By Mark Glenister
I would normally start an interview with a brief synopsis of the artist, a pick of the pops type history so to speak. However, this ‘interview’ lasted a long time for very good reasons, and we talk about all the things that I would put into an opening paragraph anyway. So without further ado, here is my chat with Mercury and Brit nominated singer songwriter, robin tamer extraordinaire and just a very nice person…Tom McRae.
After some brief sound issues (two 51 year old men trying to work modern technology) we started chatting – I’ll be honest this entire interview felt like a chat between 2 old friends, that’s possibly why it lasted for just over 90 minutes (Don’t worry, this is the edited version!)
So, how are you?
Yes, clearly the world is falling apart, but I’m fine really, I guess.
It does feel likes it falling apart, but it feels we are at a point in history where how we deal with the next few weeks, months, could determine not only the rest of our lives but the generations after us.
Yes, totally. As my wife said the other day, it would be quite nice to live in times that were precedented. Because at the moment everything is ‘oh we are living in unprecedented times’, just to have a couple of years where everything was expected, would be nice.
Exactly, so how are you finding lockdown?
Well now that its all over bar the shouting seemingly, and they don’t know what’s going on. It was honestly fine for me, I think for a lot of people in my situation not much changed really. Working from home in the way I work, everything seemed to carry on. I find it quite hard to focus, with all that was going on, so worrying about family, friend, friends parents etc. There was a background of stress that I’m sure everyone not directly involved was feeling. But largely, quite unusually for someone like me, I found myself counting my blessings and going ‘I am so incredibly grateful for everything I’ve got, living in the countryside, for having a bit of space, for having a studio’ so, yes I stopped moaning for about 10 minutes.
LOL – So, apart from not moaning for a short while, have you stuck to a routine still? Are you finding it a time to be creative? And like others have you learnt something new, a language or making sourdough?
I have stuck to a routine, but I haven’t really changed a lot about what I do. The one big things is that I have found it slightly hard to focus, I have spoken to other artist friends and said ‘are you writing? because now we have a ton of stuff to write about, what are you doing?’ and pretty much all of them have said they can’t actually write new stuff, which is interesting because we are all supposed to be finishing a novel, or painting a masterpiece, so you’d think that people who are musicians for a living would think ‘well now is our time’.
I haven’t been in that space, and I’ve been trying to think why? I think there is something about a collective empathy and a collective subconscious, without going too crazy hippy into it, I think when as a species we are stressed, I think everyone feels that about each other. My natural response to stuff is usually to write, I’ll write through it. That’s been the opposite now, I’ve got tons of stuff to work on, and I write for other people, so they are getting the dregs, I just haven’t been able to write for me, which is really interesting.
As for routine, that changed about a year ago after Brexit. I thought I am going to switch off the news, I’m going to get up in the morning, get a coffee, go outside and feed my baby robin and read other stuff. So, I’ve tried to get out of this cycle of rage, that even before Covid and the fear that that bought about, we seemed to be in a rage cycle, and I thought I am not really helping. Raging on twitter doesn’t help, being an armchair activist doesn’t help, so I thought I should calm myself down a bit, and that has followed on to this year.
Do you think the creative issue, is down to the fact that a lot of songs are written from a personal perspective or incident! Whereas now, the entire planet if going through this situation, so subconsciously you are thinking well I am going to be one of a thousand that perhaps writes about the same thing.
Maybe, I think that anyone who sets out in any field of art thinking I’ll figure a way to do it differently or find a new angle on it. You won’t, but it doesn’t really matter, everything you could think of or say, has been done before and probably better. So, that’s never bothered me as singer songwriter with 3 chords and a plausible lie. I don’t think about that, I do think about the notion of having an audience, being lucky enough to audience and the reasons behind making music as a form of communication. Because its not for me something about ‘oh I do it just for me in my bedroom’, it is about having a conversation with someone, even if its yourself that then goes out and has a conversation with your audience.
I’ve felt over this period that people I’ve been bought into contact with over the years of touring, of what a little community that is and how I’ve actually needed that and responded with gratitude to having people there - and we’ve collectively needed that shared space, I want to have a reaction from them, I want to talk to them and I want to know what they are thinking. So, its changed the way I feel about touring, because I quit touring 2 years ago I thought I don’t want to tour again, and now its completely changed my thinking, I think ‘Oh god I really want to tour again, as soon as this is over I want to get out’ which is really interesting. When someone tells you can’t do anything, your natural reaction is well I’m going to do it!
