If you were to judge from the photography and the songwriting on his latest album (and previous recordings) it would be easy to perceive Michael McDermott as an overtly serious and moody person. In person nothing could be further from the truth.
McDermott is an open, honest, gracious and likable man. His background of artistic failure and the following decline into drink and drugs before a subsequent recovery and renaissance is documented on his website ( http://www.michael-mcdermott.com/bio ).
It says a lot about the character of the man that he has seen the light through the darkness and his journey has made him a very notable singer and songwriter whom author Stephen King wrote “ Not since I first heard Bruce Springsteen singing Rosalita had I heard someone who excited me so much as a listener …” King is not the only one to recognise McDermott’s talent. He recently made his Dublin debut playing upstairs in Whelan’s. Lonesome Highway caught up with him prior to that performance.
You were raised in Chicago in an Irish-American home, what an affect did that have on your future musical direction if at all?
Well it was pretty big. It was so much growing up even though there was Irish music playing in the house but when I first moved into the city I played with a guy, Paul Fitzpatrick, who’d seen me at open mics and I was, you know, with sunglasses on doing the whole beat poet thing, reading Ginsberg, pretty silly. I was broke too. So, he said “if you want you could play with me.” I ended up getting a schooling of sorts in Irish music with songs like The Fields Of Athenry, which isn’t that old really, or songs from Christy Moore and others like Waltzing Matilda, all that kind of stuff. It was great to learn them and highly influential and also learning about, not particularly Irish, but just good songwriting. Songs that went on too long (laughs) but were written because they had to be written not just a current song of the day.
After the failure of your major label band deal you went through a very negative period. How did that experience resonate with you?
I’d become a very entitled spoilt brat. I was a young kid and had been given money, that kind of thing. Then it didn’t happen and for a young man that was hard. I wonder about kids today and how they remain well adjusted to all of that. It’s a disappointment really when people you thought were your friends and family don’t return your calls anymore. That was the hardest thing. You know it’s not going to happen and that is painful. Friends used to say “don’t forget about me when you make it big.” And you think “well don’t forget about me if I don’t.”
You have just released a solo album. Where does that fit in the overall scheme of things?
It was a new start. I was sober and clean so I felt different and I wanted to re-establish who I was. When you bury yourself with all that stuff for twenty years you don’t know who you are. You become infantile in a lot of ways; emotionally and in a lot of other ways such as relationships and all that stuff. It’s a learning process all over again. I felt that I was making up for lost time. I was writing all the way through that terrible mayhem. I would never write under the influence of anything as it wasn’t that ‘drunk poet’ thing. I wanted it clean, but I may take something when I was finished. There’s a purity that I take seriously. So The Westies was kind of a new birth. But there was a lot of baggage and my manager at that time said “Mike, I don’t know to tell you this but there’s a lot of baggage associated with your name. But your songs are so great so if we could just get them heard.” So we set about trying to do that.
Do you think and have you now put The Westies on hold?
No, it was really just the nature of the material. Right now it’s just very solo record kind of writing, but as I move forward I’ll know where the songs are going. Like “that’ll be a good Westies song.” There be the solo records that would be a spiritual journey or some weird crime song. So I thought why not put those songs into one kind of thematic place.
Some of your songs have a historical context, for instance your song about William Bonney.
Right, when I was watching a show on Billy the Kid and it mentioned he was Irish I just like “you’re kidding me!” So, I ordered all these books on him. That was amazing. No one really wants to hear another song about Billy the Kid but when I heard about the Irish connection I thought maybe he was the first Westie (the Irish Mafia gang in New York). That gave me a different angle.
I’ve since become friends with the writer of the book on the Westies and he still talks to those guys as they’re still around. I’ve always been fascinated by those characters so in my days being insane you run into a lot of those people. Gunrunners and so forth, so I’ve always been compelled by that, by the psychology of that lifestyle. But I don’t romanticise them as many of them are sociopaths.
Do you tend to write for a specific project or are you always stockpiling songs?
I wrote as I go. I try to do it every day. I get up before the family as I have a 6 -year-old. I get up when it’s still dark and try to get an hour of writing in before the footsteps start. There’s chaos the rest of the day so it’s the only time.
After the initial writing do you redraft a lot?
I do, I overwrite. For a normal song I could have up to 30 verses. Them my wife comes in and what she writes becomes the song. I’Il write what I think I need and I then edit it, then it will be half of what I wrote.
After two Westies and a solo album what’s the next Step?
I don’t know. I’ll see what comes up I think I have more solo songs right now. My wife and I were talking about this as the first (Westies) record was this guy looking at the early part of his life - urban, New York, getting into trouble. The second album was where he was re-habilitated and were he goes away and discovers how hard it is to get back into life. I know how hard it is as I was facing time. If you try to get a job after that it’s really hard but I’m a musician so it doesn’t affect me in the same way. So I don’t know where that guy goes now. I’m not giving up on the Westies at all. I’m just not sure what to do with it next.
As a solo artist are you consciously making a move away from the Westies group sound?
I don’t know, maybe. But if there is anything to be learned from the last few records and the way they seem to have gotten more connection is that my work was buried under the fact of maybe being obtuse for obtuse sake. I’m now getting rid of the fat so-to-speak. I hope, if anything, that they’re getting leaner. The songs, while I don’t want to get away from the detail necessarily, which is kind of what I do, are more honest. Some people have said that I’m a painfully honest songwriter but I don’t know that I’ve been as honest as I could be.
Sometimes it may be better not to reveal too much.
Right, that’s the thing. A lot of times I’m asked what’s the song about but I don’t really have anything to add. I think it’s there for the listener.
A song should allow for personal interpretation.
Do you write outside of the song lyric structure at all?
I don’t think that I’d have the stamina for it, or maybe the attention span. Songs are like little books. I’ve entertained the idea, but not seriously.
How different is the process of getting your music out now compared to when you started?
Actually, I never had a bad relationship with any of the labels I was on. You hear nightmare stories, but it didn’t really happen to me. They say the best thing now is that anybody can make a record and the worst thing is that anybody can make a record. There’s just a lot more clutter now. Before you would know who was coming out with a record, someone like Warner Brothers would release 16 albums a year.
Labels were somewhat different then to some degree as they were often headed by people with a genuine love for music rather than simply profit. As an independent artist you can have some say in how the record sounds and how the artwork looks .
I don’t really think about that because records are so ephemeral now. You put a record out now and a month later it’s pretty much over. It’s hard to get traction. There’s so much music and I don’t blame anyone as it’s hard to find. We are so inundated. Even making videos is something I don’t think about that much. We are making one for my song Getaway Car as it’s going to be in the Showtime series Billions. We got permission from the John Dillinger Museum where he broke out from jail so we’re going to film there.
Which of your contemporaries are you inspired by?
Well, I think Jason Isbell is amazing. David Grey always seems to speak to me too. Those two guys would be the main ones. In the Irish context I like Mundy and Liam from the Hothouse Flower. U2 too, I used to cover some of their songs. They’re one of my favourite bands of all time.
Where does Europe fit into the long-term equation?
I’m not sure of the numbers but there seem to be interest here. It’s a more discerning audience over here. I really believe that.
Interview and colour photograph by Stephen Rapid Black and white cover portrait by Sandro