Happy Melodies Just Sound a bit Weird
Listen to Paddy McKeown on the Inside Track
It’s some strange alchemy; his classical schooling brought to bear on the standard rock template, Paddy McKeown has minted his own uniquely melodious narratives.
Replete with strings and sax, musical novellas such as ‘Scene In The Park’ signalled the arrival of both an insightful storyteller and abundantly talented musician. These were songs to engage the ear whilst whirring the cogs of the mind, cerebral rock, infused with a lazy grace and moments of delicious melancholy.
However, the formative influences behind McKeown’s grandiose minstrelsy are altogether more abrasive than we might have expected.
‘When I was about 14 I got into rock and metal, in particular Metallica in a big way. Although I was playing guitar before that, getting classical lessons, it was only then that I decided I really wanted to do it, getting tab books and learning how to play really fast.
'From there I got into the whole Seattle thing, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam, and that got me into the frame of mind where I actually wanted to write my own songs.’
His song writing frame of mind is open and inclusive. Listen to the dca or Passing By EPs, there are no restrictions here, no pandering to genre or convention, folk cosies up to classical, there are jazz tinged interludes, the complex arrangements and diverse instrumentation giving way to moments of stunning simplicity.
‘I’ve never felt obliged to mimic or keep within the confines of a certain style. I love good music, that’s anything edgy, regardless of style. All those things I love have come together and congealed in my own output.
'So with the sax and the strings, that occasional jazzy element, in ‘Scene In A Park’ or ‘On A Train’, in terms of that instrumental line-up it’s quite organic, something that comes together in rehearsal rather then something that’s particularly intellectualised.’
Attending the renowned Dartington College of Arts, McKeown was afforded ample opportunity to indulge his love of good music. Most importantly the experience enabled him to widen his frame of reference and appreciate the importance of attaining his own, unique artistic vision.
‘Dartington is this crazy hippy arts college. There were about 500 students doing four disciplines; contemporary music, contemporary theatre, visual performance and performance writing. The college attempted to build up the individual’s artistic personality and perceptions.
'It’s about developing the person, allowing you to see the potential in the world and your own experience for artistic forms. It allowed me to be much more confident in what I did; I got to do some really great collaborative work as well, composing for dance and movement as well as contemporary performance pieces.’
His musical liberality and boundless appetite to engage with new sounds and new ideas marks McKeown out as a conspicuously adventurous musician. Indeed he is nothing less than a ‘prog-folk’ pioneer.
‘Some people are reluctant to deal with music that is that bit different. On the other hand there is the advantage that your music stands out. Also I hate comparisons, when people drop names and then all of a sudden that’s you, you are a version of them or are trying to be.
'Thankfully our music seems to be getting recognised for having a certain degree of individuality; that it crosses certain musical borders. My music is still evolving, formulating itself, I would reluctantly use the term 'prog-folk', it is primarily folk and rock, but certainly there are other elements that are brought in.’
This multifaceted music often finds itself in service to a singular and piercing melancholy.
‘Our violinist, Betty, described it as emotionally challenging. That’s pretty accurate. I don’t know what it is, but I love sombre, moody melodies. That’s why I love Ella Fitzgerald and Philip Glass, also Buckley, Radiohead and the Dave Matthews Band.
'Then with Soundgarden you have Chris Cornell’s soaring melodies. To me happy melodies just sound a bit weird. And when everything’s grand you just don’t feel like writing music. Songs that are upbeat and gleeful often send up sounding cheesy.
'In an emotional sense I can be quite cagey and introspective, I think songs manifest those thoughts and feelings, they become quite compelling in themselves, that’s just the nature of music’
Although his music is most definitely, and primarily, concerned with the role of the individual and the hidden emotional life, McKeown has more recently been drawing upon the political as well as personal world for lyrical inspiration.
‘The songs are about various things. For example, ‘Scene In The Park’, is about watching the world, seeing things just drift by, the seasons literally change in front of you. There were all these college students playing American football, this weird animalistic dance and all these things happening on the periphery and you are struck by the realisation of your own place in the world, your relative insignificance.
'That theme recurs in a number of the tunes, finding and feeling your place in the grand scheme of things. I’ve just written a song which is politically charged about, attacking the extreme views apparent on both sides of the divide here. However, that’s something of a rarity for me, generally the music is much more personalised.’
The last six months have seen the McKeown bandwagon gather pace, being both the subject of local press attention and the recipient of, a much-prized, MySpace featured artist profile. In large part this has been ascribed to his, at last, arriving at a settled band line-up.
With his band of players in place McKeown has benefited from the steadfast support of a group of supremely gifted musicians. A fact he readily acknowledges.
‘The band has been a massive factor in moving things forward. The group are just completely dedicated and that’s just such an important thing. Sometimes I will have all the parts of the songs written and arranged before I bring them to the band, but on other occasions one of the guys might suggest we do something differently or they’ll come up with parts themselves. If it adds to the song then we go with it, we work well that way.’
It seems that all the elements are in place to ensure that he has every chance of success, nonetheless McKeown remains apprehensive. He has been the subject of label interest, but has chosen to bide his time, waiting for the right deal, aware that it requires wisdom and wile, as much as talent, to make it in the music business.
‘We have been taken onto Clinton’s roster and they’re gonna procure management for us in the New Year. We’re working on new material which they can distribute in order to drum up some interest. Right now is kind of an exciting time, bit it’s also pretty worrying.
'I’m trying to learn as much as I can about the business, about management and all the rest of it. I just want to know what I can expect before I get paired up with some manager and end up signing a bum deal. You hear a lot of horror stories; you just want to make sure you’ve every thing covered.’
Asked what exactly he does want to achieve and McKeown’s reply is charmingly modest,
‘I’m not greedy, but I would like to make enough to be able to live on, if that doesn’t happen soon then I’ll have to knock it on the head and start sweeping the streets.’
We suspect that McKeown won’t be needing to brush up on his street sweeping skills anytime soon.