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Interviews

Chris McNulty: A Siren From Down Under

Chris McNulty: A Siren From Down Under
By Published: January 24, 2012
Chris McNulty emigrated to New York City, from her native home in Melbourne, Australia, in 1988. Since then she's released five recordings, with Waltz For Debby (Discovery, 1991) first introducing the Australian singer to American audiences. On that record, she wrote what would ultimately become the official, published lyrics to Miles Davis
Miles Davis
Miles Davis
1926 - 1991
trumpet
' classic "Blue in Green." Since 2004, she has released three records on Elefant Dreams, the independent label she shares with her husband, guitarist Paul Bollenback
Paul Bollenback
Paul Bollenback
b.1959
guitar
. Both Dance Delicioso (2005) and Whispers the Heart (2006) were the result of collaborations with Bollenback, and were pre-nominated for Best Jazz Vocal Recording Grammy Awards. Dance Delicioso was also chosen as one of the best favorite vocal recordings of 2005 by Jim Wilke, radio host of the nationally syndicated Jazz After Hours, while Whispers the Heart was included on many of 2006's Top Ten lists, in addition to being voted Top Ten Pick of the Month by Musica Jazz Italy.

In addition to encompassing unique renderings of familiar standards and re-harmonized pop tunes, McNulty has also created a substantial body of original work. Her music, recordings and story have been featured on national radio in Australia, the USA, Russia and elsewhere around the globe.

McNulty's seventh recording, The Song That Sings You Here, will be released by Holland's Challenge Records in August, 2012, and is truly an international collaboration, including drummer Marcus Gilmore, bassist Ugonna Okegwo and Paul Bollenback from the USA, pianist Andrei Kondokov and saxophonist Igor Butman
Igor Butman
Igor Butman
b.1961
sax, tenor
from Russia, and pianist Graham Wood and special guest singer Anita Wardell
Anita Wardell
Anita Wardell
b.1961
vocalist
from Australia and the UK, respectively.

McNulty will return to Australia this winter, to perform with noted Australian pianist-composer Paul Grabowsky for a weekend stint at Melbourne's prestigious Bennetts Lane as well as performance dates in Sydney at bassist Cameron Undy's 505 Club and, in Brisbane, collaborating with vocalist-educator, Ingrid James. She will also be presenting workshops on college campuses, teaching from her recently completed advanced jazz vocals manual, Jazz Vocalist as Complete Musician.

On a more sombre note, McNulty will also be returning to Australia to manage the posthumous release of three vinyl/CD projects by her son Sam McNulty (aka Chap One), a wonderfully gifted musician-composer who passed away suddenly and tragically in July, 2011. The release event will be held at "The Order of Melbourne" on March 22nd, celebrates Chap One's extraordinary music and also coincides with what would have been his 31st birthday.

On her return to New York, McNulty immediately commences work on a large ensemble with strings project—a collaboration with Australian orchestrator-composer, Steve Newcomb.

Chapter Index
  1. Education
  2. Influences: Australia and Elsewhere
  3. Self-Producing
  4. Naïveté and Composition



Education

All About Jazz: Do you consider yourself to be largely self taught?

Chris McNulty: Yes. I guess you'd have to say that. Certainly an opportunity for formal study in music, jazz in particular, was extremely limited at the time that I was growing up. This was more a consequence of class, culture and economics than anything else and I guess geography also played a role. It was certainly nothing like it was here in the States and nothing like it is now, either here or in Australia. Education in music, in jazz, is big money and big business now. Even with diminishing support for art and music programs in our public schools here in the States, it still seems possible to find affordable opportunities for kids to learn about jazz and contemporary music at an elementary and high school level, low income earning communities included.

It's not great, but it's a whole lot better than what was happening during the time I was coming up. I can only remember one music lesson during my entire high school and elementary years. In just that one period we learned how to read and write a short piece of music. I can still remember the combined feeling of fascination and excitement. I also remember dancing all the way home and then all the way back into the classroom the following Monday only to find a big notice on the blackboard saying that our music lessons had been cancelled indefinitely and we would be spending the time as a free period in the library until further notice.

It became obvious that this was a permanent arrangement by the end of that school year. Sadly, music lessons weren't a high priority in that working class enclave. I guess our parents were not raised within a culture of questioning or protest and nor were we. I recall feeling really disappointed, but I don't think I realized that there was anything I could do about it either. That was definitely cultural as well as economic.

So, being self taught and defining it for me is really rooted in the fact that there were relatively few opportunities for it to be otherwise. If you have limited resources through to a certain age and still manage to find your way to a creative life, then I guess you will find ways and opportunities to inform yourself and pursue the knowledge. I guess I've done that to a certain extent all my life. I would say that it's a much more difficult road to travel or negotiate. Having educational opportunities early in one's life definitely helps but if you don't have them it sure shouldn't preclude you from pursuing a career in that field.