Exactly, most of my social life revolves around gigs and the friends that I meet there. It’s the one thing that we all want to know, when can we go back to gigs!
Ok, so let me ask you a question, because I agree with you about going to gigs. Is it in the back of your mind ‘do I want to be in a room full of coughing 30, 40, 50-year olds’ I don’t know, how do you feel? Because for me, I’ve had it, so I don’t really have that concern. Is it something that worries you?
Well it didn’t until you said it !!!
(laughing) I was talking to friends’ kids, and they are only teenagers, and they are not interested in going to gigs anymore, and I’m like ‘my god you are only 19’
I’m not sure, most of the gigs I go to are in small venues, and the age range is between early 20's up to mid to late 50s, and we are all of the same opinion that we can’t wait to get back to seeing live music. However, we all realise that that won’t happen until someone says it is safe to do so.
I think you are right. I’ll speak to my agent, I speak to my publisher, we have endless zoom meetings where everyone is trying to keep their fingers on the pulse of both the business, what are the cultural undercurrents, plus what are the practicalities of it. Just as a conversation more than anything, but I think no one knows. At some point they are going to have to decide to reopen the venues, otherwise the venues will disappear. I think it will be one of those things that sort of happens without a big announcement, it will just be well we will try it and see. I know Norway are already looking at socially distanced shows, so I may well look at doing some gigs there. But, who knows, we are all guessing at this point.
Agreed, I’m just not sure how socially distanced gigs would work, would it depend on the type of music?
Well yes, or does it? I don ‘t know, because the reality of live music is that its sort of a magic trick, it helps if the person on the stage is good with something to say, but gigs work because 90% of the show is the audience, they bring that energy - its where your energy as a performer meets the energy of the audience somewhere halfway in the room, and it becomes this third thing that neither of you are in control of; that’s the amazing thing about live music and that is without drawing analogies to diseases, its infectious’, you stand next to someone who is singing, literally your heart beat will start to beat in time with theirs. They have researched this, there is something emotionally and psychological that makes it such a special form of art, social distancing can’t work, it won’t work. Even at 51 I want to be sweating down the front, I want to have my drink nudged over me, I want to feel that energy going through the room of people singing, laughing, falling quiet and that’s the beauty of live music which nothing else does.
I can’t imagine it at all, gigs for me are the entire social interaction, meeting old friends, discovering new music and making new friends. It’s a real community, and certainly in this country where the ideal of community has been battered over the years, music, the artists, the fans are all part of a wonderful community. You’ve seen it through this pandemic where people are desperately trying to save small venues, and again it’s the music community coming together to save grass root venues.
Yes, I think that’s right. Obviously, there are other things going on, there are arguably bigger things happening. We have a civil war going on over civil rights in America, that is now spreading globally, we have a global pandemic that is killing thousands upon thousands of people, so we have to put things into perspective. However, I think people are realising finally that culturally oh maybe we haven’t valued stuff as much as we should. The loyal audience for music is going ‘of course you idiots, of course it needs support’ we’ve been there for years saying this, but suddenly people realise that streaming sites like Spotify aren’t working properly, the whole balance of our culture musically is skewed. Again, I feel that I’ve been very lucky with the audience that I’ve found, they have supported me in a thousand different ways, over 20 years they haven’t gone away. But, you look at the next generation of artists, and you wonder if there aren’t small venues for them to play, how are they going to find their audience. So, unless our generation look out for these venues and the next generation of artists, I fear for them, its our duty to help them.
I think it has become apparent in the past few months; how important it is to keep these small venues. We both know that most successful artists have played in one of these venues at some point in time, no matter where their career have taken them. These venues are the life blood of the music industry and need to be protected for the future.
Again, like you say the notion of community. I tour a lot in France, or did tour a lot, and they have state sponsored venues in every town you visit. So, literally in the middle of nowhere there can be this state of the art theatre, where its on your tour itinerary, and you’ll go and play and people will come to see you, because they see everything that comes through that town, whether its classical or pop. Its part of the lifeblood of the community, as much as church is or a pub is, because its built into the DNA of their culture. That has only seemed to happen by accident in the UK, we have these places and their run by fans.
