Nov. 04, 2009 - Issue #733: Broke
Folk artist James Keelaghan sculpts songs out of loss
'A certain part of it involves just sitting around and staring at the
wall," explains celebrated Canadian folk musician James Keelaghan in regards
to his songwriting process. "But once you start tossing an idea around, you
begin to examine all of the different angles you can tell the story from.
Distill the story down to its most essential elements, and spend the rest of
the time figuring out how to write in the particular voice that you've
Keelaghan cites a song called "McConnville's" from his latest album, House of Cards. The story recounts an real Irish pub famed for its signature whiskey that has never been available for purchase outside of the pub itself. After a regular is killed in an accident, the patrons and proprietor band together, finally auctioning off a bottle of the whiskey in honour of their friend. It's a touching story, and one that Keelaghan initially struggled with telling.
"I had tried to write the song from so many different angles," he explains. "In the end I realized that I had to write it the same way it was told to me, from the bartender. He was a soft-spoken man, in his late 40s or early 50s, with wire-rimmed glasses. Once I could hear the soft, gentle way he had of speaking, the whole song just came together."
With so much attention paid to his lyrics, it wouldn't be a stretch to think that Keelaghan may feel as though the music he writes is under-appreciated, a career's worth of melodies slipping under the radar while other elements of the work are celebrated.
"I know that for a lot of people, when they say, 'Good song,' they are talking about the lyrics," acknowledges Keelaghan. "For most people, the music is just a delivery mechanism for the lyrics. But I'm pretty comfortable with the fact that they enjoy the music too, maybe they just aren't as conscious of it. But the music has to be strong for the words to resonate.
"If I do have a chip on my shoulder about anything, it's about how underrated the rhythm guitar is—I'm a freakin' drum kit up there," Keelaghan adds with a laugh. "It's the basis for everything else that happens in the song."
With many nights spent under the spotlight with only his guitar as accompaniment, Keelaghan has over 20 years worth of material to draw upon, each song rolling out verse after extended verse. In an age when so much pop music consists of shouting out two or three slogans over and over for three minutes, I ask Keelaghan if he ever forgets a verse or draws a blank onstage?
"No, I've never had any problem. Early in my teens, I was gravitating towards drama and music," he says. "I remember I was called in to take over a part of an actor that had gotten sick at a production of [Shakespeare's] The Comedy of Errors that was happening in Calgary. I had to learn, absorb, and memorize a lot of material very quickly. Somehow I acquired the skill and it's stuck with me to this day—gigging every second night helps too."
With themes of loss prevailing throughout House of Cards, Keelaghan recounts some personal losses he's dealt with over the past few years that informed his songs. Recalling missed opportunities and personal upheaval, Keelaghan also notes the political climate of the last few years has had an effect on his work, especially the economic hurdles many are now facing.
"We're living in a very exciting time," he explains. "A lot of people are shook up and hurting, but everywhere, and especially in the music community, people are seizing control of the means of production and people are able to take total control of their careers. The system is not working, and it's created a void. There are some radical new ideas forming and old structures have been stripped bare. It's a very important time." V
Thu, Nov 12 (7:30 pm)
With Rob Heath
Festival Place, $32 – $36
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