Singer-songwriter Paddy McHugh couldn’t have avoided having country music roots if he’d tried: he grew up in Tamworth and the country music festival was a fact of life. Yet it’s taken him a while to circle back to the music of his first home, and that circle has taken him via Sydney and now to Brisbane, and also through punk music. McHugh is a passionate and pedigreed songwriter and performer, as I found out when I talked to him recently. His latest album is City Bound Trains, and we talked about that as well several other things.
I note in your bio that you grew up in Tamworth but I don’t want to make any presumptions about your musical background: what did you listen to when you were younger?
I listened to a lot of classic rock – my dad was into that sort of stuff. But growing up in Tamworth it’s pretty standard fare that you get all the country stuff. I grew up with John Williamson and Slim Dusty and Stan Costa – all your classics. But I rebelled against it. Growing up there, it was pretty stifling, to be honest. When I turned seventeen I said, ‘Nup, I’m out – I’m going to Sydney’, and I went down there pretty quick. I started playing punk rock and thrash. But as a got older and a bit softer around the edges I thought, That stuff was pretty good, and I sort of drifted back to country and that’s where I find myself today.
In some ways the directness that goes with country music – the authenticity that the audience expects and requires – is not a softer edge. It requires quite a lot of courage on the part of artists sometimes.
I think that’s why going into punk was a pretty easy transition, because essentially country music and punk rock are the same ideals. It’s about keeping it simple, keeping it honest, and telling the truth and telling your story. One might be from a less urban environment and one’s from an urban environment, but essentially it’s the same thing.
I spoke to an emerging country artist called Josh Setterfield who has come from punk but has also loved country. We talked about how the discipline required in writing punk songs probably serves you very well in writing country songs.
There are definitely similarities. In fact, with this new record I’m toying with the idea of recording all my new songs as a punk-rock record just because I know it would probably work well. And, in fact, all the guys who play on this record, they’re not country guys – these are the guys I used to play in punk bands with, back in the day, and we’re all just faking it. My drummer and my guitarist, they cut their teeth in death metal bands and punk-rock bands, and we’re just having a go at the country. So we’re just impostors, really [laughs].
So how did that conversation go?
They’ve always understood that there’s that authentic, great side to country that’s always been accessible to everyone, and I think they were just sympathetic to it. When I brought the songs to them I think they could see some merit in it. Couple that with an offer of a few free beers and I had a band [laughs].
I like the idea of you doing two different versions of the same songs.
I think it can work. As a musician it’s good to have a challenge and the opportunity to try something new. It keeps it fresh and exciting.
In terms of your background: when did you start singing, playing guitar and writing songs?
I played in cover bands when I was a kid and you used to catch me busking on the streets of Tamworth when I was ten, playing Slim Dusty songs. Then when I left Tamworth I went to Sydney and jumped into the punk scene, started a thrash band called Povvo. We’d play songs that would go for about twenty seconds and got them out as loud as you could. I always kept at it. But I was probably not writing songs until about ten years ago. I had a next-door neighbour who had an incredible life story, and it was just so good, and I thought, If I can put that into a song it might work. So I wrote essentially his life story and made it rhyme and put guitar to it. The song went quite well – everyone who heard it liked it. I suppose it gave me the confidence and wherewithal to say, ‘Maybe I can write a few songs’, and ten years later I haven’t looked back. I’m still at it and still enjoying it.
Are there particular songwriters that at that time you were looking to as inspirations, or was it more just trying to document what you were hearing in your own head?
There’s a couple of artists who are big influences on me. One of them would be Billy Bragg – I like his authenticity, his honesty. I like his irreverence. It’s kind of nice to hear about an artist’s thoughts unfiltered, and you really can connect with them in that sense. I definitely have that bit of an inspiration when writing. I try to be honest and not tone it down and hide behind hyperbole or phrase, and just try to be me. One of the big things I’ve always stuck to is singing with an Australian accent, because that’s all I know. Others do it well, and I’m not looking down my nose at anybody else, but I’ve always thought that if I tried to sing in anything but my own natural accent I would lose a sense of authenticity and lose a lot of people along the way.