On one hand it's a struggle, but on the other hand I also had enormous opportunities to play music in a live professional arena and make a very good living at a very young age—the road was school for me, early on anyway—it's very hard to get those kinds of experiences these days. So as long as you don't waste too many opportunities, it all works itself out in the wash I guess. I want to study orchestration and composing in a more formal setting now, so I'm looking for a way of doing that.

Going the self-taught route does have its pros and cons. I'm still dealing with all sorts of demystification issues. When you consider that so many musicians whom I work and collaborate with are also very well schooled, it can be challenging. Then again the fact that some facets of the music still remain such glorious mystery is kind of awe inspiring too—that creates its own inspiration. I write when I feel the urge and most times without an inkling of where I'm going to take it. A simple melody or phrase and something will develop or not.

It's sometimes about allocating the time to create, other times, something just grabs you—the work is about discovery and creation all at once. I rarely write past a few bars without getting into the harmony, I think that is true for many musicians, but they all feed on each other. I can't say one comes before the other, except for the lyric which in my approach always comes last. Even if the song has a vibe foe a title, writing the lyric is the very last sacred journey for me before I decide that this is it—this is my creation—final and complete. It really is for me like painting.

I guess when you're talking about jazz though, you really are talking about being here [in NYC] under the influence and tutelage of the masters, even if you haven't studied directly with one. If you managed to sit in their shadow and watch their hands press against the piano keys or against the strings of their guitar or against the keys of their horn, or see the stick flex in their hand against the skin of a drum, you know what I'm talking about.

I was lucky enough to arrive in NYC before the majority of clubs shut down. The jazz club Bradley's played a particularly educational role for me. I was at that club regularly several times a week and really got some outstanding music lessons. I was also blessed to have gotten here by the skin of my teeth on a very moderate study grant. Perhaps NYC held a significant amount of magic for me to help me get through those very rough early days and to continue down the long road of making NYC work for me.

A healthy dose of willful commitment aside, I came a very long way on a very large dream with no real plan to try to stay past three months. I certainly had no desire to be a single parent in a foreign country, little less NYC. The concept of not returning to Australia to live permanently again never entered my mind—now 20 years later I realize as painful as it is that it was all being decided right at the very beginning, very strange indeed.

Commitment and passion can be a double-edged sword. Arriving here in NYC with my then seven year-old son in tow was magical and at the same time very tough—once I made the plunge to build the mountain (sometimes it felt like digging a hole), I knew it was never going to be easy to juggle the responsibilities of raising my son on my own and pursuing both my passion for artistic freedom and in a way recognition. In the end I feel like I had to maintain a lot of pride just to validate staying here and hanging in here. My son also suffered and triumphed through the transition in a different way, though is deeply wise as a result of having lived and experienced two hugely different cultures and environs.

In the end you have to hold this work, this pursuit of a creative life in the highest esteem. I have been fortunate enough indeed to have retained some of that early passion and commitment. Maintaining the focus, inspiration and motivation while continuing the journey has and remains the ultimate challenge. Many of us, most of the time, manage to do this without the support of record labels, managers or booking agents, so that's testament in itself on how committed one has to be.

Not so much in the creative artistic realm but in surviving the constant challenge of keeping up with the way the business of music has changed and/or evolved. Of course, as is the case for just about every artist, especially the jazz musician, making enough money to pay the rent definitely ups the ante. I've gotten luckier the longer I've hung in there, not sure if that's a bit of the luck of the Irish or the old adage, keep on doing it and never give up.

It's been a very long road so it's been great to get so much support from the press and radio for my work of late. That has actually been a defining moment for me in validating the work, the commitment and the compromise. When you are self taught but even if you're classically trained and have three degrees—if you're a jazz musician trying to get to or remain at the top of your field in the year of 2006, you are competing for the smallest piece of cake that's ever been available.

You still have to find the motivation to sit down and study and learn something new every day. We are out there constantly getting our butts kicked, so there's not much room for slouching or should I say couching. I share my life with someone, Paul Bollenback, who is hugely dedicated and has a tremendous commitment for self improvement and the pursuit of his goals and dreams as a jazz musician, so I am constantly challenged or reminded to keep up. Sometimes I miss the boat, but I must say it's not that often these days. I know that the boat doesn't come in that often any more—not for no one.

One last note on this subject of self taught. For me there were two very strong indicators for finding success from the self taught journal: the creative gene and the fact that the sung voice was most present in our family life as kids growing up. There was very little of much else musically speaking as far as training is concerned anyway, but both my mom and dad loved to sing. My dad especially had a beautiful voice and sung lullabies to us as little kids before bedtime. I think a lot of us come from that kind of background. It's kind of simple but at the end of the day it has a definite impact.

