When I sat down to write a short bio for the lead to this interview, I found that whatever I wrote was inadequate. This is one of the best chats I have ever had with a singer/songwriter. Larry John McNally has most certainly mastered his craft as demonstrated by his ability to write in many genres, but also by the number of artists that have covered his songs. What profoundly struck me was how comfortable he is in his skin. So I forgo the usual and let you discover the man for yourselves. I have interviewed hundreds of talented folks these last years and each was gifted and offered insights into a songwriter’s journey. I think you will find that Larry John McNally is a treasure. For the singer/songwriter this will be a treat – enjoy our chat!
I’m very pleased we had a chance to chat. Let’s start with you giving us a bit of your history
I grew up in Bangor, Maine during the time that Motown ruled the radio. What an incredible contribution to popular music came out of Detroit. That explains my song: “The Motown Song” that Rod Stewart recorded in 1990. I liked Rod as well, “Maggie May”, “Handbags & Gladrags”, “Mandolin Wind”, etc. Like everyone in the 60’s I had an electric guitar and a band, starting at age 13. Jimi Hendrix was my hero. Yes, I had an afro, that my parents must have thought was ridiculous. Now, my teenage son has a mohawk. Looks cool, I think! I’m teaching him to drive a stick shift in my old Volvo p1800. The girls roll down the window to tell him what a cool car he has. Wait, it’s MY car! Oh, never mind! Pass it on. The young lions picking up the torch of glory and carrying it on. I made a couple of albums in the 80’s. I was just finding my voice, through trial and error. In 1992 I’d had some success with Bonnie Raitt, and Rod Stewart, Aaron Neville and others doing my songs, so I moved to New York which I’d always wanted to do. I felt like I found home. It was so inspiring. The poetry of street life, not to mention, hot summers, cold winters, crime, filth, and high rent! Still, I jumped into the live downtown scene there, unlike Los Angeles, where all we did was write songs and pray they got picked by the record machine. I was involved with a scene of New York musicians and it was so much fun, The 55 Bar with Leni Stern, The Living Room, and then gigs in Europe. It’s what I always wanted to do. My son was born and I ended up back in LA – kind of depressing, oddly enough. Too much sun, but a lot easier on the day to day level. I focused on writing and recording and, at least in my opinion, feel like I finally found my “recorded voice.” Many people seem to feel that my album “Buddy Holly” was the first one to really gel. Better late than never.
Given your long and prodigious run as a successful songwriter and singer, I can’t think of another person better suited to have a conversation with about the know-how stuff and the bells and whistles of songwriting, performing, and the biz associated with it. What had you start writing?
I discovered Allen Toussaint when I was about 16, along with Mose Allison and Jackson Browne. I liked the R&B New Orleans feel of Toussaint, the jazz coolness and lyric wordplay of Mose, and the psychological depth of Jackson Browne. That was what I wanted to do. Also, for reasons not clear to me, I liked the idea of other people recording my songs. I didn’t yet know about the money. It wasn’t that I wasn’t capable of singing my own songs, I just thought it was cool. Back in the day of liner notes, reading who wrote the songs, I wanted in on that. There was a Tom Rush album where Tom recorded songs by Joni Mitchell, and Jackson Browne, etc. I heard there first, those great songs like “These Days” and “Circle Game.”
You had success early on in your life placing songs with other artists. Tell us how that came about.
When I finished college in Maine I headed straight for New Orleans. My sister was managing a dinner theatre there so I stayed with her and worked in the kitchen. I borrowed her car one day and drove to Toussaint’s studio with my tape. Here’s to naiveté. I knocked on their door and they let me in. Aaron Neville recorded my song (“Struttin’ On Sunday”) and I was off and running. Out to Los Angeles, where my friend was playing in the R n B scene with Natalie Cole. We met Chaka Khan and she recorded two of our songs. I was in. Now all I had to do was figure out how to write songs, by more than just sheer luck and a prayer. Also, the quality level of writers and musicians there, was so much higher than my hometown scene. I’d have to roll up my sleeves and really work at it. If you’re going to write lyrics, the more reading, the more control of language you have, the better. There are many great songs like “Wild Thing” that are not literary, but I wanted to be as good as Leonard Cohen and writers of that ilk. It takes a lot of woodshedding. Later on I went to Berklee School of Music in Boston where I got my harmonic foundation squared away. C, F and G chords were not going to be enough, though of course, sometimes they are all you need
You have put out some amazing music my friend. When I listened to your earlier work and up to your newest work, which is all fantastic, I did get a maturing in song construction, lyric choice, delivery and all. If I got that right can you speak to your journey?
