The great thing about the Internet age is that artists are now more accessible and searchable. For those artists, the means of production and distribution is now so immediately within their grasp that self-publishing is a real prospect for getting their music out there. Online platforms like Soundcloud and Bandcamp have enabled ‘bedroom troubadours’ to launch careers in a way that was unimaginable a decade ago.
One of those pioneering this approach to sharing music is Gareth McLaughlin, a 33 year old singer-songwriter and composer from Derry (via Omagh) in Northern Ireland. Although working in the field of mental health during the day, his true passion is and always has been music, and since adulthood, songwriting. His songs have been played on local and national BBC radio in Northern Ireland. We caught up with Gareth for a Q and A to talk about influences, songwriting processes and his new album – ‘Into The Ether’, which is just out on Bandcamp.
McLaughlin’s hometown of Derry is geographically remote and the last city in the UK before you hit Ireland’s Atlantic coast. Despite this remoteness, Derry has always produced artists who have made a name for themselves outside of the city – Dana, Phil Coulter, Neil Hannon, D:Ream, The Undertones to name a few. McLaughlin describes a thriving music scene in the town.
“Derry has a thriving music scene, and has for a long time. It’s hard to go out here – even to see a covers band – without seeing some quality musicianship. Touts are making a real impact across the UK, and in recent years SOAK has made waves too (pun only partially intended). But because most of what I do starts and ends up online, I feel like I haven’t really become part of the local scene in an organic traditional way”.
This organic approach permeates his own sound. McLaughlin is clearly fascinated by the process of crafting and recording a song from its infancy as a thought or guitar pattern through to the completed article. This is really evident on new album ‘Into The Ether’. It has a real homemade quality reminiscent of McCartney’s first couple of post-Beatles albums, a comparison that pleases McLaughlin.
“It’s totally homemade. In fact my studio is often my (acoustically phenomenal, thankfully) kitchen. McCartney’s first couple of solo albums are among his best post-Beatles work, so I’m well happy with that comparison. I often think of some of the songs from that era, such as “Every Night”, where you can practically smell the whisky and crackling fire in his Scottish farmhouse where the album was recorded, and this reminds me that if a song can stand up on its own merit – and the production is reasonably good – then that’s enough. (Hopefully)”.
McLaughlin’s songs are like rough and ready paintings with brushstrokes that individually don’t create anything recognisable but when layered in the right way bring interesting images into focus. His songs include a range of instruments but primarily guitar, with many featuring mandolin, synth, piano, ukulele and accordion – all played by the multi-instrumentalist. He also creates a set of vocal harmonies through double tracking. This creates a sound that is heavily reminiscent of the Laurel Canyon set circa 1970s. In particular, there is a real Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young vibe going on at times. On some of the album tracks, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re hearing early Graham Nash demos. Mclaughlin described his production process.
“I use a little Roland digital multi-track portable mixer, and generally mic up my acoustic guitar, uke, mandolin, accordion or whatever, and generally double track the vocal. Usually I do this for each harmony too. Like many modern musicians, I first heard of this basic technique being brought to the masses by The Beatles (although they certainly weren’t the first), and I love the ethereal but powerful quality it can give a vocal”.
McLaughlin plays everything, although his girlfriend may the first person to ever get a ‘walking credit’ on an album.
“It’s all me. Well, my girlfriend’s footsteps can be heard at the end of one song, but she’s not getting official credit for that, either writer’s or percussionist’s. (I’ll leave it to the listeners to determine which song it is)”.
On ‘Into The Ether’, he is channeling a lot of influences. As well as the aforementioned Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and early solo-McCartney, there is some Simon and Garfunkel in there and a bit of Paul Brady too. McLaughlin agrees, although he says he wasn’t directly influenced by CSNY.
“It’s funny you say that as I hear it quite a lot (about the CSNY influence), and although I’ve listened to them, and can see what people mean (the combined harmonies are what I assume they are referring to), they’re a group I never much listened to. I think their style’s great though so I’ll go with that. I love The Byrds stuff, and that jangly 60’s American style, so the fact that both these bands shared David Crosby kind of makes sense. I’m a huge Paul Brady fan, and was happy to meet him briefly after a show last year with Andy Irvine and Donal Lunny which blew me away. His singing style has always stuck with me, that very particular lilting vibrato thing he does unlike anyone else so he must have influenced me subconsciously”.
