An interview from UNSIGNED THE MAGAZINE (2009)
1. What drives you artistically?
The need to create. The need to say something. The need to communicate. It’s not really like I have a choice. I can’t imagine not creating. I think creating is one of the most important things a person can do, at least in terms of keeping yourself sane and happy. It doesn’t necessarily have to be in music or the arts. To be a kick ass scientists takes a lot of creativity. Physics is an amazingly creative thing. Especially when you start trying to comprehend the line between the physical world and whatever is beyond that. (Earth to John Earth to John come in John). But I digress.
Sometimes it is just a feeling you need to get out, sometimes you have a political view that can be expressed musically, a social issue or commentary on society in general. Sometimes it is just a look at existence itself either from a religious or non-religious point. I’ve had some people ask me about “To His Knees” and wonder if its autobiographical and I have to say it isn’t. I don’t look at the song as religious as much as what steps people will take when feeling utterly helpless and desperate.
Sometimes I create just because I’m just really pissed off or depressed. Sometimes that feeling will be the catalyst for a song. I’ve written a few really mean songs about people after arguing with them. Of course they were therapeutic only and won’t see the light of day. I’m not inclined to use a song as a weapon.
Of course once you do the creating then you want to try and get people to hear it. That’s part of what drives me. Although it’s the less pleasant part. For me creating in a void is less satisfying. I still need to try and get it out. While I don’t consider that my strong point I still have to do my best or it would effect my motivation to create.
2. How do strike a balance between the business of music and your creativity?
In reality there is little balance between the business of music and my creativity. My creativity comes first and foremost. I create because I have to. Without it I end up feeling kind of lost. It isn’t necessarily music all the time. I paint a little (very poorly I might add) and write a lot of short stories. The business end of it is something I do out of necessity, a necessary evil if you will. If I could turn it over to someone else to handle I would be much happier for it and probably more successful. I am a bit of a recluse and don’t really enjoy the business end of it. I do it because I feel if you are going to create something and send a message out into the world it probably is a good idea to have some one hear it or read it or look at it. There is something to be said for creating just for what one gains out of it even if you never let anyone see/hear it. It can be cathartic or therapeutic. Personally though music is a form of communication and if you aren’t going to try and get your music heard then you are defeating that purpose. Even if you play for someone and they don’t like it, well at least you made the effort.
3. How personal is your songwriting? Can we get an accurate view of you through your lyrics?
Only partially. My music probably takes a little darker outlook than I do on a day to day basis. I actually feel pretty happy most of the time but the world doesn’t always cooperate and one ends up seeing and hearing things that leave a bad taste in one’s mouth. As I mentioned earlier that is actually where I got the title “Stained Bliss” from. Life is good but it ain’t perfect. For some reason the darker side of things gets me to write more than the happier side of life. On the other hand some of my songs are very personal. “You” for instance was written about my mom. Other songs are more about observations I have. “Aryan Nation Man” was based on a conversation I had overheard in a coffee shop and a man and a women were talking and it seems someone they had known for years had married a very racist man and the man was finding it hard to believe that this person he’d known for so long could actually marry this racist man. So it’s a combination of both personal and observational. I tend to wander into the social/political realm periodically so in those cases it’s a pretty accurate view of me the listener is getting , at least on those issues.
4. How long have you been singing and writing anyway?
At this point over 30 years. When I first started playing I only learned a few cover tunes like Cat Stevens and Pink Floyd. I never learned a whole slew of songs like a lot of writers do. To this day it might only total a dozen. Once I learned some chords I started writing. And it’s the creativity of writing that has kept me interested all this time. I love playing the guitar and want to be as good of a guitarist as I can. I take that end of it very seriously but if I hadn’t become a songwriter I don’t know if just being a guitarist would have kept my interest for as long as songwriting has. It’s the creative element I find most alluring.
