Tracy McNeil has quickly built a reputation as one of our finest songwriters. Originally from Canada, Tracy has called Melbourne home for that last decade and as the wife of guitarist and songwriter Luke Sinclair (Raised By Eagles), Tracy is now a well entrenched member of Melbourne’s music mafia.
Her first release here was a collaboration with the wonderfully talented Jordie Lane. Recording as Fireside Bellows, their alt country/folk album No Time To Die was widely praised and is still much sought after. Tracy followed that success up with Fire From Burning and then the acclaimed Nobody Ever Leaves in 2014, which received two nominations in The Age Music Victoria Genre Awards (Best Country & Best Folk/Roots album); and won the band Australia Artist/Band of the Year in the 2014 Rhythms reader’s poll.
Thieves was released on 1 July and after the groundswell of support that has built over recent years there’s much anticipation for the new album. Trevor Jackson spoke to Tracy on the eve of the band’s national tour.
There’s been a couple of line up changes in the Good Life since you released the highly acclaimed Nobody Ever Leaves a few years ago, including that fabulous Dan Parsons taking over from Matt Green on lead guitar. Has that changed your sound significantly?
Luke was playing keys originally, though he’s a guitarist and it really didn’t make sense to take him away from his preferred instrument. Now with Luke and Dan playing together there’s this whole new interplay going on. The difference now is that they’re working on these classic 70’s “guitarmonies” and it really sounds fantastic. It’s also changed the shape of our live performances with a new dynamic – everyone in the band is singing and there’s a real gang feel to what we’re doing like we’re all in this together.
The GoodLife band name was originally a joke because it was constantly struggle town, but now there’s this new found confidence and camaraderie. It’s five people coming from the same place and it’s really shifted the sound in a good way.
Does that mean Dan’s solo career will now take a back seat to his commitment in your band?
I’m worried every day – not just Dan, but Luke has his own band too (Raised By Eagles). The reality is that good musicians will always be in demand and if you’ve got good players everyone wants to use them. You just have to work your hardest, create a great environment for your own band to play in and have a good time doing it.
You’ve now got three good songwriters in The GoodLife, but this is your band and these are your songs. How does the creative process work for you – do you go in there with the songs fully realised or are they the bare bones for something that is developed with the band?
It’s a bit of both. The songs are fully developed with the lyrics, the melody and the structure pretty much done, but then we go into rehearsal and work it up from there. For this album we rented a house in the country for four days and the main thing was to make sure it was a lot of fun. And it was – we had a lot of booze up there. We did get a lot done, but we had a great time doing it. But you know I’d be crazy if people made suggestions and I didn’t listen to them. And that’s where I’m so lucky – these guys are coming at it from their own perspective with their own musical knowledge – I don’t even know what key my songs are in half the time! I’m a real gut instinct, self taught guitarist/songwriter. I come in with the songs, but by the time they’re finished it’s the contribution from the band that makes them sound the way they are. It’s very much a musical democracy.
The new album Thieves opens with The Valley, how does a song that arose from a bout of writer’s block emerge as such a beautiful piece of music?
I’d just gone overseas as my dad had cancer and I knew it would be the last time that I would see him. I didn’t know that he would pass away while I was there, I was just trying to soak it all up and enjoy what time I had with him. At the same time my partner Luke was in Melbourne with his band creating some really great music and I had these conflicting emotions about everything that was going on at that time.
It’s weird living with a creative partner who is also a songwriter – sometimes you’re riding the wave creatively, but then you’re coming down that wave but still trying to keep the momentum going. The problem is that as you’re coming down the wave your partner might be going up the other side with their creativity – it really is this back and forth thing. So when you’re living with someone who’s doing the same thing as you, working in the same Vallymusical genre you can’t escape it. Sometimes they’re riding high and you’re on a low – you know you want to be high with them, but you’re thinking “shit, I gotta produce something”, so you push each other in that sense. So there’s a lot of anxiety around that, but then I was also possibly depressed thinking about my dad while at the same time people that I knew and loved were creating all of this brilliant music that was coming out of Melbourne. That line in The Valley “it’s a great song, but it’s not gonna be rising long” is tongue in cheek. Basically I was pissed off because I couldn’t write as much as I wanted to be writing, but it’s funny because as soon as I wrote that song it started the ball rolling and more songs came out of that.
