Instruments: Percussion, Whistles, Accordian
Note: This interview/biography was written by Joe Jackson and
first appeared in The Irish Times January 31, 1997.
Multi-instrumentalist James McNally has a pretty impressive CV. U2, Sinead O'Connor, Depeche Mode, Marxman, Eddi Reader, Annie Lennox, Peter Gabriel, The Pogues, Big Country and Brian Kennedy, he has worked with them all. McNally is also the embodiment of the kind of musician who makes many of these "stars" shine a hell of a lot brighter but rarely receives credit for that fact.
However, right now he's in the enviable position of having not one, but two relatively new albums on the market, of which he is "immensely proud". The latest is Every breath. Yet it's last year's Sound Magic Volume One that he rates as "easily, the most important thing I've ever done".
Recorded with Afro Celt Sound System, the album certainly contains some resonant tracks that echo all the way back to the roots of not just rock, but rhythm. And, at the same time, they swirl fastforward into the 21st century, such as Whirl-Y-Reel (Folk Police Mix). It also is an album that really has been "universally acclaimed" and is selling astoundingly well, for a "World Music" album, in countries as far apart as Ireland, France and the US. But why, exactly, is Sound Magic so important to James?
"Because before making that album I'd spent my life struggling to get the Irish community to accept me, whereas playing Celtic music with African musicians made me see the whole question is bigger than whether or not, being born in England, to Irish parents, gave me the right to play Irish music. I felt totally at home with these musicians," he says.
"And I'm really glad you referred to Whirl-Y-Reel in terms of its rock rhythms because I really feel this album would appeal more to rock fans if there wasn't such a stigma attached to `World Music'. We did a showcase gig last October and Virgin spent £80,000 on it, even bringing in the Rolling Stones' lighting guy. It was amazing, but music papers like the NME didn't even review it, because of the World Music tag."
A rather stupid oversight on behalf of music journalists, one could suggest. Especially if you buy into Pete Seeger's belief that rock 'n' roll music originally stemmed from those points at which African rhythms coupled with the sense of spiritual longing in Irish music. Though this is too simplistic an equation, as McNally points out.
"The same sense of spiritual longing is there in the rhythms played by those African musicians," he suggests. "When you talk to them, they talk about the same things we do, as in being oppressed, uprooted from their homes, countries, tapping into all that through music. The suffering is measurable, in similar quantities. And I could feel that when we were recording. Like when I'd play bodhrán and Massamba Diop'd play talking drum. It was really magical - communication, purely through percussion. But then it was more than that because, before we recorded, these guys'd . . . they'd tell you about their people, family relationships, in such a way that when they played you knew they were saying: `Come into my home, talk to me.' Not only that, they made you move over to their side, really care for their people, leave behind your own little world, which is what I meant when I said it was then I realised this whole thing of playing music is bigger than a question of race."
James McNally also sees "a great irony" in the fact that although "Irish music is supposed to be a form of expression for displaced people" the accusation he most often gets from "purists" is that he is a "plastic Paddy" simply because he was born and raised in London
"I get that all the time" he says, angrily. "It's stupid. These people accept that there are different regional accents in Irish music but, obviously, not if your region is London. You can be on stage, giving your soul 100 per cent, be more Irish than Irish because of this striving to show everybody who you are, but to some it's just not good enough. And the thing is that, in terms of London, in my music there's only tinges of that background. Because since I was a kid, I was listening mostly to Irish music. I hear all this stuff about how proud Ireland is of its people who were forced to go abroad. So what is it, Ireland is proud of us if we just shut up and remain a statistic?"
James certainly has been playing Irish traditional music since he was a kid. Classically trained on piano and piano accordion, he was all-Ireland champion on the accordion, piano and bodhrán by the age of 16. But, again, it was his perception of himself as "an outsider" that gave him "the energy, and angle I needed" to excel in the world of competitive music.