I think I figured out very early that self-taught was going to be my only avenue. The creative gene was there, it was on both sides of the family. There were seamstresses, folks who could make patterns out of newspaper, design clothes, and sew them up in an evening—I followed suit. There were story tellers and writers of stores, it they came along once in a while, it was enough to remember and recall their memory into the present, which reinforces the fact that creativity is one of the most important ways to express who you are.

I found my real creative voice in the music we call jazz but the music I am writing, may very well transcend that category, though it's not for me to say. Not sure where it's leading to, that's the magic—the journey of pursuit and discovery.


Influences: Australia and Elsewhere

AAJ: One of the things about your artistry that is so intriguing is the element of surrealism in your lyrics. Is any of this due to Australia's geography and native culture?

CM: I'd say most definitely, but then I have lived in NYC for the past two decades, so who knows. If you ask someone like Paul, they'll probably give you a raised eyebrow and an answer like Chris' brain [laughs]. But honestly, the wide-open spaces of my homeland definitely play a role in all this, for sure. It's stunningly beautiful and at times, a hauntingly lonely country, sometimes even spooky. Aboriginal folks will attest to that.

I miss the country of my childhood a lot. The price I've paid for leaving it behind has had a lasting impact on me, the yearning for it weighs heavy on my spirit some days. Maybe the memory has remained so vivid and strong because I'm not there and I miss it so much. The geographical landscape in Australia holds some serious power over all of us. It's in our blood.

Physically speaking, most of the past two decades of my life have been spent living in an apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan—so I sit here and write—the past often informs the present and the present the future. I realize that perhaps I've had to hold onto those memories because life was so tough for me here for many years, it most probably kept me alive. My memory has served me well for my life and for my writing. To keep what's precious dear, you sometimes have to write it into memory. For me, those words/lyrics always connect to the spirit of memory and therefore music.

I think I've always had a finely tuned sense of big picture, the wide lens—maybe that comes from experiencing the wide open spaces, but I am rather detail-oriented too (Catholic upbringing...nuns). I love the music of Bernstein, Copland, and Barber, but look for meaning in small things as well. Anything that might help explain our existence, why we're here—what's just under the surface.

To this day I remember being no more than eight years old, standing on the porch of my house looking up at the stars and wondering what we were doing here and why we were here at all. I was asking God a pretty big question; I think I expected an answer too...still waiting on that one [laughs].

I have started to write a lot more of late, that's the full circle thing. I realize that it's something I love to do as I did as a young girl, so I hope to get the chance to spend more time doing this, or rather allow myself the time and space to do it. Right now composing music is my first priority, administering this record label, and booking tours are also on the daily to do list, not to mention answering interview questions on time. I have a tough enough time prioritizing all this so the creative work gets hit first—rarely happens these days, though trying to fix this. So, lyrics are taking a back seat until I get some more work done. I've had a lengthy post production on this latest release, Whispers the Heart, and a heavy touring schedule coming up so I am just getting my creative juices going again. The business of music can really sap you of a lot of creative energy, if you allow it to. I have to watch that tendency; having the capacity to juggle a lot of things just because you can, doesn't mean you should.

I try not to write trite or silly lyrics and I'm kind of particular about what I read—literature, fiction, prose, poetry, even the news. I loved the Bronte sisters as a young girl growing up; their writing had a powerful effect on me both visually and literary and at an age where things can impress one deeply. I started writing short stories around age 11. I think by the time I arrived at the place where I was ready to write lyrics to music, that aesthetic was already firmly entrenched in my writing style. I have no idea where the surrealism, if that's what it is, comes from. It's a surreal time in our existence on this planet. My writing has always been informed by the external, perhaps that's all I need to say.

AAJ: Since you are a Baby Boomer, what music shaped your youth?

CM: Even if you were just into pop music—the pop music of the late '60s and '70s was pretty killin' and I think in a way may far outlast some of the pop music that has followed since—that doesn't include some forms of early hip hop, which I really dig. I find more and more teenagers now listening to the same music we were listening to. That's pretty amazing in itself and in a way it makes me feel really good to know that I was listening and dancing to that music as it was going down, being created.

I was still just a little kid without a thought that I would someday become one of those artists on the radio—well not a pop artist to be sure. Sam Cooke
Sam Cooke
Sam Cooke
1931 - 1964
vocalist
, Otis Redding
Otis Redding
Otis Redding
1941 - 1967
vocalist
, Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway
Donny Hathaway
Donny Hathaway
1945 - 1979
vocalist
, Stevie Wonder
Stevie Wonder
Stevie Wonder
b.1950
keyboard
, Aretha Franklin
Aretha Franklin
Aretha Franklin

vocalist
, James Taylor
James Taylor
b.1948
composer/conductor
...so much of their music still remains beautiful—magnificent to listen to today.

