Lee MacDougall has come a long way in a short time. This gifted singer/songwriter did what most would never do. He trusted himself and his talent and stepped on the road to his dreams without hesitation. Here is a story worth hearing. We had the opportunity to chat with Lee while he was here touring in the US.
After catching your performance in San Diego, my partner Dave told me that here was a guy to pay attention to. I sat down the following morning and had a wonderful time listening to your music.
To start out Lee, I have to ask you to tell us about the ‘I’m not working at this job!’ moment you had back home in England.
I had just left college and was still living at my parent’s house in Grimsby and had to get a job in the big bad world to start paying rent. I signed up with an agency that was supposed to get decent work for people with qualifications, however, the only job they had going was a job no one else would do at the local Fish Factory. Apparently the last two people to take the job had quit on their first day. My first day ended with me getting into a fight with someone and someone else stealing my sneakers. I had to walk home with no shoes! I told my parents that it wasn’t really the job for me and they gave me a month to sort myself out and find work. That was what pushed me to get my act together.
So you sat down in your bedroom and recorded some demos and then what happened?
Yeah I spent the next three weeks in my bedroom recording demos of all my songs and I sent thirteen CDs on Friday the 13th to labels in London. A couple of days later the phone started ringing and within a week I was living in a hotel in London and negotiating a publishing deal.
Sounds like a movie script. Did you have a contingency plan if the music didn’t work?
To be honest, my dreams of being a high class escort to rich middle aged divorcees was looking slimmer by the day and there was no contingency plan. I just threw everything I had at music and put all of my eggs into one flimsily fashioned basket.
Tell us about the ‘Artistic Movement’ in England.
England is producing a lot of great music at the moment, though I’ve never really felt part of any movements to be honest, so I’m not really qualified to talk about all that. I’m too busy doing my thing. I have noticed a lot of bands around at the minute though with banjos and violins. We have Mumford and Sons to thank for that. They are an amazing band and when any good band emerges there always seems to be another fifty groups sounding exactly the same just around the corner. The London circuit is very folk-heavy at the moment.
You have played all over England, found yourself in China, then to the US…give us an idea of the experience, the differences in the audiences and their expectations.
England has a tendency to become overly focused on what is trendy and what is cool, where as I think Americans just really dig good songs irrespective of who is singing them. As for the Chinese… I loved China! They are just crazy for music over there and you can’t help but love their enthusiasm. I’m really looking forward to seeing how the Europeans react this year too when I go over to play in France, Germany, Austria and Italy.
You have played for thousands in China, big venues like SXSW in Austin Texas, and you play small intimate houses – how do you keep a balance? What do you do in your performances that are different for the various venues?
I don’t consciously do anything differently. I just take each show as it comes. I like each show to develop spontaneously and I like to connect with every audience I play to. I suppose the first thing I do is try and make things as intimate as possible, and I usually get quite involved with the crowd, having a bit of a chat and getting a bit of banter going. This applies to both a tiny coffee shop and a massive venue.
Which do you prefer?
I don’t have a preference. I can honestly say if there are only five people watching I still want every one of them to go home feeling like they’ve had a great night out. Just as much as if I’ve played to a thousand people.
Your lyrics are personal and there is a sense of intimacy when listening to you. What inspires you to write a song?
Whenever I feel passionate about something. Sometimes if something is bothering me or I see something inspiring, I will feel compelled to write about it. Generally it’s girls and sex though…
I have to ask the question, since our site is a songwriter’s site. What comes first, music or lyrics?
Every song is different…. But generally for me it’s a title or theme and then a melody.
Give us a little rundown on your process of writing a song.
I have a notebook with lots of odd lyrics and titles, and generally I’ll just be playing around on my acoustic and when I hit on a melody I like I’ll have a flick through my notebook and match it up with one of the ideas in there.
Do you have a certain expectation every time you sit down to write?
Yeah, I am a bit of a perfectionist and I put a lot of pressure on myself. I believe that you’re only really as good as your last song and I pretty much approach every song wanting it to be the best song I’ve ever written. It’s painstaking and it probably stops me from being as prolific as some people, but then I’m proud of virtually every song I’ve ever written.
This is difficult to put into words, but here goes …when I listen to you I get the sense of being in a conversation with you. There is little distance between the song and the singer – is that intentional? Do you write with that in mind?
I write a lot of lyrics like conversations and so a lot of my songs are very literal and direct. I like people to be able to relate to what I’m singing about and I guess my style is very immediate which seems to draw people in quickly.
Dave enjoyed your live set and I enjoyed the acoustic videos with your accompanist Rob, could you introduce us?
Rob has been my best friend for years. It just so happens that he can sing like Paul McCartney and knows five chords on the guitar. Unfortunately I only found this out 2 years ago haha.
All your songs are heartfelt storytelling – and that is getting you international attention. Do you write songs for others – songs that you would not sing?
I have done that in the past, I had a couple of tunes that almost ended up on a Rascal Flatts record and one that Natalie Imbruglia nearly covered. Lizzy Pattinson is also doing a track of mine at the moment called “Don’t Talk Me Down”. These days though I’m too busy writing songs for myself. I’d like to do a bit more of that in the future though.
It’s clear to me that the Ladies love you and the guys appreciate your talent, is there a darker side in Lee that may one day manifest itself in your music?
Haha I think my music is already pretty dark! I’ve already written about knife crime, drunk driving, domestic abuse and horrific break-ups with girls, I just disguise it with happy melodies! Hopefully one day my nice side will come out in my lyrics haha.
Dave and I admire you for being so courageous and confident in taking on this singer/songwriter path, your boldness is inspiring. What would you tell the aspiring singer/songwriter about that journey?
Be prepared to sacrifice everything. There is always someone out there that wants it more than you and this isn’t an industry for the faint of heart.
This is ticklish … it’s out there that a couple of “fictional characters” hijacked your song. What’s the real story there and how has the controversy been helpful, or difficult for you?
My music was exposed to many fans of the Twilight books through my connection to one of the movie’s actors and having once written a song for him, but nobody hijacked anything. I’ve been told some fans of the book think my song “FallingInLoveForTheLastTime” syncs up quite nicely with the relationship of some of the characters and there are a lot of fan videos on YouTube, but I don’t mind that at all. It’s nice that people feel so positive about one of my songs.
Michael Giltz mentioned your album ‘If Walls Could Talk’ in Huff Fest Entertainment in the Grammy Buzz. How does that affect you and what you do now?
It doesn’t affect me at all really. I was very flattered that he mentioned me in such a big publication and on such a high profile list, especially alongside people that I really admire like Ellie Goulding and Ray Davies from the Kinks, but I’ll just keep doing what I do. I’m just really happy to finally be getting some recognition for the songs I’ve written, especially considering I was the only unsigned artist on there and I recorded the whole record by myself in my bedroom.
When you look back at the days you spent recording songs in your room did you envision what has come to pass?
That was the only thing that kept me going really. I’m just glad that it’s all coming together and I’m now fortunate enough to have this opportunity to make my living by playing music.
Do you see yourself continuing as a performer or are there other challenges you want to take on?
For now this is all I want to do, but I enjoy writing too and would love to try my hand at writing a movie or maybe a book one day too.
Thank you Lee, for the terrific interview. We know you’ll continue to do well, and we wish you the best on your musical journey.
Ta very much!
Lee MacDougall’s EP “If Walls Could Talk”
Listen to a selection of Less’s songs