SOMETIMES its your instincts that lead you to really discovering an artist. You see their names popping up time and again in magazines, for instance, or you hear them mentioned by people who’s tastes in music you’d know well enough to trust, so you decide to check things out for yourself. But there are times, however, when you can discover an artist completely by chance. That’s what happened with Gavin Mee, a singer/songwriter from Dublin.
I was in work in TRAX one Sunday just a few weeks back and a gentleman walks in and enquires if I’d ever heard of a chap called Gavin Mee and if we might have his latest album? The name was a new one but I figured if this gentleman was interested in him, then quite possibly more people would be also. I asked this gentleman where he’d heard Gavin and his answer confirmed my hunch that I should follow this up! On Niall Toner’s radio show on RTE Radio 1 was his reply. Now, for those of you who may not know Niall, he’s one of Ireland’s foremost blue grass musicians and songwriters. Not only that, however, he’s a music lover through and through and a man who knows and appreciates genuine talent. So if Gavin Mee had already got the thumbs up from Niall, that was pretty much all the research I needed to do in terms of quality. A quick text to Niall and before long I was in touch with Gavin himself and enjoying the trip through the tracks of his brand new album ‘MeeMantras’. After a bit of juggling around with both of our diaries, I finally had the pleasure of sitting down for a bit of a chat with Gavin last week.I began by asking him if ‘MeeMantras’ turned out to be that oft’ referred to ‘difficult second album’ that afflicts so many artists, and was it always the plan to leave as much time between his debut album ‘Breech Birth’ (2006) and this, or had things simply turned out that way?
“Well I suppose it’s a bit of both, Anthony. I lived and traveled around the continent with the first album, ‘Breech Birth’, from the minute I released it. I’d forged some good connections over in Amsterdam and found some fellow songwriter souls there, it being an international city. And of course while I was traveling I was writing new songs, building my songbook. That was the idea behind it all really. And when I thought I had an albums worth (of material) I started working with some producers. In fact, I started in Belgium first. I had a nice team with me, we rented a place out in the countryside, and we worked on the first edition of ‘MeeMantras’, which we recorded pretty quick. But I can recall sitting around with everybody at the end and everyone was going, ‘yeah, this is great and this song is really nice where this comes in, and the sound is so great’, but I was sitting there privately thinking this isn’t what I wanted! That was about as far back as 2007 and I sort of realised it then I didn’t know what I was looking for, but I knew it wasn’t that. I actually lost my voice for a couple of years too, which didn’t help things either! Now this isn’t a sad story by the way Anthony! It’s just funny the kind of things that can happen, when you’re on the road, trying to make a living this way, supporting an album and stuff. But that kind of added to the delay between albums. Although I wouldn’t call it a delay as such. It was more of a process ya know. I even came back to Dublin and worked with the same guys I did the first album with. And again, we did a whole album, but it just didn’t sound right. I guess they were like demo projects really. And everybody just wanted this version or that version of ‘MeeMantras’ to be released, but I just didn’t feel it with any of them, It was only when I met Duncan Maitland at a radio show in 2011 and we became friends and we started hanging out and listening to our record collections that I started thinking, well maybe this is the man to work with. I was very lucky with my first album in that I was happy with the team that I had, the people that I met and befriended, and I was happy at that stage of my life with how I wanted those songs recorded. But with ‘MeeMantras’ it was really a case of I wanted to go where my record collection is, which is very much a retro, classic, singer/songwriter thing. So, yeah, its just a process Anthony. I mean of course you’d want to release an album every 2 years and not have a delay, but with this one I needed to find the right person and let the process work itself out that way. But I think also the songs on the album, like ‘My Music School Teacher’ which is actually about meeting a professional soprano singer who took me on privately and retrained me so I was able to gain the confidence to sing again. Cos’ you lose your confidence when you lose your voice, that’s the biggest problem. Other songs like ‘Penny Farthing’ are much more recently written and that gives the album a fuller body of songs. So I think the album is all the better for the waiting. And also, Anthony, what I love about Duncan is he’s a producer, he’s an arranger, he’s worked with XTC, with Pugwash and Picture House so he knows what he’s doing in a studio. I have some of these songs going back to my time in Belgium, and they’ve been rewritten, had verses added, bridges added, and because Duncan is a songwriter too, he really helped me work those songs out. He didn’t rewrite them, but he’s the type of guy who will give you the impression that you came up with the idea! Even though he would have suggested it. But he’s quite modest like that too. We took some songs apart and then went back to see where they really mattered. With ‘MeeMantras’, in 38 minutes of music, there’s all sorts of little progression, little bits that you only hear on a second or third listen. That’s a lot to do with investing so much time in each song.”
