Matt McGinn | discusses life, times, and new album The End Of The Common Man
By Cara Gibney
Matt McGinn misses the times when he was naïve and didn’t really know what was going on. The times when he had his blinkers on, when ignorance was bliss.
The County Down singer has been carving a progressively sure-footed, consistently unfeigned path through the local music scene for the past ten years. His third album, The End Of The Common Man, is launched this week at Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival. And this album is different. Born from a growing unease at what is happening on this planet, an unease that he can no longer filter out, The End Of The Common Man isn’t asking you to relax, sit back, and enjoy, as his previous albums have gently, beautifully eased their listeners into. This one offers game changing stand up electric guitar, the deep-space loneliness of the Theremin. It is punctuated with drums pacing the message through punching lyrics that call out what needs to be at least considered, perhaps debated, but never left to carry on regardless – because that is what has got us here is the first place
“With everything that is presented in front of me on social media and everywhere else, it’s no wonder I’m taking a lot of that in,” he explained over the buzz and chat of a busy SD Bells in Belfast. “I’ve managed to avoid the 6 O’clock News for a long time. I’ve kept my blinkers on to what is going on in the world.” But McGinn has “never been able to control [his] songs,” and this latest collection seems to have left him with no choice but to get them out there.
It’s a world away from the songs he was writing as a teenager. “I had always written songs, when I was 15 or 16, but it was always with a purpose. The purpose was to get a girl.” He laughs warmly at the memory of the family Nissan Bluebird; “five of us packed into the back of it with tapes of Johnny Cash, Sounds of the ’60s, and The Mamas & the Papas. Five children, good singers, and you have to find your wee harmony, or your wee part. Not because you’ve been asked, it’s just because it’s your job.” There were piano lessons for the seven-year-old Matt McGinn. At 11 he discovered guitar, by 12 that had moved to electric guitar. “Clapton, and blues, and all that … then when I was 14 or 15 my uncle, who had a lovely stereo system turntable, he played me some John Martyn and that just blew the head right off me. It was then I realised the power you can get out of an acoustic guitar – no matter how much volume you have in an electric guitar, distortion, or anything.”
But there was another event that poignantly pointed out how far reaching his own music could be. The day he heard that a friend had died. “I was working on a farm at the time and the day that I heard the news it was almost like this song just entered me,” he recalled. “It helped me straight away, so I had to tell someone about it. Then my friend’s family wanted to hear it, and his other friends wanted to hear it, and I realised that that song was actually reaching out to a lot of people, it was really important. From then on it was like the doors opened, my creative doors anyway.”
The die was cast. While studying at Queens he started to notice the different ways he was using his voice when he sang. “I would find some nights when I was out having a drink, all of a sudden this powerful voice would come out that I had never noticed before. Then I would find myself singing without a drink and the gentle voice was back. I knew straight away I was going to have to learn how to do the big voice sober.” He had to master his own voice, and this was going to take practice. Pushing himself outside his comfort zone he started to perform at events like Open Mic Nights to build up authority over his own singing talent.
Needless to say, it did not take long for McGinn’s voice to be noticed, and he started to get gigs in the likes of Belfast’s Katy Dalys and Auntie Annie’s, covering classics like Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan. A year in Cyprus of all places helped him hone his skills performing Irish folk songs. His early 20s brought the brilliantly named Jimi Hendrix Memorial Ceilidh Band, (“which was good craic”). After that came his cover band The fat Cats which was a lot of high energy, in the company of exceptional musicians, but gradually McGinn started to realise that it was time to go out on his own.
He has not looked back. His journey has found him opening for artists such as Chris Smither and Peter Green. It has placed him in residency at Belfast’s Rotterdam Bar, has grown his reputation as a sought after multi-instrumentalist session musician. But it is his own music that adds a specific element to the guitar of Matt McGinn, following the phases and stages of his song-writing career.
“When I started writing my own songs I was in a terraced house in Belfast,” he explained. “So, I was writing these songs constantly aware that there was someone either side of me that could possibly be hearing this. Almost as an antidote to the fact that I was going out most weekends and playing all this loud energetic music to some extremely drunk people, the first album was a very quiet subdued affair called Livin’.”
