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Interview: Tara MacLean opens up about her new album Deeper and reflects on the changing music industry

Canadian singer-songwriter Tara MacLean came up in the 90s around the time that female artists such as Jewel, Sarah McLachlan, Paula Cole, Dido and Alanis Morissette were dominating the airwaves.

Her breakthrough came in 2000 with second studio album Passenger, which featured the single If I Fall and two of its songs – Settling and Dry Land – were used in Dawson’s Creek. Since 2017 MacLean has been releasing independently and her first album in almost a decade, Atlantic Blue, arrived that same year.

Now MacLean is gearing up to unleash her new album Deeper, a collection of original songs (with the exception of a cover of The Cure’s Love Song), which will be released on 23rd June 2019.

I caught up with Tara recently to talk about Deeper, discuss the changing landscape of the music industry, and to find out about her plans to tour here in the UK.

What was your concept and idea when you went into the studio to make Deeper?

Because I haven’t made a record in so long, I really just wanted to take my favourite songs. I felt that in records past I’d had a label who told me their favourite songs that they wanted me to do and even though I had a lot of freedom, it was so exciting to me to make an album taking people’s input but not actually having to do what anyone said. Not having to think about a hit song, not having to think about the radio, not having to think about MTV…. it’s been so long since those things have had to be in my mind. I just approached it with. ‘what do I feel like singing? What kinds of songs do I want to sing?’ That one song Wildfire that is so deeply bluesy is just something I love singing and I never get a chance to. I just wanted to make it my own… something really kind of fresh because it’s been so long.

You’ve definitely achieved it. Listening to the record takes me back to the Passenger days and your earlier material but at the same time it’s modern and contemporary. There are so many different flavours and colours across this record, and so many different layers. No two songs sound the same. How did you manage to achieve that?

I don’t know. I think it just happened really naturally. I think every song just had its own little world that I wanted to create. I’m a huge fan of Peter Gabriel and David Bowie and I just love how they constantly reinvent themselves and how they can have these different sounds. The continuity is the voice and the intention behind it. I’m also really inspired by Pink Floyd. You get that epic ethereal stuff but also I really wanted to incorporate great grooves. I pictured myself singing live a lot too so I wanted it to be an interesting show. There’s nothing more boring than all the same stuff (laughs). I wanted to make it interesting for me as well.

Tara MacLean
Credit: Jared Doyle

This is your first album of completely original material in a while. Your last album was Atlantic Blue, a collection of covers of Canadian artists…

Actually East Coast Canadian artists from the region I’m from and it was to go with my show. Independently it’s my first album of original stuff but all my other records of course were all original also. It feels really good – I had my friend Dennis Ellsworth co-produce it with me – just to be the the person at the helm and take everything I’d learned from all the recording sessions that I’d had before. The genre we decided it was, was ‘industrial folk’ (laughs).

Your music, to me, is quite genreless. It could be produced in a number of different ways and it would still sound good. That’s the sign of good songs isn’t it?

I love that! Well it’s the campfire test right?

People always say if you can strip it down to acoustic guitar and sing it, and it still sounds good, then it’s a good song…

Oh thank you! Well that’s I think the biggest compliment that you could give a songwriter. Some of the songs we took different runs at. There’s a song called Deeper on there that I wrote, just me and my guitar, and we tried to produce it up in all these cool ways. We did it in a kind of Fleetwood Mac approach with loops and all that and then I listened to it but I couldn’t feel it. I went back to it and I brought it back to basics. I brought in our piano player and I said, ‘let’s make this just the most beautiful power ballad. We won’t go Disney with it obviously but we’ll keep it into that really tasteful place’. Now I love it and it’s one of my favourites. At the end of recording I was like, ‘oh God this is isn’t working’ so we just stripped it all back and started from scratch.

