Journalist – Joe Goggins
It’s been four years since Liam McClair decided to turn his hobby into a career, and in the meantime, his own soulful take on the traditional singer-songwriter setup has seen him sell out shows in his native Manchester, tour Germany, and support the likes of Blossoms, Billy Bragg, Circa Waves and Echo and the Bunnymen. The Liverpudlian legends were impressed enough that frontman Ian McCulloch took him out on his own solo jaunt around the UK, too, and he’s received rave reviews from the likes of BBC 6 Music and Louder Than War.
After following up 2015’s well-received Honest EP with last year’s ‘Hunted’, he’s gone back to basics in 2017 with his Unplugged Originals series of videos, which see him playing new songs in locations that mean something to him, all totally acoustic. As he gears up for the release of ‘We Should Talk’, his latest single, he sat down with Beatstream to discuss his origins, influences, musical goals and plenty more besides.
When did you start writing your own music?
I’d always written as a bit of a hobby, but never taken it too seriously. When I was at university in Liverpool, I started playing some gigs, and eventually decided that I’d like to make a go of it – that I wanted to put some songs out there, and see if they got any traction. That would’ve been in my last year there, so around 2013.
“I’m trying to give every song its own narrative. I’d like for fans to see the story behind them.”
Was your music always the same stylistically, even before you realised you wanted to make a career out of it?
Yeah, pretty much. I always sang and played the guitar and piano, but hopefully the quality’s gotten a little bit better! It’s all about doing it more and more. When I started out, I used to put out an incredible amount of content; half-finished songs, demos, full tracks, just anything I could knock out in GarageBand and then upload to Soundcloud. I must have had sixty songs up there, thinking that if there were enough of them, one would spark and it’d all take off from there. I didn’t realise there was so much more to it.
It pays to put out a more polished product, I guess.
Absolutely, and it was a really good learning experience for me, just in terms of where I was in my life at the time. I knew I wanted to pursue this, so I didn’t feel too stagnant when I graduated. I knew I wanted to take this seriously and try to make a living from it.
What would you say are your main musical influences, both growing up and more recently?
Early on, a lot of it came from what my parents played, so Radiohead, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, as well as Manchester bands like The Stone Roses and Oasis. When I was a teenager, I got into Red Hot Chili Peppers and Coldplay, right as they were starting to become as big as they are now. They’re bands, but they have catchy, pop elements to them. When I was fourteen or fifteen, James Morrison dropped his album, and that became really big. Then there was Paolo Nutini, Ray LaMontagne, Newton Faulkner – all these guys who sang and played guitar. I studied them and their compositions, and tried to make something like their songs myself. Once you come up with something of our own and realise that you love it as much as you love other artists’ music, it’s infectious. That’s what I’m trying to get back to now, funnily enough.
Back to what it was like to make music just for yourself, rather than for an audience?
Yeah, because I think I always focused on the idea of having my own audience; it took the pressure off, after I realised that there’s hundreds and thousands of people all making music like me, and that the way to make it work is to carve out your own crowd. I’ve done that, now, but it means that I’m always thinking about what other people will think of my songs. It was never my main goal to be number one – not for now, anyway! – so I just tried to attract my own audience, but now I’d like to tap back into what it was like when I started, that feeling of excitement.
Can you tell us a little bit about the Unplugged Originals series that you’re working on at the minute?
They’re all new songs, or at least ones that I hadn’t gotten around to releasing yet. I’ve just been recording them on video at different places around Manchester, like venues or bars, and then putting them online. I like things like the Mahogany Sessions, Burberry Originals and La Blogothèque, because they strip things right down and take the song back to its origins. Plus, you can see what the chords are if you want to try it yourself! The first one I did, ‘Where Ever We Like’, was one of the most successful things I’ve ever done in terms of the reaction I got, so I thought that I could maybe aim to do ten or so and make it into a series – I’ve done five so far. It works nicely, because I can turn them out much quicker than studio recordings, and it gives people an idea of what it’d be like to come and see me live. I’m hoping that once I release studio versions of these songs, you’ll be able to go back to these Unplugged Originals and see how they started. They’re free to download, too!
The way that the series works, with one song coming out at a time, seems like the furthest you’ve ever gone from the traditional EP or album format. What was the thinking behind that?
I always found that individual songs definitely got more attention, especially because when I did release EPs, they’d always be named after a song that was on it, and I think people saw that song as being the ‘single’ – so the others would get far fewer plays. I think I just like the format because it allows me to be impulsive, and also makes sure that I get things finished. When you start out, you hear so many different things, and it’s hard to know which advice you should follow, That was especially true for me, because I did sport at uni and didn’t know much about music. One person would tell me not to do too much gigging, and then somebody else would say I should gig all the time! You’d be making plans and then scrapping them, and there was a lot of uncertainty. With this, I know that I can put out something every two weeks, and then work on studio tracks in the meantime. It’s a bit like TV used to be before Netflix – you’d look forward to Tuesday night because you knew a certain show was on. Hopefully people feel the same about these songs!
Last year, you won the Stockport’s Finest competition, and the prize was two days’ worth of studio time at Astar Studios in Heywood, with Mercury Prize-winning producer Andy Ross. Have you used them yet?
Yep! I went in back in May, and recorded the bulk of two songs. One’s going to be the next single, coming out in August; it’s called ‘We Should Talk’, and I’d originally planned it for later in the year, but it ended up coming out sounding much more poppy and summery than I thought it would, so it seems like now’s the time to get it out there. The other one’s called ‘Fix It’, and it’s a real contrast – that’ll be out in November. I might eventually put them on an EP.