Then you had all the great English pop and rock artists—The Beatles
The Beatles
The Beatles

band/orchestra
, Cream, Yes' Close to the Edge (Atlantic, 1972), especially; and then of course, Jimi Hendrix
Jimi Hendrix
Jimi Hendrix
1942 - 1970
guitar, electric
, Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan
b.1941
composer/conductor
, Woodstock, Allman Brothers Band
Allman Brothers Band
Allman Brothers Band

band/orchestra
, Crosby, Stills & Nash. By the time I started singing I was already performing repertoire from The Isley Brothers and Tower of Power. Some of these cats are still out there doing their stuff and they still sound great, but they were all just starting out back then and it was a great and amazing time to be young and alive.

The great jazz of that period, which of course for us kinda takes it to a whole other realm—without sounding too snotty-nosed, in a way, far surpasses everything. I got to that a decade later, and am still sifting through, so that's testament to the other amazing thing—creative music—jazz, if it's real, stands the test of time and remains beyond timeless.

As a little kid, I watched a pile of movies and was particularly mesmerized by Arve Henriksen
Arve Henriksen
Arve Henriksen
b.1968
trumpet
and Maucha Adnet and even Doris Day
Doris Day
Doris Day
b.1922
vocalist
to a lesser extent. Though coincidentally, they were not the singers I listened to once I did get the jazz bug a decade later. I still love to watch Meet Me in St. Louis just to hear Judy Garland sing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"—exquisite and very moving. I never talked about the effect that particular rendering had on me, as I was such a little girl at the time.

In retrospect I imagine it was rather huge. I recall singing this song 12 or so years ago and having not just the audience, but just about every musician on the band stand close to tears. I think it was Judy Garland's indirect influence. So after all these years of forgetting to acknowledge her, I now have to say that Judy Garland's emotive delivery and pitch, back in that time of her career, are beyond category. I wish she'd lived a different life or perhaps taken a different course and better care of herself, she would have been a hell of a jazz singer. Sinatra, well he had a whole other magic but stayed the course in a way no one else has ever managed to do. I don't think anyone will come along to take that torch for another 100 years.

These were fabulous teachers for a budding vocalist, even though at the time I had no idea I was going to end up being one. I learned the value of great pitch, emotive delivery and breath control by osmosis. So I was real lucky. I was exposed to all that great pop music on the radio and then at the same time saw repeats of those great movies. The vocal duets between Frank and Doris day on "Young at Heart" are remarkable enough just for their perfect tuning but then you listen to how spontaneous and hip their phrasing was. I don't know how they did all that all at once—acting and singing—pretty darn talented for sure.

So I was familiar with the repertoire of the Great American Songbook before I knew what it was. The transition from pop—R&B singer to becoming a jazz singer was strangely not such as weird a leap as one might assume. I think of those great Ella Fitzgerald
Ella Fitzgerald
Ella Fitzgerald
1917 - 1996
vocalist
and Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong
1901 - 1971
trumpet
duets and realize there are just way too many influences for me to list here. As a jazz vocalist, Sarah Vaughan
Sarah Vaughan
Sarah Vaughan
1924 - 1990
vocalist
, Carmen McRae
Carmen McRae
Carmen McRae
1920 - 1994
vocalist
, early Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday
1915 - 1959
vocalist
and early Nancy Wilson
Nancy Wilson
Nancy Wilson
b.1937
vocalist
really had the most influence on me in my early 20s.

I am so grateful to have come up during a period of time that exposed me to so much amazing music and unique, beautiful and soulful talent. That pop music and jazz combined has played a major role in developing my vocal style.

AAJ: Since you are a native of Australia—I wondered if the Aborigine culture had any influence on you and your artistry?

CM: The short answer is no, although to explain why would take more time than we have here. It would be an interesting topic to explore now; as in how much more possible it might be given the changes that have taken place since I left Australia in 1988. Historically, parallels drawn between the American Indian and the Australian Aboriginal situation are most revealing—the outcomes for both, tragically similar.

Prior to leaving Australia in 1988, there were perhaps a handful of rock bands composing and performing music marginally influenced by Aboriginal music. At that time there had been very little movement towards gaining recognition for Australia's Aboriginal population, their rich culture and spiritual heritage. I think the shape shifting didn't really start happening until the '70s. The majority of Australians, artist or otherwise were mostly informed by way of documentaries, books and films. Fred Schepisi's movie, The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith [2008], based on a novel by Thomas Keneally, is one well worth checking out.

