Murray McLauchlan’s latest album is about relationships of all kinds
To get a clear idea of how Canadian music is different from American or British, it might be wise to get the perspective of a non-Canadian. Veteran singer-songwriter Murray McLauchlan got such an insight many years ago while on tour in Japan.
“There was this great moment where a Japanese university student asked me a bunch of questions that suggested he was really knowledgeable about what went on musically in Canada,” Murray said. “I think his first question was, ‘What’s Bruce Murdoch doing now?‘ and I went, ‘How the fuck do you know about Bruce Murdock?’ He said, ‘Oh, we love Canadian music! Very different from American music, very different from British music’. I said, ‘How’s that?’ He said, ‘Oh…a wind blows through it!’. I went, ‘Wow, OK!’ and it spun me out. We have this kind of ’48th Parallel’ mentality I guess that we think of ourselves as being very close to what Americans are but we’re kind of not. I think there’s a sort of small sense that Canadians have, that we exist at the discretion of the country. We don’t control it”
Murray’s new album, Hourglass explores the relationship between us and the landscape, but more importantly the relationships we have with each other, whether rich or poor, Black or White. That being said, the songs themselves were never intended to be songs.
“It’s really uncharacteristic of the way I work normally, but they all began life as poems,” Murray explained, “and I had been sitting around playing guitar a lot because, like most people, I wasn’t touring. I had started finding these really cool little licks, little guitar bits, little pieces that I really liked. There was one particular poem, ‘The One Percent’ – I wrote out this poem, and it was kind of a tirade, and then I put it to this big four-beat anthemic melody/groove, and I went, ‘Fuck, I hate this! I hate the way it sounds. I hate it.’ And then for some reason I had this little F# minor to E guitar lick that I’d been playing, and I [thought], ‘I wonder?’ The old adage that maybe you can catch more flies with honey came to the fore, and I found out the weighty lyric sat really well in a kind of beautiful and light melodic structure. So they’re very approachable [songs] and very down to the point. I don’t think there’s any ambiguity about what those songs are about.”
Murray refers to them as children’s songs for adults.
“That was the idea anyway,” he said, “to try and make stuff that was approachable and melodic and simple that people could [say], ‘Oh, yeah, I like that!'”
Over the last number of years there have been many songs written in reaction to the numerous incidents involving conflict and death. The killing of George Floyd and other Blacks in the U.S. and Canada, the Occupy Wall Street movement and the ongoing oppression of Indigenous people have inspired some songwriters to create new works in the immediate aftermath. This “reactionary” approach to songwriting is not one Murray engages in.
“I believe that if it doesn’t sit and filter through your humanity for a while, it’s in danger of simply becoming a polemic. I don’t really think that’s a good approach to try and make something artistic and lasting,” he said. “Some of the songs on the record are immediately and obviously related to events that happened, ones that were immensely emotional. Front and center would be the murder of George Floyd. ‘I Live On A White Cloud’ is dedicated to George, but I’m old enough to have memories of times immediately before the Civil Rights movement and the history of the post-Jim Crow era and the fact [is] that here in Canada we don’t get off scot free. I had a very good friend, almost 15 years ago, a really successful Black man, [who] was late for something and [he] quipped to me, ‘Yeah, I got a DWB’. I said, ‘What’s that?’ and he said, ‘You’re kidding? That’s a Driving While Black’. He drove a nice car, and he was well-dressed. But when the police pulled him over it was, ‘Keep your hands on the wheel’. It was an unpleasant experience, quite different from how I would be treated. So letting all of that plus the murder of George Floyd filter through, my approach was, ‘OK, I’ve gotta turn my eyeballs around and look inside me, see what’s there, and not flinch from what I might find. Is that disease in me? So ‘I Live On A White Cloud’ is really a song about examining the fact life is very very different for a person such as myself as it is for a person of colour.”
As has been documented many times before, the pandemic has challenged many a performer who wishes to record a new album. Murray seems to have overcome any obstacles with “The McLauchlan Theory of Music”.
“You put people in a room that can play…and you record it!” he said. “It doesn’t get much more simple than that. I know some friends who are really, really adept players, and they get what it is that I do .[Plus] I love working in Kensington Sound [Studios]. It’s like the Muscle Shoals of Toronto. It’s an atmospheric studio that has a really unique vibe, a distinct sound. So we masked up, we distanced, we baffled, we did all the appropriate things, and we started cutting these songs live off the floor. I wasn’t necessarily going, ‘Oh, I’m going to make an album’. I really liked what we got. They were really solid songs.”
And it wasn’t just that Murray had some great songs that we wanted to put down.
“Part of my motivation too was, nobody was working! I thought, let’s get moving here and do a project that will get my musical friends out of the doldrums, put some money in their jeans and have some fun while we’re doing it. So we carried that right through and finished all the other tracks. I ended up having way too many songs.”
Once the final choices of songs were made, the mixing/mastering was done and the videos created; all that was missing for Murray was the touring.
“Believe me, I really do miss it. There’s no greater barometer of your success as a songwriter than having the audacity to take them in front of people and sing them. Folks in a theatre are very good judges of whether you succeeded or not.”
One of the songs on Hourglass is “A Thomson Day (for Tom Thomson”. Murray is a skilled painter himself with works hanging at the True North Gallery in Waterdown, ON. Has the lack of touring provided him more time to paint?
“I’m ashamed to admit I have done almost none except for a portrait of Gordon Pinsent, which I gave to him!” he said.
Murray tries to paint a variety of subjects but seems to be drawn time and again to landscapes.
“My big idea at one point was going up to Red Lake and [painting] vanishing float plane culture. What did I end up doing? I ended up getting gobsmacked by Nipigon Bay and ended up doing landscapes! That’s kind of how it works. I can’t explain it. I think it has something to do with the country.”
(For the curious, singer-songwriter Bruce Murdoch lives in Ormstown, QC. His latest album is 2015’s Sometimes I Wonder Why The World.)