What did you get out of that studio environment that you wouldn’t experience when you self-record?
Well, for a start, I didn’t even realise that we’d be able to get two songs done! We did ‘Fix It’ on day one; I came in with the demo, and by the end of the day, we were almost there. I took ‘We Should Talk’ in the next day, and it’s got something really nice and different about it, which I think is because I was able to use produced drums and sample a little bit on it. It’s added a new dimension to what I’ve done in the past.
Are you trying to strike a conscious balance between the studio and homemade recordings?
I guess so. I’d love to do more stuff in the studio because I learn more in the process; building a track, with drums and bass and everything else, is a lot different to making acoustic songs. I still need more practice at that, so I definitely want to get back in more often and see how things change. I love the Unplugged Originals too, though, and I might even do that inversely, where I put out a studio track and then, a couple of weeks later, do an acoustic version to bring more attention to the single. It’s funny, because I’ve had such mixed results doing that in the past; I’d play solo gigs, and people would buy a CD from me at the show, and then listen to it and maybe not like the full band recordings! Because of that, when I released my single ‘Hunted’ last year, I recorded solo and band versions, just to spread my bets. It’s nice to give people what they want, but you can’t make everybody happy.
You play a lot of open mic nights around Manchester – how important have you found that community to your career so far?
It’s a big part of it, for sure. It gets you more gigs, for a start! Whenever I’ve played my own gigs, I’ve never just blindly put a band on – it’s always people I’ve met through shows like that, where I’ve thought, “they’re great, I’d love to see them again!” It works both ways, too, because I’ve supported other people on their EP launches. It’s key to get out there and get to know people, because they’ll teach you a lot and they’ll visually inspire you when you’re watching them – you’ll think, “wow, I never thought to put that chord there!” It’s good to have that supportive feeling around you from other musicians.
You’ve recently started hosting your own show on Reform Radio – how did that come about?
That’s actually a perfect example of what we were just talking about! A friend of mine took me onto his friend’s show; I met him at a house in Chorlton, and he mentioned that the station had just moved over to Old Granada Studios, and that if anybody wanted to do their own show, just to let them know. I’d just left my part-time job to focus on music, so I jumped straight in and started playing a lot of music similar to my own – unsigned singer-songwriter stuff. I’ve started bringing on live acts as well, which is really cool, because guests can play acoustic tracks with just a guitar or piano. I just want to be supportive within the Manchester scene, and give something back to a city that’s only ever given me information and experience. It’s nice to try to help people and give them a leg up.
You play a lot of covers gigs, too, and they seem to be your bread and butter in some ways – do you get anything from them that helps with your own writing?
Sure – if you play a song and everyone’s singing along, you wonder, “why does this work so well?” It’ll feed back into my original music in the sense that I’ve played weddings and then the bride and groom have come to my gigs afterwards, which is nice. At one time, I saw it as a bit of a slog, and a negative thing, but at the end of the day, if two people take my card or my CD from each gig I do, then I’m still getting a reaction, one that’s different from an open mic night, where everybody else might be a musician themselves. There’s far worse jobs to do to pay the bills; it means I’m practicing all the time, too, with the guitar and my voice, which makes me stronger as a musician for doing it. The opportunities can be really cool, too – I’ve done gigs on boats in Windermere and on the roof of the KPMG building in St. Peter’s Square. I used to resent it all a little bit, but now I know it’s a good thing – it’s helped me to compartmentalise.
What’s the situation with your band now? Are you still playing shows with them?
We’re doing a couple through this awesome gig-swapping site called Off Axis, where I play the headline slot and then bands from all over the country come to support me, and then I’ll return the favour. We might do more, depending on hat comes up. We used to be really ambitious about that, maybe too ambitious, where we’d think we could just drive to London and Glasgow and play. Sometimes it was great, and other times less so, but it just didn’t feel right when I couldn’t afford to pay the lads and we were rushing back to Manchester from Bristol because somebody had an exam the next day, or whatever. I’d love to be in a place one day like Paolo Nutini is with his band, but I also think about Ian McCulloch and the way he plays shows with Echo and the Bunnymen, and then a lot of gigs on his own, too – that’s a nice way to do it.
Do you think you might release a full-length album at some point?
I’m not sure. I’ve got this stigma that albums are only by signed artists, and it’s tricky, because how do you market an album these days? Are you giving away too many songs at once? You can plug it for a lot longer, because you might have ten potential singles there, so that’s a positive, and I’d love to have something on vinyl one day too – that’d be really cool. People do ask me a lot about an album, so maybe one day – I’m not ruling it out.
What’s the ultimate goal for you? Can you ever envisage signing a record deal, or is that less important than ever in the streaming age?
It’s just about sustainability, really, whether that comes from myself, a label, or even myself setting up my own label, which I’ll probably do anyway because there’s no harm in it. Right now, I don’t think there’s a lot of labels who’d sign me, because I don’t have that touring presence yet – it’s all good and well playing a great gig in Manchester, but then you go to Liverpool and you might struggle to have the same impact. I used to think getting signed would be the goal, the answer, but that idea of “if you’re signed, you’re sorted” isn’t really realistic. I might go down that route, or I might go it alone. Whichever one’s the most sustainable – that’s what I’m after.
Liam McClair launches ‘We Should Talk’ at Leaf on Portland Street, Manchester on August 4th