Coming to my blog cold, one may get the impression that the only music I listen to is bizarre, esoteric, and mostly instrumental. Let me be clear. Not true. I love a good song as much as the next guy and some of my very favorite artists are the songsmiths of the world. I’m a songwriter myself. If you were to listen to my music, you might have no idea that I would listen to stuff that was bizarre, esoteric, and mostly instrumental. But I do. I listen to just about anything I can get my ears on. I tend to write about music with which I can wax philosophical. I do that because it is fun. Richard McGraw is the first artist I’ve included on this here blog that is a fully fledged songwriter. I feel that an important aspect of attempting to write about someone who writes words is having some sense of that artist’s biography. Otherwise we are merely writing about how their myths intersect with our myths and more often than not ends up in a near miss. Since I could find absolutely nothing on the vast interweb about Mr. McGraw, I decided to conduct my very first interview. It is lengthy, but patience dear reader, for what you will glean is straight from the artist’s life and soul. What does it mean to be an artist in this modern climate of sound bites and Spotify? How is pain and suffering transmogrified through art? So you see, I still wax philosophical….I had a really nice time doing this interview. I felt like I made a friend.
As a nice introduction, you might want to watch this video.
(After some kindly introductions and chat about my herniated disc..)
I’ve been listening to your stuff for quite a long time. It was odd how I came across it. I bought a Jay Bolotin cd and somehow your name popped up in conjunction. This was many years ago. I completely fell in love with your stuff. You’re an amazing songwriter. So, first off, what happened when you were 23, Rich? It comes up in a few of your songs.– Natasha in High School and Her Sacred Status – you mention when you were 23.
RM – (laughs) Well I’m 36 now, maybe I could have answered that better ten years ago. You know, I think what I was after was some sort of loss of innocence. I was looking for a sort of period of time where a transition takes place. I was looking for that idea in those songs. Before I was 23 I was this kind of person but now…I’ve always been interested in these transitions, shifts in being. That’s a great question, (laughs) sorry I don’t have a great answer.
PM – Actually that is a great answer and it leads me to this next question. I take it you’re not living in Newburgh any more.
RM – No.
PM – But that is where you grew up?
RM – Correct.
PM – You portray a definite picture of what it was like to grow up in Newburgh, I was wondering if you could talk about that and how it informed your writing, growing up in this town.
RM – Yeah, that’s a great question too, … It still informs my writing. There’s still more to be said about growing up. I suppose in any town you grow up in there may be… There’s a lot of that sort of living inside of us. I would characterize that place and that time… I specifically think of high school, junior high, as Newburgh having meaning or having a feel to it. Before that you are sort of like a mess, elementary school, then you’re coming into yourself. But when you’re a teenager, there’s a sort of suburban boredom, a bonding with your friends, alcohol… you could become involved in alcohol and other substances. It’s a sort of wild freedom. You are sort of like roaming the streets at night. You start off throwing rocks at cars and… it’s like this period of discovery. So, I don’t know, I sort of romanticize those teenage years. But then again, I was really also deprived of, like, female affection. And I was in a constant state of lust and longing and when I did find these relationships, they wouldn’t work out. I lusted after these women and they didn’t really want me. And I wasn’t really equipped to deal with those things. I wasn’t equipped to sort of say, hey, this woman isn’t really into me; she’s lovely, I lust after her, (laughs), so let’s move on. I didn’t really have any ego coping mechanisms or abilities. So it was a period of wild freedom and discovery and great pain, all mixed together. And that’s Newburgh, and that informs me … I guess it’s still like that. (laughs) I still suffer; I’m still making great discoveries. There’s still a sense of freedom. There’s not the actual freedom that I had in those teenage years… what did you have, like a part-time job? You know, you just have a lot of time. And you know, that time, that boredom… I’m discovering now in my mid-thirties, that’s what helps create art for me – being bored, having the space to have nothing to do, is like the first place for art. So the boredom of Newburgh was almost like a blessing in some ways. Gave me that gift of a song, I guess.