Your sound has been described as country rock with a laid back Californian west coast feel. One comparison that has come up previously is Fleetwood Mac and Paradise sounds like something they should have recorded back in the 70’s, right down to the Lindsay Buckingham styled lead guitar. Was it a conscious decision to achieve that sound when you wrote the song, or did it take on a life of its own once you worked it up with the band?
Definitely the latter. I was staying with my brother in Toronto and I was out grabbing a coffee when the song came to me. I didn’t have an instrument with me – it was just me, coffee, a pad and a pen. I went back to my brother’s place and was trying to figure out the guitar part, but it wasn’t until I got back to Melbourne and we played it in rehearsal and I thought “oh, my god!” To me it felt like the vibe on Wildcats from our previous album Nobody Ever Leaves.
Dan had been listening to a lot of Jenny Lewis at that time and of course we’re all Fleetwood Mac fans, but when Bree laid down that steady beat The War On Drugs was our musical reference – real tight, straight and clean. But it just came out sounding like Fleetwood Mac and I was thinking “this is Dreams – too close, too scary!” So we made a conscious effort to change it, but it’s interesting because we never set out to make it intentionally sound like that – you just go into the studio and everyone’s influences come bleeding out. But we love that track, we absolutely love it.
Blueprint is a beautiful song with a very understated, shimmering feel, but it’s the lyric that really resonates with me:
“If forever’s just a place inside my mind, if I look close enough it’s you I’ll find, so don’t count on me today, inside forever is where I’ll stay”… Was there a particular significant moment in your life that inspired that song?
I was in LA and I’d just come from losing my dad. You’ve got to understand that he got married to his long time partner the week before he passed away, so we were all there with him and it was a very emotional time. Plus, he’s also a musician and he was trying to finish the album he’d been working on. He’s a real inspiration to me – he never had an education, never had a day job, he just did what he loved. Amidst all of that I’m trying to get his goof of a sidekick to mix it all off and get the damn thing finished – I’m just trying to get my dad’s record done before he passes away.
So we eventually get it done and he gets to hear the majority of it before he goes and then I have to rush off to Nashville to meet up with my band because we have these shows to play. Then finally I get three days down time in LA after that, just Luke and I. To be honest I didn’t know where I was at, it just felt like I’d been through the wringer and back. We’d rented this really nice place in Los Feliz just east of Hollywood and just looking out over the hills the melody came to me in a flash. The song is about that concept of time, like that feeling where I’ve just seen you yesterday, but then it feels like ages – how you can feel those two things at once. Thinking about dad and time, trying to soak it all up with him and now he’s gone. And then I tried to take it away from the personal, so that ultimately the song became more universally about love, but it is still one of the most personal songs I’ve written. I’ve bared a lot of myself in that song and I can relate to every single line.
Ashes is also a song about your dad, who passed away last year. The song was recorded using your dad’s 68 Gibson Hummingbird. As a deeply personal song there is a real vulnerability there, was it a difficult song to write?
Yes. I finished it the day before he passed away and then I remember how hard it was for me to try and pick up the guitar and revisit that afterwards. Lyrically it’s an honest look at what to do with his remains. Do I put them in an urn, or keep some in a vial to wear around my neck as some people do? And if I do am I going to feel closer to him? It’s a very personal thing and some people might even be offended by the thought of that. I just didn’t know what to do with them, I was grappling with that – what is the significance of it and what do we hold on to once they’re gone?
Will you take your dad’s Hummingbird with you when you tour?
It’s too precious now, I don’t trust any airline to carry it and I don’t think I want to subject it to the rigours of the road – it just means too much to me. I might play it at the odd show in Melbourne, but I think it will now become a studio guitar. It has such a beautiful sound.
Tracy McNeil & the GoodLife commence their national tour on July 15 at NightQuarter on the Gold Coast.