Herald’s Q&A: Eamon McGrath

Tireless troubadour Eamon McGrath brings his soulful songwriting and DIY attitude across Newfoundland and Labrador this August

Just looking at your touring schedules in recent years and it’s pretty incredible just the lengths you’re going and the cities and towns you’re hitting, big and small. Tireless touring would be an understatement in your case.

I think that given the type of music that I play, song based is how I like to put it. When people ask me what it is I do I say either it’s loud country music or quiet punk rock. But it’s songs first and foremost. I think inherent in devoting your life to that kind of song craft comes the responsibility of actually transporting and travelling with the song. And that’s a thing that I think in Newfoundland is a very relatable sentiment. 

Newfoundland comes from that Irish- folk tradition which always involved travelling and the act of taking the music to the people. Having a story about a place or a person and wanting to tell a story to people that don’t know it yet is the fundamental kind of linchpin in the history of folk music in my opinion. To me that’s part of the art form. If you’re going to write songs you have to travel with them.  

Between side projects, two albums, a book and the massive amounts of touring, you’ve been keeping yourself active in just about every facet of the game. It’s very much that punk DIY sensibility. How have you been able to keep up with it all without burnout?

With the music industry, I hate the pretentiousness and the arrogance, thinking that somehow you have the key to the lock of success. I hate all that s**t and I hate the dance that’s involved. I hate the music conferences, the lanyards, the brown-nosing, it drives me insane. But what I do like is the idea of owning the means of your own production and making plans that are attainable and doing things in a way that’s feasible and controlling your own success, insofar as if you have a record and you take it on the road to sell, people will buy it. If you want to do that it means you’ve always got to have product. 

I see it as this sort of symbiotic relationship between not having the time and energy to deal with the frustrations and trappings of the modern Canadian music industry but also kind of having this sort of fascination with it. 

Everybody has a theory, you know? If you sing this kind of music and you wear this kind of coat and  you’re on this television show or you’re on this Instagram account you’re going to be huge. And that’s all like speculative. But what I can tell you is that if I press a thousand records and I sell them all for X amount of money and then I take them on the road and sell them till they’re gone, I’m going to make back. That’s just a tried and true mercantile approach. It’s never failed people. Understanding exactly how something’s gonna work when you put the numbers into it and doing everything they can to make that process move for yourself. 

That’s why I think that I’m able to tour as you put it so relentlessly or tirelessly because it’s the puzzle that I’m putting together with my own effort. I’m not waiting for an agent to send me an offer for a tour, I’m not sitting around. And I think a lot of musicians get burnt out on not just touring but the act of just desperately waiting for something to happen to them and I just don’t think I’ve ever done that.  

Take us through the writing process for your new album Guts. There are a lot of weighty themes at play here. 

It was a record that was made in a period of a lot of struggle. I was dealing with the death of my grandfather. A lot of friends of mine, who were women in the music industry in Canada, were coming forward with some pretty awful news about people. And I took a month off of drinking to try and get my head together and figure out what the hell I was going to do with the next release in the next year of my life and trying to juggle a recording session, 180 shows, writing a new book. It was like a period of intense reflection and that was translated in the writing, the songs on the record. 

For the most part it was like me trying to figure out as a guy how to continue being an artist and offering my perspective on the world and expressing myself without silencing other people who maybe wouldn’t be able to do that. The answer is not to complain about who or where or how you were born. The answer is to behave in a way that doesn’t facilitate evil. That’s what it comes down to. 

With this upcoming tour of the island you’re really making that time to hit all the nooks and crannies of the island, something few if any artists do. What’s your opinion of the island from past experiences and what led you to putting together such a wide tour of it?

I’d be remiss as a mainlander to call it Canada, to be honest with you. I have an incredibly deep respect for Newfoundland, on like a spiritual level. I love it. From the minute I first arrived I was pretty blown away. On an emotional level Canadians really tend to really turn their back on the working class and it’s a pretty despicable thing. I think it’s an awful behaviour that we have. In Alberta, Ontario there’s this kind of like pompousness to people that might seem less educated or less wealthy or whatever you want to say. But there’s a massive amount of judgement that happens, which is pretty repulsive. 

But Newfoundland, what’s so amazing is that you have to be so on your toes. You can never underestimate anybody because the most down on their luck looking, most unfortunate looking guy on the street of St. John’s is an A-grade, top shelf musician. That’s something that’s stuck with me forever. You cannot ever write anybody off. Not that you should do that ever in your life anyway, but in Newfoundland it’s like there’s something in the water. I just don’t know how you could be a musician and not want to play music there. 

Eamon McGrath’s NL tour begins August 15th in St. John’s and includes nine shows through August 24th. For more information visit eamonmcgrath.ca

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