Tracy McNeil’s Canadian accent flows warmly, as we find a spot to sit and talk in a Brunswick beer garden. She’s on the phone when I rush in late and after I grab a drink, she’s quick to apologise for being on a call. An indication of her down to earth personality. She’s strong looking with an expressive demeanor and i’m already stoked to be interviewing another female, who is forthcoming with fresh song writing ideas, and has experienced many aspects of the music industry so far. Her last album Thieves won best country album at The Age Music Victoria Awards in 2016, and with her band The Good Life has performed at numerous festivals including Riverboats Festival, Port Fairy Folk Festival (VIC) and Americana Fest (Nashville).
Do you remember the first song you wrote?
The first was a joke song for my best friend at the time. I used to always wanna write songs with my friends and I wasn’t in a very artsy crowd in high school. I was probably, 15, 16. I was a dancer, I came from a modern dance background. I wasn’t doing any music but just learning a few chords on guitar. So it was a joke about a friend of mine and actually it was ‘Winter Wonderland’ and we changed the lyrics. That was my first attempt at ‘Can I write?’ (laughs)
Do you remember what it was about?
Yeah.. it was kind of about her getting drunk and wearing her mums lingerie, parading around on a table and slipping on a nut while doing a strut. You know it was ridiculous and silly but um we’re still friends and it’s all cool- It was my only way of trying to… express something. It wasn’t until I got to uni that I started taking it more seriously. I would sit in the hall, it had great echo in the hallway of my dormitory. I was kind of a closet writer, closet player. I wasn’t thinking about music but (it) was always in the background.
Had a guitar with you?
Yeah. I wrote a song ‘Flashlights and Fireflies’ and it was kind of a classic love story that was written that summer working at a Jewish summer camp of all things (laughs). It was probably the first song I was like ‘Ok I’ll try to take this seriously and write something with meaning’.
Then it sort of flowed from there?
Yeah I was about 20 maybe, when that was happening.
Were you showing that song to people?
Round the campfire, to friends, but nothing seriously until I was 27. Did the whole starving artist thing- I was a rehearsal director so did the whole modern dance world thing in Canada. Then what switched me (on to song writing), was Clare Bowditch was living with my brother Logan in Canada. Having her sing around the house was gorgeous and inspirational, and I’d be downstairs – I had a darkroom and was doing photography – writing again in the closet (laughs). Too scared to come upstairs (laughing) and she’d pass me the guitar in a living room full of people (after) she’d just slayed the floor.
She’s just melted hearts and (would) go ‘Here you play one Trace’. And I would refuse. And my soon-to-be sister in law said ‘Get off your ass, what’re you doing. I’m sick of you and your brother’. Because my brother’s an incredible mando player and bluegrass muso . Cos we’d complain ‘It was too nerve wracking – ohhh tortured soul, and I’m too scared to share it’. And she’s like ‘Just shut up and do it.’ So that summer we rented a bunch of gear and recorded a compilation record. I had about 3 or 4 original songs, my brother 3 or 4 and a friend 3 or 4.
That’s a good idea to go in it together.
Yeah. Didn’t do anything with the record but that was ‘Okay I’m doing this.’ And then it was probably, gee another 4 years later. I’ve come to music quite late – it’s always been in the background.
Were you still dancing?
Yeah at 29 I moved to Canada to prepare for coming to Australia to go to teachers college.
Which side of Canada?
I’m from Ontario, near Toronto so was living in Montreal which is in Quebec for 4 years before moving to Toronto for 9 months to save some money to then move to Australia.
In that 9 months, I made my first solo record. I’d been in that basement apartment in Montreal writing. Stopped going to dance class, because I was going to bluegrass nights, country music nights, at Bar Fly, this hole in the wall in Montreal. It didn’t really work with getting up to do 1000 crunches and go to contemporary dance class at 9am, so the worlds kinda collided and the older I got my body started to break down and I went ‘This music thing’s way more fun, it’s way more accessible and it’s feeding my soul in a different way so i’m gonna have a crack at it’. I didn’t even know how to wrap a lead when I got to Australia.
Was the idea to move to Australia music related?
