Tracy McNeil arrived in Melbourne from her home in Toronto, Canada around eight years ago. Pretty much all she had back then was an enrolment at Deakin University to bolster her drama/dance background with a teaching qualification, an internet friendship with local troubadour Jordie Lane and a beautiful Gibson Hummingbird guitar, passed on by her father, a dedicated amateur country musician. My first introduction to her was during those early weeks at Bar 303 in Northcote, when Lane called her up to sing some harmonies. What we saw was a young woman with a strong, confident voice, seemingly a little lost without her guitar, which she compensated for by slapping her thigh in time with the tunes.
Maybe Lane knew, but few in that room could know that in addition to that compelling voice, Tracy McNeil also had an accomplished country-like album in her back pocket, an assured guitar feel ,an already formidable set of songwriting chops, and a stage manner that was at once assured, energetic and utterly charming. This was a package that promised so much and now in 2014 that promise has been kept in a most emphatic way with the upcoming release of a recording destined to be in anyone who is anyone’s top albums of 2014, an outstanding band behind her in the form of The Good Life and a national tour kicking off in July.
Along the way she has also gained a reputation as an outstanding live performer, married local singer songwriter Luke Sinclair and most significantly, the next few months will see McNeil become an Australian citizen. No, Canada, you can’t have her back. You can borrow her on occasions but otherwise she’s ours, eh?
Michael Hansen spoke with McNeil about finding her feet here in Australia, writing and recording the new album, the forthcoming tour and how she feels about her place in our music scene.
The new album, Nobody Ever Leaves, follows on from the Fireside Bellows album (with Lane) and the 2012 release of Fire From Burning. Does it meet your expectations as where you would want to be eight years on?
Definitely … I really don’t know where I would have expected to be but I know that I feel very lucky (and worked very hard), but I have been embraced and been nurtured by this wonderful musical community here in Melbourne. Like with getting gigs, I no longer have to go round pounding on doors.
It seems to me that this record is thematically more cogent than your previous work. Do you feel like you have found your groove, your niche, in the sense that it reflects the Tracy McNeil we see and hear live captured on record?
Yeah, the last album was kind of a bridge between the country feel to the rockier style, something with more of an edge that we have arrived at now. One difference is that this time I wrote most of the songs without my guitar, singing in the car, so it’s more melody driven and not just tied to the limited range of chords I know.
So, we have seen the video of the opening track Wildcats lots of times. That song really packs a punch and seems radio ready, and those things continue throughout the album.
The album does have something of a pop sensibility about it, big choruses going back to that Fleetwood Mac, Southern California kinda sound.
Yes, those influences have been picked up in some of the reviews. My thoughts were that on first listen it sounded like one of the better albums Tom Petty has put out in the last ten years.
Wow … that’s quite a compliment. I love Tom Petty.
Everyone loves Tom Petty …. the title of the album Nobody Ever Leaves is not the title of one of the songs. Does it come from somewhere in the lyrics?
No it’s not in the lyrics, but the sentiment is. It’s coming from the fact that I have left, I’ve left Canada, I’ve made a huge decision in getting married here, and I’m close to gaining permanent residency. So I’m here, but my heart remains in Canada, with my family there and there’s the darker side of the situation, the lonelier side of making that decision to stay here.
So, you have a tremendous band with you on the album. Would you like to tell us what each of them brings to the stage and the studio, because I think it’s significant that you have added The Good Life to to your performing tag and the record sounds to me more like a band record than your previous work.
I think going from a four piece to a five piece now (husband Sinclair has been added as a second guitar player/vocalist) has expanded our sound, we now have two electric guitars. Luke brings in beautiful harmonies and that extra guitar feel, again that pop sensibility, and it complements Matt Green’s playing, which has had that classic rock sound. So with the two of them we get a great fusion of styles.
Yeah, and Matt Green has told me that Luke being there has made his job so much easier … he doesn’t have to work so hard!
For sure. In the studio Matt was like, “this is great, I have so much freedom.” He loves having Luke on board.
So how about your righteous rhythm section, Bree Hartley on drums and Rod Boothroyd on bass?
They are a righteous rhythm section, Bree and Rod, they are so locked in. And oh man, Bree is my right hand gal. She’s right there by my side stuffing envelopes, whatever is needed on the admin side, she’s so committed. And she wants this (to succeed) as much as I do. Bree and Rod hold down the fort, they are so strong together. And Rod, he’s been along with me almost from the outset, and he’s got a lot of bite, a lot of attack to his playing.
One thing I’ve noticed about them, and it’s clearly part of the bigger sound of the band is Rod’s increasing use of the electric bass, and Bree really giving those drums a wonderful thump. I say this with tongue in cheek, but not only does it sound great, it’s probably necessary to be heard behind a couple of ego driven guitar players.
Ha … yes. Rod and Bree have totally no ego. All of that is out front with Matt and Luke and me!
In conclusion, do you feel that this album presents us with an artist who has hit her stride as far as where you want to be as a writer and performer?
I do, I feel that in a way I have come full circle, getting back to the kind of songs that were coming into my head as a 14 or 15 year-old. Songs that were not tailored to any genre of music, so much more authentic or organic as an artist.