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Keeping it simple - Don McGlashan interview

Jul 8, 2015 Music

Don McGlashan’s third solo album Lucky Stars, released in April, scored him his highest solo chart position to date — his best, in fact, since The Mutton Birds’ Envy of Angels back in 1996. Now he’s off on tour around some of the country’s most interesting music venues, including Auckland’s Hopetoun Alpha on June 11.


Now the album’s out, what’s on the cards for the rest of the year?

After the New Zealand tour with Tom Rodwell and Chris O’Connor, who play on Lucky Stars, I’ve got solo shows in Australia and the UK. Now I’ve decided not to do any more film or TV score work, I can perform more than I used to. I want to concentrate on writing and playing as many songs as I’ve got left in me.

I’d been trying to do both for so long partly because I need to feel like I’m doing something useful every minute. I’d probably be on the ADHD spectrum if I’d been born in an era when they used terms like that. But when I was a kid they just called me difficult.

These days you’re an elder statesman of New Zealand music, but do you wonder how your career would be different if you didn’t live here?

I must admit I don’t think about it much. In New Zealand it’s harder to get in the van and go and build an audience. That’s obvious. But living here has been good for me. I look back at the songs I’ve written and I see a lot of obstinacy there. I don’t see the result of a manager or a record company telling me to be more poppy or more succinct. And by the time The Mutton Birds came around, I was old enough and ornery enough to ignore anyone who tried to mould me anyway.

I appreciate the collegiality of the scene here. There’s a whole bunch of songwriters that I really respect and when I sit down to write a song I often imagine them standing around me, willing me on.

Cars and transport are a recurring lyrical theme for you, for example “On My Way to You” on the new album. What’s the appeal?

It’s to do with the way I write songs. A lot of them are observational: I’m looking at people as I go past. I think it’s to do with being a bit solitary and writing about people who can’t see or hear me. Look at The Mutton Birds’ “While You Sleep” — there I’m singing to someone who’s actually unconscious.

Airports are like that too — places you can observe people. “Ngaire” on The Mutton Birds album Salty is set in an airport and you’ve another airport song (“Charles Kingsford Smith”) on this one.

Yes, they’re good for people-watching — and they’re thresholds too. There’s a wonderful tradition of songs like “Dock of the Bay” or “Moon River”, where someone’s staying put but watching a railway track or a river or a road heading off into the distance. I guess an airport observation deck is like that.

Talking of the new album, you give some great fatherly advice in “Girl Make Up Your Own Mind”.

Though what a waste of time trying to give her advice is! Pearl is so worldly and clever, but I give her advice anyway. And she rolls her eyes and ignores me. I had the lyrical idea of orthodoxies — equating the trickle-down theory of economics with some sort of insane biblical story, some miracle. I wanted to do a song that listed all the big lies that the world tries to tell the young.

There are a lot of religious references in that song. What are your beliefs?

I believe in the human capacity to love and to look after other humans and I feel quite religious about that. There’s an enormous transcendent power in that capacity. I go to Quaker meetings sometimes; I’ve been involved with them for many years now and they’re tolerant enough to accommodate someone like me.

Musically, it’s hard not to be moved by all the wonderful religious music that’s been written. For years I wanted to write a gospel song, but I couldn’t write anything specifically about belief in an external god. That’s why the opportunity to write “Bathe in the River” was so cool. It was a chance to write a secular gospel song, a song about wanting to dive into the human world as if it was a big river.

The album’s title track is another imbued with a near-religious sense of awe.

It’s about the immense luck of being alive, those epiphanies you have when you realise you’re a being in the world, breathing in and breathing out, feeling the ground at your feet.

And it’s succinct. For years I’ve wanted to write songs that take place in one moment and with just one emotion. Just joy, or loss, or sadness. But I’ve got a habit of packing a lot of information in, writing songs that are more like short stories. That propensity has got in the way of writing the simple songs that I think might be in me. And in this album, some of them came out.


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