No, it was uni, to do post grad dip in Education. I was going to be a high school teacher, and have summers off to make music, I love teaching, I do love kids, and dance – to teach dance and drama and music in high school – and was sick of starving, so I came to it quite late – I needed money. I looked at my coffee table and it was a milk crate and a board and I thought ‘This sucks’. And I needed money to make records – I soon found that out, as an independent artist. So yeah, I moved out here with ‘Room Where She Lives’ the first record, and came for 10 months and was supposed to go back to Toronto and try and get a job teaching, and keep playing with this band I put together with my brother for the record, and that was never gonna happen. I fell in love with Melbourne, fell in love with Australia.
Did you come straight to Melbourne?
I went to Sydney for 14 days to see a friend and stay in Kings Cross, but couldn’t wait to get to Melbourne, as it wasn’t my scene. Got to Melbourne, lived in Prahran for a month or so, with a friend, and then finally got a place. Did uni for a year, and applied for one job so I could stay. And I got that job (smiles).
So they sponsored you?
Yeah, for quite a while. Then I found love, and married an Aussie so stayed here. So through music I kind of found my way here. I often wonder what would’ve happened if I’d started taking song writing (seriously) from Winter Wonderland (laughs).
So i’m guessing Winter Wonderland wasn’t Americana style?
No it was the same as (original). (sings) ‘Walking in a winter wonderland’. Making fun of a friend, she had the party house, her mum was a nurse and we had full reign (laughs). You know, we’d steal the alcohol and watch Friday night videos, it was the 80’s! There was no supervision.
So the Americana influence, was there much of that in Canada?
Yeah. When I started to really look at it, I guess when I was at the Jewish camp (laughs), I listened to Grateful Dead, Neil Young, The Band, Allman Brothers. All that stuff was on my radar, their contemporaries like Blind Melon– which are no longer – that kinda pulled from that same sound, guitar-monies and harmonies.
I could hear that pop acoustic sound as well as the Americana sound.
Yeah I love singing different kinds of music as well. Mum loved Fleetwood Mac, Dad loved The Eagles. There’s so much pop sensibility in those two bands, love them or hate them. They’re so slick, and their hooks are so strong. And I love Fleetwood Mac, as much as I love the grit and dirt of someone like Neil Young. Then if you can take that into an indie pop sensibility, I loved bands like Pavement, Smashing Pumpkins. Depeche Mode – was the first music concert I ever went to. The Cure, Lemonheads- that creeps in for sure, especially the newer stuff i’m writing.
The song The Valley, there’s a lot of guitar picking etc. Does that come as you’re writing, or do you add some of that later on?
The picking progression of that (song) is a combination of what im doing, and what Dan Parsons my guitarist is doing. I couldn’t finger pick properly with the bass string if my life depended on it – so ive got this very choppy ad-hoc way of doing it, so it’s really rhythmic, I bang guitar a bit with my hand to kinda keep that rhythm.
As you’re writing as well?
Definitely. Because the writing usually comes from a chord progression. The chord progression in ‘The Valley’ was a progression I used to do in the stairwell, at uni, when I was sitting by myself– a really simple walk, D Shape, up. I would do that a lot, and I returned to that. That ended up being the first track on the record. Dan then does something that counters that. He’s working off what I’ve done and he’s countering that in this really beautiful way. So you’ve got two acoustic guitars interweaving.
Have you always written on guitar?
I have until last year. Actually I write in the car as well. I can only write when I’m alone, I can’t write if Luke’s in the house or my daughter Ruby’s there- so the only time I have, is in the car. At 7:30, 8 o’clock in the morning, no guitar, put the phone on and I’ll sing into the phone, on the way to work. Hence many traffic accidents- for real.
So you’re starting with the melody?
Yeah! And then I get to work and I might have a break at lunch and go get the guitar and try work out what I was doing, or wait until I get home, or several days later – which is interesting because sometimes you end up playing different chords than you would if I’d picked up the guitar and reverted to the same patterns. The Thieves record I was at my mums when I wrote that in Canada, she’s got a piano downstairs and I started trying to write on Piano. I’m really limited, I can just play basic chords but it’s so melodic so really marking out chords, trying to get a vibe – and then having to re figure it out on guitar and take it to the band (laughs). But that’s been interesting because this new record, we have a keyboardist now in the band so he’s taken the demo of me on guitar and he’s playing it on piano or demos on piano he can really cut that out and play it beautifully.
