My Cultural Life: John McGurgan
The Omagh guitarist on crafting his own instrument and why the world might be made of sound. Click Play Audio for 'Twelve Angry Men'
What records have you been listening to lately?
Herbie Hancock's Letters from Joni, Bill Evans' Moonbeams and Norman Blake's Chattanooga Sugar Babe.
When did you first pick up the guitar? Is it true that you crafted your own?
My Dad plays the guitar. He got me started when I was about 14 or 15. I fell in love with the guitar after I started playing and thought it would be a nice idea to build my own. At 19 I went to study Luthery under Norman Reed and Phil Messer at their school in Totnes, Devon. Best three months of my life. I designed and built an acoustic guitar in Pear, Sitka, Maple and Ebony. It’s my main instrument today, although I’m also playing a Brazilian D28 these days. Norman and Phil have a real honesty about their craft and how they impart knowledge. Some of the best teachers I’ve ever had. Inspirational. There is one mentor, though, that has had the greatest influence on my development as a musician and as a human being - the legendary jazz guitarist Mike Walker. I had the fortune to receive private lessons from him while I studied at the Liverpool Institute of Performaing Arts, along with some other great guitarists and composers. Mike opened the doors to a lifetime of learning. I’d be lost without his motivation and encouragement.
For you, what makes a good song?
Joni Mitchell makes a good song. She makes the complicated sound simple; her songs are crafted beautifully.
What was the last good book you read?
My sister gave me a great book for my birthday, Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks. It’s a fascinating insight into how we all perceive music. I love reading about that stuff. Another book I keep coming back to is Nada Brahma: Music and the Landscape of Consciousness by Joachim-Ernst Berendt. Music is our language of emotion. We are born with the ability to perceive music. Even after the first trimester we have the ability to comprehend melody. We hear before we see. Once we are born, though, we seem to allow the eye to hijack the rest of our senses. We’re content just to perceive the surface of things. Musicians I guess are trying to focus once again on the ear as the fundamental organ of perception. Heady stuff, but I love it.
Which artists in NI do you think highly of?
There are so many great artists in the north. I’ve had the pleasure to work with a few. Aidan McGillion from Newtonstewart painted my portrait for Alone, In Two Minds, the first record I put out. We went down to the Spaniard for a few pints, he took some sketches and two days later he came back with a really beautiful piece. I was astounded by his work. Another artist, Belfast's Kev Largey has helped me out a lot, designing and screen-printing the sleeves for my second record Gipsy Street. Kev’s got a great eye; he’s a wonderful designer and artist.
What's your favourite film?
Once Upon a Time in America by Sergio Leone, which is also one of my favourite film scores, by Ennio Morricone. ‘Deborah’s Theme’ is divine. It would have won an Oscar, if they'd remembered to enter it!
Who is your favourite Northern Irish musician, or band?
There are a few musicians in Belfast that have really blown me away. I play a lot with Pawet Bignell at the Black Box in Belfast. I’ve watched him develop over the last year and he never fails to surprise me. His song craft is well beyond his years. There’s a real honestly in what he’s doing and I’m lucky to have the opportunity to play with him on a regular basis. So many Belfast songwriters have that beautiful mix of understatement and complexity. Rory Nellis is probably the best. His rich lyrical content, melody and harmony, all crafted together, all informing each other, in wonderful symbiotic splendour. I’m a fan. Owen Lamont’s another candidate. I can listen to his stuff over and over and always hear something new. These songs are so well crafted they reward you instantly, yet after repeated listening they keep giving.
What piece of advice has served you well?
In your experience, how have the arts in Northern Ireland developed?
There’s no shortage of great artists in Northern Ireland. But I think the infrastructure that will allow these artists to continue their growth and more importantly, make a living, is a long way off. It's really tough for musicians playing original material to get paid what they deserve. I'm not sure why that is. Musicians need to demand more from venues and promoters. In one way, though, I guess the current climate can be a good thing. Artists have to be more innovative in their approach. Make something wonderful happen in order to develop the level of interest that will facilitate their continued development. The Black Box has opened its doors to the artistic community of Belfast allowing them to create whatever they want under its roof. I think as an outlet for music and art it’s really brought Belfast on tremendously. More of the same would be great. In my experience there’s a growing market for original work in the north. Funding bodies though aren’t yet doing enough to promote the wealth of talent that exists locally, nor has anyone really figured out how to sell it successfully internationally. Creativity is the best thing Northern Ireland has going for it.
Do you think that there are more young people pursuing artistic or creative goals when compared with years gone by?
I’ve been teaching music this year at Belfast Metropolitan College. It’s been really wonderful to see young people study music and develop creatively at such a young age. There were few opportunities to study contemporary music locally when I was making decisions about my education. I do think, though, that some really talented young people are still afraid to wholeheartedly pursue a career in music, simply because it’s extremely difficult to make a living long term. Government bodies and the music industry could do a great deal more to aid talent financially. It’s a shame to see a wonderful artist go to study law or engineering with the attitude that they can’t make a viable income as a musician. They miss the opportunity to develop, create something beautiful and share it with all of us. We all lose out. Talent needs to be encouraged and nurtured, for the greater good.
Alone, In Two Minds and Gipsy Street by John McGurgan are available by clicking this link.
You can see John and other musicians perform at the Black Box's Carousel nights. Keep and eye on www.blackboxbelfast.com for details.