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Bill MacKay: "I Tend Not To Go Much From Outside Sources or Concepts as an Inspiration"

Chicago-based guitarist and journeyman musician Bill MacKay has built a catalog embodying several genres and his latest album "Locust Land" is no different. While a pastoral luster of mostly meditative instrumentals, the new album shows MacKay exploring new ground, blending swaying piano lines and wonderfully tangled melodies with his classic improv guitar. Ahead of his tour, which begins tonight in Indianapolis, I chatted with MacKay who breaks down the making of the new album, his musical beginnings, and embracing the enigma of life.

Photo by Yvette Marie Dostatni

Hey Bill, congrats on the new release! Before we discuss it, first tell me what you've been  listening to, reading, watching, or spending a lot of time doing? 

Bill MacKay: Thanks so much. I have really been mostly readying things for the shows this year, but also  doing some drawing, reading Michael Gallope's "The Musician as Philosopher," and poring over John Beasley Greene's amazing pictures of Egyptian ruins in "Signs and Wonders."

I see you have a run of shows along the East Coast starting next week. What are you most excited about taking these new songs on the road and what can fans expect from these shows? 

Well, it's just always so energizing to have new stuff to play. The most exciting thing is seeing how the songs unfold, the reactions to them, and how they change in performance from the record. I'll be playing a bunch from it, and songs from the earlier records too.  

I'll be catching you at the Rochester show at Bop Shop Records. Have you ever  been to this part of UNY before? If so, what do you like to do when visiting? 

Oh, that is great. Yes, indeed. Along with Pittsburgh, Rochester is one of my hometowns. I spent my childhood mostly in Rochester, in Pittsford to be exact, and a year in Penfield. So, it'll be wild to play there, something I have rarely done. I used to spend a lot of time in Powder Mill  Park, hence my song of that name. But really my mind is on getting back to House of Guitars in Irondequoit. Not necessarily to buy anything, but as kids that was our version of church. These older guys would be smoking joints in the room at back, firing up Marshall stacks. It was a quite a scene. I still have the two guitars I got there.  

What type of records, books, or fanzines would we find if we traveled back in time in your  teenage bedroom? 

Oh, I guess I was kind of a precocious kid. I got into Jack Kerouac early, so you'd have found "Desolation Angels" and "The Subterraneans," Sylvia Plath's "Ariel," Nietzsche's "Thus Spoke Zarathustra," Dostoyevsky's "Crime and Punishment," Thomas Wolfe's "Look Homeward, Angel." You'd see records by David Bowie, Lou Reed, The Beatles, Ravi Shankar, Talking Heads, Jimi Hendrix, Frédéric Chopin, Narciso Yepes's "The World of Spanish Guitar," Miles Davis too, and the soundtrack record of "A Chorus Line."

For our readers who aren't familiar, what can you tell readers a little about yourself and how you got into playing music? 

Well, I started at age nine, had various influential teachers for short periods, but really just kept at it, figuring out things, writing my own songs at a very early age, and it blossomed and I never stopped. That's the crux of it. I'm now on the eighth record with my label, including collaborations, and playing a mix of guitar compositions, sung songs, and improvisations. I'm playing solo for this "Locust Land" tour but also have two bands, BCMC and Black Duck, which put out new records last year.  

What are your thoughts looking back on your past records and how do you think you've  grown musically over the years? 

Well, it's hard to pinpoint exactly. I just do keep feeling like you get closer to something you've always wanted to say, or several important things that have been trying to be expressed a long time. So, it feels that I get more in tune, that the songs, sounds, singing, and playing are hitting the mark more often. I feel that I am learning from mistakes but also from successes. Each is its own adventure also. I'm glad to feel like none has really been identical to another. Each record seems to have their own identity.  

What did you want to do differently with  "Locust Land" compared to your previous releases? I read that you described the new album as a "breakthrough" and "clearing a new path.

Yeah, I mostly wanted it to be a record that could lift the spirit, look at things in a penetrating way, embody my feelings of recent years, and talk on the ups and downs and weirdness, the enigma of life. It is a breakthrough for me as it's so clear, and the expression on it feels very direct. Part of that is the sense again of personally breaking into new ground, places you haven't exactly gone before.  

How long did you work on "Locust Land"? What can you tell readers about the material  written for it and what it was like putting this full-length album together? 

Oh, probably I was working on it on and off for a year and a half, at least. Some songs I thought would definitely appear on it, I later took off as they didn't seem right after all. So, it was a real process getting it right. It was writing, recording, thinking on it, going back to it, and laying down new stuff. In the end, it's been a gratifying path as I still really enjoy hearing the record. It feels very complete and it breathes. 