So writing on the run.
The phone’s so easy for that, i’d die without it. I don’t know how many phone recordings I’ve got, it’s ridiculous. You get an impulse. I used to get that sometimes on a train, constantly thinking of melodies, thinking of lyrics and speaking into the phone.
It’s definitely changed things, a lot of people are doing that now, or using their notes.
I’m not formally trained so I can’t go ‘Oh this chord works with this’ or ‘Move it up to this chord and it’ll be really satisfying to the listener’. I can never think about it from that perspective, it’s so emotionally driven. Always.
There’s lots of ‘How to write a hit song’ technical tips out there, but if you can’t feel it..
Yeah, what’s the point.
Have you done much co writing?
I’m doing a bit now with Luke (husband and musician Luke Sinclair). So we’ve got a duo called ‘Bell Street Delays’
Is this the first time you’ve co-written with Luke?
Yeah. We’ve been doing this thing for the last 4 years, but it’s a side project that can never quite get off the ground because we don’t have the time. The plan is to release a record in the next year and a half. But we are such different writers- lyrically we come at it from a different perspective. We’re different in almost every way, it’s interesting. So we compromise a lot when we write together because they way I feel things is different, my phrasing is different- his phrasing is much slower. I mean, im talking a mile a minute (laughs), I cram so much shit in there – and he tries to reduce it to the simplest amount. But when we get it right it works beautifully. It’s kind of this real compromise, and we’re getting better at learning how to do it.
Do you each bring in a start of something to that (project), and then nut it out together?
Yeah that’s it. The role in this particular thing – generally speaking – is he’s crafting most of the lyrics, and I’ll be crafting a lot of the melodies. Sometimes the roles reverse and sometimes we each bring a complete song to the table. I think as a married couple, to write about stuff that’s personal –you have to be willing to get into some fights or messy territory. You’re in this weird place writing about experiences we relate to but about other things, other people. You externalise it a bit- I think you have to. But it’s still gotta be real so it’s this fine balance, like we need to feel it and perhaps (to have) lived it but it can’t be about us.
And you’d think about what the other is thinking too much, get in that analytical thing.
Oh yeah – ‘Why are you writing that, who’s that? You don’t love me any more’. You can get into that place. The only other time I’ve co-written was with Jordie Lane. I had a duo with him – Fireside Bellows many moons ago, and we wrote a record together. Same thing, you gotta compromise somewhere in the middle. It was the first time I’d experienced that idea that the song isn’t always completely personal. You sometimes need to be able to step outside of it so it can exist without it coming from the depths of your soul. Because there’s two hearts, two heads, two people coming at it, but anyway, both collaborations have worked really well.
So is that inspiring? Would you maybe come back from some co-writing and look at things in a different way?
For sure. And everything’s valid, it’s what’s gonna work for you in the moment. What’s another way I can say this, What’s another word that hasn’t been used a million times but still has an impact or the listener is gonna get it.
Maybe its like when you pick up a different instrument. Because it has a different sound you start hearing things differently and get inspired.
Absolutely. It’s weird, like me playing piano- an, i’m not even a piano player – you can’t even say that phrase really, but the songs on piano have this soul kinda feeling because all I can do is (plays a basic rhythm sound on the table), your voice sounds different, it feels instantly different, like when in the car. Yeah you need to change it up.
It sounds like you’ve finished the songs on your album?
I think I have, i’m not sure. There’s this great graphic artist (image), a self deprecating cycle of the artistic vision – ‘Oh my lord I love it, Oh im not sure, oh I like it, I fu**ing hate it, its fu**ing the worst thing ever, oh actually it’s not too bad, oh I love it! It’s fu**ing excellent!’
It’s a cycle I do that all the time- so I thought i’ve got 12 songs, I only need 10. Normally people have 20 songs and whittle it down to 10. At the end of the day its gotta be right. I brought one to rehearsal and i’m trying to be really quick to give up if it sounds a bit shit. And it’s not their (band) fault but you’ve got it in your head. They’re playing different rhythms, it’s late in the night. I thought ‘This is shocking’. They’re like ‘No! Give it a chance, we’ll try it another day with a fresh perspective’.