Kasey Chambers sings with a very distinctive accent and it is such a part of her style. If you can do it, and it comes from an authentic place, then no doubt more people relate to it than not.
And I understand the reasons why sometimes sing with accents. I don’t sing with an American accent but I play with an American guitar style and I borrow elements from everywhere else, all my other musicality. Some of my favourite artists are people who sing with an accent that might not necessarily be their own. I’m a big fan of Kasey Chambers and her work. When it came to me it was a thing that just happened naturally and I decided to stick to my guns with it and always sing with my accent in the most natural way possible. And often people tell me that that’s one of the elements they like about my songs.
You talked about honesty in your songwriting and I also note in the press release it says, ‘For the style of music I wanted to make, honesty was paramount. It had to be about something I knew about or cared about.’ I’m interested in your songwriting process – does what you care about start with an emotion or a thought, or does it actually start with a story idea?
It can be both, but generally it’s an emotion. If I hear or see something that evokes an emotional response in me and gets my attention, generally it’s something that I think will translate well and would [generate] a similar reaction in others. So often when something comes to me and grabs me and doesn’t go away, I usually think, well, there’s a kernel for a song there and if I just stick at it and it doesn’t seem to fade, usually it will end up in a song when I get around to writing it.
And n order to access that kernel, or that emotion, you not only have to access that in the recording process but you have to do it over and over again on stage. Does your well ever feel like it’s running dry when it comes to drawing on that when performing?
It’s a good question. Yeah, it does, but that’s what the audience is there to do: they top up the well. And sometimes when I sing about a topic – for example, I have a song about mesothelioma and about James Hardie – sometimes that does drain the well, getting up there and singing it three, four nights in a row. But occasionally someone will come to me after a show and say, ‘My sister passed away from mesothelioma’, and they’ll thank me for singing about that because it’s important to them. As a songwriter, when you get those little bits of feedback from the audience and you realise that you’re having an impact, it tops you all the way back up and you’re ready to go again.
And that kind of response loops into the role of being a storyteller. It’s an ancient role – it’s a primal role, it’s common to all culture – and that exchange that happens when someone can come to you and say, ‘That story has meant something to me’ – do you ever have a sense of being part of that bigger purpose of storytelling?
I suppose so. I don’t have a false image of what I’m doing – I know I’m just a dude that strums guitars in bars on a Saturday night and gets paid for it. But I come from an Irish heritage, and the tradition of the bard or the troubadour is a very strong one. And in all cultures the storytellers have been revered and a crucial part of the harmony of society. Without trying to put myself on some kind of pedestal, I do see the value and importance of what we do as songwriters. And, to be perfectly honest, I’m just very blessed that I get the opportunity. We live in a country where we’re wealthy enough and I’m healthy enough to go out and indulge in this passion of telling stories. I definitely think it’s a very important thing, and if it wasn’t then people wouldn’t still be engaging with music as they’ve done for thousands of years.
Given this drive to honesty in your songwriting, have you ever run into trouble with people in your life who feel you’ve been too honest?
[Laughs] A few times. I was actually worried I was going to get sued once. But I stuck to my guns and thought, If they ever take me to the courts, god help ’em, because I could get bankrupted pretty quick and it wouldn’t change my lifestyle very much. And I just thought about the headlines: ‘Large multinational takes stinky punk rocker to court’. I thought I had nothing to lose and it’s more important to stick to your guns than be afraid of any consequences.
This new album was produced by Brendan Gallagher – how did that relationship come about?