PM – Beautiful… That actually touches on something else that I’ve picked up from your work. One of the aspects that I think I enjoy the most about it is that your songs are often revolving around heartbreak, or emptiness, some kind of existential angst and yet, when they are taken as a whole, your albums feel so uplifting and transcendent. I was wondering if there is any kind of basic philosophy that ties these things together for you. Some metaphysical place that you go to that helps bridge that divide.
RM – Well, part of that existential angst is almost caused by a lack of adherence to a metaphysical belief, or doctrine. It is almost as if, we’re born into this certain time with its thousands of belief systems and religions; and as much as I dabble in all of them, I’ve never become a disciple of any one. There is something about me, whether I like it or not, whether I choose to be it or not, it is sort of a skeptic, a non-believer. You know, Anne Rice, the woman who writes the vampire books… She said something that I discovered recently, she said we don’t choose belief, in other words you may think you are choosing to be a Catholic or a Buddhist or something , but you really don’t have choice in that. I sort of see the truth in that. I’ve tried to give myself over to these religions and tried to actually believe, but it never stuck. It wasn’t real to me. It wasn’t authentic. On that base of metaphysical confusion, I guess that’s sort of the birthplace of my existential angst. I don’t have anything that comforts me. I don’t have a belief in immortality that gives me any sort of comfort. I mean yes, I could believe that there’s sort of a mystical… we are all this energy, or this emptiness, we’ll all return to the source, or something (laughs)… I could buy those certain metaphysical ideas but I’m very attached to my being, my human self. And I fear or I dread or I’m terrified by my own annihilation. That too informs a lot of this stuff. I have discovered a sort of a philosophical school of thought, if you will, that seems to match what I’m doing with my songs. It’s called Waking Down. Anyway without going too deeply into that, it acknowledges this thing they call the core wound in humans , which is this pain that all of us have in being finite suffering beings , but also, somehow, in another way, of being infinite and full of possibilities. It’s that sort of rub between our limited self and our unlimited self that is at the heart of being human. I think that’s very close to what is going on in my songs. I don’t know if that answers…
PM – I think what you are talking about with that friction, that rub, between fear of emptiness, or nothingness or annihilation, and then that creative spark that all of us have. I think you’re right. That’s the place where we can find who we are as human beings. That is the feeling that I get from your records when I listen to them.
RM – I appreciate your telling me this. There’s something uplifting or transcendent when you look at them as a whole. And it feels like that a little bit. You know, you write these songs, about painful stuff. But just in the process of writing it, you start feeling a little better about it. It’s a weak, maybe pathetic attempt to defy these things, but it’s an attempt nonetheless. And in the process I feel like, I don’t know, it’s very strange. You know when you write a good lyric that hits the hammer on the nail – oh, yes, this is exactly what it feels like to be human, or exactly how it feels to be heartbroken, I got it. For some reason, when you do that, and you do it well, you do it right, that feels good. It feels like some sort of laser beam focus on what the pain is all about. And maybe it translates to people listening. I guess that’s what you’re saying. Maybe it translates. Maybe it feels good to listen to somebody else doing that, you know?
PM – Sure, it does. I think we all, even if we don’t know exactly what you are pointing to, we get the poeticism behind it. There’s something universal about that.
RM – Are there any songs that you could – not of mine (laughs) – that you find yourself listening to over and over again. Is there anything like that for you?
PM – Oh sure, sure. One that comes to mind instantly is St. Elmo’s Fire, by Brian Eno, off of Another Green World.
RM – I think I know that one. I’ll check that out. I feel like I should know that.
PM – It’s an absolutely stunning song. God, there’s so many that I’d have to actually think about it for a while. Which songs would be the ones that do that to me? Leonard Cohen, so many songs by Leonard Cohen, Hallelujah. It strikes that chord in me every single time I hear it. Tim Buckley’s Song to the Siren. There’s some Ryan Adams tunes that do that to me as well – Sweet Carolina…
RM – I couldn’t stop listening to Gordon Lightfoot song, If You Could Read My Mind?
PM – That song is so beautiful.