Attention to detail, hours home alone, and hours on stage, lead to mastery. If the music is in you, you have to put in your 10,000 hours to gain control. That is, the lightness necessary to be able to float over, in and around the music, and find your voice. I used to grasp the guitar tightly and never move off the chord patterns that someone had taught me. Now I know that it is simply the 12 notes of the western scale that you are playing with. Leni Stern has a song called “Sandbox.” That’s exactly what it is, and by the way, I learned a lot from her.
Do you have a process when writing? What motivates you to write a song?
I don’t like to pick up my guitar until I have a lot of lyrics to work with. I like to have 10-20 pages in my writing notebook, before I even start, though usually there is some music figure or rhythm in my head already. I’m writing a song now called “Provide”, about the responsibilities of fatherhood. There was an episode of “Breaking Bad” that talks about this subject. I go searching. What does the Bible say about it? What have poets written about it? What do I feel about it? What rhymes with provide? A lot! Then I write phrases with the words that rhyme with provide, for example, “I had to decide…” From the dark forest of my unconsciousness, the story starts to emerge.
What must be in a Larry John McNally song?
In order for me to feel satisfied, the song has to evoke a strong emotional reaction in me. Not until then will it evoke a reaction from the listener. I like to have one key line that is the “bomb”, the denouement, like “she’s fragile like a string of pearls” was in my song, “Nobody’s Girl.” I like having chord changes or some musical element that will make it fun to perform over and over again. I don’t really like recording all that much. It’s a stiff and airless environment. The songs don’t really come alive until you stand in front of a live audience and it becomes a shared experience.
Do you write songs differently if the song is for you to perform, as opposed to a song written to pitch to another artist?
No, I only write what I feel like writing. If I feel it, there’s a bigger chance that another singer will feel it. You can never second guess what someone else will like.
I know you write and love poetry and you are a fine artist as well as a singer/songwriter what is in you that demands that creative output?
Good Question. I’m not sure I know. When my daughter was very young she saw the carpenters across the street and called them the “Makers.” That’s what I am mostly, a “Maker.’ I’ve done my share of construction work along the way, by the way, and it’s just as satisfying, if not more so, than writing songs. It’s satisfying to construct this thing, a song, that in my case has walked down the street without me. My songs will live on without me, long after I’m gone (I hope). There’s an artist named Ernie Halter who does a great version of “Nobody’s Girl”. It’s all over YouTube. I saw him play it in a club. He didn’t know me, but he sure brought my creation to life. When I hear the great Mavis Staples sing my song (“Real Good Thing”) believe me, I feel like it’s all been worthwhile.
I love your songs with a band, but I’m knocked out by your storytelling – just you and a guitar. There are merits and pitfalls to writing and performing both ways – which better suits the artistic soul of Larry McNally?
Well, many have said that they prefer me alone. I’m free to pace the song with no distractions. Still, having said that, there have been drummers I’ve worked with who helped me lift the roof off the house, not to mention this girl, Nichelle Monroe who I sing and record with now. It is magic when we lock into a mood together!
This is not an obvious question but I think one everyone who masters any craft, as you most certainly have, there comes a point where you recognize in yourself that you are satisfied with your skills – you have it together. Have you reached that point?
Yeah, I feel that I have, though playing a solo the other night, I felt like I need some new licks! Like I said earlier, it’s a feeling of floating over the music, all the notes work, everything feels good, add a measure, bring it down, bring it up, it’s all good!
You have placed songs with The Nevilles, Joe Cocker, Don Henley, Bonnie Raitt and many others. As a songwriter, what goes on in you when you hear a completely different interpretation of your song than the way you wrote it?
I’ve asked some friends of mine to pick a song from my new album (“Adios Pony Boy”) and to record it for a sort of tribute album. My instructions to them were to not feel any obligation to do the song in any way like I do it. Rap the chorus over a banjo loop, speak the lyrics acapella, anything, just NOT the way I perform it. I’m 5 songs in now and it’s so much fun. It gives the songs new life. Michael Ruff sings a version of my new song “Carroll Gardens.” I feel a tear stream down my cheek every time I hear him sing it. It’s about being a father, and I know he knows the feeling, the way he delivers it. The songs aren’t just songs, they are celebrating some aspect of the human condition, the good, bad, happy and sad. We’re singing to, and with, each other, as if to say, isn’t life amazing. We’re all in this together.