I think it would be nice to think that actually for the psychological health of a country, that we need to invest in art, we need to think what these places do for their community. I went to my local venue in Suffolk where I was at the time, and it was a pub, and I saw my first band, which was amazing, and then you go to the next venue up, and the next venue after that. That ladder needs to be there, because as a simple fan where am I going to see the next thing that I can brag about in 10 years’ time ‘oh remember seeing them when they played the Dog & Duck’.
I worry about it, I think you need to be pro-active about it, but I also think that with the world on fire as it is, perhaps our gaze is directed elsewhere at the moment.
Yes, but a lot of the issues we face are out of our control, whereas small venues we might have a bit more control over, and as fans and musicians we can at least try to help with that.
Well yes, agreed – its a whole buffet table of disasters at the moment, and you have to pick which ones you can get involved in. Hopefully, I spoke with a friend the other day in New York, and saying as much as the world is on fire, you have to look at the reactions to everything that is happening, and go well that’s actually like the anti-bodies suddenly arriving, and going these things are bad, we have to get them out of the body politic, we have to get these things out of our system. Well, it is on fire, and if the world is having a fever, maybe we can burn out the disease that it has.
I think certainly with the pandemic and now with the BLM movement, people are trying to use Social Media for positive thoughts and messages, yes it does have a lot of faults with it and there are some truly horrible people that hide on it and attack when they feel they are not being heard. However, on the positive side, as I said there as been a lot of good use, you did the ‘Some Dark Cafe’ shows, and Ed has been going through his back catalogue. These are the things along with various campaigns that show a positive community using social media.
I am never really an early adopter of things, so I saw friends who had tours cancelled feeling duty bound to do something for their fans. So, I watched these live streams, and I was really interested in my reaction to seeing my friends do these live streams. I found myself really wrapped up in it, because it didn’t matter that it looked a bit amateurish, it didn’t matter that the sound was a bit dodgy, it didn’t matter that they were just strumming their acoustic on a couch. I am going ‘Oh my god, you are performing these songs to me, but more importantly on the bottom of the screen all these are people are watching and commenting, so therefor we are having a shared experience. It made me realise how important live stream could be, I can read a comment, I can take a request, I can interact with the people watching, its something I have never felt with the internet before. I found my response to it fascinating, and with those shows it was suddenly all those fans I have met over 20 years, with me in a small virtual space, sharing the same experience.
Would you do more of those shows?
I don’t know, they were done purely as a response to doom & gloom, and as I normally spread doom and gloom I felt duty bound to try and go the other way, take one for the team and try to lighten the mood a bit. It was to give us all, and me personally, a space where we can just have a little bit of relief and just breathe a little bit, wave at each other, that’s all it was, a gentle little wave. I didn’t want to make a thing of it, didn’t want it to become regular and predictable, I didn’t want to bore people. So, I’ve said I will put a pin in it, but if god forbid a second wave happens or something else comes along, I may well turn the light on and re-open.
I watched all of them, and as a fan, they were entertaining, it was great to hear some songs that I haven’t heard you play in a while, some interesting cover versions and some special guests. It was fun, and light relief as you say to everything else going on.
For me as well, again, there is something really nice about being not thought through and being spontaneous, and being I’ll just play some songs. But for me, I’ve never been able to do just that without thinking I’d quite like to do show, quite like it to have a shape, quite like to to be entertaining, even if it is fumbling and chaotic and I’m rubbish I still want to aim to provide a show, I’ve seen so many bands, even bands that I love, who just sit there and play, and you go I want a bit more than that, give me something about you. So, I think about the café shows and go well what can I do what’s silly or funny, I want people to feel like they have seen show.
The concept of the shows, the way you promoted them, the staging and even down to having a dress code, it was really different and added to the enjoyment
I feel that if you want to do something serious, in serious times, its best to lace it with some humour. If you want people to feel that its going to be something special, get them to buy in to it, so yes there is a dress code, we are going to do these things. It’s a game, we are all tired jaded cynical adults, its quite nice to be kids sometimes, and go ‘oh it’s a game, it’s a little café’. There is something about, which ties in with being passionate about music, if you are in touch with those passions, in touch with those emotions, in touch with being curious, those are things that are quite childlike, not childish, but childlike. I think its really important, especially when times get dark, to stay in touch with that child bit, and go its still alright to play, its still alright to have fun, its alright to buy into these things as it’s the antidote to cynicism. And right now, oh my god we need an antidote to cynicism.
