Not that fame ever was this troubadour's ambition. Instead, McNally set out from his home in Maine and headed to New Orleans as a teenager with the intention of following in the footsteps of his more esoteric idols, Allen Toussaint and Mose Allison. "I thought it was cool that other people were recording their songs. I wanted to be like that. It didn't diminish their own artistry in my eyes" says Larry, who'd go on to get his first big break - Aaron Neville cutting his song, "Somewhere, Somebody" - after borrowing his sister's car and driving his tape to Toussaint's studio in 1979: "They let me in and the rest is history."
"History," indeed. Over the last 30 years, Larry John McNally has not only garnered gold albums and Top 10 hits, but also a huge respect among musicians and music fans alike. It's not surprising - anyone reading this fascinating interview will find it hard not to be swept up by his infectious and inspiring passion for songcraft. After all, to quote Larry: "As songwriters, we are the articulators for the inarticulate. We give voice to those who don't know how to give voice to all that comes with the human experience."
And how much greater the human experience is for it.
Larry John McNally: I went to a party Saturday night a few houses down the street from me. It was a birthday party for a producer/player/songwriter who has worked with Adele, Katy Perry, and many other artists. It was a fun mix of talent with cross currents through a number of musical generations. I fell into a conversation with a pianist from London who loves the music of New Orleans. We talked about Professor Longhair, The Meters, and then about The Hampstead Heath, and more. Earlier, I spoke with a young guitarist who is in love with the pedal steel and using it outside of the context of Nashville and country music. There was a pianist playing who'd played with Miles Davis, and some singing going on that was stellar. This is what makes it all worthwhile. This is what I dreamed of, growing up in small town America, daydreaming out my window, of music and faraway places. So gratifying to be at home now in those far away places and walk in musical circles I only dreamed of, long ago.
The house I grew up in was not musical. My parents lived a blue collar work ethic. They thought of records as a waste of money, and music a frivolous pursuit. Of course, I saw the poet hidden in their eyes.
My father sang "Danny Boy" a capella, and I can't hear it now without a tear rolling down my cheek. Music was for me, a way out, transcendence, and it still is.
I started playing in bands at 13. I had no idea what I was doing on the guitar or with my singing, but something kept me going at it. I played a lot of blues and wrote a few simple 12-bar blues songs, one about New York City. That may have been my first song. I'm still writing about New York City, hopefully with a bit more depth. It took a long time for me to understand and master the craft of songwriting, and the theories of harmony behind the music I was struggling to master. One reason I like doing song seminars now is that I want to share what I know with up-and-coming writers who represent to me my younger self, who was clueless, in the dark, fumbling, searching for a light switch. Inspiration is not craft, but craft can set the stage for inspiration to appear.
At one point I discovered The Berklee Guitar Method Book Volume 1. Learning these chord changes led me to writing the first songs of mine that were, keepers, even if somewhat raw and naïve.
Somewhere around the time I was 16, I discovered Allen Toussaint and Mose Allison. I thought it was cool that other people were recording their songs. I wanted to be like that. It didn't diminish their own artistry in my eyes. I liked the idea of a music community, of sharing and interpreting each other's work. When The Who recorded Mose's song "Parchman Farm," it wasn't written for them, it just spoke to them. That's what I hoped would happen for me and it did. What an incredible thrill hearing Pops Staples reinventing what had been my private thoughts and giving them a new life. ["The Turning Point" recorded by The Staples Singers]. My songs walk down the street without me now, like a teenager who has won his independence. What pride I feel when I see my son, now six feet tall. If he was mine once, he isn't now, related, yes, but he is his own being.
When I left home I went directly to New Orleans. My sister ran a dinner theatre there and I worked for her in the kitchen. I borrowed her car and drove with my tape to Allen Toussaint's studio. They let me in and the rest is history. Aaron Neville recorded my song. Actually, it wasn't released for a number of years, and I only found out by accident that it was on a Charly Records compilation, Sehorn's Soul Farm. What a thrill, placing the needle down on the vinyl, that day. More recently, it was featured on the TV series Treme. One regret I carry is that they offered to produce me as an artist, and I said no. They wanted to own 100% of my songs, and would give me no money whatsoever. What a deal! But, I missed out on a life experience.
