Canada is known for many things. Maple syrup, beer, comedians, and female songstresses. The latter is our National Treasure. Face it, we tricked you all into buying seats to Celine Dion’s show in Vegas. That’s how amazing our reputation is for female singers! All joking aside, the up-and-coming musician Ainsley McNeaney, has captivated Canadian crowds with her definitive jazzy funk-based sound. Ainsley graciously took some time from writing new songs in her Montreal studio to answer some questions for Orange Country Reverb.
OCR: Reading your biography, you are intricately involved in every aspect of your career including responding to emails, webpage updates, and scheduling meetings. I think most musicians appreciate handling their own vision without the intrusion of record labels and interfering perspectives. What are other advantages of maintaining and representing yourself? Does this ever get frustrating because it distracts you from making music?
AM: It’s definitely awesome to be self-contained, in a way. I love having no one telling me how my music should sound or what I should say to press. I think it’s important to maintain a conscious creative control over one’s own art, or else you might end up with too much package and not enough substance that is real and unique and representative of who you are as an artist. But oh man, does it ever get frustrating! I’m a real type-A personality – super organized and I love paperwork and checklists – so I can easily get caught up in that side of things and go for a few days without checking in with my artistic side.
Right now, I’m on a retreat at CAMMAC (a music centre) in the Laurentians in Quebec for a week concentrating on songwriting since it’s been a few months since I last wrote a decent song. It can also be difficult to be so self-contained as my career is completely dependent on how hard I work – I have no one telling me when to tour, which songs to make videos for, how to market myself…I had to learn all that on my own and it’s definitely been a gradual learning curve! A lot of time has been spent learning the business side of the industry that could have been used to be creative and make music. That being said, however, it’s the direction in which the music business has strayed – in exchange for creative control, musicians have to now learn all sorts of other skills. I think it’s worth it. I recently hired a publicist and have been increasingly relying more and more on a great team of friends, fans, and of course, my regular band mates, to help me out with things. There’s only so much time in a day and I already spend way too long on my computer!
OCR: You said your early attempts at song writing were secretly stashed away in a shoebox. When you look back at those songs what memories come to mind? Do you ever consider reworking those songs into new pieces? Did you store other artifacts from your early teens in that box?
AM: I started writing songs at around age 14, when Sarah McLachlan’s ‘Possession’ album came out – I was at that age when life was starting to seem way too unfair and I just loved her super-sad and depressed sound and lyrics. I tried to emulate that, I think, especially after I had my heart ‘broken’ at age 15!
A lot of those songs I wrote down in a sketch book that I was using at the time, which I kept (in my proverbial shoebox!). When I flip through those pages now, I am reminded by the songs and by the drawings of a dramatic teenager doing her best to try to deal with what I felt at the time to be a very trying life – certainly nothing out of the ordinary! In actuality, and in retrospect, I had a great life and was probably pretty spoiled – I was also singing in a funk band at the time, which was a lot of fun and certainly made me feel very cool, so it’s not all bad memories from that time, for sure. Right now, these songs are really only good for a laugh and a trip down memory lane, so to speak – a sad song has its place, but these are just….well, not good. Haha.
OCR: You honed the craft of classical piano and percussion. What are your favourite elements of each instrumental medium? How do you create different moods or emotions by isolating or combining both of these skills?
AM: I really love the diversity that being a percussionist has to offer. I was really, really lucky to get my BMus from the University of Toronto, as the percussion teachers there are amazing, and cover a real wide variety of genres and instruments. In any given day, I would play vibraphone, African drums, marimba, timpani, drum set – to name only a few – in musical genres ranging from jazz, to Japanese taiko drumming, to orchestral, to contemporary classical. I took advantage of it all, and I hope that as I grow as an arranger, my music will continue to reflect this diversity.
On True Story Orchestra, I used a lot of percussion, but my next album (in the works now) will include even more. As for piano, it’s also such a diverse instrument that can provide colour, rhythm, melody, or just ambiance. In arranging, it’s not just as simple as certain instruments have a certain character – like, the vibraphone is mellow and mysterious and the xylophone is harsh and brittle. They certainly can be, but I guess that having studied percussion for so long in such a formal setting, I have a unique and, I think, more all-encompassing approach to both the piano and percussion instruments. Like, anything goes – and for my next album, I fully intend on pushing those boundaries ever further.
OCR: You self-produced your debut album “True Story Orchestra.” What were some challenges as a first time producer? What did you learn from the experience?
AM: Well, I certainly had no idea of anything technical going into the project, so I took all my cues from my engineer, Steven Major. Luckily, Steve is awesome and so easy-going and knows his craft so well – we’d be sitting in the studio mixing and I’d turn to him and say, “Steve, this has to sound like we’re playing backgammon in an aquarium, you know what I mean?” And Steve would nod, push a few buttons, and presto – I’d get exactly the sound I was looking for. He would also explain everything to me, so I definitely gained a good knowledge of the technical side of recording and mixing. I would say that the biggest thing I learned was how to be a good leader from the booth…it’s a really hard and delicate process!
I was working with mostly friends who are all amazing musicians, so I found it challenging to step up and be the boss, trying to coax wonderful performances out of these people, while simultaneously making sure that everyone was happy, well rested, and well fed. Brass players, especially, can’t really play take after take, or else their chops get really tired, so it was all about getting the best cuts from people without blowing chops and sometimes compromising a little. I’m a bit of a perfectionist, so that was certainly a personal challenge for me.
OCR: You describe your writing process as being spontaneous and honest. Did you find your music studies difficult at U of T due to the structured environment? Do you find it difficult to specifically sit down and focus on one thing at a time?