It’s one of those albums where my favourite song changes every time I listen to it. I’m really taken with Gently Down the Stream at the moment and if I didn’t know Love Song was a The Cure track, I would have thought it was one of your original songs…

Oh good! Yay! That means that I did a good job of making it my own. Gently Down the Stream is one of my faves because I do write so many sad songs. I remember Dennis and I wrote it… we were in a hotel, he was having a rough day and I remember just kind of cheerleading a little bit and talking about life. He was really receptive and open and he started talking about all the great things about being alive. It was like hours of just talking about how to rise and how to overcome all of the stuff that tries to keep us down. This lovely song came out of us and I kept thinking, ‘I want this song to be the one in the summertime where people roll their windows down in their car and it’s sunny and beautiful, and they crank that song and they feel like they can let everything behind them go and they can just see that every moment is a fresh new start’. I really love that. Row, Row, Row Your Boat is actually my favourite song of all-time so that’s why I called it Gently Down the Stream.

It is such a positive, life-affirming song and I think in these times that we live that’s the kind of music that people need to hear because there’s just so much going on everywhere for everyone right now…

And we are so bombarded with information and so much of it is bad news. We really need to combat that with some love and some joy.

What were the challenges when making this record? Were there any particular hurdles that had to overcome in order to get to this end product?

I would say it’s the easiest album I’ve ever made. I’ve been super grateful to every producer that I’ve worked with because I’ve learned so much from them but there are times when it’s really difficult. No one says making an album should be easy because sometimes bumping up against other people’s opinions is actually good and you learn from it and it’s part of that polishing process and learning process, but there were times making records where, to be honest as a woman in the music business, there was always a man who knew better than me about what I should sound like. Usually it was a producer.

It felt good to have my gaze on all the songs and to take it from a place of, what does my heart tell me is right and not this young ingenue making an album, who is really bright-eyed and excitable, and looking to someone else for their opinion. It was just a really empowering experience. It flowed beautifully. The people I worked with were phenomenal, all super respectful. It felt like a world class studio but in a tiny little room in the middle of my hometown. I got to go home every night to my own bed. There were very few challenges. I would say the biggest challenge was right before I made it. I actually started to have doubts because a girlfriend of mine had funded it, someone who really believes in me and it costs a lot of money to make a good record with a string sections…

I didn’t want to do anything halfway. I love juicy epic production. I just had this little moment of doubt and I called up Dennis and I said, ‘ugh, I think I got to cancel it. I don’t think I can do this right now’ and he was like, ‘don’t do this! Believe in this and just kick it’. My girlfriend said, ‘just do it, there are no limits. Just go for it’. I just jumped in and I feel like that’s one of the reasons why I think it turned out really well. I’m really proud of it.

Tara MacLean
Credit: Jared Doyle

The music landscape is completely different from when you were releasing records on a major label back in the 90s and everything was about promotion, radio and the charts. Is it liberating to not have to think about those and be able to connect directly with your fans through social media and streaming platforms?

This is a really great question. I was at a party last night and there were probably five indie artists there, maybe six, and we were all talking about how we haven’t got a clue about the landscape right now. But that’s kind of fun, it’s like the Wild West… anything can happen. I do miss the team (that comes with) having a label. I do have an agent and I have my publishing company but having a manager and having a label is really wonderful because there’s so much that you don’t have to think about. You just sit there and you get your list of interviews and you just do them. I’ve lived through that time in the music business when there were big expense accounts and we were being flown all over the place and wined and dined, and that was really wonderful, but at the end of the day that was our money that was being spent on us on these big things.

I’ll never see a penny from Passenger because of that. The other day an interview came out and all of a sudden my inbox started filling up with orders for my record, and I get that money. It comes to me and it’s going to pay my rent… and pay back my friend! It’s just so sweet and it’s a very tangible thing now. I did build a very grassroots following from touring so much in the past and a lot of those fans have stayed. A lot of the people who in radio or reviewers… a lot of those people are still doing it. It feels really nice to go back and talk to them, they’re still supportive and they see what we’re doing now. They see that we’re doing this without the big team. It’s a really exciting time actually and I just feel the love.