RM – It is. It’s a bit of a mystery to me,… You know I kind of get a sense of what he’s singing about, the brokenness, or this relationship he’s had… but it’s so strange. I get such a feeling from it. It has such a vibe. And I could listen to it over and over again. He’s got something special there.
PM – You know another song that comes to mind… recently I’ve been listening to a lot of Roy Harper lately, and the song Another Day…you know that one? It’s an early Roy Harper song.
RM – Cool, I’ve got that written down. Here’s another one. You know John Prine?
PM – I love John Prine.
RM – You know the song One Red Rose?
PM – No.
RM – It’s not one of his more well known songs. But that’s another one. You might want to check that one out.
PM – It’s interesting; during this time you actually answered a question that I had about your relationship to Christianity. I heard these religions references on your albums, but you never make it very clear kind of which way you lean in your belief system. What was interesting to me about it was how much it taps into my own ambivalence about religion, especially Christianity, which I grew up with but later… I didn’t reject it, but I certainly don’t embrace it wholeheartedly.
RM – Yeah. That’s fascinating, man. It sounds like your relationship to it is similar to mine. I guess at some point I made a conscious choice to sort of, not necessarily to sing about it… I guess I do, I mean I have … I explicitly sang about Christian themes or words. I guess I could write a Christian song, if I want, (laughs) once or twice. I’m in that place too, but there are themes in it that I sort of can’t escape. I can’t escape the life and death of Jesus, and the meaning of his life and death, and his words. That’s powerful stuff there. For believers and non-believers alike. Does it really matter if I accept or reject the resurrection of Jesus’ body? Maybe it does (laughs) on some level. It resonates in me. I’ve written it down. I don’t know if you know the album Burying the Dead…
PM – Your record? Yes. I actually had some questions about that one too!
RM – I’ll make my answers more concise…(laughs). A friend of mine who had a little more commercial success than I have, I guess you could say, he sort of felt that it was a Christian record. I guess it has Jesus on the cover, therefore it’s a Christian record. But it wasn’t a Christian record. It’s not Christian music in any sense of the word. If you use the imagery, the language… I mean Nick Cave does it but no one really calls his music Christian music. Lately, I guess on my next record, there’ll be this sort of metaphysical stuff going on. I mean, things like God, they make appearances. I mean it’s hard to avoid it, these words, these topics.
PM – I’m glad we actually started talking about that, because Burying the Dead is an amazing record. When I started delving into it I noticed the references to that essay, Suicide and Public Speaking and I noticed that you mentioned it in the credits. I tracked down the essay and read it. It is such a profound essay. It must have influenced that album in a pretty deep way, since all the quotes are from that essay. I’d like to know what it was about that essay that informed the record.
RM – I don’t know if it is the essay or the girls who lived and suffered and lived these tremendous lives. The Daley sisters, they’ve since passed. But they had this rare condition. Their skin was damaged when it touched the surface of anything. There was something about their lives, and their passing, and their suffering. And I heard that they dug my music. All of that combined together, informed that song, On Our Knees. I was moved when I read that paper. Sometimes you’re moved by these figures. Imagine that Martin Luther King or Gandhi was listening to your record. You know, to me that was what it was like! I was like, oh my God, you know, this is great. It can’t get any better than this. The fact that these girls listened to my music, that I somehow reached them or touched them. You know, that touches me.
PM – Between Her Sacred Status and Song and Void there is quite a creative leap. I was wondering what went down in those five intervening years. Were there influences that you absorbed…the art too. You did the art for all of those albums right?
RM – I don’t think I was ever happy with the art on Her Sacred Status… So yeah, a lot of things happened. I’ll try to pinpoint them. The first was, between Sacred Status and Song & Void, I got a call from American Records, and Rick Rubin wanted me to play for him in his hotel room.
PM – Wow, that is sort of like one of those Martin Luther King moments.
