INTERVIEW: Tom McShane

Forget production trickery, all a musician needs for an album is an audience. Listen to exclusive acoustic tracks below

Perched on the living room sofa, I wouldn’t have thought any less of Tom McShane for thinking it was a strange place to be asked to perform his new material. Although, recently the County Down musician has been getting used to playing unconventional places with appearances in the Victoria Centre dome, welcoming visitors at city hotel lobbies and regularly enlivening Belfast‘s shopping streets in his other more ‘crowd-pleasing’ guise of the cowboy jazz outfit Swell Time.

‘Kids hear songs from Swell Time about the west and their eyes go wide.’ McShane says, tuning his guitar. ‘I’m not sure exactly how a kid would feel being confronted with the cold emotional realities that are sometimes confronted in my songs,’ he says, letting out a laugh, ‘it’s better for late-night darkened rooms, not the Victoria Centre.’

Tom McShaneHowever, McShane is about to shed some light on what he’s been working on since CultureNorthernIreland last spoke to the melancholic songwriter back in 2008, when he said that he felt that hadn’t realised his full potential and yearned to find a new audience with his next album.

Although having commenced recordings for a follow-up to his 2007 debut Departures, McShane abandoned the project when he listened back to the tapes. ‘It just seemed a little lifeless and it didn’t have the kind of spark to it that I like to hear in my music,' he says.

‘I knew in my heart of hearts that it wasn’t there when I recorded it and there is no way really to recreate that with any production technique. I came to realise that only really exists for me when I play in front an audience, in the right sort of environment.‘

With the announcement for an open-studio recording session on July 3 - an idea inspired by the old school recording techniques of the 50s and 60s - McShane looks as though he may yet fulfill his aspirations.

Working alongside producer Rocky O'Reilly at Start Together Studio, McShane is to throw open the doors for fans to witness first-hand the creation of his sophomore album and has let CultureNorthernIreland hear how the new songs are shaping up, with an acoustic session (listen in player above).

The recording will take place in front of a live audience for two sessions in the one day, with the best version of each song selected for the final cut of the record. With no over-dubs or production wizardry, McShane instead hopes that the result will capture a dynamic and exciting live performance. 'There might be some imperfections there, but that’s the joy of the project,’ he says.

In the run up to the event, McShane will post how demos are progressing to his Secret Beach mailing list, seeking direct listener feedback with running orders, potential album titles, even cover artwork up for discussion between the artist and fans. Once the album has been pressed, as well as receiving a copy, audience members will be also be personally credited in the liner notes.

Originally from the coastal town of Dundrum, County Down - location of the real ‘Secret Beach’ and title of the self-released label the album will be put out under – McShane explains that although the motivation for doing this project was about finding more exciting ways to record an album, he wants to confront the fact that people by in large, don’t buy music anymore. With the emphasis on the live events, McShane wants to deliver something that can’t be just downloaded for free on the Internet

‘It’s a trend that exists across the recording industry that recorded music seems to have lost it’s value. Whether or not that’s a good or bad thing is up for debate,‘ he says. ’As somebody who makes music, it can be quite hard when people don’t or are reluctant to pay money for it, because you tend to feel like people are saying that there is no value in what you do.’

Some of McShane’s favourite albums have been live recordings of the likes of Leonard Cohen, Van Morrison and Johnny Cash, and from his 50s quiff, similarly styled grey suit, gleaming brown shoes and gentleman's manner, it seems as though some of that good old-fashioned panache has filtered though.

By his own admission, McShane is a perfectionist and fully admits feeling a certain amount of nervousness toward the project, but it's something he needs to do. By rejecting many of the the options that digital technology gives todays musicians, McShane hopes to find something that can't be so easily replicated.

‘What I’ve come to realise is that I want it to be slightly different than I hear it in my head, I want it to be unique and I want it most of all to be spontaneous and that’s one thing that you can’t really get in a studio when you always have that option for another take,’ he says.

‘If it’s not quite the way you thought it was going to be, you’re going to go for another take, and before you know it you’re 50 takes in, and you’ve got it. But how much soul was in it and how much heart was in it?

Tom McShane's album recording sessions take place at 2pm and 7pm on July 3, at the Oh Yeah Building, Gordon St. Belfast. Tickets available from the Waterfront Box Office on 028 90 334 455 or online. Sign up to Tom McShane's Secret Beach mailing list here for more details.

Eddie Mullan


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