You and I off the record shared some stories about being singer/songwriters along the road. There are so many young singer/songwriters out there working hard at their craft – and so many so afraid of making a bad business choice along the way. I will share a quote from you, if you need to give a nod to its genesis please do : “What if you sell out and it still doesn’t sell!” Any words of wisdom for the singer/songwriters out there?
That quote is from a song I just released called “Goodbye New York.” The line that follows is “what a stupid thing to do.” I’m not much on giving advice, but here goes; only do it if you feel like doing it. There’s no predicting if the world will open up to you or not, or what the world wants anyway, so just do what feels right. There’s no making sense of what is successful or what is not. It’s always good to have a significant other who supports you in what you want to do for better or for worse. Making money is always good, but usually with music there are up times (hopefully), and down times. You have to keep going, no matter what, that is, if it still feels right. There are a lot of cool things to do in life other than music, so don’t kill yourself over it. Still, having said that, it’s amazing to me the places I’ve been and people I’ve met as a result of my music. Here’s to even more!
You have been around to watch the music business change over the years. Certainly the Internet has made information available to everyone, including music. How do you see the business today and where do you see it going?
Well, to be honest, I don’t know how anyone is going to be able to do music full time anymore, without a wife or husband who has a “real” job. The Spotify and Pandora royalty system is not enough to live on in any way. With the exception of a handful of musicians like Taylor Swift and Adele, the money is very, very low now. That won’t stop people from writing and playing music, however. It’s just not going to be spilling down gold and riches like it used to. I have some young friends out touring the country now, and the only money they make is, the CD sales and a hundred dollars here and there. To be fair, I think they are probably having the time of their lives, but when their girlfriends decide they want to start having a family and when the mortgage payment starts to come due every 30 days, it may be a different story. I don’t think that old school radio, ASCAP and BMI, and physical CDs, will be around much longer.
We haven’t pointed at any of your songs and we should. You have so many great songs and the readers can click on your link below to find them. My suggestions for our readers is your YouTube solo vids of “Nobody’s Girl”, “For My Wedding”, “Richie”, and the rockin’ R&B tune “Just Like Paradise.” Tell us about how these songs came into being.
Each of those songs is along story in and of itself. Here are brief versions of the stories: “Nobody’s Girl”;
I started writing this in 1987 and it came out in 1989 on Bonnie Raitt’s album “Nick of Time.” I had released an album on Atlantic in 1986 that my song “The Motown Song” was on, but wouldn’t be a hit until Rod Stewart released it a few years later. Around February of ’87, my record deal and publishing deal ended. I looked around for other situations but, no go. It was a rough year. My girlfriend and I split up, my dog died, my mother got sick, and I had no income. A friend managed to find me a construction job. This was uphill. I’d never done it before but I discovered that I liked it. The customers were so appreciative. The waitress at the coffee shop was happy to see me at 7 am. No backbiting and competition. Just work and getting paid. I liked having cash in my pocket that I had earned. No advances to pay back. I’d get up at 5 am, work on my guitar playing and write a bit. No more writing songs to try and make music biz types happy. I wrote exactly what I felt like writing. At one point I decided to send out tapes of some new songs I was writing, to Eric Clapton, c/o Warner Bros Records, for instance, Bonnie Raitt, etc. Fat chance of those envelopes ever getting opened. One afternoon the phone rang. It was Bonnie Raitt. She loved a song I had written called “Independent.” She too, was independent, as her long time Warner Bros. contract had expired. The feeling at the time was that artists like Bonnie and Van Morrison were past their prime. They were cleaning out their rosters. Bonnie and I became friends. Later in the year I gave her a tape of songs in progress, including a half written version of “Nobody’s Girl.” She said that she liked that one and if I ever finished it to let her know. I finished it. In February of the next year she went in and recorded it and a few other songs to try and secure another record deal. If things didn’t work out, her manager would release it on his own small label. Enter Don Was and Capitol Records. A year later the album came out and went platinum immediately. The following year it won 6 Grammys and sold 6 million records. This was good news! Shortly thereafter, I had a top ten hit with Rod Stewart, and then Aaron Neville and Jennifer Warnes released my songs. OK, now what? I could afford to do whatever I wanted to do. What would that be? First, I decided to travel and spend time in the other music cities I’d never visited, Nashville, London, and Paris. I had always dreamt of living in Paris and now I could. I liked Paris, but all the music there is in French (obviously) and though I had grown up with French, this was not going to be home for me. I stopped in New York on my way home to visit my father in Maine and I realized that this is the place. I was right. I digress
On to the story of the next song, “For My Wedding.” I wrote this song in New York. I was pondering the meaning of marriage. What is it about? The success rate remains at around 50%, and of those 50% who remain married, well, many songs have been written. I think it’s fair to say that the song is a prayer of hope against the odds. I played it one night at The Bluebird Cafe in Nashville. A friend from Maine, Jude Johnstone, was also playing that night, and she loved the song. She had been in touch with Don Henley and she sent him the recording from that evening’s live show. He called me, and the rest is history as they say. I hear from many people around the world about this song, that it’s been sung at their wedding, or a wedding they attended, and how much it touched them.