RM – Martin Luther King moment number two! (laughs)
RM – He’d heard Her Sacred Status apparently somehow, lord knows how. I was just starting to play in the city. I was going to school for graphic design. And, it just seemed so wild, man. Seemed like, I’m called to do this thing, this song writing. It’s so tough. You know, nobody makes it. Nobody makes it. Just a handful of people. The odds are stacked against everyone. You feel that. You know that. And then when you get a call from Rick Rubin, it’s like, you feel like, the hand of God. And I felt it. I felt, now this is it. This is meant to be. So without going into all of that, I played for him in the hotel room, and he says, listen, I want you to write a shorter song. I never thought my songs were that long, but he said, listen to Paul Simon’s songs during the Simon & Garfunkel period …which I was already familiar with. And I actually did listen to it and started to write from that place. And then I started sending him demos, and really, like, this is it. So I hunkered down. I locked myself in a room with a piano in a rehearsal studio. And that shifted things. Song &Void is produced, it’s in a great studio, and it has a producer… it’s not just me just working things out. It sounds completely different. The songs are different. I’m a different sort of person. I came out… you hear that cliché: I found my voice. And that’s kind of what happened. I was also listening to, I discovered Nick Cave. I mean he influenced that song. When you listen to Death is not Peace; that’s sort of like, I don’t know, like Nick Cave singing through me. (laughs) So yeah, those are the influences. But that was a major event, man. That changed things. Oh, so then, I was touched by the hand of God, and then God ignored me, and he ignored all the demos I sent. (laughs) He received them… he just ignored them. And so I had to take it upon myself to make this record. I was like, listen, this guy’s not responding, this is obviously not going to happen. So I took things into my own hands and made Song & Void. At the time when I made it, I thought, wow, this is turning out to be special. So I had some perspective. But for maybe a full year or so I was very heartbroken. You know, that’s how I would put it. I was very sad. (laughs) It was a very sad thing, you know?
PM – Yep. I do know that feeling. Being a songwriter myself and… you know, I just made my new album, Lacuna. And I was so excited and proud of this record. And I know too, like you, that, nobody makes it as a songwriter. I know so many talented people out there who are just struggling to get by and to get noticed. But, there was something about creating this record for me that was like, I thought, this is going to make it! This is a really good record. And now I have 900 copies of it sitting in my garage! (laughs)
RM – 900… That’s a good number! That’s out of 1000, that’s pretty good. You’ve done a pretty good job.
PM – But anyway, I know that feeling, and that excitement. When I heard Song & Void, I couldn’t believe that you weren’t relatively well known. I was shocked to learn that you were still in a little bit of obscurity out there.
RM – Very obscure! Not a little! (laughs)
PM – It felt unjust.
RM – Thank you, thank you. That sense of injustice, it used to drive me crazy. But I’m becoming ok with it. I’m making another record. I’m still doing it in some sense. That can drive a man: I deserve to be heard, I need to be heard, I need to be recognized. I may be losing a little bit of that fire. You know that… this is unjust, I need to be heard, I’m better than this guy… You also get into that realm, you know, how is this guy doing it? Yeah. I still would like a little more recognition. But it doesn’t affect the goodness of my life, thankfully.
PM – Are you making your living off of your music? How are you supporting yourself? And these records too… it can’t be cheap to do the kinds of albums that you are producing. They’re stunning. The packaging is so beautiful. I’d love to see you keep doing that but I have no idea what your status is.
RM – So, no, I do not make a living from my music. I make a living from graphic design. I do that full time. How do I pay for it, well I pay for it mostly from going into debt…massive debt. (laughs)
PM – Crippling debt. (laughs)
RM – That’s right. Actually you know I promised myself I wouldn’t do it again. I think I promise myself that every time. I’m going to be frank, pulling numbers out of a hat, I think Song & Void cost fifteen to twenty thousand, maybe twenty five thousand dollars? That’s crazy! I didn’t even, like, graduate school! That’s insane! Twenty five thousand dollars? You know, I’ve repressed that fact. You know, I added it up once and then I’ve blacked out ever since. (laughs)
PM – It’s probably the healthiest response.
RM – And Burying the Dead, I went into debt for that. The problem is, it costs so much money to record these things and because I’m doing this fancy packaging on top, the packaging is really expensive… and so Popular Music, the covers album, was supposed to be my first attempt at making, like, an economical record.