I have dreams… there were some things that weren’t available to me at the time. For example I could only tour where the record was released, so if I didn’t get a release in the UK there was no point in management sending me over there. Whereas now my record is available globally and I can go wherever I want. I can pick up my guitar, maybe grab another musician and say, ‘hey let’s go over to England and play a few pubs and let’s go over to Dublin and meet up with my friends the Devlins and maybe see if I can open for them in a couple of gigs’. Dido and I toured the States together forever and became really close. There’s all of these reasons for me to come over there and also I have friends who have careers that are huge in Germany, huge in France and everything’s so close over there. I think that the joy that I have right now is that the world’s really available. You just get enough people to show up at your show and it can foot the bill. That’s really what I’m hoping and I can find a way to come over there, play some of those beautiful countryside English festivals and start building a fan base over there.

We live in such strange times when it comes to music. People consume it but don’t necessarily think they should have to pay for it, which has meant the shift has gone from physical products to live shows. Is it frustrating that the emphasis is primarily on live now or is it actually better for you as an artist because that’s the aspect of your job you enjoy the most?

Honestly for me it used to be that I had to go make a record just so I could get back on stage. We needed something to sell so that I could get back up there. Really until this album, that was just such a joy, it was always a little challenging. Even though I’m happy with the end product, when I get on stage… that to me is what I was born to do and because I’ve put in my 10,000 hours with my decade of touring, once I get up on that stage I feel like I’m home. To me the fact that live is is really where it’s at, feels like we’re back to what it was. We kind of lost our way a little bit and now it’s about that connection. When I’m on stage and I have an audience, I feel like it’s the most intimate, powerful, real, honest human-to-human contact. It’s so powerful the whole experience for me. To me the height of what it means to be alive is to be onstage and singing to people and connecting with them and touching them. I’m thrilled with it. It’s just a matter of getting me onto the stage and getting the audience there (laughs). That’s what I’m working on figuring out.

UK audiences love loyalty and that’s one of the reasons we’re seeing more genres touring over here, such as Country which has taken off in a big way. Those artists in all genres who are working from the ground up to build a fanbase here are doing well…

Wow. That’s so what my my career was like in the States. That’s what I would love. I would love to come over there. I do feel so close to to the U.K. My mother has a home in West Kensington, and I lived there for a long time, and then she also lives in Newcastle in County Down in Northern Ireland. My family is Irish and Scottish. I lived and worked in London. I worked at the Queen’s Club tennis in the bar, Baron’s Court pub and I worked at Stella Artois for Wimbledon doing waitressing and I worked at Lord’s Cricket. Lots of lots of waitressing (laughs).

Tara MacLean
Credit: Jared Doyle

What’s your focus beyond this record? Are you already thinking about the next project or would you like to tour the world?

I have a show that I’m doing right now called Atlantic Blue and it’s doing very well. It’s the songs from that album and it’s the stories of the songwriters. It’s got an amazing opportunity over here, not just to do a residency through the summer and in this beautiful little cabaret theatre, but also the Charlottetown Festival. The Charlottetown Festival is a legendary festival and my parents met doing it when they were kids… when they’re 17. It means the world to me to be part of it so it’s a really big deal. I’m so excited. They’re producing the show and I’ve got a string section, I’ve got actors, background singers, video designers and a fog machine (laughs). It’s just gonna be so beautiful and epic.

I’m doing that till the end of September and then I’m touring that show in theatres. Atlantic Blue has to have its run. I’m gonna sing one of my own songs in that show and then to be able to sell the music with that show, it’s just a really great opportunity. I’m going to really work on Atlantic Blue for a little while and then once that tour is over, I was talking with a UK strategist recently about how to get over there. In the New Year I think I’ll be able to figure out how to do it. I just can’t wait to share these songs and to get in front of audiences over there, and I just really hope they like me. I feel like I’ve done enough karaoke in the bars in Belfast to know what audiences love (laughs).

Tara MacLean’s new album Deeper is released on 23rd June 2019. You can buy a copy at http://www.taramacleanmusic.com/.

Pip Ellwood-Hughes
Pip Ellwood-Hughes
Pip is the Editor of Entertainment Focus and the Managing Director of agency Piñata Media.

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