& Other Animals: Neil McSweeney

Introducing my new blog series & Other Animals in which I will pick the brains and point you in the direction of some wonderful creatives (and some creative-wonderfuls).

I am delighted to begin with Neil McSweeney, one of my favourite songwriters. Neil is part of Sheffield’s trad-folk scene and writes songs that are full of longing and lore and yet remain firmly grounded in the gritty-glorious business of right-now life itself.

He is due to release his third album, Cargo in September of this year. The theme of the album is ‘winter’ and what it takes to get through it.

I for one, can’t wait.

Find out more: neilmcsweeney.com

 

1. What do you do?

I’m a songwriter, performer and recording artist, father-of-two/family man and part-time jack-of-all-trades.

2. How do you fit it all in?

There are three parts to my answer.

i) I don’t fit it all in. I prioritise and some stuff inevitably gets kicked into the long grass.

ii) If it’s a priority then it will have to compete with other priorities (stretching the definition a little). So pretty careful planning is involved.

I have a whiteboard in my office/studio where I jot down items on a rolling to do list. Anything from buying guitar strings to finishing a lyric or a melody to mailing a journalist or updating a biog, producing a gig or tour poster or learning a cover for a show. There’s always a decent sized list of music jobs as well as housekeeping and family related tasks up there. It’s the only way I know of gradually chipping away at things and being able to sleep at night.

iii) Despite this I’m often away with the faeries. I’ve not yet perfected the art of holding a conversation while solving a problem or planning a job in my head but I’m constantly working on it. It’s not always popular with my interlocutor, but in truth, being clinically obsessed with music making and the related tasks is the only thing that has kept me going this long. I’ve now recognised my problem and yet will not be seeking treatment – I am resigned to this state of being. (And it has its upsides too).

3. A good day at the office:

Good days fall into two categories. Sometimes a very complex day with a lot of competing demands (see above) will come right. At the end of it I’ll have done something professionally fulfilling, spent time with the kids, maybe kicked a couple of tasks off the to-do and also brought home some bacon.

The other kind of good day is the polar opposite. Where I can focus on just one type of task and consequently inhabit a quite different mental state. The helicopter-thinking plate-spinner is all well and good but it’s a pretty uniquely twenty-first century mindset – and exhausting if repeated day after day.

Spending a whole the day Huck Finning in the park at the bottom of my road or inhabiting music through writing on my own or playing with others is the antidote.

Fortunately enough quite a few of my days fall into one of these two categories. I seldom have to spend much time doing anything I find boring or worthless. I’m quite allergic to it when I do.

4. Inspiration:

It recently occurred to me that my family was adopting the role of muse in my writing. But essentially I think this is just a more heartwarming re-packaging of the old truth that death is the real inspiration behind the effort.

I certainly write conscious of the fact that, at the very least, my descendants might be interested in what I’ve set down. I don’t keep a diary – this is the way I record my thoughts – my reactions to and reflections on my living in the world. Rather than daily detail I tend to distill but nevertheless I’m pretty happy that the songs I’ve written leave some account of me – and also, more generally, of a contemporary mindset (I certainly don’t think my ideas are unique – or even particularly remarkable. I’d have picked the wrong medium if they were).

5. Best move so far?

Best move was reading sections of The Gift by Lewis Hyde and realising clearly for the first time that if you focus entirely when creating on what you might give to the world and forget about what you might get in return then you are free.

In a materially oriented field like pop music this revelation feels a little like having heavy chains lifted from you.

6. Biggest regret?

I’ve had to think longest of all about this question. Of course, I’ve fluffed showcases; I’ve been too casual or too intense with people; my timing (in terms of the wider biz) is uniformly horrendous. But even acknowledging these things I find it hard to identify a regret. I’m not on a road or in a maze with dead ends and wrong turns. I’m in a pool. I’m having an experience. And a great deal of the time the experience is pretty wonderful. So I’ll stick thanks – no regrets.

7. Wise words for a whipper-snapper version of you:

All of the above I think would have been helpful. Oh, and filterless Gitanes in moderation only.


[Photo credits: Julian Holtom and Andy Brown]

Leave a Reply