PM – (laughs)
RM – Oh, I’m glad you find that funny! … And even that costs a lot of money! I think it cost seven to eight grand to record, and three to four grand for the packaging. So, we’re talking ten to twelve thousand dollars. That was supposed to be cheap.
PM – That is cheap. It’s funny, because I think the image you put on the packaging reveals that sense of irony. The image on the inside absolutely cracked me up – the little boy (makes angelic singing noise), with his arms spread towards the parting clouds, and the cd rising out of the clouds. I thought, oh this guy is really funny.
RM – I’m glad you liked that.
PM – I do, I like that a lot. That was pretty good. Especially on an album that is all covers.
RM – Yeah, that was also my scheme. That was a scheme, and I should be frank about this. That was my scheme to make money for music. Everybody loves cover songs. I’m going to record these cover songs and … So long story short that was an attempt to break even? Make money? It was not a financial success by any means. Well… that’s yet to be determined.
PM – True. It is still fairly new.
RM – Sure.
PM – You know, I did have a question about Popular Music too. Artists do these cover albums for lots of different reasons right? So, you say it was to make money, but I know there was more behind it than that for you. It could be a tribute, it could be tongue in cheek, sentimental… So there’s that aspect, where you are taking these sentimental songs from the past and putting them into a different context. You chose very interesting tunes for yours. It was completely unpredictable for me. When I hear REO Speedwagon and Lady Gaga within the same context, it was really surprising to me. I thought, these don’t sound like his influences… but what are they to him?
RM – You know, each song has it’s own story I suppose. There is no overarching theme to all of the songs. The last song is a Waylon Jennings? He didn’t write it… If You See Her (by Johnny Rodriguez) is the last cover on that album… Waylon Jennings did it. Mickey Newbury does a cover of it…. I just wanted to do that. I love this song. That would be a good song to cover. That is sort of what the record is about: How can I do this song and still respect myself and still have a voice. I’m finding that just doing a cover is not really interesting. And it wasn’t really interesting me, to just … like, how can I do a Lady Gaga song and feel good about myself?
PM – Especially that one (Bad Romance), which is so popular.
RM – I was trying to sell out, in a sense… what is the most sell-out thing I can do? I mean, that was it! ….
The recording, unfortunately, due to a technical snafu, got cut off here. A shame really as the rest of the conversation was truly lovely. One of the most stirring topics we discussed, for me anyway, was the idea that, as an artist, as a creative being, it is possible to bring works of art into the world and remain unmoved by popular response. We live in a world that where value is measured in numbers: How many plays have I gotten on Soundcloud? How many fans do I have on Facebook? How many cd’s have I sold? How many radios have played my album? Etc. Yet, does this really have anything to do with the actual beauty of the object one has created?
Rich and I both agreed that the actual process of this interview was life affirming. We had both been changed through it. And isn’t that what happens when we, as human beings, engage with the creative impulse? It is not something we own. It is something within which we participate. And, in a sense, this should be enough, should it not? I’d love to see Richard McGraw move into the ranks of the literate songwriters with whom he shares a certain spirit: Leonard Cohen, Peter Blegvad, Simon Joyner, Lloyd Cole… But the fact that he is not (yet) there, by no means devalues the incredible contribution his art makes to the general sphere of knowledge (the noosphere as Teilhard de Chardin calls it). But, that aside, here is what I would suggest: Buy his cd, just one of them. I can, with a fair degree of certainty, assure you that you will be touched by his humanness, by his vulnerability and frankness, by his melodies and attention to nuance. You will find yourself drawn to listen again, with that gnawing feeling that you missed something very important. Just like life, McGraw’s albums are like glimpsing something out of the corner of your eye, something of stark beauty that eluded you for a moment. Every time we listen to a song we are seeing the world through someone else’s eyes. To view the world through Rich’s eyes is a remarkable thing indeed.
Here’s a link to Rich’s CDBaby page. Click, visit, buy.
Here’s one last song to leave you with. It’s a stunner. Asheville by Richard McGraw.