Don McGlashan has just released his new album, 'Warm Hand'. Here he answers a few questions for A Religion Of A Kind.
It's been over seven years since 'Rain, Steam and Speed'; can you summarise what you've been up to in the years since moving back to NZ?
I've been working towards the release of this album, really. I've done various film, TV and theatre scores to help set me and the family up - and to sort of feel my way back into life here in NZ - but mainly I've been getting myself to the point where I can make records and perform under my own name. It's been a surprisingly big shift - and not something one should rush.
Seven of the ten tracks on the album break the five-minute barrier, and a lot of the choruses aren't of the singalong variety, so you weren't kidding when you mentioned in an interview a few years ago that you weren't chasing that elusive pop hit anymore. Having said that, the radio edit of 'Miracle Sun' is a pop gem to rank alongside the finest of the genre, 'Harbour Bridge' is easily a match for 'She's Been Talking', and Hollie Smith is riding high in the pop charts with one of your songs. So, in 2006, where does Don McGlashan fit into the pop world?
I've always thought that the pop world should adapt itself to me, rather than the other way round. Occasionally, it does.
Given the length of gestation for this album and no major label breathing down your neck, I'm guessing there was no pressure on you to make a certain kind of record, or indeed a record at all? What was your thinking during the writing/recording process?
I had no idea what I was heading towards. Passenger 26 and Courier were early songs - so they seemed to point to a rather intimate, dark kind of album, and small scale performances. After a while, I hankered for the noise and mayhem of drums and amps again - but I decided to add that power to the sound, while keeping the smallness and strangeness as well.
Mutton Birds arrangements tended to stick to the classic guitars-bass-drums format (albeit with euphonium and occasional melodica thrown in for good measure) - was this largely so you could recreate the albums live as faithfully as possible?
No, it was more about the democracy of the thing. Doing arrangements and bringing in outside musicians would have been mainly my job - because I had those skills. That would have weighted things towards me too much. That sort of narrowing of focus happens in bands, and it's usually a good thing. It unifies a style, and stops individuals getting too indulgent.
Hearing 'Miracle Sun' for the first time was a revelation, a large part due to the violin that heralds the arrival of the chorus. Was it a conscious decision to add in other sounds and textures into the Warm Hand songs, following on from working with orchestras/string sections on occasional live and soundtrack projects?
I was a classical musician before I played in bands, so I've always been interested in a big range of textures. With this album I didn't have any live templates or democratic considerations to worry about - so I just went with whatever sounds I felt like. I also have a lot of friends here in NZ who play all kinds of instruments, so it was a good chance to get some of them involved.
The early live outings for some of these songs featured yourself on guitar, Sean Donnelly on bass and laptop loops, and Tatiana Lanchtchikova on accordion. There were a few mildly concerned whispers in certain circles that the album might follow on from this template, but you've ended up making the kind of record that I imagine the vast majority of your fans hoped you would - a natural progression from the last couple of Mutton Birds records. Were there any expectations you consciously tried to avoid/adhere to in the making of this album?
See answer above
Sean's influence comes through strongly at times, most notably on the groove of tracks such as 'Passenger 26' and 'Blame', the latter of which being probably the one that sounds most like a radical departure from your past work. Was there much in the way of collaboration on arrangements?
Definitely. Sean and Ed had a lot of input. Both in pre-production, and in overdubbing different layers. I think "Blame", however, emerged pretty fully formed. We played it in a couple of takes, I layered on the BVs and glockenspiel, a great trumpeter and band-leader I know called Kingsley did the brass arrangement - and it was done.
Sean's song 'I Will Not Let You Down' is something of a tear-jerker, at once very much in contrast with the rest of the album while at the same time fitting in beautifully. What inspired you to include this on the album?
Sean decided to leave it off his album, Southern Lights. I needed an extra song so I asked him if I could have a go at it, and he agreed. Then I couldn't get it right either - it just didn't sound like me - so I left it off this album for over a year. Meantime I wrote newer ones like Harbour Bridge and Queen Of The Night, so I didn't need IWNLYD any more. Then at the last minute I decided to transpose it down, change the beat and add the cheesy keyboard. It suddenly came right, and we recorded and mixed it in a few days. I'm really proud of it, and it looks like it may be the next single after Miracle Sun.
'This Is London' is a snapshot of life in the big smoke, its weary tone suggesting it to be perhaps a direct follow on from the hustle and bustle that characterised Pulled Along By Love, maybe even unwinding at the end of the same day. Is that a fair assessment?
Well there's a lot going on in that song. It's about being at a distance from your home - about wanting the best future for your child - about being the last one awake in the valley as the last Northern Line goes by. It does relate to Pulled Along By Love. It was started about the same time.
Your 'story songs' have always been one of the key things that set you apart from your contemporaries, and the new album is awash with them. Do you find it easier writing with a plot in mind, as opposed to the simple template of 'I love you, why don't you love me' that seems to still be the ultimate in expression for a frightening proportion of other songwriters?
I just write what interests me, and what holds my interest. If I found a way to write 'I love you, why don't you love me' so that I'd still want to sing it ten years from now - I'd do it.
Where do the characters from the songs come from? Did I read somewhere that the spark - excuse the pun - for 'Toy Factory Fire' was from a real-life news story?
Yes it's a true story. It was the worst industrial fire in modern history - it happened only a decade ago and involved the manufacture of things that are very familiar to us in the West - yet the news didn't really get out. I wondered why, and that's why I wrote the song - to answer those people who say that the market will look after us; that corporate wrong-doers will be punished by an informed public. You can read about it in Naomi Klein's book "No Logo".
Do you have any literary ambitions outside of music?
As a long-term Mutton Birds fan, one quote that always made me chuckle was in an interview you gave a few years ago: "the love that dare not speak its name is the love for the Mutton Birds!" While you may have only been half joking, the band remained criminally undervalued right up until the end. There's long been a groundswell of support on the web though; the underground trading of Mutton Birds live shows continues, and the email list appears to be as healthy as ever. Do you hope that one day there will be a critical re-appraisal of the Mutton Birds?
I think we were very well received critically. If we had record sales to match all the rave reviews over the years, we'd be living extremely comfortably - but we'd also have to deal with the inconvenience that comes with that sort of fame.
I have a picture in my head of the elder statesmen of NZ music - yourself, Neil and Tim Finn, Dave Dobbyn etc, sitting round having a civilised cup of tea, discussing the musical state of the nation… It's probably not like at all of course, but is the music community in Auckland as tight-knit as it appears to be? It must be useful to be able to just ring up a Finn brother and ask for studio time…
Yes it's a good community. I see them all pretty often and we're all supportive of each other.
Do you have fond memories of your time living in London? Do the sell-out Shepherds Bush Empire shows rank as particular highlights in your career?
Yes and Yes. Particularly the fact that the Shepherd's Bush shows ended up being more brits than kiwis.
Finally, can we safely assume it won't be another seven years before your next record?
It won't be seven years, no.