"When I played all the fleadhs, I realised that, as someone from London, I had to do something different, so I decided to play wild," he recalls, smiling. "Like I'd do flashy bits to combat that feeling of being an underdog. You can be thrown out for that kind of thing, but I kept winning! Yet, on an even more personal level, I've always needed music to help me express myself. Even nowadays, I love to go home to my cottage, where I live alone, and turn out the light and just play piano. Sometimes, you just end up crying, as you play. That's what music really is to me. Therapy. Because I've blocked up too much emotion in my life. People think I've got it all together, managed groups, performed live but that pressure often adds to the sense that, inside you are falling apart. Behind the flash, there's a lot of sadness in my music."
Happily, this form of emotional vulnerability didn't lead McNally to yield to the drink and drug pressures that were a dominant factor of life in the Pogues. "I don't drink and I don't take drugs but, after three years with the Pogues I realise that the point many people do need to, is when you step off stage," he suggests. "If you are a real musician you live for those moments on stage, but then suddenly that `high' is gone and you're back in your hotel on your own and can turn to anything to fill the void. It's like you live only two hours a day, then die. And then you also have to deal with all the crap you encounter in the music business, in general.
"Though, when I joined the Pogues, Shane MacGowan obviously had his own problems, almost wanting the others to get rid of him. But those guys really loved playing music, yet had their own way of dealing with the loneliness after the gig. I suffered massive stress because of that loneliness, but never gave in to the temptation. Yet I've often wished I had some chemical to take away that feeling. But I've never even been drunk."
Clearly, James McNally isn't exaggerating when he claims "music is my life." But, it must be said, this doesn't always come across on his album Everybreath, where too often the soul of the man seems to be silenced by the necessity to play relatively straight vocal lines in asinine tunes such as A Woman's Heart, though the opposite obviously applies to his own compositions, such as Saviour. Nevertheless, can James accept that those who love his work with Afro Celt Sound System might take one look at titles such as A Woman's Heart and say "what is this shit? Has he sold out, already?" Stung by the suggestion, he pauses before answering.
"Well, first, in terms of my playing vocal lines, on the whistle, in these songs, that's what's expected when you do themes," he says. "In fact the album started out as a whistle album and I was given certain material I had to include. A Woman's Heart would not have been my first choice. But if that takes people into the other songs, particularly my own, good. Even so, I think the programming Oisin Lunny did on songs like A Woman's Heart is fantastic. So are Tommy McManamon's guitar lines. The arrangements and production I did throughout also are far from `straight'. And even though, yeah, I do have to do vocal lines to establish a theme tune, in the beginning, by the end of many tracks I often do go right down into my own soul. That's what distinguishes this from a Phil Coulter knock-it-out-themes album. Tracks like Black Is The Colour, Bandia, Foggy Dew and the end of The Isle Of Innisfree.
"In fact, that last track is the essence of what I'm saying. I do the main tune, which is like the mundane part, to me, even though I'm doing it with feeling. But, I am just copying, playing a given melody. Whereas the end of that track, Sheas Mu Chroa is a Graceland situation, takes me to another place. Same with Saviour, where there are moments of magic which, to me, are no less than anything I did with Afro Celt Sound System. That's why I can say I am proud of both albums."
Cultural origins: London-Irish, James McNally became all-Ireland champion on the accordion, bodhrán and piano by the age of 16 and formed his first band, with Tom McManamon, Storm, in 1989. Referring to his virtuosity on a range of instruments, Van Morrison describes McNally as the "Master". In 1992/1993 Storm joined forces with rap act Marxman and together with Sinead O'Connor recorded the hit single Ship Ahoy. Storm also opened for U2 in their Zooropa tour.
Recording projects: Having joined the Pogues in 1993, was featured
heavily on their album Pogue Mahone. Last year he also recorded Sound Magic
Volume One with Afro Celt Sound System and has just released his debut solo
Afro Celt Sound System