I lived in Portland, Maine in my early 20s. I played the club circuit and worked on writing and performing my early songs. The work from that period was the basis of my first album. There was a club called The Sun Cafe. The owner's brother came to visit and we sat down to write songs together. Co-writing was awkward. It still is for me. It's hard to maintain clarity of vision with the pressure of someone else sitting there. I've learned craft enough to know how to do it, but I still prefer the process of a song unfolding in my own unconscious, outside of time and criticism. The songs of Leonard Cohen. That's the intensity that I aspire to:
"It's 4 in the morning, the end of December, I'm writing you now just to see if you're better..." ["Famous Blue Raincoat"]
Of course, I'm still taken in by pop confection like Lady Gaga's "Applause"- can't deny the groove and directness of music like that!
Songfacts: Chaka Khan is another artist who was there from the very beginning. In 1978, she recorded two of your songs, "Sleep on It" and "A Woman in a Man's World," for her debut album, Chaka. How was it working with Khan so early into her music career?
McNally: Watching Chaka and producer Arif Mardin at work was amazing. This was my first time being invited to participate in something at that level. That level, of course being the highest it gets in pop music. The band was Richard Tee on piano, Hamish Stuart and Steve Ferrone from Average White Band, who were kings in New York at that time, Anthony Jackson on bass, and more, working at the legendary Atlantic Studios. At one point in the recording of a song I'd co-written, "A Woman in a Man's World," Arif walked out to the piano and said that he felt the song needed a bridge. He sat down and wrote something, and then let Richard Tee put his gospel voodoo on it. In reality he should have taken songwriting credit, but Arif was a true gentleman.
Chaka was and is a stunning talent. We all went to Mikell's, the then-famous New York nightclub, after the sessions and they jammed. I was in way over my head. Chaka could sing the phone book and move you with the power of her singing. Whatever my talents were, they needed a lot of developing.
The biggest realization that came to me much later, was that if you have done your homework, if you have talent and have developed it, it will be recognized. Prior to this, the music life at anything more than a local level, was merely a fantasy for me. How would anything like that ever happen? I see now that if you've done your homework and your 10,000 hours of diligent practice, it won't go unnoticed. I had to scramble to catch up to the level of the world I was now a part of, due to my involvement with Chaka's success.
The song is still a major building block of any singer's career, and despite the quantity of songs being released now, the percentage of high-quality songs being written is very small. When a song like Gotye's "Somebody That I Used to Know" comes along it doesn't go unnoticed. Of course, if it isn't followed up by a song of equal quality, well, that song will go unnoticed.
Songfacts: In 1984, Joe Cocker cut your song, "Long Drag Off a Cigarette," for his album, Civilized Man. I understand you also played guitar on this session. Many years later, you released a tribute to the British singer on your album, Vibrolux ["Can Joe Cocker (Hit the High Notes Tonight)"]. On your website, you state this was because you felt a "connection" to Joe. Can you elaborate on this?
McNally: When I wrote "Long Drag Off A Cigarette" I had decided I wanted to break away from the typical "verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge (middle 8) then vamp out on chorus" formula. I had a notebook full of lyrics with no melody or music, and I asked the engineer to just "roll tape." I improvised this song and a bit later came back to it and realized it was a complete statement as it was, even if it was barely 2-minutes long, and had no chorus. I remember my publisher throwing up his hands and saying "What can I possibly do with this?!"
I met the producer Gay Katz shortly thereafter, who was producing Joe Cocker and loved the song.
I wasn't a seasoned studio player at that time but I played on the session. Nathan East, Greg Phillinganes, maybe Jim Keltner, I don't remember all the players, but they didn't like the song. I was in over my head again. At some point Joe wandered off leaving me to sing the song. He came back the next week and put his vocal on. It remains one of my favorite interpretations of my songs. To me, it suits Joe's personality perfectly. At some point I went to one of Joe's live shows and realized that the crowd was there in hopes that Joe would somehow have an implosion, or explosion, or something dramatic. That he would miss the high notes, vomit on stage, or something. His vulnerability was part of his appeal. Later I wrote my song "Can Joe Cocker (Hit the High Notes Tonight)."
