‘Here are the songs, I trust you completely, do what you want to do with them.’ And this wasn’t the case with us – we said, ‘Here are the songs, we know what we want to do with them but we’re open to your ideas and we know that you’re going to bring great things to it as well.’ Sometimes we had to fight. The way he works, the way he gets such great sound, is this really cool way – it’s a classic way of working – is building things up one instrument at a time. There was no way we were going to do that, because we really wanted to have this sense of unity and capture a live feel and the band, and we didn’t want to lose that chemistry. It just felt too fragmented and sterile. So we fought, and we won that battle. And he’s limited in space – he’s got this great studio in his house but it’s not heaps and heaps of space. So we met in the middle, beautifully. We did all the band tracks live, so we could play as a band, and then we layered stuff over the top, and some of the tracks are 100 per cent completely live, vocal live, everything. But we really pushed to have that. ‘The Valley’ was one – we did it one particular way and went, ‘That is the deadest song I’ve ever heard – that’s terrible, we’ve got to do it again’, and we did it live and, like magic, it worked. So it was a collaboration but I’m sure if we’d just handed him the project it would sound like a completely different record.
You can certainly hear that energy of the live performance on it – and just to go back to the point of it being sonically cohesive, I think that’s one of the elements, that energy.                  
Hopefully the energy and then Shane’s mixing, his magic touch – ‘spicy additions’, as he likes to call it. The amount of reverb he’ll put on something, where he sits the drums adjacent to the vocals, how he pans things, flipping things into reverse – all those little tricks also bring a beautiful cohesion to the record. So it’s not like one song sounds like it’s in complete outer space and then we’ve got something really raw and organic right beside it. He helped us marry the songs together.
Sliprail is your label. Are you planning to release other people on that, or will it be for you alone?
Raised by Eagles’ last record was on Sliprail. I guess it’s like how Milk started out: we’re putting out our own records. We’re not on a label – we are our own label, we do everything a label would do. So we thought, well, let’s give it a name and at least it’s not untitled, it’s got something. We’d love to be able to finance other projects – we can barely finance our own. I imagine if Bell Street Delays – Luke and I as a duo – do a record, which is in the pipeline, it’s certainly a plan that that will go out on Sliprail. Unless another offer comes calling [laughs] and we need to fold. But for the time being Raised by Eagles’ Diamonds in the Bloodstream is on it and this [album] has been on it, and Nobody Ever Leaves, my last record, was on it but it never was official. You come up with a good logo, you put a name to it, basically, you do all the work a label would do. Who knows. But we do have ideas for a Sliprail collective, which I find even more intriguing and exciting. It’s more of a pooling of artists together: photographers, videographers. It’s like a one-stop shop. So if you are an artist and you go, ‘Jeez, I need photos done, I need a clip done’, Sliprail Collective is pooling people together and they offer services and kind of help each other network. And that’s something that we’re really interested in even talking about, and it’s just finding the time to put it into place. But I think down the track when we’re not really releasing records, we can facilitate that a little better.
My last question may be related to this, and it is: what, for you, constitutes a good life?
Good friends. Good health. Lots of holidays [laughs]. Minimal work – but a strong work ethic. But just working at the things you love. If you’ve got health and friends – love, I’d throw love in there. Good family, good friends, good love and lots of time off. But not to be lazy, just to reflect. And still you have to keep working to try to create great things that are going to last after you’re gone.

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