Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Artist Spotlight: MacGregor Burns

There’s a certain haunting humanity to the best folk music. You can hear it when you put on an old blues 78; this untraceable something that can raise the hair on the back of your neck. The music feels natural, stark and candid, but somehow disconcerting, like it's from another place. Art brut is a nice technical term for it: the music made outside society’s tall walls. In modern music, more than a few wanna-be eccentrics and semi-interesting characters have sought after this strange singularity. The problem is, you can’t seek it. In its raw form, it just flows. You’ve either got it in you or you don’t.

I first heard MacGregor Burns’ music at a semi-crowded house show in one of Richmond, VA’s seedier neighborhoods on a cul-de-sac with no on-street lighting. Despite it all, the atmosphere inside was nice. Lots of talking, drinking, and, you know, general merriment. Still, the bands played a bit of a side role. MacGregor took the stage third. He set up quietly, his loyal traveling companion Sylvie, a German Shepherd, curled up near his feet. He had been hanging out all night, not really making himself known. When he started to play though, something tangible happened. People got up from the couch, one by one, and started heading for the kitchen, the heart of the make-shift venue. I watched this migration curiously, and soon I found myself pulled in with the rest. The audience swayed and watched, enamored. “He sort of sounds like Neil Young,” I said to one of my friends, who nodded like he hadn’t heard me. I think we were all a bit entranced. 

The show went off without a hitch. Burns’ performance was evocative. Just an electric guitar, a drum machine, and his voice. It was painfully, beautifully simple. Between tunes he swung himself around a bit, stuttering quick banter with a happy-go-lucky swagger that contrasted starkly with the darkness of his material. He never seemed to slow down, though. He was masterfully efficient. By the time he got to his cover of Seal’s “Kiss From a Rose”, all on-lookers were rapt. I’ve never seen such an intense lassoing of an audience. Suffice to say, when he finally did pack up, I felt I’d just sat through something kind of special. 

So, the man himself. I wanted to buy one of his albums, but was unfortunately strapped for cash. We made a little small talk about being employed at country clubs (I sell tennis balls, he teaches waterpolo. Who do you want to hang out with?). His soft-spoken demeanor was a little striking. It’s as if there are three MacGregors: on stage, exuberant and magnetic, off stage, a bit of an everyman, and in his songs, a kind of troubled prophet. I talked to him later that week, and my analysis was confirmed. He’s an unbelievably down to earth guy, helpful but reluctant when talking about himself, excited and chatty when it comes to his favorite Baltimore bands (Shy Violets, American Folklore, he could go on for some time) or Sylvie. 

I’ve seen more than a couple truly small-scale indie acts that have impressed me. It hurts every time, though, when their recorded material fails to live up to the outstanding promise of their live performance. It’s not always the band’s fault. Sometimes it's the production, sometimes they’re just not ready for a studio. Either way, it’s a let down. I’m constantly waiting for my Our Band Could Be Your Life moment. With Burns, things were different. I delved as far as I could into his back catalogue and, before long, found myself playing his tunes over and over and over again. Natural quirk and hints of unspecified spirituality saturate everything he does and provide a mystique reminiscent of Daniel Johnston. He’s got a strong voice, not strong in the conventional sense, but cut carefully to fit in precisely with the rest of his material. When he double-tracks the vocals side-by-side, the pained cracks fold onto each other in the most compelling ways, chewing at your insides and begging you to pay attention. Bizarre as it can be, people find his work oddly relatable. Just take a look at his Facebook page or go to any of his shows. Is this the stuff cult heroes are made of?

Burns recently signed to the excellent Epiphysis Foundation label, a cooperative headed by singer-songwriter Brendon Massei (a.k.a. Viking Moses). Massei actually produced Chill Sade, which Burns says was recorded in a night with no initial plans for release as an album. The record itself is the latest step in a swift line of musical development, throwing a fuzzed-out electric guitar into the eerie mix of bare-bones drum-machine and keys arrangements that comprised the Disco Daydream EP, already a far cry from his earlier lo-fi folk endeavors. Burns found the Sade guitar, a ’63 Guild Hollow-Body, at an auction in Baltimore and felt like he had to have it. That’s the kind of thing his music is built on. He didn’t have sweeping ambitions about going electric, that’s just the way it happened. It’s not contrived, it simply is

Most of all, for me, what Burns represents is a style of independent music that’s inherently honorable. When I asked him what the climate for an indie artist like himself is, he just said “I love it.” I had to laugh. When I clarified, asking him if he feels like it's tough to make a living as a musician outside the great dark monolith that is the mainstream record industry, he said yes, but he didn’t seem too bothered. What frustrates him more than anything is when he can’t get gigs, not most because he’s wanting for money but because he just wants to play in front of people. 

Burns is on a cross country tour right now (check here for dates), and I mean really cross-country. He fired off from Maryland, headed south, and is now burning his way west and up the Pacific coast. Then it's back home to Baltimore for a bit of a break. That’s when Chill Sade will be available for mass consumption. If you missed him this go-round, have no fear. Our hero has high hopes. He wants to take the record on tour again, this time with a band, a trio perhaps. He wants it to be bigger, and if I were you, I’d take note if he’s coming nearby. You’re going to be wowed. 

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