I had hoped he would record it, and I heard that his wife played it for him, but that's as far as that went. I loved it when Joe sang great songs. I felt that many of the producers in recent years saddled him with songs not worthy of him, but once again, great or even good songs are the rare exception.
Songfacts: Hollywood actor, Bruce Willis, recorded your song, "Lose Myself," for his debut album, The Return of Bruno. I'm interested to hear what you think of this interpretation? That must've been one of the stranger phone calls of your career!
McNally: The amazing guitar player Buzzy Feiten had played on my debut album and brought this song to Bruce when he was hired to do those sessions. I have a gold album from this which shows how many albums were sold in those days. That's over 500,000 copies in the US alone, so maybe the worldwide total was over a million.
With the exception of Adele, that is a rare sales figure these days. A number of actors have recorded my songs, including Katey Sagal, Susan Anton and a few others. Many actors like to sing I suppose, though as Tom Waits once said, "you may love music but music may not love you." I also have a gold album for playing on Eddie Murphy's album. A man must make a living!
One might assume that I am best friends with the people who record my songs but in fact I've never met most of them. Fame can be a highly guarded closed door.
Songfacts: Bonnie Raitt cut two of your songs, "Nobody's Girl" and "Slow Ride." In a recent interview with USA Today to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Nick of Time, she referred to you as a "great songwriter," adding she loved your voice and guitar playing. How was it working with Bonnie for you?
I'm sure you know her recording of "I Can't Make You Love Me." It doesn't get any better than that. I remember stopping by the studio and hearing that coming through the studio speakers. It was a sacred moment. Bonnie with Bruce Hornsby, Don Was, and everyone else in the studio, had captured magic. That's the realm Bonnie lives in, one of magic. I've socialized with her, hung with her backstage, worked with her in the studio and she is everything she seems to be and more.
When Nick of Time came out I was studying harmony at Berklee School of Music in Boston. Rolling Stone gave it a bad review. Her fans felt otherwise, and after winning five or six Grammys, she had gained six million new followers. I saw her play a show in Portland, Maine at that time and she sang my song "Nobody's Girl." Hearing it echo through the crowd, I felt I could quit writing songs right then and there. What a feeling, hearing my personal thoughts coming back to me through her voice and guitar and the crowd, and of course, Bonnie acknowledging me to the audience.
When I wrote that song I felt that it was much too personal and would likely remain one of my more obscure songs. Now I know that the more personal, the more universal. You are touching on the matters of the heart that we all experience. I still hear from people all the time about how that song has touched them. People either are "Nobody's Girl" or know her well.
As songwriters, we are the articulators for the inarticulate. We give voice to those who don't know how to give voice to all that comes with the human experience. That's why I believe in the importance of songwriting. How many times in your life has a song gotten you through something that you didn't know how you'd make it through. Or, on the upside, gave you something to sing in celebration of all that you were feeling. That's why I feel that every song should have an element of hope in it no matter how dark the circumstance the song is detailing. Songs keep us going, songs celebrate life.
Songfacts: "The Motown Song" was a Top 10 hit for Rod Stewart in 1991. You originally wrote and recorded the song in 1986 for the movie, Quicksilver. Can you tell me more about the origins of this ode to Motown? I imagine that music was a big influence on you growing up. Are you a fan of Rod's interpretation?
I had the image of speakers in the window echoing music through the streets and that was the beginning of "The Motown Song." At the time I had combined it with a romantic ballad called "Angel" that was very moody and slow. I have it on reel-to-reel tape somewhere with Michael Ruff playing gorgeous piano and Andre Fischer from Rufus playing a funky groove. It became evident that the speakers in the window part of the song was the one to chase so I split the song into two songs. It seemed like I had something. I dragged that 24-track reel all over LA trying out different vocal parts and guitar licks and the song came together. It got me my record deal with Atlantic though I never liked that version nor the one on the Quicksilver soundtrack. Finding your voice as a recording artist takes a lot of experimenting, and luck, and a little talent helps a lot. I was still finding my way.
That's why I went to such a stripped-down approach on my first indie album Vibrolux. I didn't want the distraction of endless overdubs and production tricks. I needed to get back to just the songs with voice and guitar and a minimal rhythm track.