I am a big fan of Karma County, which is Brendan’s band, and he’s also made a couple of cracker records – he made Messenger with Jimmy Little and he did a good record called Namoi Mud by LJ Hill, who’s a Koori singer-songwriter from round where I grew up. I really, really liked this album and I noticed it had been produced by Brendan, and I remember saying to my guitarist, ‘I wonder if Brendan’s still making records or how I can even get in contact with him.’ And then about a week after I had the conversation, I was in Tamworth at a pub and I got chatting to this guy called Brendo at the bar and we hit it off really well, and then after about twenty minutes the penny dropped that I was actually talking to Brendan Gallagher – ‘You’re the guy I’ve been wanting to talk to!’ Because we’d already hit it off I said, ‘I’m making a record – do you want to help out?’ and on the spot he said ‘Yes’, I’d love to.’ And for the next couple of months we started contacting each other and sharing ideas. He very kindly agreed to step in and help, and did an amazing job.
It’s still an act of faith on your part, because the producer can be an important collaborator, but also you’re entrusting your babies to someone. I guess by then you’d already decided he was the one – you weren’t auditioning anyone else.
No. The thing is, my skill set’s very limited – I know how to get up and strum a guitar, and I like to think I can write a song. But I’m not deluded enough to think that I know how to make a record. All the recordings I’ve done in the past have been DIY home jobs on cheap mics, and I knew that this record, I wanted to make it well and I wanted to make it so that it could be accessible to people and that I could be happy with it moving forward. I’ve got kids – I can’t afford to muck around and blow money on a record that I’m not happy with. And I just knew that I had to outsource it to somebody who knew what they were doing. Brendan had a great track record, and after meeting him and chatting with him, we got on very well, and anybody who can work with Jimmy Little and produce an album like Messenger is good enough for me. He proved his worth very quickly, and once we started getting together with the band his ideas were gold. He delivered all his ideas very gently and supportively, and it just worked really, really well.
Did you come in with a brace of songs, some of which you had to discard as the process went on? Or is the set of songs that’s on there now what you’d always intended?
I hear about these people who say, ‘I’ve written twenty songs and I picked the best ten.’ When I hear that I think, Oh my god – how do people do this? I’ve got two kids and a job and a dog, and all these other things, and unfortunately I don’t have the time to scrap songs. So I think I came to him with eleven and in the end ten made it on. The eleventh one, I haven’t thrown it away – it’s just already sitting in the bank for the next record. I pretty much came in with the finished product – he just helped us polish the turd and get it over the line.
That whole notion of having the time to write extra songs – when you are telling stories, it’s less likely that you have superfluous songs, because it takes a lot of attention and crafting, particularly the way you write your songs. There’s a lot of detail in there that’s not in there, which is what happens when you know how to tell a story: you’ve already learned to edit. So it doesn’t actually surprise me that you didn’t have fifty songs to bring in.
Each of the songs I’ve tried to put as much of myself into it and it’s kind of a big effort to get over the line. I’m not writing for any other reason except things that I actually really, really want to communicate. If I didn’t want to say it I wouldn’t bother writing a song about it or waste my time trying to explore it – I’d just let it go and wait for the right one to come along.
The album has very striking cover artwork and it’s of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The title is City Bound Trains, so it could have been any city that was depicted on the cover – how did you come to use that image?
A lot of the stories on the record are based around experiences I had when I was living in Sydney. I lived in Redfern for ten years. I’m up in Brisbane now but it was a very formative part of my life, playing music down there, share houses and all that. These songs could really be about any city or any urban environment and any urban people, but Sydney’s kind of got a place in my heart. I don’t want to live there – I hate it in some respects, it’s a very harsh and cruel place to live, particularly if you’re poor, which is what City Bound Trainsis actually about. But also I do love that place and it’s got a lot of charming qualities. So I thought Sydney was the city that best repress ented the songs and the stories.
But you have moved to a musically fertile city – Brisbane has a lot of good things going on.
It does. A lot of people rave about Brisbane because they grew up here and they feel they have to, but I’m not from here. When I rave about Brisbane I’ve got to let you know that I’m not from here, so I don’t have to – I’m not on any payroll. But I really do love this city. It’s big enough that you get all the benefits of living in a large, multicultural, modern city, but it’s still small enough that it’s still personable and there’s community, particularly in the music scene. People up here – everyone still knows each other and there’s no factions working against each other. Everyone’s in the same boat, to look out for each other. As you say, it’s a very fertile place and a very joyous place to be in musically. For me it works very well. I think every artist has their insecurities and their challenges, but when you’re in a community and you’re surrounded by other people who are supportive and constructive, it just makes it so much easier to get over the line and do things like make records and release them.
