Drew McAlister is one of the busiest songwriters in Australian country music – when he’s not writing and releasing his own music. His latest album is Coming Your Way, which is distinctively McAlister’s sound yet also takes him in a new direction – and perhaps even towards One Direction …
Congratulations on the album, I hope you are feeling justifiably proud.
Yes, absolutely – I’m stoked. I put everything into it. It feels really good.
The first single is ‘Coming Your Way’ and I detect a bit of a Highlands rock vibe in there. I know your family is Scottish in origin, so I thought I’d ask you if there is any Scottish music you love?
No, there’s not. But I love the pipes. I was trying to find a way to get pipes onto this album but it didn’t eventuate. I had a guy lined up and everything but it didn’t quite come to fruition. That song has definitely got [that vibe] and I don’t even know where it came from. I don’t really listen to Celtic stuff. But that song I wrote on my own over a couple of months and it just kind of came out. It’s not like I was listening to anything in particular at the time. I don’t know – maybe over the years it’s something that filtered in.
As you mentioned, you wrote that song on your own – and that isn’t something you do very often because you’re a very frequent collaborator with other Australian country music artists in particular. What do you love about collaboration?
I guess it’s what I’ve always done. I started out many, many years ago when I was 18, going around Sydney to every studio you could think of, writing with people, and it’s the way I started out. It seems to be the way that I get great songs. But having said that, writing this song on my own has taught me something. I think it’s going to be something that I do more often. Because I kind of surprised myself, to be honest. You can sit in a co-write and sometimes one person can put in more than the other, but generally speaking, across the board, you split it three ways because if those people weren’t in the room you wouldn’t have come up with the idea. But I think about how much I’ve contributed to songs and co-writes in the past, and in some cases it’s been a significant amount. So writing that song [‘Coming Your Way’] taught me that I might just sit down and write a few more on my own, see what I can come up with.
Given that collaboration is how you started, it’s almost as if you’ve never had a chance to explore this on your own before.
No, I’ve never really just sat and written on my own … It’s made me realise that maybe I have a bit more to say on my own than I thought.
Your name comes up so often when other artists talk about co-writes – I sometimes wonder if there’s any artist you haven’t collaborated with!
[Laughs] I’ve been signed as a writer with different publishing companies for years, so I’ve always gone out of my way to try to justify the fact that I was even signed as a writer. Getting a publishing deal back in the day was not so hard to do – a lot harder to do now because print and copyright and all that stuff, the market’s pretty much died because there’s no way to make any money out of it any more, really. It’s something I’ve always tried to justify so I’ve always worked hard writing for people. I’ve slowed down a little bit now, especially on this last album I just wrote with the people I wanted to write with and had a good track record with – guys I felt comfortable with – so I slowed down collaborating with a lot of people. But we’ll see what the future holds. The album is out now. I’ve got some more tunes in my brain and I’m sure they’ll come out at some point.
Over the years you’ve done a lot of your own stuff, whether it was with McAlister Kemp or solo. Writing songs with other people – is that almost like the day job? And then your own stuff feels different? Or is it all part of a continuum?
It’s interesting you ask that question – a day job is the way that I’ve tried to treat it. I’ve made sure in the past that I’ve locked away co-writes during the week – that way you’ve got to show up, you’ve got to write a song. Much how they do it in Nashville: guys there write five days a week, that’s their job. I’ve become good at showing up with not one idea and coming out with something [laughs] just because I had to. Just showing up and doing it, trying to treat it like a job. You’re a writer, you know that you can sit for hours and write stuff and it doesn’t mean you’re going to get paid for it but at the end of the day you do it because you love it and you hope that it transcribes into financial stuff down the track. So I have tried to treat it like a job but it does go up and down. I’ve tried to maintain that regularity – it doesn’t mean you come up with stuff all the time … But getting that album out, coming to that point, is a massive brain thing for me. So we’ve got to that point and now that’s out, there’s other stuff that goes with that that I’ve now got to work on – gigs and all that stuff. But I’ll start to get an itch back and I’ll start to write again definitely.
Someone who’s on the outside of the writing process – who perhaps wants to be a songwriter – that idea of showing up five days a week and being able to summon that creativity might seem odd. Some people might say you should wait for the muse to turn up. But are you a believer in that idea that it’s showing up that can trigger the creativity?
