Songwriter Linda McRae Smooths Life's Roughest Edges with Song
Less than a verse into the first song Canadian-born, Nashville-based Linda McRae played at her 2014 FAR-West Showcase performance, my husband and I turned to each other and said 'oh yeah.' Playing a banjo and singing in a strong alto, McRae went on to offer a masterful and stirring set of songs. Songs with a capital S that took one on a sonic journey while steadily cracking open your heart. One, "Rough Edges & Ragged Hearts," the title track to her 2012 Cd, contained one of the best lines I've heard: "living is a dying art." Another song was based on the words of a Folsom Prison inmate she'd met through her involvement in the Arts and Corrections Program at California’s New Folsom Prison. By the end of her set, tears were streaming from our eyes.
As became evident upon further inquiry, McRae wasn't just a stellar artist, she was also a stellar person, both continually creating and giving back. McRae went solo in 1996, after a decade spent with the popular Canadian folk band, Spirit of the West, and has since released five CDs of her own work. Routinely charting in the top-10, performing in festivals throughout North America, she's collaborated, recorded and performed alongside a whose who of roots-based artists including Gurf Morlix, Neko Case and Bruce Cockburn. And the alliance with New Folsom led she and her husband, James Whitmire to start Express Yourself Writing Workshops for other disenfranchised communities in 2011, adding to an already full touring and recording schedule while further fueling her creativity.
Amid a month-long Escape to Create! residency in Florida that she was deservedly rewarded, McRae answered my questions about her work as an artist and teacher and all she'll be up to in 2015.
Q: Tell us about your upcoming year: Are you playing anywhere new? Any key dates or projects you're especially excited about
LM: 2015 is shaping up to be an incredibly exciting year. I’ll be touring all over North America in support of my new recording being released September 15th on my new label Borealis Records. I’m really excited to be working with Borealis. They have been incredibly supportive, and their promotional team was instrumental in my career retrospective, Fifty Shades of Red, hitting some “best of” lists for 2014. It was also # 5 Top Canadian Album on the Folk DJ Charts.
The label is currently working directly with my manager/agent/collaborator and husband (not necessarily in that order) James Whitmire on an October/November North American CD Release tour in support of the new recording. Those dates will be announced in the coming months. I also have a number of festivals I will be performing at this year including Artswells in BC where I will also be teaching a week-long songwriting course. Other festivals include South Country Fair in Alberta where I was made the honorary mayor last year, and a new festival in Ontario called the Kingsville Folk Music Festival. I’ve also just been asked to perform for the first time at Winterfolk in Toronto this Feb. 13-15/2015.
Q: Is this a first-time residency for you at Escape 2 Create? Do you have a 'typical' writing process? Will you be writing material for the new recording on retreat? LM: The bulk of the material has already been written but there will definitely be some additions as a result of my Escape 2 Create residency. I guess my typical writing process usually involves juggling half a dozen things at the same time, i.e. touring, daily household activities, social networking, publicizing my performances, etc. which in itself is a full-time job. It is an incredible luxury for me to have an entire month in which to write new material and I am relishing every second of my time here. Escape 2 Create choses twelve interdisciplinary artists though a rigorous juried application process each year, six in January and six in February. Each artist’s private residence is donated by local Seaside, FL, community members and is tailored to each artist’s requirements. This is my first residency and having been chosen to participate has given me a sense of validation. I am also enjoying the fellowship and inspiration I am receiving from my fellow artists and the residents of Seaside. I have already finished four songs in the week I have been here.
Q: How do you know when you're ready to go back into the studio? You've worked with a lot of great producers: whose on deck for this next project? Any new sounds you'll be exploring or would like to? LM: I guess I know when I’m ready to go back into the studio when I have at least 15 songs that I feel are really strong. I usually like to record 12-15 and then put 10 or so on the finished release. I feel I have grown as a performing songwriter and each recording I think has illustrated that. Having the added perspective of collaborating with my husband and other co-writers has definitely helped me grow as a songwriter as well. Recording starts right after I finish my residency here. The timing couldn’t be more perfect as I will have plenty of time here to get to know the songs inside and out. I like to have them in my head and under my fingers before I record them. I have been fortunate when it comes to working with producers and great musicians. I’ve had wonderful experiences recording with each producer I have worked with, Colin Linden, Gurf Morlix and Marc L’Esperance. Each of them brought something new to the table and I am confident this one will continue in that same vein. This time, I’ve decided to work with my old friend, and award-winning producer and guitarist, Steve Dawson. I am really excited to be working with Steve on this project. We started pre-production before I left for my residency and he had some terrific arrangement ideas. We also did some co-writing together, and it just so happens one or two of those co-writes will be on the new CD. I’ve become really interested in acoustic blues styles and as he is well-acquainted with the idiom he’s a natural choice. I’m hoping to achieve a raw sound on this recording with real deep grooves you can drive a truck through. For me, it’s all about the groove. If the groove isn’t there you have nothing to build on. Start from the bottom up and away you go. I like to keep things pretty spare as well without a lot of unnecessary frills to clog things up. He’s a master and I know it’s going to be great.
Q: You're a songwriter and writing facilitator/teacher. Can you discuss how you started Express Yourself Writing Workshops and how teaching/facilitating informs your own work? LM: The idea for our writing workshop came from our involvement in the Arts and Corrections Program at California’s New Folsom Prison. My husband James and I were there for the first time in the fall of 2011, and we were so moved by the response to our visit that we decided to carry it through further with a focus on disenfranchised members of the communities I perform in. It has turned out to be a life-changing experience. In the past three years since our first visit to Folsom we have worked with approximately 1000 individuals in at-risk youth community facilities and correctional facilities. We have also worked with people in detox centers, veteran’s hospitals, and various adult correctional facilities with both male and female inmates. Our experiences talking and working with everyone involved has definitely had an influence on my writing. My new CD will include songs written as a direct result of some of these experiences, including a song I wrote with a New Folsom inmate who is serving life without parole. His name is Ken Blackburn and he is 73 years old. I think it is one of the best songs I have ever had the opportunity to be part of. Ken wrote the lyric and I wrote the music.
Q:What can listeners and fans expect after March 2015? LM: I guess the biggest thing is my new CD coming out. I’ll also be doing some shows with two other wonderful artists in the DC area in May Mary Battiata (Little Pink is her band name) and Karen Collins. Mary and I were at a music camp this summer at the Augusta Heritage society and Karen was one of the instructors there. The name says it all: "Women on the Verge! A Night of Traditional and Alt Country." You can find all my tour dates, music, epk and workshop information at http://lindamcrae.com