“Richie” This song is from my album “Dandelion Soul.” There is a second version of it on there that was more or less a jam during the recording session – much less structured, but so much better. Why is that? Regards the inspiration for the song, there were 3 brothers that I was around and sometimes living with, in Baton Rouge. Richie worked on oil rigs in the Gulf. 10 days on, 10 days off. The ten days off were a blur of wildness. Something was bothering Richie. It’s a long story. I saw no future in his eyes. Neither did the police who shot him. God bless him, wherever he is.
“Just Like Paradise” This was the first single from my Columbia album. It was a step forward into a deeper level of writing for me. People loved the song, and still do. I still hear from fans all over the world about it. It was a summer song. It charted, but not for long. Hey, many are called, few are chosen. This was my first education into payola and the radio promotion game. (Loss of innocence.) I’ve recently re-recorded this song with Petra Haden. It will be on my album “Yard Sale” later in 2013. I love the freshness of her singing and violin playing. I had seen her playing with Bill Frisell and was enchanted by her unstudied, yet musical approach.
You are working on an exciting new musical venture “La Cienega Project.” Fill us in.
La Cienaga Collective is me with 3 Colombians, a drummer from Ecuador, a bass player from Cuba sometimes, and several other Latin musicians who drift in and out of the gigs and recording sessions. I’ve been writing songs and singing in Spanish and it’s so much fun. It wasn’t something I pursued, it just happened naturally. The elementary school my son attended was run by a group of Colombians. Every Friday morning the parent band would play. This is LA, mind you so the musicians and the parents in the “audience” can be an all star cast of celebrities. I won’t name names. The Spanish teacher’s son Andres Ospina and I became friends. I started playing bass with him. The Dia de los Muertos festivals were amazing. The Latin audience and Latin parties are a true celebration. Have I mentioned the food?! The drummer in this band, Danilo Arroyo, has a groove you can float on, and I’ve used him in my white boy music as well. So much fun! We are recording an album now and I can’t wait to visit Colombia for the first time to perform. I must have mentioned somewhere in this interview that the whole point of music is to celebrate life, all the joy and the sorrow, and I do. I’ve been a very lucky person, and whatever the trials and tribulations, I hope to keep doing it for a long time to come.
What else should we know about Larry John McNally?
First, here’s what’s coming out next; my album “Adios Pony Boy” went out to iTunes and Spotify today. I’ll be releasing an alternative mixes version soon, and the tribute versions sometime in 2014. I have a re-mastered collection album called “Discovered” with 2 new songs coming out in Fall 2013. Finally, there’s an odds and ends album called “Yard Sale” that will be out once I master it. There are some cool unreleased songs on there that just didn’t fit on the albums they were more or less outtakes from. I work on my visual art a lot and would love to do shows where both my music and art are featured.
Now that my kids are beyond the elementary school phase, I hope to get out and tour again. I remember my daughter having a “Daddy Donut Day” in 3rd grade. I had booked a gig in Nashville near that time and wasn’t going to be able to do the donuts with Daddy event. Fortunately the gig cancelled, and after attending the donuts day, I realized what a disaster it would have been for my daughter to be the only one without her dad there. I’m not booking any more shows out of town anywhere near the flurry of school events in June! Kids need you to be there for them, and I want to be there to enjoy them before they are off into the big world without me.
If you happen to be at a show of mine, please come up and say hello. It makes it all worthwhile to connect with the people for whom the music matters, as much as it matters to me. Best of everything to all of you who’ve taken the time to listen to my music!
Larry John McNally
‘Adios Pony Boy‘
Purchase on iTunes
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