After a huge year of what could only be described as over achieving, one of this country's favourite songwriting sons is about to release his second solo album. Don McGlashan talks to Mark Bell about the challenges of juggling his various endeavours and enjoying the ride that was 2008.
Don McGlashan has just finished telling me, with a completely straight face (so I have to believe him) that the title of his new album 'Marvellous Year' has nothing to do with what has been, by anyone's measure, a truly remarkable year of creative output for the highly respected Auckland songwriter. A year so marvellous, in fact, that John Campbell would be struggling to find enough superlatives. It saw him complete two major film scores, take on the role of MD at the Silver Scroll Awards, perform at WOMAD here and in Australia, tour the US and Europe with Crowded House, participate in the sublime Seven Worlds Collide project and - if all that weren't enough, he also recorded his second solo album at Neil Finn's Roundhead studios with his backing band Seven Sisters.
Donald Bain McGlashan has always been a pretty driven creative force, a true renaissance man who can turn his hand not only to a variety of musical instruments, but to popular music, orchestral composition, theatre, dance music (in the old sense of the phrase) and film with equal facility. Yes film. He's also been working up a screenplay with old Front Lawn sidekick Harry Sinclair whenever Harry is over here from his home base in LA.
Confronted with such a diverse and demanding workload, I ask how he managed to keep all those plates spinning without at least a few crashing to the floor.
"I kept plates spinning. I had cutlery, I had salad bowls, I had a huge amount of kitchenware up there and there were moments of stress, but looking back on it, it's sort of like a dream year really."
Having completed (with Seven Sisters) the music for 'Show of Hands', Anthony McCarten's story of an endurance prize competition set in a New Plymouth car yard, he was about to begin grappling with the enormity of scoring for the NZ Symphony Orchestra when things quickly got really interesting.
"I've worked with orchestras before, but never a full project - it's a 90 minute film and there might be 50 minutes of solid music, and I was in the middle of all of that, and I was curating the two WOMAD end of show galas…" Oh yeah, he did that too…
"I did a couple of songs with Neil Finn when he did his solo set at Taanaki, and just before we went on he said, 'Come to America with us, come and do the Crowded House tour'.
"I initially thought, 'I can't' you know? 'All of these things are falling out of the sky and unless I dodge one or two of them I'm gonna get squished.'
"But everybody around me said, 'You can probably do it, it's an orchestral score, it's all sitting there on your laptop, there's a lot of downtime on a band tour.' And so I kind of bit the bullet and did it, and it was fantastic! I had a great time on the tour, I didn't have time to get nervous in either direction, I didn't have time to stop and think ,'I'm learning Crowded House songs and trying to play them onstage.' I was playing a few different instruments, sort of like their utility midfielder, and I didn't have time to get nervous about that. As soon as we'd finished playing I'd rush off and get my laptop, put the headphones on and work on cue number 33."
I ask whether he found it difficult to transition from the euphoria of gig mode to the solemn requirements of composing for an Edwardian costume drama that is the Toa Fraser-directed 'Dean Spanley'.
"I tend to sort of fade into the wallpaper after gigs anyway, and sit there being pale and interesting while everybody's having a raucous old time, so in this instance it was the same except I was being pale and interesting with a laptop. But also I didn't have time to get nervous or think, 'I'm writing a score for the national symphony, they might think it's a piece of shit' because I was so busy. So it worked pretty well for me. I think whenever I stop and think too much, that's when I get into trouble."
I speculate that touring the world with somebody else's band must have come as something of a relief after the struggles of keeping The Muttonbirds going in the UK for so long.
"Yeah, if you take away the bits where you have to continually worry about the future or how everything's going, who's got their nose out of joint for some reason, how many people are coming to the gig, all those stresses that are necessarily there when it's your baby… If you take those bits out, what's left is pure music, and it was such a thrill to be eating and sleeping and breathing music solidly for a whole month. And the film score was all bound up in that, it was just fantastic."
Meanwhile back in the real world there was an album to finish, this time a more band-oriented project than his 2006 release 'Warm Hand'. The tracks have more of a live feel thanks to the solid backing of The Seven Sisters which comprises John Segovia on guitars, Maree Thom on bass, Chris O'Conner in the drum seat and new addition Dominic Blaazer on keyboards.
"There's quite a lot of live takes on it, our version of Bathe in the River is pretty much how we put it down and not overdubbed. The Switch, there's quite a lot of overdubs on that, but the basic track and me singing is pretty much one live take. We're comfortable playing together and everybody's contributed a lot."
The album has undoubtedly benefited more than it's suffered from the talented Mr McGlashan's rather fat 2008 portfolio, with a late burst of four songs finding their way onto the final tracklist.
"The last rush of songs was very last minute - Bad Blood, You're the Song and 18th Day came in right at the last minute, and Marvellous Year actually. And I'm glad they did too, because I had a bunch of other songs (normally I use everything, I'm a really slow writer), but this time I had some other things that I wanted to throw at it. I just got cold feet in about October and I thought, 'No, if I really think about it there's two or three more songs just banging at the door waiting to be finished."
Sean Donnelly once again takes on co-production duties, but on this album there's none of his trademark layered atmospherics and only a smattering of his inventive bass playing.
"This time because we mixed it pretty quickly and we mixed it all at Roundhead - I had a bit of a deadline so we couldn't take it away to either my home studio or Sean's home studio and do all that layering, so there wasn't the opportunity to do that. But I think that the kind of record that I wanted to make was a more immediate one, more band-y and less atmospheric." He adds that with this record, "It was as if the trainer wheels had sort of fallen off and I was just able to get ideas out and take more risks too. I was able to do some songs that were lighter in touch and more throwaway like C2006P1 (a song about a comet no less) and Radio Programmer which were not ideas that had been really fretted over for a long time."
We close out our interview by talking about Seven Worlds Collide, Neil Finn's star -studded concert and album project to raise money for Oxfam. Without wishing to come on too star-struck, I'm keen to hear some of Don's observations about working with such talents as Radiohead's Ed O'Brien, the legendary Johnny Marr, Wilco's Jeff Tweedy and Scottish songbird KT Tunstall.
"Given that the group contained a fair number of heavy hitters, there was a total lack of 'Don't you know who I think I am?' behaviour. Johnny Marr, Ed O'Brien, Phil Selway (drummer) from Radiohead and Wilco's Pat Sansone were the basic band for one of my songs - Johnny leaping in on acoustic guitars, backing vocals and tambourine and making a lot of good production suggestions. He has an enormous breakneck Mancunian energy about everything, all the more remarkable because these days it's fuelled on nothing but healthy living and Chinese white tea.
"For the other song, I had the Wilco rhythm section of Glen Kotche and John Stirrat, Ed played layers of finely judged guitar atmospherics, Jeff Tweedy came up with a blistering solo on his SG and I roped in Ivy Rossiter, who was supposed to be only there to make coffee, for some late-night vocal harmonies. Apart from those two songs, I just wandered from room to room as we all did, throwing ideas in, picking up instruments and trying overdubs, joining in group discussions about where each song was going and where else it might go if you changed this or that element."
He says he could talk for days about what he learnt and took out of this amazing experience, but the over-riding impression was "…the idea of putting aside the normal insecurities and constrictions of the studio, and giving yourself over to purely 'playing' in the child-like sense of the word. You can only do that when there's complete trust all round, and I think Neil and producer Jim Scott did a great job of setting up and maintaining that atmosphere."
Whatever the future holds for this unique musician with incredible work ethic, 2008 was surely one he will look back on and think, "Well yes, that was a pretty marvellous year."