Anne McCue is very much a vital part of the vibrant music scene in East Nashville at present. Together with recording her own material the Sydney born artist has been active producing other artists, video making and hosting a radio show on local radio. Very much acclaimed by her industry peers her phenomenal guitar playing has received plaudits from Lucinda Williams, David Olney and Dave Alvin to name just a few.
Roll (2004) and Koala Motel (2006), both classic Americana albums, should take pride of place in any music lovers record collection. Always prepared to experiment, her latest album Blue Sky Thinkin’ is influenced by her exposure to jazz as a child without discarding her distinctive guitar style.
McCue tours Ireland in August playing shows in Kilkenny, Clonakilty and Dublin and chatted with Lonesome Highway in advance of the visit.
Great to see you back playing a number of dates in Ireland in August. Your formal college training was in Film Production rather than music. At what stage did music take preference over film as the main career focus?
Music, novels and movies were always the most important things to me. When I was 5 I wanted to play piano like Liberace! I took Classical lessons for about 6 years before I switched to guitar in my teens. Bands like The Cure were emerging and the arrangements were simple enough to understand and work out. But I was very shy, too shy to sing. So I thought maybe I could be a novelist or write screenplays – something more in the background. But the urge to play in a rock band was still very strong (ever since we pretended we were the Beatles with our tennis rackets.) So after I finished university I answered an ad in the paper to be a guitarist:
Wanted: Wild women for rock’n’roll band.
We recorded our first demos on a 4-track cassette player, they got played on the local radio station a week later, and all of a sudden we existed! I’ve been a professional musician ever since! I decided I’d better take some lessons and ended up studying with Australian jazz legend Bruce Clarke. He was a tough task master but he let me do the gardening to pay for my lessons. So I was in this raw rock band while studying music theory and jazz on the side. It was a rather schizophrenic time, musically!
East Nashville has been your home for quite a few years now. The music community there seems particularly vibrant and united at present. It seems like the perfect location for an artist like yourself that mixes production work together with song writing and recording together?
Yes, it’s really turned out to be a great place to be. When I first moved here it was a lot more ‘country’ and Music Row predominated. But since that time, with so many transplants from all over America and the world, many other styles of music have moved in and East Nashville is at the heart of that alternative, Americana, rock, jazz explosion. It’s a great place to have a home studio because it’s still relatively quiet and there is still a semi-rural vibe which I particularly like as opposed to the noise of big cities like Los Angeles and New York. I love producing other artists and Nashville is possibly the most affordable place you can record an album with some of the best musicians in the world. Also, it’s nice to live in a city where music is a respected occupation. You’re not an outsider for that reason.
East Nashville based artists normally associated with country music have released quite experimental albums this year. I’m thinking of Lera Lynn, Sturgill Simpson. Robert Ellis, Elizabeth Cook. As a musician and producer are you seeing a shift in musical direction around you in East Nashville?
Yes, and that’s as it should be. When people get stuck with a sound I get bored! When an artist continually makes the same album over and again it’s rather dull. Unfortunately, radio stations do tend to embrace the one trick ponies, more than the people who experiment – they invented all these genres and formats which never actually existed before. Why must an artist write in only one style? Why can’t it be about their art, not their record sales?
You also host a radio show on East Nashville Radio Songs on The Wire. What type of music does the show feature?
Well, when I started Songs On The Wire there was no radio show in Nashville talking to local East Side song writers or playing their music. Hard to believe, I know. With all those great bands and artists based in town, they weren’t getting any coverage on Lightning 100, the station that supposedly represents that group. So I thought I’d start a show that focussed on the local writers (who weren’t writing mainstream country) – the singer-songwriters. I was doing it as a podcast, and then I found a place for it on East Nashville Radio. I’ve done about 50 episodes so far and now you can hear it all over the world as it is broadcast digitally on a couple of Australian Radio stations. I go for more alternative music – nothing too straight ahead, but from any historical era to the present.
Your personal career schedule includes production work, touring, recording, video work and your radio show. A busy calendar no doubt. How difficult is it to balance that workload?