In 1990 Rod Stewart's A&R man was looking for two or three hits for a Rod album in progress. They dug up my song and took no chances on making a hit record out of it.
I'll digress for a moment. What a fan I was, and still am, of Rod's earlier records, "Handbags and Gladrags," "Every Picture Tells a Story," "The Killing of Georgie (Part I and II)" and many more. By the '90s it seemed that Rod was either tired of the studio routine or worried about sounding contemporary, or something, so he left much of the record making up to the producer. On the tracking session of "The Motown Song," I was the lead singer and the band was Toto. Toto had to leave for their next session by 5 p.m. It wasn't the same as being in a room with Rod Stewart fishing around for a little magic. There's no sense in me biting the hand that feeds me here. A fun upbeat record was made that became an enormous hit. Still, I'd like to speak for a moment about magic in the studio. Gary Katz once said that there is no such thing as magic in the studio. My response would be that when you feel it, you'll know it. I don't think you could argue that there wasn't magic on Rod's early albums. Have you seen the documentary on the music of Muscle Shoals? Spooner Oldham talks about cutting a track for Aretha Franklin and being totally stuck and empty handed, when suddenly a piano lick came to him on the Wurlitzer electric piano. It was the signature lick that gave Aretha her first big hit with "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Loved You)." They searched for and waited for the magic that made that record sound so great, even now after all these years.
Good songwriters can craft you a song on demand, good studio players can make you a good record in one three-hour session, but magic can be elusive. A little luck, a little prayer, maybe a mistake or seemingly wrong note, whatever it takes, the magic is worth waiting for.
I have a new promoter in Europe who wants me to record a modern version of "The Motown Song" for a sampler of his artist stable. I'm looking around for some magic to make the song sound fresh again. I hope I find it. I took my song "Just Like Paradise" and recorded a new acoustic version of it with Petra Haden. It's coming out next year on an album called Yard Sale. I think there's a bit of magic there.
Songfacts: How did Don Henley come to record "For My Wedding," Larry? It's an incredibly honest yet beautiful song. Are the lyrics personal to you, and if so, are you comfortable with hearing another artist sing these lyrics? I'm sure you agree Don did a fine cover.
I played my song "For My Wedding" and she loved it. She was in touch with Don Henley and sent him the live recording from that show. He called me maybe two weeks later and released it not long thereafter. His version is very similar to mine, including the vocal phrasing, but to be fair I was very influenced by him, J.D. Souther, and Jackson Browne, so it might be hard to say who influenced who in this case.
To answer your question, I always enjoy hearing someone else sing my song. It doesn't diminish my own feeling about how I sing my songs, it heightens my sense that I am a citizen of this world, and not just alone in my own skin. In other words, connection with others is a good thing.
Regarding the subject matter of the song, I wanted to do some real thinking about it. What does it really mean, marriage? The percentages aren't good for it lasting. I believe there are misconceptions about what you are entering into, maybe fantasies and delusions. Many of the romantic ideals from marriage come from cheap movies, cheap songs, advertisers etc. You're being sold and when the reality doesn't match up with the advertisement you are unhappy. Someone must be blamed, preferably the other and not one's self! I read somewhere recently that the De Beers diamond company out of South Africa is the one who sold us on the idea of the preciousness of diamonds (they are, in fact, not rare or precious) and created through advertising the concept that a marriage isn't real without a diamond ring and a very expensive one at that.
On the west side of Los Angeles, divorce can be a very expensive proposition. It is a legally binding contract. Children's lives are destroyed, divorce attorneys become very wealthy, homes are lost.
So where do our ideas on marriage come from? I researched marriage in the Bible and it is almost all negative there.
Nonetheless, there is no denying that faithfulness, loyalty, the depth of human bonding and support of one another through life's trials and tribulations, these are good things. That's what I wanted to write about in this song.
Songfacts: This wouldn't be the last time you'd work alongside Don Henley, of course. In 2007, the Eagles cut your song, "I Love to Watch a Woman Dance" for their first album in almost 30 years, Long Road Out of Eden. I imagine this was an incredible honor for you. How did the band come to record this song, and were you pleased with the final outcome?