One thing that is very clear from ‘Into the Ether’ and the rest of his Bandcamp discography, is that melody is really important. Right across the album there are hooks galore; most other artists would be delighted to have such an ear for melody. Songs like ‘Into the Ether’ and ‘Living in a Low Dimension’ showcase McLaughlin’s ability to find melodies and key changes that fit together. They go together like coffee and cream, salt and vinger; you can pick your own favourite. The album is stuffed full of good tunes and McLaughlin spotlights the range of his composition ability to great effect. The homemade aesthetic running through the album brings an added charm. Although, it would be interesting to hear what some of these might sound like in the hands of a top notch producer. There are some potential world beaters on here.
It’s clear that he looks for good tunes first and then thinks about lyrics. Actually, some of his songs from ‘Into the Ether’ almost sound like tone poems rather than standard songs. They seem intent on trying to create a feeling in the listener first rather than trying to tell a story. Some of the songs are almost just melodic kernels around which the rest of the song is fashioned and layered. Like someone applying brushstroke upon brushstroke.
“If I’m being honest, I’ve always kind of believed the melody to be more important. I can think of lots of memorable (and catchy) songs with less-than-memorable lyrics, but not with less-than-memorable melodies. Poems, yes, but songs? You need something there to carry you through the experience and enjoy it. Perhaps because of this, I start with a melody practically every time (or in rare cases a title, which might create a theme that can fit around any melodic structure)”.
It’s hard to pigeon hole ‘Into the Ether’ in terms of genre. However, there is a clear folk sound running across the album. You might call it nu-folk or psych-folk or maybe it doesn’t actually matter. Growing up in Ireland has had a real influence on McLaughlin’s sound though.
“Down to the basic instrumental level, growing up here has had an effect. Irish folk music has seeped through my upbringing as much as the pop music I heard on the radio. At family events around Christmas, inevitably trad or folk music would get an airing”.
McLaughlin is wary of coming across as too pretentious when discussing his album themes. The album title kind of gives the game away though. It feels like an album of songs looking outwards and exploring the world, possibly feeling its way in the darkness. Potentially a reflection of this point in our human history with rising despair. This makes the points of light on the album even more delicious when they reveal themselves.
“It’s always tough to talk about “themes” to your music without coming off as a pretentious tw*t. Like many things, the choice I made in the track listing does seem to have some common threads. The title song is about ancient human history, and its cyclical nature, and how nearly all of it then becomes lost “in the ether”. So that might be the overarching theme. That and “other-worldliness”. We do exist in low dimensions – astrophysicists reckon there are probably eleven, maybe more. We can only perceive three, or four depending on who you believe.
McLaughlin has self-published a few tracks, an EP and another album prior to this one on Bandcamp. He is totally comfortable with pushing his stuff out there before it is fully polished. This is likely a mixture of impatience and eagerness. It is a conscious part of his song development process.
“I think that like many in the Soundcloud generation I record ideas, snippets and demos before the real thing. It’s just always the way I’ve done things. I’ll usually share these on Twitter initially. I will end up doing something with them, and finalising them into something I can ‘release’. However, that curious mixture of impatience and eagerness drives me to get it out there straight away. Does the feedback influence the finished song? Maybe if it was bad enough I’d change something. Usually, though, it just confirms what I suspected already so I don’t know”.
McLaughlin is particularly proud of the title track, which is one of the album standouts for sure. He describes ‘Orbiting’ as a decent track which is maybe a function of his own humility. Spoiler alert – it is a great track with a hook you can’t ignore. It’s like a lure and we are the fish. Other songs like ‘Jeremiah’ might have a different mood but fit neatly on the album. The reflective, acoustic number is a really nice change in gear. Overall, ‘Into The Ether’, is a great listen, full of raw creativity and a lot of melodic power. Well worth exploring this and the rest of the back catalogue.
Twitter – @GMLmusic
Facebook – http://facebook.com/GarethsMusic
Bandcamp – https://garethmclaughlin.bandcamp.com/