You are very self-deprecating, which I am as well and I use it as my defence mechanism, do you use it as your defence mechanism?
(Laughing) Yes, it is, it is my defence mechanism. But it also allows me to acknowledge that I think I’m quite good and I don’t have to shout about it. I’m not the sort of guy who can do the Liam Gallagher sort of thing, but I can afford to be self-deprecating as I feel I am quite good at the things I do. It might be limited in its scope, but I am quite good. So if I am self-deprecating it’s a bit more honest, and bit more real for who I am as I’ll let the work do the talking. In my head I can make interesting art, but I don’t need to dress it up and be tragic, and have a tragic backstory, and be this other thing as I find that quite boring. I feel I’m being honest, look I’m not taking myself too seriously but I will take my work incredibly seriously.
That makes perfect sense, you tend to find that the people who shout the loudest, don’t really have a lot of substance or longevity.
Yes, again also just from observation, the people who were the biggest influence on the type of performing and public facing artist that I wanted to be, were people like Rickie Lee Jones, Neil Finn, Bruce Springsteen. They were the people where you could equally go ‘well I don’t like their songs, but I love being in their presence’. Going back, I didn’t know much about Rickie Lee Jones, I then saw her perform in some tiny venues across Europe, and thinking ‘oh my god she is a spell binding raconteur, she’s a really interesting person and she lets you into her life’. Not in a needy way but in a generous way, and of course Bruce is amazing at this, and Neil Finn will break your heart one moment with a song and then the next moment make you laugh, and I’m like that’s what I want to be, I want to be the guy who goes I am a human being with all these emotions all at once, not the guy who goes ‘Im a tragic poet’, I am a tragic poet, but I am all these other things as well.
Having been to your shows, I can honestly say you are one of the few artists who has made me cry and laugh in equal measures, one moment you are laughing at your in between song chats, the next moment you are listening to a song that breaks your heart.
That’s what we used to talk about in the band, we used to say that the in-between bits were like having the singles, like the hits, if you’ve got no hits, you can’t keep on doing downbeat songs. You have to do something that changes the mood, otherwise where do the gears in the show come from. If you are going to play for an hour and half, you have to have these different moods. So, I watched how other people did it, and realised you can have this rapport, and it be real and honest and funny, and at the same time play a song and completely shut the room up. For me as member of the audience that’s what I like as well, but I don’t think about it too much, it just comes out sometimes because I am an idiot!
I think you are a lot of things but definitely not an idiot. You mentioned Springsteen there, what is it about him?
Very much for me it was the live experience that sold it to me, I was of the generation that sort of only really got to know him through ‘Born in the USA’ , and I thought shouty pub rock. But I investigated a little, and got back into him via ‘Nebraska’ then he released ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad’ , which I then realised that he was all these things, he this rock star with pop songs, but also a Dylan-esque poet. I thought that was interesting as I had never seen anyone be that before, and then I went to see him, and I came away like I had had a religious experience ‘Oh my God he shrunk a 70,000 seater stadium to the size of a backroom in a pub’ How do you even do that, and then I went to see him in various cities and venues both big and small, even saw him on Broadway. Its that thing of going I love the songs, I love now even the cheesy lumpy pseudo Meatloaf songs where it walks that line, I love the beautiful downbeat songs, but even more than that I love the fact that he lets you in. He shares his experience, he brings all his craftmanship to the stage, and goes Im going ro make tonight about you, you’ll be looking at me, but the whole thing about being an artist is that you are holding up this massive mirror, and no one has ever found a mirror as big as Springsteen to make you look at yourself properly - I’m like ‘That’s what I want!’