“Then there was Latter Day Sinner, which was always like an album recorded in two different times,” he continued. “Half of that album was recorded when I was still finding my feet and being in the studio with other people, trying to tell them, and they weren’t really getting where I was coming from. So, it was like a subdued thing. Then the other half of that album, which had a bit more energy to it, was me finding my feet and doing it myself.”
Now, just about to release his third album Matt McGinn’s voice is calling the shots again, this time the voice inside his head would not let this album pass. The problem was though, he was working on another project at the time, he needed to concentrate on that. “I was working on a project with the Arts Council called Lessons Of War *… this involved me working with people from different parts of the world that have experienced conflict or war, and trying to get together the thread of similarities that runs through us all, trying to see that as a global band -musicians, songwriters, percussionists, whatever.” McGinn would write an anti-war song, each of the musicians would contribute their own part to the song, and McGinn would put it together.
But something inside McGinn was putting a spanner in the works of the project. “I thought [that out] of all of this, the easiest part was going to be writing the song. But every time I started to write the song I was breaking out in cold sweats. It was like one part of the brain was saying ‘What if they don’t like it?’ Or ‘What if you can’t do it?’ While the other side of the brain said ‘Look you freak out, that’s OK, you can deal with it. Whenever you’re ready to come together give me a shout, but I’m going to do this other thing.’
“This other thing” was The End Of The Common Man. One song after another sprang from somewhere inside Matt McGinn, ultimately forming the collection of songs that were to become this album. “That title came out,” he explained of the title track, which tells the story of a man who has lost all he has through corporate greed. “Then all of a sudden everything started to weave itself in and around that … within about a month there were around 16 songs.”
“This album was a labour of love over two years,” McGinn has written on the liner notes. “I’m even more afraid that nothing has changed, both North and South, homelessness is becoming even more of an issue than ever … our political system is drenched with corrupt and inept politicians … they do this without regard for the common people who have carried nations on their backs for centuries. Is this the end of the common man?”
However, Matt McGinn is a musician first, a social agitator second. “I didn’t want to make an album that was a lecture, like this is the way you should be behaving, or this is the way to act. I wanted to have a good sounding album that people enjoy and some of those people might someday listen to it and say, ‘perhaps there’s something else to be learnt here.’ On that note, The End Of The Common Man features some of the cream of musicians from these shores and abroad including German Theremin virtuoso Carolina Eyck, six string maestro Kris Donegan from Nashville, and England’s Jon Thorne on double bass. The album also boasts the smoothest of backing vocals from our own Gareth Dunlop, John McCullough on various keys, and an interesting double contingent of drummers – Rabb Bennett and Mike Mormecha. “I always knew there was an energy I could get with a drummer, or in this case two drummers. That would almost give me the whole backbone of the album, [would] allow it to have its own groove, its own feel, and have its own energy … I wanted to have it constant through all of the songs that even if you throw in big electric guitars like in [the song] ‘Trump,’ or in the likes of ‘Marianne’ where it is very controlled and reserved, but because that backbone is the same it will all fit on the one album.”
The End Of The Common Man feels expansive, epic. Wide, shifting stories with empathetic protagonists, full arrangements, ever-changing scenes and senses. Take for example the dusted long evening shadows of ‘Marianne’ where the pedal steel stretches the desperation of a father who breaks the law in order to feed his family. With backing vocals lightening McGinn’s imploring, and strings blowing through the song. The fathomless loneliness of the man is spoken without words through Eyck’s Theremin, buoyed with relentless steps drummed into all this. “This is a guy who is completely isolated from everything that he loves. He has had to leave everything behind because he is trying to do the right thing,” McGinn explained. “The Theremin,” he added, “is the loneliest sounding instrument I’ve ever heard.”
‘The End Of Days’ was written when Trump came power.
“I miss an empty page
And what it has to say
It’s hard enough to read it any other way”
“I just really miss the times when I was naive and didn’t really know what was going on,” McGinn told me. “But what I take more from the likes of Trump is that there are always going to be people like him. What I [also] took out of it was Bernie Sanders – now that is incredible. That is where I got the second verse:
“A change is coming through
you can feel it in the air”
“I suppose it’s up to us to decide whether that change is for the good or the bad … “
*Matt’s project Lessons Of War has progressed on to become a documentary and future record release. We will have news in the next week or two for those interested in more information.
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