> Interview: Album Club - SNACK: Music, film, arts and culture magazine for Scotland

Interview: Album Club

It is no surprise that musicians and creative people are consumed by music. Even those who work in the sector find their free time and social life based around gigs, listening to tunes, and dissecting songs.

MJ McCarthy is immersed in music through bands and theatre work, but was also keen to discuss records, forming Album Club, a regular informal get together to share opinions and hang out with friends.

Of course, when you have musicians and writers, talking turns to doing. SNACK caught up with MJ to discuss albums, their album, collaborating with talented people, and community.

How did the actual Album Club begin?

It started in spring of 2019. I felt the need to have social time with pals. I work in the theatre, and make music, sometimes as a composer, sometimes as a sound designer. I was missing good music chat, and it had nothing to do with work, just the love of music. There were some friends I knew and hadn’t seen for years. Also, when you get into your thirties, it gets hard to meet new friends. So, it was a chance to catch up with some old friends, make some new ones, and above all else, talk about music.

I put the shout out, everyone said yes, and the album I got the ball rolling with was Green by R.E.M. It’s not my favourite R.E.M. album, but it’s one I really wanted to talk about. I like the album, but there are others that are stronger.

Any raucous discussions or albums which split opinion?

Astral Weeks by Van Morrison got a bit of a hammering from some members.

Good. That’s deserved.

And at one point, during lockdown, I felt we needed a burst of energy, so I picked True Blue by Madonna, to get a bit of pop. Controversially, some people couldn’t get beyond the production. I love the production, and there’s brilliant pop songs.

With the songs, were they just songs, or were they for this project specifically?

It’s a real combination of stuff. When lockdown started, all my work went away. Some members of the club had things which kept going. The journalists and writers kept going, but Paul Savage was the other member affected most.

I knew I needed to do something to keep from going crazy. Some people felt stuck, creatively, which I understand, but for me, I went the other way. I got some solace and respite by making things. I started tracking some songs, three or four songs on the record had been written in part before lockdown.

So, I had a few things in the back pocket, and as often happens when you start tracking songs, other things start to emerge. After I recorded ‘Fragile & Frail’, the first song, I sent it out to the rest of the club. I asked if anyone who had free time fancied adding some musical parts or if the writers would like to add a lyric or piece of story.

Brilliantly, everyone found a way to contribute. Rhona was a key collaborator; she sang on half the record. She layered her vocals on ‘Fragile & Frail’. Eventually I sent her a microphone, but for this, she sang into the microphone on her laptop using a coathanger with a pair of tights over it to make a pop-shield! That was her studio! The lead vocal on ‘Different Hours’ and ‘Leave Me Singing’ were the same.

On first couple of listens, ‘Leave Me Singing’ really sticks with you.

That was a Paul Savage moment; Paul and Emma Pollock [The Delgados] were really on board. Essentially, it was an acoustic guitar waltz, and we found the right key for Rhona. We were doing a bit of back and forth, and said I’d love it if she sang lead vocals. Basically, we had lead vocal, acoustic and electric guitar, and I sent it to Paul.

At this point, Paul’s getting excited about doing something with the songs, as he’s at a loose end. One Sunday, he let himself and Emma into the studio, just the two of them, staying in the rules. They recorded drums, electric guitar, and bass.

It was a mad moment because Rhona and I are Delgados fans, and here we have half of The Delgados turning it into a Delgados song. Rhona was back in Oban for lockdown, and she had a copy of The Great Eastern, and her old CDs, on the windowsill. That was a surprising moment. One of my favourite things about the project is how surprising it has been at times.

There’s so many talented people in the project, was that inspiring or terrifying?

If I stopped to think about it, I’d be like: what am I doing?! But I haven’t stopped. I’m so thankful – the musicians are great, but we’ve got fabulous writers too. Peter [Geoghegan, author, broadcaster and journalist] is tremendous, and he found the time to record a dream he had back in Longford, that makes that song. Same with Douglas Maxwell, he wrote the piece that is in ‘Transmission from the Moon’, essentially a Douglas Maxwell play in 80 seconds. I sent him the song, he timed the gap, and he wrote the piece to fit the gap. It took the song to another level.

Isobel McArthur is having massive success with her show Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of) and she wrote ‘Walls’ as a poem, and that inspired me to write some music, and she performed it over that. Cathy Forde is a young adult novelist and a playwright in her own right, and wrote what became a song lyric. I think Cathy was going for a Lucinda Williams country vibe, so Lucinda Williams via Oban was our direction.

Was there a point you felt ‘this is an album’?

I don’t think it was until we got to the end of summer 2020, and I counted up the songs and minutes. Pretty much the last thing that happened was sequencing. My wife Lynda Radley (a playwright in her own right) was listening back to the songs, and she helped me think of it as an album journey, and telling a story. Lynda’s contribution helped me realise it cohered like an album.

Was it challenging, sequencing the record?

I don’t think it was until we got to the end of summer 2020, and I counted up the songs and minutes. Pretty much the last thing that happened was sequencing. My wife Lynda Radley (a playwright in her own right) was listening back to the songs, and she helped me think of it as an album journey, and telling a story. Lynda’s contribution helped me realise it cohered like an album.

Without wishing your life away, what is next with Album Club?

Having accidentally made an album, we now have to intentionally form a band. Since the beginning of January, a core group has been meeting in person. The out-of-towner, the Honourable Minister for Helensburgh, Adam Scott (formerly of Zoey van Goey with MJ) has been involved. We did a day in the studio with Paul and me, playing bass on the record. We’ve got Adam in the picture, Paul and Emma, Douglas on guitar and Rhona on vocals and me; we’ve been meeting as a six-piece to bring this to life.

Bear in mind, none of the songs on the record had been played live in a room. The songs have gone on a journey – some arrangements are different, even some song structures. The live version is a new take on these songs. It is recognisable, but if people come along knowing the album, I hope they’ll be pleasantly surprised.

We’ll also get Isobel on accordion, and Cathy might deliver a new piece. So, at Oran Mor on 24th June, we could be at eight or nine people on stage. However, we won’t be able to pull this together too often – it won’t be a touring band, it’ll just be special occasions.

After that, it depends on how well this record does. If it feels like there’s an appetite for another one, the prospect of getting everyone together in the same room is an appealing one. It just depends on people’s lives and working around the things we all do. I’m hopeful, but I couldn’t give you any sense of when or what’ll that be. There’s hope this won’t be the only thing we do.

Album Club is released on 20th May on Last Night From Glasgow

The band will play live at Oran Mor on 24th June

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