Yes, exactly – I’ve seen him live a few times, and the thing that has always struck me was that its never just about him, the entire band is included and are part of that show. He lets them all have their moment at the front
Completely, and again in small way that’s something we as a band have discussed, youy leave nothing behind on the stage, if the show isn’t working then you make it work. If you have to drive the show into a ditch and make fools of yourself, then you put it in the ditch and get it back out. The show is about the people who have paid for the ticket, that’s something Springsteen has always said ‘they don’t buy tickets to hear how good you were last night’ , they want to see the show, its their show and its their night. So Springsteen will always make it a show, as he says, his shows are so long not because he is showing off, but he wants it to get to a point where he thinks its value for money, where its been great, and if that takes 4 hours then it takes 4 hours. That’s what I want, I want people to go out on stage and literally bleed for my entertainment, but it not to be about them just under a spotlight. He is the very definition of the stage is bare, I’ll give you what I have to give which are my songs and my band. There is barely a lighting show, there are the jumbotrons either side of the stage so you can see things, but its not about him stealing the light, its about him sharing the light and sharing the spotlight on the audience, taking requests from the bits of cardboard they are holding, bringing them up on stage – I mean, as you can see I am getting carried away, but that’s the sort of passion I want from my artists.
So, back to you as an artist, your debut album ‘Tom McRae’ is 20 this year, how does it feel to have an album that is 20 years old?
Simultaneously, incredibly weird, makes me feel old and I wonder where the time went; and equally well that was a moment, its come and gone. Weirdly for someone’s whose job it is to sell nostalgia, I’m not nostalgic about any of that, I just think oh that was interesting, I’m really glad I made it, it doesn’t sound like me sometimes. Sometimes I feel like I don’t even know where I was in that headspace to write that, it feels like it’s the picture in the attic that ages for you, it’s a moment trapped in time. I’m proud of it, I am incredibly proud of it, I am really happy that that was my first album, I am happy that I got to go through that experience and grateful for all the things it bought me. An artist like me should have never been on a major label - I found myself on a major label with a major publisher, a Mercury nomination, a Brit nomination, these are things that I had no reason or right to expect for someone making that sort of album. So, I spent 10 years bitching, moaning and grieving for the career I never had, and now looking back I’m like ‘oh my god I was so lucky to have ANY of it’.
To me it’s a very raw and emotional album, was a lot of it written from experience or is it just good story telling?
A mixture of both, to quote Springsteen again ‘you can’t tell a story without some of it being personal, because you won’t fell connected to it and therefore your audience won’t’. So for me, there is me in everything, so it is autobiographical certainly on the first album, but I would change a lot of the pro-nouns, and try not to always be trying to write from a selfish point of view. I am essentially a confessional song writer, so I always walk that line; and I was angry, I was 29, I thought my chances at a record deal had gone. I had spent 10 years plus in bands, thinking I’ve already been told I’m too old, I should have quit by now and got myself a job. Then suddenly I have signed a record deal, there was 11 years of being in bands writing songs, and suddenly I get to write my first album, there was a lot of emotion.
So, a track like ‘Bloodless’, where does that come from?
I’d lived through the Thatcher years, I had become a very political, still am, and started looking at becoming a journalist. We then got to the Blair years, and I felt incredibly let down, I thought things were really going to change but we got so far, and they didn’t change. It was my first feeling of being really let down, having hope in a change in the system and it not changing nearly enough. So there are politics wrapped up in that, its sort of a protest song but then equally protest songs only really work if they have a personal element in them as well. So inevitably with my songs they sort of become relationship based, and I have to drag it back to something I feel personally connected to rather than ‘Oh man isn’t the world bad’ I have to say how emotionally I travel through the world otherwise it doesn’t rock you.
I think the entire album stands up as it did then, there are certainly some songs that resonate with all that we are going through now, they sound just a strong now as they did then.
There is something to be said for doing an album really simply, with a production that is very low key, it sort of stands the test of time a bit more. I don’t know, honestly, I sort of shy away from thinking about it too much, because my best song is the one I write tomorrow, and my best album is the one I next release, even if that’s never true. I have to think like that, its kind of well that was nice but its there now and I am firmly in today, so what do I do now, and where do I move on to. I feel connected to them, I love them and I’m grateful and I’m proud, but equally I’m on to other stuff.
Which song by another artist do you wish you had written?
Oooh that’s a really good question, now do I be cool or honest? I’ll be honest!