That’s everything. That’s everything. Showing up is everything. You just have to be in the room. You don’t know what will come. I write with Allan Caswell a lot, over the years we’ve had days where we’ll sit there for three hours and nothing comes out but at least we were there trying [laughs]. And then other days we’ve written some beautiful songs and neither of us came with an idea but on that particular day something aligned and brains were functioning a certain way and you come up with something awesome. I’m just a big believer in the idea that you can create something that didn’t exist four hours ago which could potentially move people – that is just the coolest thing ever. That never gets old to me. These little acoustic demos you do and then seeing them become full-blown songs that you then get to play in front of thousands of people – that whole little trip, it never gets old. It’s pretty cool [laughs].
And I’m guessing that the fact you think it never gets old is the reason it continues to happen for you. I can hear it in your voice- that positive energy you associate with your work keeps it flowing.
Absolutely. Even when you’re writing depressing songs where you’re laying your heart out in a room of people you don’t know that well, it’s still souls getting together creating something. That’s the most organically real part of this industry, the creation of the music. Then the performing of it, for that hour and a half on stage. They’re the two things that should never be tarnished, I don’t reckon. Those two bits are, I guess, why we keep coming back, really.
I suppose it is mysterious that you need to go through all that bit in the middle to get there, because what you’ve just described, the song creation, is you beginning to create something that will ultimately connect with an audience live or recorded, but there is that machinery in the middle that you have to go through to connect, and it does seem a little bit unwieldy.
Well, yes, it is, but this has been going on for many, many years. The music industry, that ever-changing monster. But I guess the cool thing is that whether you get paid or not, people will still create music because that is the most awesome thing ever, to be able to write songs – and write books, write, create. That’s just the most cool thing ever and there’s a whole bunch of other people out there who know that we’ll always create so they’ll money off us in some way. But if you get savvy and you work it out – and I’m starting to, in my forties – you can make money out of it and be a bit smarter about how you then deliver your creation to the world.
And it must be good, particularly for a country music artist, to have a great audience on the other side. That audience stays with artists and also stays with the genre.
Oh man, ain’t that the truth. We’re one of the only genres I know of where you still go out after a gig and meet the audience and sign stuff and talk to them. I love doing that. And country music fans, they don’t like bullshit. They are just straight to the point. If you’re going to try to piss in their pocket they know straightaway. Because they’re blue collar – they are down-to-earth humans doing their best. And I’m one of them. They are a unique genre and I love that about them. I’ve been on both sides – I was signed as a pop solo artist, years ago now, with EMI and all the crap that that entailed, there was nothing real about it. So I do love the fact that this genre gives that back to you and we try to give them that as well.
It is a relationship. And, as a I like to say, country music is our national storytelling in song, and I think the artists and the audience really know their roles in that.
Absolutely. If I look at the songs I’ve written over the years touching on certain subjects, there is the blue-collar thing in its many facets. Down-to-earth Australians who are struggling. You look at the facets that could entail, what you could write about, and there are many, many things. I try to touch on it in this new album. The more you can look into it, hardship and hope, those two words, there’s so many things that you could write about because everyone’s story is different. So I’ve got plenty more albums in me – whether I get to record them or not, we’ll see.
You mentioned that you were signed as a pop artist, and your musical abilities have tended towards the rock and pop end of country. I’m interested in which artists have been influential on you as a country music artist.
There’s a lot. Tim McGraw and Zac Brown – they’re very different. Tim McGraw doesn’t write but he picks songs for his audience that are contemporary and still saying something. You’ll always find one or two songs on a Tim McGraw album that are so beautifully crafted because he’s got the handpick o the best songwriters in Nashville. I always listen to his albums because you’ll always find a gem there. He may never play it live but you’ll be able to sit in the car and go, ‘My god – listen to this song’, and tear up or whatever. Zac Brown, for different reasons. He’s organic – he writes songs that move me. But also the way he carries himself, the way he conducts himself in this industry, he’s not doing what everybody else is doing. He’s always trying to push the boundaries. And from a Tim McGraw point of view, the production on all his albums is awesome. It’s new. It’s always fresh. There’s always something that he’s doing that’s completely fresh, because the guys who are producing his album are cutting edge. Whereas Zac Brown can have a really dry production, and a lot of money spent on it, but the lyric and the song do the job.
To come back to songwriting: it’s really hard to write a catchy song and you’re really, really good at it. I often think pop music can be underrated because the presumption is that it’s easy to write a catchy song but I reckon it’s super hard.