AM: What I really found difficult while I was studying music formally was the amount of discipline it takes to be a professional musician. Of course, I was young and had just moved away from home to the city, and of course, wanted to do everything else but practice! Fortunately, I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older that a little good old fashioned discipline goes a long way – I now devote time each day to songwriting, and was on a song-a-day project (exactly what it sounds like!) for about 2 years. I’ve since stopped that and am now concentrating on material for my next album, but I’m still at my piano every day.
I guess I could say that as I’ve matured and become more experienced, my approach to songwriting has become a lot more like that of an athlete in preparation for a competition – my musical muscles need to be worked on every day or else…..well, I guess I’m afraid that I might lose momentum! I love relaxing and just messing around for a day or two of vacation, and especially now that it’s summer, I feel that call of the wild all the time…very hard to sit and write music when all your friends are picnicking or out on the town. Montreal is especially a very active summer city, so I’ve got to put my head down sometimes and just push through. I definitely find it difficult to sit down and focus on one thing at a time, since I’ve always got so many different projects on the go, but that’s what lists are for – they keep my head together!
OCR: Do you write your musical arrangements first or your lyrics?
AM: Usually a chord progression or melody will come first, then the lyrics or a song idea. The grand arrangements that you hear on the album come last, and are only for the album and special concerts.
OCR: Your first video “Marianne” has hit the scene. Within four short days, it has met much success on YouTube with over a thousand hits! You have plans to release two more videos this summer. One of these videos is going to be animated. Can you give us a sneak peak of what to expect from your animated vision?
AM: The animated video is for another song from True Story Orchestra called’Closer’. I had hoped to release a video for this song a couple of years ago, since it is the song from the album that the majority of people have picked for their favourite – but I was really (and I mean really) stumped on the concept.
Since the song is so epic and orchestral, all the ideas I came up with I couldn’t afford to shoot! I was lamenting this one day out loud to a friend, when I got a Facebook message from Régis Konan (a really talented animator from Côte d’Ivoire) who had just finished school at Concordia University. We met the previous summer at an arts grants workshop – saying how much he liked the song ‘Closer’ and my music in general. It was like a bit of fate right there, him liking the song and me needing a music video for it…it just hit me straight away that this could be the inspiration I needed.
Once it was decided that we would work together, the idea for the video came easily, and it’s going to be awesome – digital animation in the style of paper origami! The storyline is a girl (a bit like me!) who embarks on a crazy journey through some really strange and beautiful lands. I read a lot, so all the scenes and ‘worlds’ she encounters were inspired by some of my favourite books. I literally wrote a list of my top ten books, then sat down with that list beside me to write the script and tried to include as many references as I could – I’m looking forward to seeing who can guess what came from where! The song itself takes the listener on a bit of a journey, so I thought that theme would be pretty appropriate.
OCR: You list a variety of musical inspirations from Led Zeppelin to Bach. You combine various genres together with your diverse voice and funky beats fused with classical underpinnings. How was your life introduced to such a range of musical influences?
AM: I guess I’ve just been involved with a lot of different musical projects in my life so far! As I mentioned above, studying percussion at university helped to expose me to genres and instruments I would never otherwise known existed. Before that, I was always a singer, so I did a lot of musical theatre and jazz singing, plus I sang in a funk band in high school.
Right now, on top of my own musical career, which is first and foremost, I play timpani in a few classical orchestras, tour as the sole multi-tasking musician with a puppet theatre, score music for short films and commercials, and teach piano, voice, and percussion to kids! I guess I’ve just always made music my main thing, although I could have chosen a few other paths in life – I’m also not interested in giving it up, like a lot of people do, in favour of financial stability or having a family, so I hope to keep learning and getting better as a musician and composer. I can credit great and encouraging parents, some amazing teachers, and a whole lot of very inspirational colleagues for keeping me on my toes.
OCR: In honour of your song “Marianne,” what is your favourite song named after a female muse?
AM: Joanna Newsom’s Ys album is one of my all-time favourites (Van Dyke Parks’ arranging is genius) so I’m going to say ‘Emily’. I don’t know if that exactly counts, since it was written about her sister, but it’s a beautiful song!
OCR: Toronto has a lot of notable venues. Which is your favourite one to play? Are there any that hold a special memory or place in your heart?
AM: I did my farewell Toronto concert at The Cameron House, which is an awesome venue run by musicians, so I’ll always think fondly about that place! And The Tranzac, although a little run down, is really musician-centric and has a policy of having live music playing all the time. I’m going back there in August for a big show, and I’m really excited for that. I recently (well, two years ago, but it still feels recent!) relocated to Montreal, Quebec, which is where bands like Arcade Fire and Patrick Watson are from – there’s a beautiful musical community here and lots of choice venues! We recently did a show for the Montreal Fringe Festival at a place called Divan Orange (say that with a French accent!) which is a great room with great sound.
OCR: What’s next for Ainsley McNeaney?
AM: Two more music videos (one for ‘Closer’, as mentioned, and one for ‘The Night (Encounters)’), touring in August to Ontario, Quebec, and the eastern provinces of Canada, a brand new web site, a Pop Montreal showcase date, and…beyond that, more touring dates throughout the fall and a fundraising campaign to kick start my next album! I’m looking forward to running full-on until it gets released!
Don’t forget to follow Ainsley on Facebook and Twitter (@AinsleyMcNeaney). Visit her site at http://www.ainsleymcneaney.com. Don’t forget to watch her shout out to Orange Country Reverb!