For the Sake of the Song"
In recent years, Santa
Barbara's music scene has become somewhat of a mini-haven
for the singer-songwriter scene. national talent from
the network of loosely descibed folk and pop songwriters
pass through town, playing in the comfy brick lined
confines of SOhO and, more formally, in the "Sings
Like Hell" series at the Lobero Theatre.
And now comes yet another
new venue, the monthly "Trinity Backstage"
series, monthly concerts in the amicable ambience of
the Guild Hall at Trinity Episcopal Church. The series
was launched by two singer-songwriters in their own
right, recent emigres to town, Kate Wallace and Douglas
Clegg, who sought to create a casual, ongoing forum
for notable songwriters to express their often parallel,if
not downright secret, lives as performers.
That scenario neatly sums up the story of Larry John
McNally, this Saturday's visiting performer. If the
name rings a bell, it's probably because McNally has
had his songs recorded by Bonnie Raitt ("Nobody's
Girl"), Don Henley ("For My Wedding"),
Joe Cocker ("Long Drag Off A Cigarette"),
and Aaron Neville ("Somewhere, Somebody").
Neville was his first big connection as a song supplier
after McNally had moved to New Orleans in the early
McNally, who lived in Los Angeles in the 80's and New
York for most of the 90's, recently spoke on the phone
from his current home in Pacific Palisades. Writing
is still the bread and butter and his work pops up in
interesting places; he has written lyrics for two songs
by the late Polish pianist-composer Wladyslaw Szpilman
(the subject of "The Pianist"), including
one on the concept album, "Wendy
Lands sings the Music of Wladyslaw Szpilman."
But McNally yearns to heat up his performing career
which has included releasing the 90's albums "Vibrolux"
and "Dandelion Soul."
"For whatever reason, the things that have made
my writing career, so to speak, haven't kicked in, in
terms of my performing career," he explains. "It's
just serendipity or whatever. I wish they would, because
I absolutely love to perform. The more, the better."
"The performing feeds the writing, for me. I think
my thing has started to speed up in recent years because
of the performing. It completes the circle. You perform
the material and you can feel how people are receiving
it. They give back to you, and that fills you up, and
then you give more. It's a circular flow."
In a peripheral way, McNally's
voice has been heard in town before. In 1997, he collaborated
on an intriguing jazz-cum-folk song set with guitarist
Leni Stern, which resulted in the unique album, "Black
Guitar." Supporting that project, Stern brought
her song craft, and guitar craft to SOhO a few years
ago. The connection wasn't as far-fetched as it might
seem: McNally is an avowed jazz fan, who briefly studied
at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, and whose
songwriting vocabulary leans toward the jazz and soul
end of the musical spectrum.
"I love jazz (chord)
changes," he says, adding that, when pressed for
a stylistic description, "I sometimes call it 'folk-Hendrix.'
'Singer-songwriter-guitarist,' too. I just love songs.
I can't get away from that. The beauty of of when a
lyric and a melody meld and the moods that that creates
is probably my favorite thing."
When the Bangor, Maine-born McNally was a music-obsessed
teenager, he say, "the section at the record store
that always interested me was jazz, blues and folk.
That's still where I'm at. Mose Allison is a singer-songwriter.
Bobby Womack and Allen Toussaint are singer-songwriters.
Even though you don't think of them as singer-songwriters,
those are the guys I aspire to. That's the kind of singer-songwriter
I want to be. I want to perform, sing, write and play.
I don't feel by being a singer--songwriter that that
has to equal Buffy Sainte-Marie or something."
For instance, McNally
says he doesn't feel compelled to "limit my use
of chords. I just wrote this cycle of songs about Chet
Baker that I'm excited about. I was in Amsterdam a bunch
two years ago and on the days off I read Chet's biography.
I'm a fan of his anyway. I went by the hotel where he
died, and it really got me going. I ended up writing
five songs, sort of about him and myself, being on the
road and just getting lost, that's certainly not singer-songwriter-y
music. I'm trying out some different ideas."
As much as he likes to think of his songs as his own
private creative outlet, McNally is by now also resigned
to, and hungry for, the....