When Gavin speaks about investing so much time in each song, trust me folks he really means it! There’s barely a second on ‘MeeMantras’ that isn’t like wandering through some magical land of sonic wonder, theres so much happening at once. Now no artist likes to be pigeon holed per say, but comparisons help people get an idea of who an artist is. Trying to compare Gavin to anyone, though, is one hell of a test. Which is probably a pretty cool thing in its own way. But how does Gavin himself describe his music to people, I wondered?
“Ha! I prefer people to describe it for me. Although at the same time, its kinda funny. I mean, I was just playing over at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, just solo, cos’ I’ve always really been a one man and his guitar type of guy, even though the album suggests something bigger! If I’m on the road its just more economical. And its the original version of my songs too, if you think about it. But people throw Paul Simon or John Martyn at me, and maybe they’re just lazy reference points, I don’t know. But I’m fine with that. If that’s someones connection. But I like it when someone throws in Colin Bluntstone of the Zombies, or maybe Randy Newman, cos that’s more where I lie when I think about writing. I write these songs for guitar and vocal, ya know, not just on guitar and vocal. Because thats how I imagine myself taking them to a live audience, and I’m really a ‘live’ animal. There’s a story telling narrative to my songs that tends to lie on the ironic twist side. But to try explaining all of that to someone can sound slightly pretentious, I think, so I really have no idea how to describe my music, I guess! I tend to just give people my business card and say ‘listen, and try and figure it out for yourself.”
Gavin’s record label is called ‘Birthings Records’. His debut album was called ‘Breech Birth’. And track 1 on ‘MeeMantras’ is entitled ‘Push The Boy’. My inner Sherlock Holmes sensed a definite theme here, and set off in search for answers!
“Yeah, well I recall a few friends of mine who hadn’t really seen me in a while, when they came to the album launch in Dublin, where they said the songs were very kind of childlike. Or how a child would write a song maybe, or see the world. And that was kind of sweet. I grew up nurses in my family. So that was pretty much the conversation at the dinner table! I like the idea of the musical midwife thing. ‘Breech Birth’ and that title came out of the idea that you’re birthing these songs and you need a certain amount of help. And ‘Push The Boy’ continued that theme, it was like a mantra for me cos’ when you’re living and traveling on your own a lot, with just getting back up in the morning or getting out to organise another gig, you have to push yourself. So yeah, its just a theme that has sort of developed and that I’ve played on.”
Gavin mentioned earlier that he lost his voice for a couple of years at one stage, what happened?
“I suppose it was a combination of never having been trained vocally and you’re singing a lot and probably smoking and drinking and doing all those kind of things. You don’t know the fundamentals (of looking after your voice), Anthony. I kind of forgot where to breathe from and lost the connection to what I was singing. So a lot of training I did was to find that core of where to breathe from again. Its something I had to relearn, but not just relearn also digest again. When you’re learning again you’re very aware that you already have all these songs that you sing in a certain way. So you’re confidence has gone and you don’t know if you can sing them again. That was scary. Because when that happens, you think maybe I’ll have to do something else. I don’t think I’ll be able to do this…..And its very hard to find someone who can help. Like, Fiona McAndrew, this particular teacher that I had, she was great. We met through a mutual friend and it was incredible to meet her because when we started talking she told me that guys in their mid 30’s can sometimes run into this kind of wall. And she was interested in working with me, it wasn’t like she was taking on a whole lot of people, ya know. She just found that I was a specific case, maybe a mental case! But it is kind of like finding a therapist, you can’t just google these people. I sang ‘Don Giovanni’ for a year, but I can’t remember a line now! But as I said what was really important was not just to learn, but to digest, so that you’re not even thinking about your breathing anymore. And I don’t even think about it anymore. You do, though when you have no confidence. Its like learning to ride a bike again, you’re conscious of trying to keep your balance. But Fiona got me past that and through it. And it was incredible to have her support. And it just happened to be between albums. It was just the time it was and the way it was, but I overcame it.
*Gavin’s new album ‘MeeMantras’ is available now in TRAX, the Bridge Centre Tullamore, Tower Records Dublin and through www.gavinmee.com. Also available to download on iTunes.