Murray McLauchlan Part One: I'm not a firm believer in retirement
by Scott Roos
photo courtesy Eric Alper
It’s 2021 and Canadian music icon Murray McLauchlan has just released his 20th album entitled Hourglass (released July 9th on True North Records). Take a second and let that sink in. Now consider also that McLauchlan’s debut record Song From the Street was released in 1971. Take another second. That means, over the last fifty years, McLauchlan has tirelessly continued to work on honing and perfecting his craft. He’s a Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame inductee, an Order of Canada recipient and 11-time JUNO Award-winner. In short, McLauchlan literally has nothing left to prove but yet here he is. He’s still got things to say. There’s still gas left in the tank. Hourglass is far from being an old man telling us all to get off his lawn. It’s a fresh and politically relevant take for a new generation eager to hear his message.
"Yeah. I'm not a great believer in retirement,” McLauchlan tells NSMZ, “I don't understand why anyone would ever do that; at least anyone who's in the arts. I've worked very hard to try over the years to get better at what I do and constantly reinvent it. I think I'm starting to get to the point where I feel pretty confident about what I do now. Even though one album or project may be different conceptually or tonally or stylistically from another they still have that common thread of wanting to try out something different or new. It's still kind of a voyage of discovery for me."
Through the turgid waters of the politically divisive last few years, McLauchlan has become invigorated once more. He’s an artist that has always had the ability to say exactly what he needs to in the moment. This go round, Hourglass sees him tackling the subject of racism and privilege. He’s also voicing his frustrations about the left vs right political divide. His passion is evident throughout the ten tracks on the record.
"Hourglass is a different project again because principally there had been a lot of social issues that had been kind of really making themselves felt in my heart and I started writing poems about them and they kind of blurted out I guess and then somehow magically found their way to being songs,” explains McLauchlan.
McLauchlan had never tried to write that way before. He’s also spent the last few years, especially during the height of the pandemic, improving his skills on the guitar. So again, the method of writing was altered considerably as a result.
“I really started to love seriously playing the guitar. I thought I better get better at it before I can't. So I've been working really hard on my playing for quite some time now. I don't really practice per se. What I do is I play and I invent little guitar pieces and interesting licks and tonalities and things that I just sit and play because they sound good to me,” adds McLauchlan.
The result was that McLauchlan had written a series of what he calls “little guitar pieces” that he could fall back on in his crafting and arranging of his new material. In a sense, these guitar pieces serve as melodic hooks in absence of the poems having the classic verse chorus verse format.
“The songs on Hourglass are all poems so I'm not writing songs initially per se. So they don't necessarily have song structure. They don't have a chorus that people can go and sing to, so the part that I tried to reference, the thing you keep going back to, ended up being the little guitar piece thing. And all the songs on Hourglass kind of have that. They all kind of reference back to a little guitar lick or a little piece,`` McLauchlan continues.
The end result of Hourglass is that each song has something politically relevant to say in a way only McLauchlan can say it. And whilst there might not be the hooks in the verbiage that you’d expect, the songs themselves are simple enough, and direct enough, that they are still memorable and meaningful. It’s been described that McLauchlan was almost writing children’s songs with a more adult themed message.
(Like children’s songs) I wanted the songs to be accessible enough that people could understand what they were about quite readily. The other major feature of children's songs is that it doesn't work when you try to be clever with kids. It really doesn't work. And so I wasn't really trying to be clever. I was just trying to write simply and directly about things that I felt very strongly about," said McLauchlan.
All this being said, the method may be different this go round with Hourglass but how McLauchlan finds inspiration is still tried and true. He knows in his own writing when he’s on the right track. Hourglass is a prime example.
"I'm not totally sure but I suspect that what it really amounts to is a visceral feeling that 'you've got it right' and a really strong desire to take it out and for people to hear it. That's always been the case with the things that I've written that I thought were really at the top of my game whether it was 'Child Song' or 'Whispering Rain' or any of those songs that people have loved over the years. They all have a certain grace to them and when they were finished I went 'yeah, for right now at this very moment in time I don't think I can do any better than that'"
At press time, McLauchlan has not listed any tour dates on his social media but hopefully he'll be able to get out and perform some of these tracks live. In the meantime, you can enjoy Hourglass by purchasing the record wherever CDs are sold or via your favourite streaming service.