I have songs that I go back to, call them source songs, they are the songs that from which you can almost hear where all the other songs spring from. Because they literally feel like they have all of the music in them, and they have certainly all of that particular artists catalogue in them. So, I listen to ‘Hearts and Bones’ by Paul Simon, because that one song which you could let slip by as it’s a track that probably wouldn’t be in the Top 20 tracks named by fans. But, if you listen to that song, you’ll hear the Tom & Jerry stuff long before Simon and Garfunkel, Graceland, Rhythm of the Saints, you can hear when he went down the jazzy route, and for me that song is that all encompassing universal song that I mentioned.
BUT, that’s not the song I wish I had written, again it’s a Paul Simon song, I wish I had written ‘American Tune’. For me I can’t think of another song that does the thing we mentioned earlier, which is take the massive broad canvas of life on this planet, shrink it to the human experience, shrink it even further to me as a listener experience, and make that massive political emotional landscape feel like its talking about me, as Tom McRae.
I listen to that song time and time again, the lyrics make me yearn for a better humanity, a better civilisation, to be a better person, a better friend. All those things, it just feels like this song is all of life. So, I wish I had written ‘American Tune’ but honestly, I could play this game all day, so many greats and you learn by stealing other people’s songs. The only time you know you are doing something good as a writer is when I finish a song and play it to my wife or a friend, and I’ll say ‘Have I nicked this from someone, because it feels like it has been around before’, and you know well maybe it’s quite good then because it feels like a song that deserves to exist. Now chances are I have nicked it, I’ve stolen it. But its that recognition, that recognises something about it speaking a truth.
So, you have an obvious passion for song writing, will we see another Tom McRae album? Will we see you touring again?
Well, I’ll let you into a secret, we’ve had to cancel a tour to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the album we discussed earlier (Tom McRae). We have remastered the album, I took the original tapes that we got back from Sony, we went to Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios because it has one of the only existing ovens, you have to bake the tapes in the oven at a steady 55 degrees for 3 days, otherwise the oxide falls off. So that was touch and go, we baked it, we transferred it to digital, I had it remastered by a brilliant mastering engineer at 360, Dick Beethem, down in Hastings, he is one of my favourite mastering engineers. So, we have remastered the album onto 180g Vinyl and that should be released by the time this interview comes out. I have also done 15 demos and unreleased tracks which will appear on a double album CD version, and we obviously had a whole tour booked which we have put back a year. But we are still going to make the album available now, otherwise original copies are currently going for £450 on Ebay, which is insane, so that’s why we are putting it back out into the world.
Final question, and it’s the most important one, my wife and I are very jealous of your Robin taming skills, do you feel this have taken over from your music on your social media?
(Laughing) Well, it’s taken over from the time in the morning where I used to look at my phone, go on to twitter or read an online paper, and I’d be full of rage before I’d even had a coffee. So, a year ago I started to get up early, about 5.30 or 6, and sit in the garden. I realised that if I sat in the garden at that time of day the wildlife is going mental, and these robins were around so I started feeding them. Then when they had hatched their chicks, they came back and dumped their chicks on me as if to say ‘You feed them you idiot human, we’re off’. So I was left having this little robin creche, and I realised that you can only ever think about that moment, you don’t think about what you can fail at, what you’ve been bad at, what the world is turning in to; you go ‘Oh there’s a little baby robin in my hand’ and that made me feel so calm, so this year I decided that I would try to feed them from my hand straight away. So, as soon as the birds arrived I started feeding them, you soon realise that if you get the adults to trust you then the chicks will trust you as well. Again, I sound like some sort of hippy, but I love it, there is something really calming about interacting with nature, and they are not tame, they are still wild animals, they still look at you like ‘just give us food, we don’t care. You care about us, but we don’t care about you’. But, it’s the Wiltshire equivalent of Swimming with Dolphins, that’s how I see it.
And on that surreal note we finish the interview, we have a chat quickly about social media, how my attempts at writing are going, who else I have interviewed, sticking to a routine during times of pandemics and why so many musicians are good cooks. As I said this was a lovely chat, and I have edited some parts out, not that they weren’t interesting, but I didn’t want them to detract from the core topics discussed. Maybe one day I’ll release the full unedited interview, bumbling questions, further robin feeding tips and everything in between, maybe!