Singer-songwriter Mark McCambridge can finally see the wood for the trees after years spent performing with other bands, writes Chris Jones
Arborist may be a relatively new name on the Northern Irish musical landscape, but for singer, songwriter and guitarist Mark McCambridge, it represents the flowering of more than a decade of creativity.
Now 31 and based in Belfast, the Ballymena man has been making music since he was a teenager, through spells in Edinburgh, London and Dublin. 'No matter where I was, there was always some band established,' he tells me during an hour-long conversation in a central Belfast coffee shop.
Since returning to Northern Ireland – and with a little prompting from friend, drummer and recording engineer Ben McAuley, who co-runs Start Together studios in Belfast – McCambridge has focused his musical energies on Arborist, a vehicle for his intensely personal, Americana-tinged songwriting.
The project has already seen him support acts of the calibre of Low and British Sea Power, while garnering excellent reviews for his recent single 'Hundreds Of Ways'.
In fact, McCambridge and McAuley's connections go back to their school days, while more recently the pair collaborated as part of another Belfast band, The Holy Innocents. But McCambridge became disillusioned with the direction of the band and a lack of creative control, and decided to leave.
'I don't know whether writing songs is a selfish thing, or whether it's my inability to collaborate, but it didn't work out,' he admits. 'I was dedicating so much time to someone else's songs, and I wasn't getting anywhere near the same satisfaction. As soon as I showed an interest in playing songs on my own, Ben phoned me up and said, "Right, let's get in the studio and do something". He took the initiative.'
Spending time with McCambridge, it becomes clear that he is acutely self-aware as a musician, and cognisant of the fact that at 31, he may not have too many chances left to really make his mark. 'At the age I am, I don’t think I can afford to be messing around,' he says. 'I'm not over the hill yet, but there comes a point where you've been doing this a dozen years and you have to take it seriously.
'First and foremost, I want to get enjoyment and more satisfaction out of it than I have done in the past, and I think that means it being a relatively solo pursuit and, without too much compromise, getting the songs exactly how I want them to sound.'
In order to achieve that, McCambridge has enlisted not only McAuley on drums, but also bassist James Heaney and pianist Richard Hill, and he intends to add a second guitarist in order to fully flesh out the band's sound.
In conversation, he often returns to the theme of studio time, and how he values it far above playing live – the studio is where McCambridge feels his songs truly realise their potential and where, he hopes, he can create something that will endure.
'There's a certain satisfaction with playing live. For example supporting Low, I'd put that up there with some of the most enjoyable gigs I've played, but I always envisage the songs being a lot bigger than just me and a guitar. Therefore it's about being in the studio and layering things, getting them how I want them to sound. A lot of the bands I like have a lovely, full sound to them, and that's the way I would like it.'
Time taken in the studio to create a recording that will last, however, is only worthwhile if your starting point is a good song. McCambridge thinks deeply and talks enthusiastically about songwriting, lyrics and his own voice, and though Arborist have released very little so far, the simple yet beguiling clarity of the songs, coupled with his charismatic vocals, is what leaves the greatest impression.
'The main focus of almost anything I like is the voice,' McCambridge explains. 'Take someone like Jarvis Cocker. You could argue that he may not be the greatest singer, but he's got a voice of unbelievable character, and on top of that it's his delivery, and the words come into that as well.
'A lot of people can sing, but it's the delivery and the character of the voice. I bought a load of Sam Cooke's gospel stuff, and the religious side of it means nothing to me so I was trying to figure out why the lyrics didn't get in the way. But that's not what draws me to it – it's the amazing vocals, harmonies and melodies.
'To take it to the modern day, recently I've had a bit of an obsession with Jason Molina of Songs, Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co. I couldn't pinpoint who his voice sounded like, but in actual fact what he's got is this incredibly defined and amazing Americana voice. There's a real darkness to the songs, with a plaintive undertone to the whole thing. And it's all just in his voice.'
Arborist are not afraid of darkness, that's for sure. McCambridge says that his lyrics are rarely driven by narrative or a clearly defined message; that for him conjuring a mood is more important. All it takes for a lyric to begin is a key line or two. From there, imagery – sometimes bucolic, often gloomy – takes over.
'I never feel that comfortable with an upbeat song,' he says. 'I'm not even sure I can name one that I've ever written. It seems to sit that much better with me, and feel that much more natural, when it has that darker undertone. A lot of the time, subject matter doesn’t go far beyond humdrum, daily life.
'I have two kids and they're relatively young, and I suppose you could say I'm relatively young for having two kids. That's been an obvious influence without making it too explicit within the words. Leonard Cohen was talking about having children, and he said, "It takes a lot of adjustment when you're no longer centre stage in your own life". And especially for a songwriter, it takes a considerable bit of adjusting.
'Your moods are dictated by your output and your productivity, and it has a spill-over effect into your daily life. And when that is so centred around the kids, it can become a problem, without doubt. There's been a certain recalibration to see how I can get both to work.
'My girlfriend is great in that respect. She's busy as well but she's incredibly patient with what I'm trying to do, which I'm sure is often not very easy. So that's something you tussle with on a daily basis. But it's never an option to say: "Forget about that, we're not making any money, it's not going to work out". It doesn't work like that.'
So persevere he must, but these are early days for Arborist, and the future is rich with possibilities. At the end of September 2013, the band entered the studio to record a debut album and – with luck – get those songs precisely how the exacting McCambridge wants them to be. We wait eagerly to hear the results.
Arborist support Efterklang at the Elmwood Hall, Belfast on October 24 in a Moving on Music concert.