In a way, the Aboriginal's social landscape was pretty well off limits, unless you were working for the government in a social services field, belonged to a study or religious group or if you'd found a way to be accepted into Aboriginal society by some other route—either way the conditions wouldn't have been too comfortable, physically or socially. The opportunity for creating any kind of dialogue or having any real social contact would have been difficult to find.

For cross-pollination to exist you first off have to have a need, then you have to have two willing and interested participants—sadly neither existed. Before British colonization, Australian Aboriginals had been a nomadic people for more than 20,000 years. As was the case with the American Indians, Australian Aboriginals suffered brutally at the hands of the newly arrived British and Europeans; that brutality continued into the middle part of this past century and even beyond. In some cases entire tribes were wiped out, as was the case with the Tasmanian Aborigines.

It's taken a long time for Australian Aboriginals to gain access to support networks that would help redefine who they are in the 21st century, not just to themselves but also to the rapidly changing main stream culture. Opportunities have finally started to open up. That people of Aboriginal descent can now openly and proudly express their worth through their art and music is testament to their strength of spirit, courage and endurance, but so much was lost. How much and to what extent our forbears, their governments and even present day Australians are implicated, has been widely documented.

To this day it casts a very dark and disturbing shadow across both Aboriginal and European antipodean landscapes. Obviously in bush settlements, far away from the semi-urban and urban fringe, Aboriginals found opportunities to preserve and nurture their sacred rites, rituals and beliefs as they had been doing for thousands of years. However the urban fringe dwelling Aborigines often lived below the poverty line on the fringes of country towns and inner cities—too many still do.

Though there have been some triumphs, after centuries of brutal treatment and mostly or almost entirely forced assimilations, many Aboriginal communities still remain shattered and dangerously vulnerable to all kinds of chronic social and physical diseases with one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world.

I had spent my early years out on the road in some pretty rough environs. There were very few Aboriginal bands or musicians performing to white audiences at that time, they mainly played in pubs and bars restricted to Aboriginal patronage only. At this time in outback Australia or country town Australia, way north and west of the Victorian border there was still an unspoken form of apartheid in place—certainly not South Africa in scale, though perhaps as devastating.

Hotels and bars out in the country, far away from the major cities where the majority of Australians live, were absolutely segregated. I'd heard only a handful of Aboriginal musicians at that time and they were playing in establishments owned and operated bywhite Australians. They were certainly not performing any of their own indigenous music in these environments nor would they have been encouraged or even allowed to do so.

Perhaps even Aboriginal people didn't want to play or hear their music at this stage. On the contrary, as a very young singer touring the country what was commonly heard wafting out from these bars was most often some pretty sad country and western music—much of it American based, believe it or not. It was weirder than weird as I just knew that the Aboriginal people had their own real music, it just wasn't valued in either culture for many and varied reasons. Either way it was invisible to most of us or remained hidden.

In the early '70s it would have been difficult to find anyone, Aboriginal or otherwise willing to openly speak or write about what was really going on, that offered us any real insight into the value and depth of the culture. From the outside so much of it had been decimated. Aboriginal music was attached to sacred ritual and therefore privately held in high esteem by them alone. As the oppression continued, its intrinsic value became more and more private and hidden from Australians and tragically also from many fringe dwelling Aboriginal communities. It would be a whole other story out in the bush settlements, certainly would be great to be a fly on the wallor should I say fly on the cork at one of those hangs.

Out on the road, in outback country Australia, we were all working in separate venues, but the cities were a whole other matter. I never ever met an Aboriginal musician playing in an urban setting, not in the '70s or '80s at least. I'm sure it's a whole other story now.

The didgeridoo has a real distinctive sound and plays a very specific role in Aboriginal culture and ritual. I remember bringing up its use in a jazz context as far back as the late '70s, but there was very little support, understanding and appreciation for doing this at the time. So much has changed, but back then the suggestion just brought blank looks. Now it's used widely. I realized much later that you needed one for each key. It wasn't like everything was wide open in Australian society—it was hard to even find anyone willing or able to meet with you. The awful fact is that you were more likely to hear the didgeridoo played by some white TV personality than to hear a person of Aboriginal descent playing it, though I'm sure it was being played out in the bush settlements.

Most Australians including myself never heard an Aboriginal musician playing their music on their instruments, not in the '70s anyway. Although interestingly enough, one of the earliest memories I have at long distance writing was at around the age of 11, writing a 200-page story about a young Aboriginal girl's plight to survive in the big city after leaving her tribe and family behind. I have no idea where I got the inclination to imagine that scenario.

At the beginning of my singing career, I played with a bunch of New Zealand Mauris, their ethnic heritage being of Polynesian descent. They made up a very large percentage of the entertainment community in Australia (and still do), working on the show band circuit, a kind of Las Vegas type non-jazz scene. New Zealand Mauris have a tremendously strong music tradition, along with being real soulful musicians and singers. I have many fond memories of those early experiences, some of them very funny indeed, they sure know how to get a groove on and party!