5. Where would you like to be career wise at the moment?
In an ideal world it’d be great to be touring the world and playing to huge audiences etc. Maybe even in support of various social/environmental issues but as I mentioned earlier, the business end is not my forte. So I slug on the best I can and see what happens. Besides, while this may sound cliche, it’s the journey that is so fun. You can meet a lot of nice folks along the way, play to some great audiences and if I never rise above the level I am at now so be it, I’ll be ok with that. I enjoy doing what I am doing so it is it’s own reward regardless of any recognition I get or don’t get. It beats not doing it. That is something I couldn’t tolerate,
6. What is the most valuable lesson you've learned so far regarding
Probably to make sure you are enjoying what you are doing. Don’t get so hung up on ‘making it’ that only turning into U2 or whoever will satisfy you. Enjoy the here and now because you don’t know what may lay ahead. There was a point about a year ago where for the first time in my life I broached the topic of quitting music with myself. I had never ever considered that but the thought kept going through my mind. Was it worth the effort and cost of doing it all. But as it turned out I realized that making music live and in the studio is something I have to do to be happy and who doesn’t want to be happy. In a way it has made things a lot more fun because I worry less and less about ‘success’ than I used to. My main goal now is to make the music and do my best to get as many folks to hear it. That’s all I can do.
7. Where did you get those magical pipes?
I’m not sure I would use the term magical (although don’t let that stop you, I like a compliment as well as the next guy!). I never really liked my voice all that much. It’s just was what I was born with. I never felt it was all that unique. Some people you hear them and you know it’s them. I’ve always gotten the impression that others like my voice better than myself. Better than the reverse I suppose. Actually “Stained Bliss” is the first album I’ve done where I felt the vocals were more than just a vehicle to get the words out. The acapella tune “I’ll Not Be Fulfilled” is something I previously never would have attempted, so in that sense I’m getting more comfortable as a singer. I do like to sing. If others like my voice that’s great. It’s all I’ve got. I can’t say I have ever considered having someone else do vocals to my lyrics. In that sense I do like my voice. I think it fits my lyrics. I think the songwriter has the best insight into how a lyric should be presented. Although then there are folks like Sinatra who could arguably present a lyric better that the writer, but they are rare individuals I think.
8. How do you feel about comparisons to other artists?...you know
Well for starters it means someone is listening so that’s a plus. I don’t actually mind it. Even if I don’t agree with someone’s comparison. It’s a way for someone to describe how you sound and the plus’ and minus’ of your music. It’s like when someone asks a band what they sound like and they say “We don’t sound like anyone” well they certainly believe that, as most artists think they are totally unique, but it doesn’t give the questioner any idea of what they actually do sound like. So comparisons are fine. Obviously you like comparisons to people who’s music you admire. I’d rather be compared to Peter Gabriel or Ani DiFranco or whoever than to the Jonas Brothers or Britney Spears. But ultimately it’s a more positive thing than negative if only that it means folks are listening. That’s the bottom line. Trying to get heard.
9. Define for us your perfect record deal...that is if you're looking for one.
I’m not actually looking for a record deal at this point. I used to send stuff off. I had gotten a few nibbles now and then but I just don’t seek that these days so much. With the electronic media landscape we have you can get music heard without a record company. I feel pretty good just being underground or independent or however one wishes to describe it. ( I like underground, it’s sneakier sounding, more subversive!). With things as they are I get to make music unhindered by any concern other than making it the best music I can and that is a good feeling. I suppose the perfect record deal would allow me to live the rest of my life in relative comfort while doing nothing other than making music. Let the record company do the promoting and pay me large quantities of money. It’s not realistic I know but if offered I’d take it.
10. Explain to me the concept of this album and how some of thesongs came to be?
It wasn’t so much that I had a preconceived concept for an album. I knew I wanted to put an album out. My last one had been in 2004. I have my studio here in my house so I am always recording and always have stuff in the oven so to speak. When I have free time one will usually find me in the studio working on something. So I had songs piling up and there were certain tunes that I knew when I wrote them they would be on the next album like “Fallen Angel” and “All Our Fallen Tears” Don’t Make Me Stay” and “All Stays the Same”. These 4 songs were the starting point. Until I had versions of those that I was happy with I wouldn’t put anything out. Those were the only songs that I knew were going to be on the next CD. “Don’t Make Me Stay” in particular which is a song about my uncle, who was a Jesuit priest, and the last time I saw him before he passed. He was a great man. One of the finest I have ever know.