Did you draw from any specific inspirations when writing the record and laying down its  keys? 

No, I really did not. I tend not to go much from outside sources or concepts as an inspiration. I've definitely been moved by a ton of artists and landmark works and stuff, but I never do think of those things when looking at making a new record. I think for me it'd be a distraction.  

What was the companionship like with the other musicians featured on this album including Sam Wagster, Mikel Patrick Avery, and Janet Beveridge Bean? 

Oh, it was tremendous because they are great friends, and I love their artistry so much. So, it was really easy to work with them. Things flowed, and they made creative additions that I felt really expanded the songs. 

Let's dive into some of the songs here. What were the inspirations behind "Oh Pearl"? 

Well, Pearl is the nickname of a soul very special and dear to me, and so it's for her. And I mostly aimed to do something as vital, fiery, and alive as I could with the melody since she embodies those things herself. 

One of my favorite earworms on the new album is "When I Was Here." How did this one  come together and its accompanying music video? 

Oh, that's cool to hear. I first had some guitar-based melodies that came to me, along with a few basic lines of lyrics. And I think it was two sections also, or rather the verses came music-wise separately from the bridge or chorus part. They just seemed to fit so well together. And then the last solo section was a whole other progression that I thought made this cool coda. The song actually took some inspiration from my early Rochester days. And it talks about slipping away from friends, and the many changes you go through just living like we do. As to the video, Mikel Patrick Avery, who played percussion on that song and on "Glow Drift" came over and was a great director. He did it all. And I didn't exactly know how it was going to turn out, but I loved it when I saw how he had made these different scenes of me playing intersect. Quite a wild and original vision.  

Another one I very enjoy is "Keeping in Time." What can you say about this one? 

Glad to hear that as that’s one of my favorites on the record. It came like a gift, most of the music and some of the words just poured out as I had the recorder going. But I would have remembered it anyway. It really stuck in my mind immediately. It’s very evocative both of those people you admire, sometimes from afar, and that sometimes you may even meet very briefly, but whose presence stays with you. And perhaps you wonder about them over time, where they are, and if you'll see them again. So, it has nostalgic vibrations in a way, but also is to do with wishes and  longing. The major part of the work on it was re-writing the chorus. I think I wrote no less than 30 versions of those six lines. Crazy. And each version was close to the others too. Trying to say the  same thing. Finally, it felt absolutely right. I’m looking forward to playing that one on the tour.  

What's the story behind the cover art? 

That also came late in the game. I see different things in it. It represents to me Locust Land as a place, or a mythical idea. There are mountains, structures and the realness of that, yet it seems to hover over the ground, maybe on a pier of sorts, over sand. So, it's in reach and out of reach. A life thing we struggle with that is bittersweet, and that is also often striking and inspiring. 

Asides from the upcoming shows, what else is on the horizon for you? Have you been  working on any other projects or collaborations? 

Well, there are gigs and tours throughout the year which is exciting. But I'm also focusing on  getting a second book of writings published. Doing a lot of walking to tell you the truth. It's a  kind of meditation. I am also always hammering away at my language studies, mostly French, Portuguese, and Spanish but dipping into Arabic lately too. Tours are good as a kind of ritual and they can be really cleansing. Psyched to be playing in Rochester. Thanks for talking with me, Joseph!

Bill MacKay's "Locust Land" is out now on Drag City Records. Catch him on tour at the following dates below.

Bill MacKay Tour Dates:

6/3 - Indianapolis, IN @ State Street Pub

6/4 - Asheville, NC @ Eulogy

6/5 - Charlotte, NC @ Tabor

6/6 - Washington, D.C. @ Rhizome

6/7 - Brooklyn, NYC @ Public Records

6/8 - Turner’s Fall, MA @ Abandon Dream 

6/9 - Rochester, NY @ Bop Shop

6/10 - Detroit, MI @ Moondog Café

9/4 - London, UK @ Cafe Oto

7/19 - Chicago IL @ Pitchfork Music Festival w/ Black Duck

8/11 - Lison, Portugal @ Jazz Em Agosto Festival w/ Black Duck

8/25 - Glenview, IL @ Glenview Public Library

9/28 - Chicago, IL @ Pro Musica Audio w/ Michael Zerang

10/1 - Los Angeles, CA @ Scribble w/ Apeshit Mask

10/2 - Ojai, CA @ Greater Goods

10/3 - San Luis Obispo, CA @ The Bunker

10/4 - Santa Cruz, CA @ Indexical

10/5 - Oakland, CA @ Green Room at the Crown  w/ Chuck Johnson & Cole Pulice


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