I’m a huge One Direction fan. I wasn’t until my girls were born but now they’re both right into One Direction. My eldest has a locket with Harry [Styles] in it – she’s eight years old. I started listening to their stuff. That pop sensibility I’ve always been big on because I’ve listened to a lot of that stuff over the years, but you listen to a One Direction song, it’s awesome. Listen to the hooks – you can’t help but sing along to that stuff. I’m not just talking vocal hooks. It’s guitar hooks, it’s the structure of the song, it’s coming back to things. I’ve tried to implement that in what I write – I’ve always tried to do that – even if it’s a lyric that’s a very moving lyric, that’s very real and honest and someone’s probably going to cry listening to it, you can still implement that stuff into a song so there are hooks in it. You’ve got to have hooks. It’s like ABC for kids – that’s why they’re written that way, so that when someone listens to it, you’ve got to be able to hum it before you can sing it, because not everyone’s going to know the lyric, so you’ve got to have that hook, and I’m always conscious of that when I’m trying to write a song.
But I do think it’s hard – it’s that musical sweet spot, and to not do it the same way over and over again is probably the hardest bit.
Well, for example, in a bunch of my songs I’ve got the ‘whoa whoa whoas’, right? Caswell hates it – he says, ‘Are we going to put another whoa-whoa in?’ But listen to a lot of country, there’s whoas in every frickin’ song – it’s just how you implement them and how you say them. When you’re singing in front of thousands of people, that’s the one thing they can always sing back. But you’ve got to make sure there’s some meat and potatoes in the rest of the song because you can’t just do a whoa-whoa-whoa song all the way through – there has to be something else under the hood.
Speaking of songs – on this album, do you have any favourites or are they all your favourites?
Oh, they all are. And if you listen to the album there’s not one that’s remotely the same as the next. I’ve definitely tried to make it an interesting album for anyone to listen to. I love them all. ‘Coming Your Way’ inspires me. ‘Kissing a Girl Goodnight’ – I didn’t write that song but I picked it because it’s beautiful and it’s also about me and about a lot of people. ‘Better Buzz’ – just for the pure fact it’s got a Stones feel to it. It’s cheeky and quite silly. ‘Time’, because I’m living that with my wife – there’s just no time left any more. You’re raising these babies. They’ve all got reasons that I love them. They’ve got their own postcode and they’re all on there for a reason.
And as you said, they are all different. While it’s definitely your sound, it’s a diverse album.
And I’ve definitely tried to do that. One song, ‘Foolin’ Around in the Summertime’, we wrote that three years ago and it just sat there. I loved it but I couldn’t figure how it was going to end up on an album, so I went back and rewrote it and tried to make it the feel that it is now, which is almost like a 60s feel in places. But I don’t know … it’s a bloody science, all this [laughs].
Of course, a crucial part of the process is your producer, and you chose Andy Mac. How did you come to select him?
I heard the McClymonts album [Endless] and he produced that. So I was listening to the production, and I knew it had to be a step up from [my] last album. I produced the last album with a friend of mind, Ben Robinson, and I knew that this had to be a step up, otherwise pack up and go home. And I needed a pop approach to my songs. So I found Andy and I called him and we chatted, and I said, ‘Here’s the budget, here’s the songs. This is all we’ve got. I’d love you to do this.’ And he definitely does more pop stuff. He said yes to it, and I was stoked. From then on we traded demos, all the demos I was doing at the time, and trying to relay the way I thought they might sound, all the structures and stops and starts, and I sent that to him and he just improved on it – he really did. Some of the songs, if you heard the original demos to what they became, they got exponentially better, so I’m so glad that he could do it.
Given that you’ve achieved a lot in your career so far – very successful years in McAlister Kemp and now solo, and you’ve won Golden Guitars and other words – is there anything you still have your sights set on?
I just want to keep improving, for a start. It’d be nice to win a Golden Guitar on my own [laughs] – I’ve won it with collaboration a lot. Having said that, I’m not going to write songs to win awards. The whole ARIA thing is something I’d like to achieve on my own too. You know what I want to achieve? I want to make a living. I want to make a living where I can support my family. Back in the day I wanted to be rich and famous, but that’s not something I think about any more. I just want to have a career. As humble as that may or may not be, that’s what I’m trying to do now.
Coming Your Way is out now through ABC Music/Universal.