Born in Sydney, Nova Scotia, Greg MacPherson began his journey as a songwriter in his early twenties in Winnipeg, Manitoba. From modest beginnings, influenced as much by The Clash as he was by Leonard Cohen, MacPherson has worked his way to the upper echelon of Canadian talent currently taking the country by storm. His bio says it best: “In this country Greg MacPherson shares a sparsely populated space saved for musicians who truly matter.” (www.gregmacpherson.com)
With his new album, Mr. Invitation (Smallman Records/Warner), in hand, Greg and his band hit the East Coast for two weeks in late May/early June. The pinnacle of the tour is a Sunday, June 6 concert at St. Patrick’s Museum dubbed An Evening with Greg MacPherson, where the songwriter will play an extended set of songs new and old. He will follow this up with a shorter set on Wednesday, June 9 at The Upstairs Club, where he catches up with long time friends Alicia Penney (Tom Fun Orchestra, Static in Action) and myself (with my new band The High Tide).
I caught up with Greg this week to talk about the tour, music, and songwriting.
WGO: You have a new album and a new tour. How does making music feel these days?
MacPherson: Things are great. I feel like my best days with music are still ahead of me, which is nice. It’s important for me to always be ramping up. As an artist, I don’t ever want to plateau.
WGO: Are you hitting any new venues or new cities on this tour? Are you revisiting any spots you haven’t played in a while?
MacPherson: I’ve never played Chicoutimi (Quebec) so that should be interesting. My Winnipeg band has never played eastern Canada with me, nothing past Montreal, so this tour is going to be really exciting for us.
WGO: What are your favorite spots to play on tour?
MacPherson: Some venues are pretty great but being on tour is a gift. Any chance you get to play your music to people in other cities who have paid to see you is a gift… it’s pretty luxurious. Montreal is always pretty special; great food, stylish audience, language. Then again, Cape Breton is my home away from home. Halifax is always crazy, Quebec City is gorgeous. They are all pretty distinct with lots of old friends to catch up with and audiences who react very distinctly. Some of my best memories as a performer have happened in Sydney, for example.
WGO: Your first release was 1997’s The Year of the Record Break. What was your approach and feeling when you were putting that out as compared to your new album Mr. Invitation?
MacPherson: Not much has changed in that regard. I have always tried to make the best record I can at any given time, and The Year of the Record Break is a pretty good snapshot of who I was back then.
WGO: Are there songs from earlier recordings that you have ever been tempted to go back and re-record for a later release?
MacPherson: No, onwards and upwards. I would love to go back and re-sing most of my records now that I know how to sing properly, or maybe I would remix a few things, but those recordings have their own strengths and they are what they are.
WGO: What are your personal favorite songs from your catalog? Are there any songs that you dislike to play?
MacPherson: I have a few favorites on each record. From the older stuff, I have always loved “Slow Stroke”, “Good Times”, and “Heatwave” from Good Times Coming Back Again (2002, G7 Welcoming Committee) and “Churchill” and “Summer’s Over” from Balanced on a Pin (1999, independent). Those songs still hold up pretty well in my opinion. “Buy a Ticket” and “Windy” (from Balanced on a Pin) are 15 years old this year. I still pull those out once in a while.
There are a lot of tunes that I have elected to leave off the playlist because they don’t have the same power to me anymore. They don’t connect well to who I am now compared to who I was when they were written. Some songs get resurrected once in a while—someone will show up for rehearsals having learned the bass part of whatever and either it works again or it doesn’t. (Rehearsing old songs) is pretty great for me because the parts were played by former rhythm sections, old friends who have come and gone and left their signature on my recordings. In rehearsals for this tour, we started playing “Genuinely Frozen” (Balanced on a Pin) and that song feels pretty good after years of indifference. Rod Hussey’s bass playing and back-ups on that song are really great.
There are also songs with lyrics that embarrass me so I don’t play them anymore. There are tunes that miss the mark aesthetically or just don’t have the same meaning for me anymore and I elect to leave them silent. Songs are made to be performed and live their lives on stage. Recordings are just snapshots of where a song is at any given time. Quite often songs have a short life, like a dog or a bumblebee. They come out of the gates as hard as all the others but they are only there with you for a short time. Then you move on.
WGO: Besides “Bank Robber” (originally by The Clash, appears on 2004’s Maintenance), have you played any cover songs over the years?
MacPherson: I write so much that covers kinda get in the way of the new material. I only pull them out if someone asks for something. I recorded a song last year by a local artist named Jared Ozuk for a compilation record that one of the local college radio stations put out to mark their 10th anniversary. Otherwise, I find it difficult to find enough time to work up covers when I have so many new songs of my own waiting to see the light of day.
WGO: What were your first shows in Sydney like? Was it awkward to play in front of your family?
MacPherson: My first shows were at Bunkers back in 1999-2000. They were great. I was dating a woman who played viola and she came down with me for one particularly memorable gig. My uncles and aunts were there and I had to play a couple of sets, so we were pulling out songs that weren’t on the list most nights. It was fun, but a bit stressful because my family was there.
I love when family and old friends come to my shows, people who haven’t known me well since I was a kid seeing me do my performance art thing, playing music they don’t have a frame of reference for, in a lot of cases. It is really interesting to gauge their reactions. Mostly it is always positive, but occasionally people get spooked.
WGO: What experiences keep you motivated to play music? Have you ever reached a point where you considered stopping?
MacPherson: I have to play music. It’s me at my best, the most rewarding thing I have found to do in my life. The more time I put into the music, the better I get as a player, the better my songs are and the more I learn about myself.
Music comes from thin air, from nothing. It’s like any other action: juggling, scratching your nose, combing your hair. (They are) actions that don’t exist until you make them happen and then they are done. The next time you do the same thing, the results may be similar but maybe not.
The sense of chance and possibility in music, particularly in performance, is very exciting. I have never come close to thinking about stopping, it is just too big a part of who I am.
WGO: You are playing in a new band, Nova. Over the years, what other bands outside the Greg MacPherson Band framework have you participated in? How does the experience differ?
MacPherson: Nova’s great. A real band with other members helping to steer the boat and make things happen. Being a solo act allows for lots of freedom but it’s a boatload of work for me sometimes. Bands share the effort, they share the expenses, they share the excitement and the hassles. (It’s not always) equal, but enough to make it easier in a lot of ways.
That said, bands can be incredibly frustrating. I don’t know what I would do if I were in a band with people whose taste I didn’t agree with. What happens if you ask the drummer to play less on a song and they say no? As a songwriter, I think it is harder to arrive collectively at a point of personal expression. That is why I’m a solo artist I suppose, that and I’m a handful/pain in the ass to be in a band with. Too much get up and go.
I have been in a few projects over the years. They all exercise a different part of your brain. Right now I play drums in a Rolling Stones tribute band, I’m in the great Pip Skid’s backing band. I play drums and bass for a local songwriter named Dan Martens. Along with Nova, I have a couple of side projects that get busy once in a while. Nova is recording right now, which is pretty great. I wrote all the songs but they are very different from my usual style so it is a lot of fun for me.