You’re doing a bit of touring and playing at festivals – have you always enjoyed playing live? I’m guessing from what you’ve said that you do, but was there ever a time when you didn’t?
No. Some people ask me why I make music, and sometimes I look at my bank balance and ask myself the same question [laughs]. But the answer that I come back to is that I really like people and I like meeting new people. And a really great environment to meet new people is at a gig, because people who come out to watch live music, generally there’s something special about them. They’re social beings. I suppose in a way I’m addicted to the social side of playing music. I love being out in venues, I love talking to people, I love sharing stories and having connections with people and conversations. So as a result I’ve always loved the live show – in fact, that’s probably the sole reason that I’m doing it. I can’t think of any other reason why anyone would do it, except to connect with people.
I suppose a weird thing about making an album when you also love playing live is that the album is a static version of songs that are probably changing shape each time you play them live.
Absolutely. I’m trying to make them as true to the album as I can just so people aren’t confused as to what I’m doing. But I’ve already let my game slip a little bit because I’ve already let one of my songs turn into a seven-minute reggae dub epic just because it sounded really fun and I’m having fun playing it. By the time the tour starts we might be a dub band but I don’t know.
It may seem obvious and logical that you’ll play the Tamworth Country Music Festival because you’re from Tamworth, but I’ll ask about your Tamworth plans anyway.
I’ll give you the long answer to this. Because I grew up in Tamworth I’ve done twenty-four country music festivals – admittedly most of them as a kid. But I’ve busked for half of them, I’ve played them as a musician for four, five, six years as an adult and in bands. I must admit, Tamworth is a tough thing because it is a bit archaic and conservative in many ways, but that being said, the last few years that I’ve gone up, I’ve seen a really awesome wellspring of new music and youth and enthusiasm that’s come into Tamworth, and the amount of artists from different types of gigs that are coming there is exploding. I feel like the old guard of Tamworth – which I grew up in and rebelled against when I left town – is starting to slip, and there’s a whole new generation of artists coming through and it’s incredibly exciting. So, that being said, I cannot wait for Tamworth. I look forward to getting back up there and I look forward to getting in that melee. Because the times are changing, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, and it’s a really exciting time to be in Tamworth. And I encourage any artist who’s out there and sitting on the fence, or who went ten years ago and got a bad taste in the mouth, come up and join in the revolution.
An artist called Matt Henry has had a hand in that revolution, I think, because he started Late Night Alt at the Tudor Hotel about three, four years ago. Part of what has interested me about who plays at that is that, yes, it’s a new guard, but that new guard is usually really respectful of what’s come before and see their music as an evolution.
That Late Night Alt is a great example of the kind of thing we’re seeing change in Tamworth. And you’re right, it’s not about disrespecting what’s been there, because Tamworth wouldn’t exist without the history of it. I definitely don’t want to give anyone the impression that I don’t like Tamworth at all. In fact, I love it – I love it very much because it’s a huge part of my identity growing up. But I tell you what, I love it more now because I’m seeing the changes that as a young man – I got frustrated with Tamworth, and I’m seeing those changes starting to happen, and it’s exciting. Guys like Andy Golledge
– I grew up in Tamworth with Andy skateboarding and he’s just played in Nashville and I used to play gigs with him. Watching my old skating buddy who used to cruise around on a Peralta deck at St Nick’s Primary School at three o’clock in the afternoon rip it up in Nashvile … this is the Tamworth that we dreamed of when we were cutting our teeth in places like Sydney and trying to create a scene. And it’s great that it’s come back. I get to go down and visit Dad and hang out for a week and have a really good time every year, it’s great.
City Bound Trains is out now through ABC Music/Universal.