Over the past two decades, Aboriginal art, artifacts, music, musicians, story tellers, actors, writers and most recently athletes have really come into their own. These particular aspects of Aboriginal culture have become very much a part of what sells Australia to the rest of the world. Though in real terms, I am not sure how much this kind of commerce benefits Aboriginal culture or its people directly, if at all. Of course their art and music has been around for more than twenty thousand years. I know the wonderful film composer and pianist, Paul Grabowsky, who heads the Australian Art Orchestra, has recently recorded an album of music featuring several Aboriginal artists—that's great news.

That Australians now encompass Aboriginal sounds and instruments into their music is not surprising. However, for me finding Aboriginal and Australian musicians forming partnerships and bands is a much more inspiring notion. It would be great to see many more Aboriginal artists attain notoriety. I think in a strange way, the current influence of Hip Hop culture may have helped accelerate the plight of the Australian Aboriginal in modern Australian culture and also helped bring about a forum for Aboriginal people to organize and politicize their voice through art and music. It just so happens that thecoming out for young Aboriginals has happened at a time where access to media has really accelerated that leap forward and if it has helped in any way, it's a very good thing.

I haven't lived in Australia for close to 19 years? I do know that a lot has changed but nothing changed for centuries so there's been huge losses on both sides; the casualties profoundly and almost entirely suffered by Australian Aborigines.

We come back to music and how it speaks a universal language to us all. The music that builds bridges between cultures and people, that acts as a conduit. The drive and passion has to come from both cultures as does the desire, the will, the resources and the opportunity. Musicians and artist are like the bees. All these things work in tandem. If cultures are separated by huge distances; the voices of the disenfranchised silenced for too long or not heard; if these cultures and communities remain hidden away from view or entire communities are forced to live away from other cultures, it take a lot longer for those lines, those song lines to intertwine and connect, to plug into each other.

Right now the musical voice of the Australian Aborigines is still threading its way out of some enormous and deep suffering. When its voice becomes loud enough so everyone can hear, perhaps then, all the other sounds will bow to its haunting power. The music that comes from suffering comes like a raging river. A cross-pollination of a kind has begun, whether it will build to universal status is not for me to second guess—we can only hope so. In the end no one can speak the music for you; it has to come from the heart and soul and willingness of the people, the musicians and singers and artists who can find the source.

Willfulness, purpose and respect can help facilitate that journey, but in a way, for there to be any real freedom or truth in the music, the journey has to be made together. It's been happening very slowly. In Australia, the rivers run very dry and sometimes for long periods of time, sound travels slowly down a dry river bed.

There is Aboriginal power all over the Australian landscape—the land and the Aboriginal people are joined eternally. It would be hard to imagine this power—land and Aborigine not having entered the soul of at least some Australians of European descent. Has it influenced who I am as an artist, how I feel, I'd say most definitely.


Self-Producing

AAJ: Correct me if I am wrong, but you came out of the gate producing your own recordings? Please talk about that experience.

CM: Yes, it seems that I have always been heavily involved in the pre and post production process. I have no idea how that came about, probably out of sheer necessity, but just about everyone is doing this these days. I've always had an abundance of multi tasking skills, sometimes to my detriment. Having full creative and artistic control has always been a given for me. Now I think it might be somewhat difficult for me to give up that kind of control—you know, having someone make decisions or pass opinions about a piece of music on your behalf.

In a way I'm kind of way past that, meaning I know what I'm doing and I like the results I get. Even now, the thought of hiring a producer kind of disturbs my equilibrium, not to mention my pocket. I'm actually not sure what I'd do with one? If I was approached by a different label and they were paying for it that would be a whole other story and I'd have to be ready to work within their perimeters. I'd always want some degree of artistic freedom though.

Paul (my co-producer for both Dance Delicioso and Whisper the Heart) and I work great together. We may decide to bring someone into the mix during the session, if we're both playing a lot, as was the case with Dance Delicioso. However, it I was going to hire a producer, I'd be more inclined to hire another musician to help run the session. Neither Paul nor myself feel like we need anyone else involved in the pre-production stage and certainly not in post production.

Between having a great co-producer in Paul and awesome engineers such as Mike Marciano and/or Dave Darlington and then Darlington in on the final mix, we really have this thing down to a fine art. Well we're always learning new things of course and making new mistakes.

In the case of Dance Delicioso, having twelve musicians playing on such a diverse selection of material (the day before Thanksgiving), could have been more than challenging, but we did this in two very short days with literally no headaches. For that particular session we hired Bob Sadin to manage the session, though he certainly didn't produce the recording. So much of the prep work was done by us before hand. In many ways Bob really helped by keeping the stress away from Paul and I, which was just what we needed for that particular session.