McNally: In September of 1999, as I recall, I got a call from Don Henley and Glenn Frey. The Eagles were re-forming to do a new album and they wanted to record my song "I Love to Watch a Woman Dance." I had sent it to Don after we had talked about him recording "For My Wedding."
That was certainly an exciting call. Eight years went by before it was released with zero communication from the band. My moods swung between high hopes and despair. Finally in July 2007 there was a bootleg of Glenn singing the song at a solo show and mentioning that it "might" be on the new Eagles album. It was, and done very nicely I must say. That may be the last triple-platinum album I hang on my wall.
The song was inspired by an evening at The Paradiso in Amsterdam. I had just come from playing my first Euro shows in Utrecht in support of my album Vibrolux which was well received in The Netherlands.
I walked over to The Paradiso, which is one of my favorite clubs in the world. It's an old church, turned into a nightclub and concert venue. I've played there a few times since but this was my first visit there.
There was a gypsy band playing. The room was swirling. Girls from all over the world. I stood at the bar and had a beer, marveling at this paradise I had wandered into.
There was one girl in particular who was in a trance from the music. It wasn't a matter of lust, though I have no problem with that, it was a matter of femininity in transcendence. I went back to my hotel room and started writing the song. The next day I went to the Anne Frank house which was a very moving experience. Some of her thoughts on longing and hope made their way into my song. When you asked which of my songs are my favorites, this is certainly one of them. The mood I felt the night I started writing it remains alive in the song and I feel it each time I perform it.
Songfacts: Is there a cover of one of your songs that has particularly moved you? On your website, you mention "Stealing Hubcaps" by Matthieu Brandt.
McNally: Michael Ruff recorded his version of my song "Carroll Gardens" and I can't stop listening to it. He added so much musicality to what were my very simple chord changes and he identified with the song content so much that it gives me back a heightened sense of what I felt when I wrote it. It's a song about the joy of fatherhood along with the intense reevaluations you are forced to make when you are watching over and responsible for another.
I had sent out my most recent album Adios Pony Boy to some of my friends to ask them to sing their version of a song from the album. It's gone quite slowly so I haven't released it yet, but I may put out Volume 1 while I wait for the remainder.
Songfacts: Do all of your songs begin their lives as Larry John McNally songs, or do you often write with specific artists in mind? How do you recognize the difference between a song for you and a song for another artist?
McNally: In the past, I wrote a few songs that were not for me to sing. It would have been when I had a publishing deal with Universal Music and I was pursuing film opportunities or requests for material from various artists. I would say that was a phase when I was learning my craft.
I stopped thinking that way a long time ago. When my bigger success started happening it was from the songs I had written for myself. There seemed to be a level of depth, inspiration and quality there that some very high level singers could relate to. Don Henley doesn't do a lot of searching for other songwriters to cover, so it's quite an honor for him to choose my songs to sing. There is a personal attachment to what I do, that I can feel proud of and satisfied with, whether it sells or not.
I love the work of Leonard Cohen. Have you read the story of his song "Hallelujah"? It was not a well-known song until John Cale had recorded it and then Jeff Buckley heard Cale's version. It was a great song when it was still obscure but now it has taken on a life of its own.
Songfacts: There's no denying you're one of the finest and most prolific songwriters of our generation. Out of all the songs you've ever written, is there one you're particularly proud of?
McNally: The song "Over Fences" seems to stand out above the rest of my material. John Leventhal played an amazing guitar track that in a way could be considered part of the composition of the song. I'd like to re-record my vocal but otherwise I think it is a near-perfect capture of a quite abstract emotion. It is one of my most downloaded and streamed songs.
Here are the lyrics and here is what inspired it:
I've always loved cities and still do. So much glory and such intense human drama all compressed up close together. I remember driving into Boston and later taking the train into New York and feeling such a powerful overview of humanity, as if there were a choir singing and Mahler's "Ninth Symphony" playing. When you drive across the Mystic River Bridge into Boston you look down on the light glistening off the water in the harbor, the tenements and warehouses below, the vista of the city skyline, and for me it's a spiritual moment. New York is an island surrounded by rivers and no one is free there, except maybe the birds who fly free over the water to wherever it is they're going. Something in all of us longs to be free and something in all of us longs to know where it is we are going when all of this is over. At the end of the song I say to someone I've lost, wherever they might be, I'm sorry if I didn't make it clear while you were here, but I'll say it now, I love you.