That’s a good idea, because I guess day to day you can be feeling differently about things.
Oh yeah totally. And i’ve had that feeling about a song i’m loving right now, that’ll be on the record. It had this whole different feel and I thought ‘This is the worst, and now I love it, might be one of the first singles. So it’s a journey and I couldn’t go on that without that band ive got and they bring their ideas and their talent and it’s not me alone in the room any more- and that’s when it gets exciting. That’s when it comes to life.
You trust their judgement.
Totally, and we trust each other and try things, come back at it from a different perspective. Which is good because im so quick to go ‘It’s a shit song, i’m so sorry I brought this to you!’
The song Last Place I Looked on the album Nobody Ever Leaves- the chorus is gorgeous. How do your choruses come about?
Whether I know it or not at the time, i’m trying to get it into a higher register so it pops or whatever, and its often the hook of the song, kind of the anchor. I wrote that in Best Street, Nth Fitzroy, in the bedroom. I tend to often know when it’s the chorus- it’s moving to another place. Some other songs have 2 chords. Luke and I are writing one at the moment the chords don’t change- we’re getting verses, a bridge, a chorus out of the same two chords. I guess the only way it’s happening is melodically. I think you can be more efficient than you realise. You can be creative with the melody (and ) achieve a sense of movement or direction.
But I certainly don’t do the thing of ‘ABABAC’ or any of that. It’s emotive, in the moment.
So it comes from how you’re feeling and you go back to it and it either feels right or it doesn’t?
Yeah. The good ones come pretty easily.
Everyone says that.
You might go back and edit a few things. The ones you have to toil over, sometimes they’re not as satisfying, it feels like you’ve run a marathon. Because you had to work so hard and it’s a gift. I wouldn’t say i’m lazy, but when it comes to song writing I don’t wanna have to go back and work and work and work. I know lots of song writers who do sit for hours trying to get that verse to say what they’re really trying to say. And that’s a craft in itself, and an important craft – because you might have three verses of a song and you’re missing that verse that’s gonna anchor the whole thing, or give some resolution. It can change the whole perspective of the song.
On Finer Side I notice the melody is a lot higher. Were you thinking about that at the time?
That was one I wrote at work, on the piano in the music room. I dunno what Key its in C – I dunno. It needed to be way up there. I remember thinking ‘Fu** am I gonna be able to do this after ciggies and whisky at the bar? (laughs)’. But i’ve been trying to do that a bit more, the songs for the new record. It’s not gonna sound pristine, I don’t have a huge range. If it’s not perfect, hopefully it’ll be emotive.
You’ve been playing that one live?
Yeah, yeah. That one I thought from the beginning I want to write a song where everyone can take a verse. We kinda do that at the end of the gig and it’s a nice way to feature the band. We have such strong singers in the band. I love that moment.
I was listening to Middle of the Night, and really like the bridge. Writing in the past i’d often leave bridges until the end. How do you approach them?
Yeah i’m kinda similar, come back and go ‘Oh it needs a bridge’ and work that in– absolutely. Often you get the verse or sometimes even the chorus first. It’s a bit like a puzzle. The bridge for that one I remember trying to work on in the tour van for ages because it shat me. It’s like ‘meet me by the waterfall’ come on, where am I (laughter). But then I was like ‘There’s nothing else I wanna say!’ I’m a fan of a dreamy bridge. I love chucking those in there. My stuff is often over 5 mins – you need something different.
How do you know when a song is finished?
When I don’t really have anything else to say. From a writing perspective ‘Does this feel complete? Have I left anything out?’ Then sometimes that doesn’t match musically – maybe there’s more work to be done instrumentally. You can say everything you want to say but if you don’t arrange it in a way that feels complete, there might be more work to be done there.
Sometimes if you take it to the band?
Yeah working it out, what feels good, should we do the chorus here, chuck in another round of chords before the bridge? That stuff we work out in the studio or rehearsal room. I bring songs to the band I feel are done, but then the arrangement might change. Subtle changes or extreme changes, (though) I usually feel like all the parts are there. I think it’s a gut (thing).