For me, especially now with the use of Pro tools you can really work many of the kinks out beforehand and save a lot of time in the studio. Getting the lengths of each piece defined, test running sonic and arrangement choices and seeing what works coloristically or sonically are all great options to have before going into the studio. We now find most of the time in the studio is spent recording the music and that's it—we're out of there and into post-production quickly. So in the end, I hardly see the need to have anyone in the mix making musical decisions about an arrangement on my behalf—I have Paul's ears and my vision and they are both interchangeable.

I think the whole scenario changes if a major record company is involved and you have a young artist or an artist with limited skills at working independently or arranging their material. The record company is paying for everything and their goal is to not just to break even but make serious ducats. Nowadays, many fiscally successful jazz recordings are produced to the nth degree, it's a studied market. We are seeing more and more jazz artists and their recordings caught up in that dance, as has been the case with pop music for more than half a century.

Personally I still want to hear the music first. Don't get me wrong, I am absolutely fussy about the sound and the vibe, the musical excellence of the piece, the mix, the mastering. I am hands on with every aspect of the process, but I want the music to speak to me without too much interference from over arranging or over production. I like the fact that we can edit ourselves a lot more now, but micromanaging this is not what I am about. The bottom line is I hire the players for the stamp they are going to put on the music. Meaning I conceptualize the music, then envisage what kind of player/playing I want or what combination of players I hear on what songs.

For instance, the sonic and arrangement choices I made with one of my originals, "Dance Delicioso," is a perfect example. I completed the tune perhaps a week before the recording; it was strong and very well defined quickly. Paul and I have our strengths and weaknesses, but we often work independently of each other on certain tunes or aspects of them. In this case, I did not even have time to score this tune, but I knew what I wanted. I had the melody and the figure written as well as most of the harmony.

I already knew it was going to be a bit like a pied piper kind of thing, meaning each of the players were going to join in at different points in the song as the lyric also implies, I also knew very early on what instruments I was hearing—Joe "Sonny" Barbato's accordion playing, Gary Thomas
Gary Thomas
Gary Thomas
b.1961
saxophone
' tenor, and also a vocal group. It was a real fun piece to create and work on, mainly because the concept was so strong visually and the harmony was not too difficult. Other pieces I've written have taken a lot more work—the three originals that appear on Whispers the Heart, for instance, and the string quartet I wrote for one of them were more than challenging—the harmonic and rhythmic figures were difficult on all three.

Occasionally you think some tunes may have benefited with some interjecting but you get what you get. I don't have hundreds of thousands of dollards in my budget. In the end I hire the musicians for the vibe they bring and the stamp they are going to put on my music—and I often don't want to dictate the final outcome. I don't want to interfere with their creativity anymore than I'd want someone interfering with mine. Of course certain decisions have to be made. Paul and I do this a lot, we get home and listen and might think "oh boy that solo is way too long"

This happened on "If You Never Come to Me" [Whispers the Heart]. The solo was great by the way, but the entire tune needed something different in the mix sonically. Usually we get this right beforehand, but as is the case sometimes, that particular tune got added at the very last minute, so we didn't have a clearly defined concept. It's sometimes a choice I will make—to go into the studio with perhaps one song that has not been arranged—left open for a reason—a nice blank slate. Protools is a great tool in a situation such as this—we cut the solo in ½ and then went back in the next day and added a soprano solo as well as adding voice and flute as unison melody over the guitar solo. I think it works beautifully.

So I don't really know what the advantages or disadvantages of having a producer on board might be or what they'd bring to the table for that matter. Right now it seems that I've been able to get by without one by either doing it myself or having Paul as co-producer. When I first arrived here in 1988, everyone was telling me that I had to have a producer for this first recording and I really questioned it. I was thinking why, who knows my voice here, who really knows my sensitivity or my standard of what's cool or not.

I already have my repertoire defined, what else do I need? I was naïve but then on the other hand I was also pretty savvy. What I saw back then was this tendency for every singer to have a producer, I'm not sure it ended up amounting to much more than a large expense. The concept of empowerment comes into question. I just hate the idea that folks think artists, vocalists in particular, have to be produced. I think it sends the wrong message. Having someone take care of the session is one thing, but handing over the controls to someone else is completely foreign to me.

I think there are huge consequences for remaining passive. For one thing at the end of the day, the mistakes I make are mine. I don't have to deal with regrets about decisions I might have or not have made by placing blame. It's clean and simple, the buck stops with me...err...or with Paul.

AAJ: One of the interesting things you do is the rearrangement of standard material, which adds a whole different emotional level. The I Remember Yousession is a prime example in the way that you interpret "Easy To Love" and "More Today Than Yesterday." Please comment.