The rest of the album was kind of filled up with the other songs. When songs were finished and I liked the takes and the arrangements they would be put into consideration for the album. Eventually I had it narrowed down to the songs you see on the album. The order was a little more conceptual. The series of songs from “I’ll Not Be Fulfilled” through “90 Year Old Man” seemed to have themes of religion and aging running through them in some way so that seemed like a good clustering of songs. I also wanted to use some ambient sounds to try and tie things together. This is something I’ve always had a lot of interest. Going out and just recording sounds and then if I can apply them to an album or song all the better. In this case I used some rain recordings and sounds I recorded at the Ottawa Wildlife Refuge (it’s about 75 minutes west of Cleveland on the shores of Lake Erie)
Other songs were chosen for varying reason. Some I just like such as “One By One” others had a certain character to them like “Cold Today” that struck me as being a good blend with what was there. “Anger” was written right around the time there had been a school shooting here in Cleveland at Success Tech. It got me thinking of why people do this. Why on one day the person might have just gotten up and gone to school but on that day he went in armed with ill intent. Same type of thing as Columbine. So that was fairly fresh and while I get some curious looks when I play it live I still liked it and thought it was right to be included. “Sons of Abraham” got on just on the strength of the take. I had a version with just vocal and guitar I’d gotten in one take. I presented it to my friend Chris Solt to do the drums on it and he nailed it pretty much in one take. When it goes that smooth it’s telling you to use it. Plus I like the message. In these times the madness that is the middle east is mind boggling. Not all conflicts have a good guy and a bad guy. Somehow at sometime in that situation someone is going to have to say enough of the madness. Sadly I don’t see that any time soon.
The title came from the idea that Life is good but it has stains on it. It’s not perfect by any means and I think that theme gets echoed in some of the songs. More the Stain than the Bliss I suppose.
11. What are you working on currently?
Currently I am working on a couple side projects. One is by The Headwhiz Consort Moderne Internationale*.(http://www.reverbnation.com/#!/theheadwhizconsortmoderneinternationale) This is a more experimental group. Predominantly instrumental although there is some spoken word and a little conventional singing. I describe it as sort of a experimental/world/jazz just to let folks get in the ballpark. Right now we are in the mixing stage. There is a lot of material lying around that is finished and we just have to listen to it and assemble it into some type of release and then mix and master it and all the rest. Hopefully, and don’t quote me on this, we will have their 2nd CD out by the end of the year.
I’m also performing live with a group called Vital Mines. This is a band who was led by my good friend Dan McCafferty **who died from cancer on Christmas Day 2008. They were just putting the finishing touches on their album Angels’ Share when Dan passed. So they asked me to step in and take over the guitar and vocals that Dan had done to do some tribute shows and once we’d done those they asked if I would continue on so I have. It’s a great group and it’s fun working with them. I usually do a few of Dan’s songs when I play solo too just to keep his music out there. Right now I’m just singing with them as I am battling tendinitis in my right shoulder so the doc said to keep the guitar to a minimum.
“CD Review: The Headwhiz Consort Moderne Internationale Perdido picking up where 2005's Baobob left off, the latest album by this 10-member group — which has its origins in nine countries but is now based in Cleveland — unleashes an avant-garde sound that's downright strange at times. Songs like "A Treat I Do Not Desire" and "Blue Tinge" hint at the exotic, readymade for, say, your next yoga session. From the electric guitar that drives "Tortoise Shell" to the six minutes of desperation in "Who Darkened the Sun," the group brings a different mood and scene to each song. Most of the album is instrumental, with a few rugged lyrics thrown in. Either way, it's filled with welcome WTF moments !” - Courtney Kerrigan
— The Cleveland Scene
“ What does one make of the title to John McGrail's latest disc, Stained Bliss? From the artist's mouth: "A happiness that is tainted. A good life with imperfections." Works for us and, apparently, for the host of characters who wander through McGrail's dusty tales. The singer-songwriter and guitar maestro entwines experimental flair and indie-rock pathos with jangly folk rock, greasy blues and haymaking country on this winner. But like his compatriot Susan Weber, McGrail is not content to stop there, making those styles hauntingly ethereal. The bluesy "90-Year-Old Man," "Fallen Angel" and plaintive "To His Knees" definitely have the ghosts of others in them; the jangly warmth of "All Our Fallen Tears" feels like an old friend and a campfire in September and "Anger," which offers decidedly lo-fi indie-folk vibe with its nods to Dylan and Ochs...? Well, it offers numbness in the face of stark, raving violence. Credit where it's due… this is a great, chilling recording from someone who has managed to stay below the radar in Cleveland. To be fair, McGrail isn't for everyone... but when a songwriter makes you wonder if it's his heart or the blood from someone else's on his sleeve, well, that's gotta be worth something.” - Peter Chakerian