"Walking by the river as evening fell
I thought I heard you call my name but there was no one
I've been waiting for a sign from you but all I saw
Was a flock of blackbirds fly into the setting sun
Over fences, over clotheslines
Over rooftops and alleyways, they make their way
Fly away, blackbird
Fly away, home, blackbird
If you make it across the river
Let me know somehow the way
That I might meet you there
Wherever you are, someday
Did you ever hesitate
There was something you wanted to say
But the timing wasn't right and the moment passed
Well, maybe some things are unfinished, and never will be
Let me say it now, I love you, let your soul go free
Over fences, over clotheslines
Over rooftops, and alleyways, make your way
Fly away, blackbird
Fly away, home, blackbird."
Songfacts: Is there a song by another artist you wish you'd written? If so, why?
McNally: I don't know that I feel that way about songs that I love. What difference does it make if I wrote it or someone else? There are so many songs I love. Here are a few:
"Moon River," "I Can't Make You Love Me," "Blood Brother" by Tom Robinson, "Every Time We Say Goodbye," "Just My Imagination" (I sing this song at every show I ever play), "Spanish Harlem," "A House is Not a Home," "Famous Blue Raincoat."
I could go on and on. There is a lot of great music out there. Have you listened to Gregory Porter, or Lake Street Dive? I was so sorry when Amy Winehouse died. I had hoped to have worked with her. "Tears Dry on Their Own," "Bitter Boy" by Kate Rusby, "Angeliou" by Van Morrison, "Upstairs by a Chinese Lamp" by Laura Nyro, "Young, Gifted and Black" as sung by Aretha, "Does Your Mama Know About Me?" - did you know that that song was co-written by Tommy Chong of Cheech & Chong fame?
I wanted to write songs as good as the ones I've just mentioned, and I hope I have occasionally. What is the point of writing songs that aren't as good as what is already out there? I'll let that be a rhetorical question, otherwise it could cast a spell of writer's block over all of us!
Songfacts: Thank you again for taking the time out to speak to Songfacts today, Larry. I'd like to conclude by asking you about the future. Do you plan on releasing any new music soon, or are there any upcoming tour dates in the works?
McNally: I have a new band that I'm very excited about. Me on amplified acoustic guitar with Nichelle Monroe on vocals and percussion. She is an incredibly soulful singer from Mississippi who I love singing with. David Schwartz plays stand up bass. If you check his Facebook page there are a lot of pictures from our shows. We go a long way back. He is best known for his music for TV and film including the show Arrested Development. His daughter, Lucy Schwartz, a great young songwriter-performer, is a regular sitting in with us. On drums is Michael Jerome. He plays with Richard Thompson and Better Than Ezra, and creates for me a groove that I can float over. I have a new European promoter so here's hoping I'll be back on the road again soon. Here's my dream tour:
Dublin, London, Amsterdam, Berlin, Paris, Barcelona and all points in between!
As soon as I master them I have several albums coming out including a loose ends collection called Yard Sale and alternate mix and cover versions of the songs from my album Adios Pony Boy.
I've been writing quite a bit including a song called "Chet Baker's Christmas Dream," and quite a few songs in Spanish. I'm really not sure what I want to do about recording in the future. I think I'll wait until some new situation presents itself. I like the work of Gustavo Santaolalla, who did the score to the movie On the Road. I haven't spoken about it here but the new economics of song royalties does not encourage the making of expensive recordings! Writing and recording is what I do, but the chance of making that money back is not encouraging in the current marketplace.
I'd like to add that I love performing live and I think that I'm far better live than any of my recordings indicate. The studio is a such a stale environment. It's a false setting that rarely captures the spirit of the music being played. There's nothing better than the band and singers responding to the energy of the audience. We go to some higher place together.
Thank you so much for asking me to reflect on my work, here. I'm very grateful that you care enough to have asked me about it, and that you've spent time listening to my songs. To anyone reading this, please come up and introduce yourself if you see me playing live somewhere, and please feel free to write to me on my website guest book. I'll always write back to you.
Abrazos to all.
October 31, 2014. Get more from Larry at LarryJohnMcNally.com
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