CM: Well, Paul has had the most to do with this particular aspect—he's a real genius. Interestingly enough though, the "Easy To Love" arrangement evolved out of a working gig situation. Guitarist Rob Bargad
Rob Bargad
Rob Bargad
b.1962
piano
added some slightly different harmony. I think I added some changes and then shortly before the I Remember You session, the inimitable Bollenback stamp appeared on the tune.

That arrangement in particular gathered momentum as it rolled across the musical landscape. It's intriguing watching how that happens, with both my own compositions and other musicians' arrangements. I love the fact that tunes, arrangements often evolve just as we do. You know, most times you do a tune for a year or two and then let it go, it's served its purpose, something comes along to replace it. But occasionally something stays on for longer, taking different shapes as it passes through different hands and ears, or as it passes through each emotional or musical stage. I find that fascinating.

AAJ: I gather that in your repertoire the American popular songbook is still deeply appreciated?

CM: Yes, indeed. I will never stop interpreting those songs. They are golden, like diamonds in the rough. I am composing more and more, but I am not trying to write songs similar to those. Why would I even try—Jerome Kern
Jerome Kern
Jerome Kern
1895 - 1945
arranger
, Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen
Harold Arlen
Harold Arlen
1905 - 1986
composer/conductor
, Johnny Mercer
Johnny Mercer
Johnny Mercer
1909 - 1976
composer/conductor
, Cole Porter
Cole Porter
Cole Porter
1891 - 1964
composer/conductor
, and Rodgers and Hart. Those cats were pure genius.

The romance and brilliance that came out of this particular period of American musical history was profound. I make a list and I add tunes to it that I love and sometimes it takes me a decade to perform or record them. Some of these tunes are close to sacred to me and often I don't feel ready to do them, even if I truly want to, so I have to move them further down the list. As was the case with "Porgy," it took me a decade of dreaming about that song, it was there for the taking, but I knew better. I'm glad I waited.


Naïveté and Composition

AAJ: You have admitted that you also bring a certain naïveté to composing.

CM: Well, if you were to interpret not having come out of a schooled background, I guess you could say that. I think I alluded to this in an earlier question. My musical education and background has been of an informal variety, so I did not learn the fundamental or rudimentary forms of harmony first. I stumbled over things as I matured and sometimes the discovery might have appeared kind of innocent, I think that's what I was alluding to.

But I don't think the music that I write could be classified as naïve either. The harmony is mostly untraditional therefore fairly complex, it's neither awkward nor simple, that's just the way I hear it. I think the fact that I am also a singer first has affected a certain development in my writing. I hear intricate harmony but have the added advantage of knowing what to hear naturally, based on what the voice can do.

Because I write from the piano, my compositions are obviously going to be more pianistically based, though I am not a pianist per se. The harmony I write can occasionally be difficult to negotiate because there's rarely any II-V-I harmony involved and the modality is shifting constantly. But as several musicians have pointed out, the music still works, logically speaking, because the melodies I create have to be strong. I don't mean in a catchy, poppish way, but in a way that has to hold the harmony together.

The melody functions by threading a needle so to speak through what sometimes feels like a harmonic maze or should I say rather a harmoniccraze. Rhythmically speaking, I wish I could make my compositions more naïve. Just this week I completed a new piece and for the life of me, I was trying to write something in straight 4/4 time—I have a desire to want to sing something of mine that I don't have to sweat bullets having to count for the entire time, even if my partner thinks not [laughs].

My weakest gap is in writing rhythm, so after several attempts at scoring on paper, I was still unhappy with the way the piece was sitting or flowing. Once I gave up on the notion that it was in 4/4, I was able to write it out fairly quickly. The song is in 6/4 with a couple of 4/4 bars. Ho-hum...the simple 4/4 tune remains elusive still.


Selected Discography


Chris McNulty, The Song That Sings You Here (Challenge, 2012)
Sam McNulty, (aka Chap One), Strange Frequencies (Elefant Dreams, 2012)
Paul Bollenback, Invocation (Elefant Dreams, 2007)
Chris McNulty, Whispers the Heart (Elefant Dreams, 2006)
Paul Bollenback, Brightness of Being (Elefant Dreams, 2006)
Chris McNulty, Dance Delicioso (Elefant Dreams, 2005)
Chris McNulty, I Remember You (Mop Top-Elefant Dreams, 2004)
Chris McNulty, A Time for Love (Amosaya Records, 1995)
Chris McNulty, Big Apple Voices (Venus Records, 1994)
Chris McNulty, Waltz for Debbie (Discovery Records, 1991)

Photo Credits
Pages 1, 4: Lena Adasheva
All Other Photos: Courtesy of Chris McNulty
Chris McNulty
Chris McNulty

vocalist


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