— Cool Cleveland
“ On his latest disc, singer/songwriter/guitarist John McGrail weaves strands of rootsy folk-rock, blues and country with twittering percussion, droning guitars, ambient sounds and eerie, often heavily processed vocals. He covers some adventurous sonic terrain here, roughing up or expanding upon relatively simple melodies, sparse arrangements and raw production, and mixing them in unexpected ways to create an edgy sound on tunes that deal with sober topics ranging from racism to aging and death. "All Our Fallen Tears" opens with a flurry of sound effects before resolving into the song. The disorienting "Anger" juxtaposes violent lyrics with an almost deadpan vocal, plush harmonies and delicate music. Rattling percussion gives "One by One" a noisy bounce until it wraps up with some quiet acoustic guitar. Other songs feel positively ancient. The stark, a cappella "I'll Not Be Fulfilled" feels like a newly discovered traditional mountain ballad and "90 Year Old Man" exudes a mournful blues vibe. — Anastasia Pantsios, The Cleveland Free Times Songs For Troubled Times ” - Anastasia Pantsios
— The Free Times
“ Local singer-songwriter John McGrail tackles a lot of socio-political issues on his disc called Songs for Troubled Times. Not only is it his first solo release in almost a decade, he quickly sets out to tell you that not much has changed during that time. Except, perhaps, that he is an even better guitar player and lyricist than the last time you heard ‘em. Fairly or unfairly, McGrail gets roped into the “folkie” category. Truth is, he has quite the historical handle on a lot of different musical genres—progressive rock, modern jazz, classical, folk, classic rock and world music. And to complicate things even more, he’s one hell of a guitar player who knows how to coax tones out in just the right way. He gets a lot of rich, crystallized guitar tone on the set opener “Earthday,” which picks at Dubya’s dad even as McGrail himself picks at tone quality the likes of Eric Johnson would be proud of. He switches gears with the following modern rock track, “Sometimes We Just Forget,” which would make a fine bedfellow for the recent Push Stars disc. It’s when McGrail really turns up the heat on the political issues that he tends to earn those folkie armbands he’s probably grown used to wearing. Not that it’s a bad thing. Tunes like “Losing Our Voice,” “Almost Funny,” “Just Like Tim McVeigh” and “What Would Jesus Say?” are weighted with folk rock leanings and rather obvious intent. And then there’s “Genocide Johnny,” a song that McGrail wrote about a fictional (or not?) co-worker “jerk” who myopically wants to destroy all Muslims. “He said, ‘I’m proud to be an American because we’re always right/War is good so long as we get to pick the fight,’” McGrail growls, linking this particular Johnny to Saddam Hussein. Maybe somewhere in Cleveland, McGrail has voice mails saved from Michael Moore and Bill O’Reilly—one asking him for the rights and one telling him he’s wrong. ” - Peter Chakerian
— Cool Cleveland
“ Of all the anti-Bush records in recent months, John McGrail's Songs for Troubled Times is likely to be the most musically ambitious and lyrically heavy-handed. McGrail pulls no punches and has much to say, but he isn't going to let you get away without doing some thinking of your own; this is protest music that goes beyond sloganeering. Ostensibly a folk singer, McGrail is all over the place stylistically; folk takes a backseat to hard rock, alternative rock, and country rock. "Earthday," his screed against environmental abuse, is an excellent U2 impersonation, and "Sometimes We Forget" will have listeners over 50 remembering the Byrds' classic 1967 "Notorious Byrd Brothers." Two bouncy tunes, "Genocide Johnny" and "Just Like Tim McVeigh," are McGrail's most obvious, as is the metal-flavored "Almost Funny." This won't appeal to everyone, but it shouldn't be ignored.” - Steve Byrne
— The Cleveland Scene
“What Folks have said:He’s got blockbuster ones (songs) as he showed... not only has a strong resonant voice, but he also knows how to play a guitarJane Scott, Cleveland Plain Dealer...shouldn't be ignored. Steve Byrne, the Cleveland Scenequite the historical handle on a lot of different musical genres" and "he’s one hell of a guitar playerPeter Chakerian, Cool Clevelandthere’s an imaginative mind at wok hereAnastasia Pantsios, NotationsImpressively performedGlass Eye, Toledo OH” - Early Commentary on John McGrail
— Multiple Sources