Being a truly independent artist these days means you are working about 60 hours a week between tours just keeping everything going. Yes, I have a lot of different creative interests and a three minute song can take a long time to write and a long time to get to record. Then there are the hard facts of making sure gigs are being booked and publicised – so many facets now. I do envy the artists who have great managers and all they have to do (I imagine) is write songs and perform and hang out. I don’t have much down time but I know I’m lucky to have the life I do – it’s been a very interesting life. I just wish I had more days in the week because I never get done all the projects I want to work on and there is no such thing as a vacation!
Your latest album Blue Sky Thinkin’ was itself quite a diversion from your previous work with possibly a more New Orleans than Nashville feel to it. What was the motivation and inspiration for the album?
We had this box set of 8 vinyl records when I was kid and I just loved it! It was called the ‘Swing Years’ and it had artists like Fats Waller, Cab Calloway, Benny Goodman, Peggy Lee etc - jazz before it became cerebral, jazz when it was really actually rock’n’roll. Later on I got into Django Reinhardt and gypsy jazz and still later, Astor Piazzola and the Nuevo Tango. I’ve always been attracted to those types of ‘expensive’ chords. I just love interesting harmonies and melodic turns and it was just time to start writing like that – it just happened really. But I think I managed to keep the edge on it – the musicans – Dave Raven, Dusty Wakeman, Carl Byron – are more rock musicians and that’s who I like to hear playing swing music. I don’t like it when it gets too smooth.
Are you working on the next album yet and what direction is it likely to take?
Yes, well I’ve got a lot of songs written, so I thought I’d just start recording them with guitar and vocals, then listen for a while and see what approach I should take. I will most likely record in Nashville. I want it to be rich and lush but still very organic. I just produced an album for Ellen Starski and I wrote some string arrangements for that. I imagine I will take a similar approach on my own record but it’s a little early to say for sure!
Your recent production of Emma Swift’s debut album was nominated for an ARIA Award (Australian Grammy). She is another indication of the strength of Australian artists in the Americana genre. Do Australian artists really need to relocate to the States to get recognition and an audience?
They need to at least tour the States if they want to make a living from playing their own music – and Europe, UK, Ireland etc. And believe me, it’s not that easy in the States any more but just the sheer size of the country – the amount of cities you can play in over a year without repeating is immense. Australia has the same population as Greater Los Angeles and not many cities so it’s difficult to sustain a music career there full-time. It’s just better to be swimming in a bigger pond – more opportunities will arise.
Given the way music is consumed at present how do you see artists outside the mainstream surviving career wise going forward?
This is something I face every day and I have no definitive answer because the ground is always shifting. Yes people are buying less actual CDs but on the other hand they are buying more digital copies. However, with being able to stream whatever music they want whenever they want, why would they buy music at all? I heard a girl declare recently, “I only listen to vinyl or streaming.” And that seems to be the way it’s going. But from streaming the songwriter makes almost nothing and regarding vinyl, it costs the same amount of money to print 100 vinyl records as it does to print a 1,000 CDs. So we’re not really making money from vinyl either! The worst thing about this scenario is that the working class may no longer be able to afford to be artists – only kids with rich parents who support them will be able to afford to be musicians. I suspect that’s what‘s going on.
Your guitar training included studying with Australian jazz guitarist Bruce Clarke yet much of your guitar work is closer to rock than jazz. Who were your guitar heroes that inspired you to play the instrument?
Neil Young – I always loved his acoustic playing but also his angular, totally original electric playing. Of course George Harrison – his simple melodic approach and his slide guitar. David Gilmour on the album Wish You Were Here. Jimi Hendrix of course – I’ve recorded a few of his songs… When I saw Tony Joe White play I realised it was all about the groove. There is a guitarist, Charlie Christian who played with Benny Goodman. He is about my favourite because he had the best electric guitar tone ever and the best phrasing ever along with Django Reinhardt – I love his acoustic playing. Django and Charlie are my two favourites.
Interview by Decaln Culliton - with thanks to Anne.