Noel McKay is happier today about his many life experiences than he would have given himself credit for 10 years ago. Unfortunately, there is no crystal ball that looks into our futures, but with music, we are able to communicate with the past, and that’s exactly what the singer-songwriter has done with his latest album Blue, Blue, Blue, a record that has been 10 years in the making.
I recently sat down with Noel McKay to discuss the differences between loneliness and aloneness, evolving backwards, and putting songs into a drawer for a later date.
Americana Highways: I have spent a lot of time driving around this country, often by myself, so I felt a pull towards your song “The 50 Loneliest Places in the Nation.” The thing is, anywhere can be lonely if we’re in the mindset, and when we’re away from home, it has a tendency to creep in without much thought. As a musician, do you find the road to be a lonely place?
Noel McKay: I have found in the past, because I toured and traveled in bands or with other performers, going all the way back to when my brother was just out of high school and our first tour, that the road can be a harsh, but also an amazing place to make one’s living. Only recently, when I’ve begun to make my first solo forays, have I experienced something that feels like loneliness. It’s really just aloneness. That, after such a long time sharing those experiences with others, is not unwelcome or unpleasant in any way. Yet.
AH: The crazy part of that is, in 2020, the road was replaced by a different kind of isolation, the pandemic lockdown. For you, were there any similarities between that kind of forced retreat and the kind of aloneness that can be found while touring?
NM: I think the two experiences are different from one another for the most part. Their binding sentiment would be the longing for something. There’s a longing to be home with the calm of familiarities that comfort you there. Conversely, there’s the longing to be in motion with the overload of stimuli that come with being in a different city every night and sometimes a different country every week. The quarantine was great for me as a creative person. Even so, I did miss so many people and I dreamed about so many places that weren’t home.
AH: “The 50 Loneliest Places in the Nation” comes off of your latest album, Blue, Blue, Blue. How does this record differ from your previous collections, and where do you hear the biggest growth as a songwriter since your earliest recordings?
NM: Blue, Blue, Blue is much more polished than my previous solo records. The instrumentation built onto the songs is an expression of how they were imagined by myself, Eldridge Goins and Ben Sanders. On the other hand, Sketches Of South Central Texas was, and is, supposed to have a sort of field recording feel to it. Those songs are a little closer to the dirt than these on Blue.
I’ve been writing songs for some decades now, and so, that growth feels like it’s on a long continuum. The songs on Sketches were mostly written in the 2000s. Blue Blue Blue has songs that were primarily written in the last decade. If I’ve grown as a writer from one decade and record to another, it’s because I’ve had more experiences to draw from. My methods of turning those experiences into song evolve as well, but sometimes they evolve backward to incorporate song styles from the past instead of those that are current.
AH: We touched on loneliness at the start of this chat, but thematically, those feelings of alienation and solitude, which are prevalent throughout the album, seem pretty timely given the state of things right now. What do you hope people take out of the experience of listening to Blue, Blue, Blue?
NM: With regards to alienation or loneliness, I guess I would hope that the message I’m trying to send is, the feelings that can cause us pain and originate from alienation and loneliness can be tempered and weathered by maintaining a sense of humor.
AH: What are you most proud of with the album and why?
NM: I’m most proud of the feeling I get from knowing that, despite the fact that I had to wait a lot of years and wade through a couple of false starts to get it recorded and released, this record sounds like I was imagining it could. I’m so grateful to Eldridge Goins for starting this project with me and it would not exist if it weren’t for him.
AH: What are your thoughts on the promotional aspect of a record, because in some ways, you must have already moved on creatively from these songs by the time you’re sitting down with me to discuss them. Does it require reconnecting to the material in a way in order to discuss it at length like this?
NM: I find the process of promoting an album contrary to my fundamental nature. I’m not one who thrives on attention. Seeing the record itself get attention is nice and makes me feel some sense of validation but I’m skeptical of myself for buying into any of it. I’m wanting to make sure that nothing interferes with focus on the next project that I have in mind.
In terms of reconnecting with the songs on the new record, I did have to relearn a couple of the songs but at this moment, having just done two record release shows, one in Nashville, and one in Austin, those songs are very present and any new songs I’m writing are subject to going in a drawer until the flurry of events that accompany a release die down a little bit.
AH: “The 50 Loneliest Places in the Nation” came to you in a dream. Not all songs are quite so serendipitous in their creation, however, so I’m curious… where are you most comfortable tapping into the songwriter’s mindset? Where do you most often catch that lightning in the bottle?
NM: I’ve written quite a few songs that originated from a dream but they’re atypical. That said, finishing them isn’t any different from taking a song idea from a waking state that was a snippet of conversation, or a family saying, or just the product of a long chain of meandering thoughts, then carrying those song ideas to their fruition. That part is somewhat technical.
AH: There is always a great sense of realism in your songs, but, you deliver that realism in an affable way. You disarm the listeners with your good-natured take on life. Is that the way you view the world itself, and if so, how has that allowed you to get through some of the difficult times that life has to offer?
NM: Thanks for saying that about the realism thing. I do have a fundamental happiness that I think might be more genetic than the product of my life’s events. For whatever reason, it is my tendency to hold out hope for the future of this planet and my species.
Go Humans!!! Go Earth!!!
It has provided a certain buoyancy for me but, sometimes I wonder if my good-naturedness hasn’t also contributed to the problems I’ve had in my life. It reminds me of an Awkward Yeti cartoon.
AH: Is songwriting a way for you to disarm your own emotions? Does singing about life help you understand and navigate it?
NM: Songwriting arms my emotions. It gives them tangible form. If I were writing without their presence and consultation, I’d be writing like an artificial intelligence device. I’d be looking around myself at other people and wondering what they might want a songwriter to write about. Do I write about the toaster? Do I write about coffee? What should I write about? I don’t ask myself that question because things infuriate me, or break my heart, or make me feel incredible joy and I have to write about them. Singing them can be a meaningful thing as well and connects me with the feeling that inspired the song in the first place. It’s like having a little bottle of it. If I like the song enough, it never empties out for me.
Understanding and navigating life is a thing that supersedes any song or collection of songs but they do keep me grounded as I struggle to understand and navigate life as a creative person in a world that isn’t really set up to support that.
AH: Time machine question. If you could jump ahead 10 years and get a glimpse of what your career looks like a decade from now, would you take that journey? If not, why?
NM: My career in 10 years. Hmmmmm? That’s a trip I take in my mind every night right now. I’m pretty happy that this is a theoretical question, honestly. Probably wouldn’t. But I would be haunted after that by the thought that I might have missed an incredible opportunity. I can say that, if 10 years ago, I had gotten a glimpse of today, I’d be happier about more things to come than things I would dread.
To follow Noel McKay and his musical journey, visit www.noelmckay.com.