Danny McMahon, Country Artist of the Year 2019, is a very welcome interviewee for Rock the Joint Magazine. It was great to chat with one of the UK’s most innovative singer-songwriters, and without pusillanimity, it’s very clear that this artist has already done great things, with more on the way. This was a golden opportunity to talk about music in the making, and there are some great stories here about musical history!
Danny is very well known in the UK country scene, and since the release of his debut single “What It’s Like” and accompanying EP “Making Memories” in 2017, Danny has been inspired to create a unique sound that will be relatable to and welcomed by a range of audiences. Danny became the first UK artist to attend and perform at the Springboard Festival in California, and as a result, he was invited to write and record with 5-time Grammy nominated and 27-dove nominated songwriter and producer Billy Smiley.
Danny’s journey has continued with the release of “Momentarily” [EP – 2018) and “Boys Cry Too” [EP – 2019] which reached #2 in the UK Country iTunes Album chart and includes the #1 UK Country single “When I See You.” Danny has been recognised with a plethora of awards and has toured Sweden [Live at Heart], Italy [Voghera Country Festival], the US, and the UK. Danny’s latest single, ‘Lonely’, described as “capturing the purity and sincerity surrounding the artist’s individual and charismatic vocal’ reached #4 in the UK Country iTunes singles chart.
Danny was originally a commercial songwriter for Paramount and has songwriting in his blood. We began with the musical roots of his family and how Paramount happened.
Danny- not necessarily songwriting; but music is definitely in the family; it goes back a long way. Now my dad is Irish, and my great -grandmother was the most sought after session pianist in Dublin, going way back. She would do the scores for the silent movies, and so she was successful in what she did. She was a talented and popular pianist. Then both grandparents on both sides played piano; my grandfather played traditional Irish instruments too, he was hot on the accordion. Then that passed through to my father, who is an incredible musician. He was in lots of bands when he was younger, playing every instrument you can imagine, from banjo to harmonica! So music was always in the house, and I would watch and think how cool it all was. Dad used to play the classical guitar too, and I loved that. I then started playing the flute around the house, as Dad had had it in the house from one of his progressive rock bands in the 80s. It was just there in the house; they needed people for the orchestra at school, and I started to play it, a natural thing. But by the time I was 15, I realised that the girls were not interested in a flute player!
Of course, Danny is known for being good with a guitar; his flautist prowess is less advertised!
Danny- I picked up a guitar post flute! I started writing songs with the guitar. I think the summer I finished school, I literally wrote an album and got my three best friends from school, who all play instruments, and I used to hang with them at the music block. We were signed to a deal with a major within six months. We performed at Glastonbury and did some incredible things. We did a stadium tour with West Life, and we were more of a rock act really, so it was one thing after another, and that was what led me to the Paramount people. I was 18, maybe 19 at the time. Doing so much so young was a great introduction to the business.
I didn’t know that Danny had been a rocker; it is quite a change to move into the world of country music, and we wondered why that (possibly risky) move was made. What pulled Danny toward country music?
Danny- For me, I didn’t know until I worked with the guys who did the commercial songwriting that it was really a thing. You consume it less on commercial radio. It is less common now, so I had to educate myself and find out what it was. Some of the guys at Paramount, particularly a friend from university, asked if I liked country music and played me Brad Paisley. I just loved it—from the guitar work to the songwriting to the vocals, it had everything I love as far as music is concerned. In my final year at university, we had to do a project for commercial songwriting that was basically creating an EP in a style of music that we don’t normally play, and I started writing these three country songs and submitted them for my final year. And I played it to some people, and they were saying, “Dude, these are really decent,” and at the time my own band was doing synth pop, but the opinion was that these were way better. I was thinking that, as a British guy, I wouldn’t be taken seriously, but bit by bit, around the social circle, everyone was saying the same thing.
We noted this was very much from a songwriting side of things rather than, perhaps from a performance perspective, and we wondered whether the performance side developed alongside the songwriting.
Danny- I was writing for other country artists, and that was my way into it as a performer, rather than as a country music fan. I was going to shows, and as I began to write songs about me and my life, I knew I had to be the best person to go and perform the songs. So I decided on a side project, put out a country EP, sent it to a few stations, and saw how it went. And that was the journey, three months later I was in the California sunshine playing festivals stateside.
We had an interesting talk about image, and how the different music genres have a distinctive look about them. It’s an interesting point about image, as we were discussing this with another country singer/songwriter Olivia Lynn, for this magazine a few weeks ago. I remember she commented that she was happy with the hat but less happy with other aspects. Danny doesn’t seem to have the hat!
Danny- I love Garth Brooks and all that kind of stuff but I didn’t feel that was aesthetically who I am either sonically or visually. It wasn’t what I was brought up as, but then as I became more of a country music fan and began listening to the newer country pop, artists like Sam Hunt began to fall into view. This new music was focused on the melody, great guitar work, and I produce UK country acts as well, so I admired the production. And it is a question in country music too now as to what is country, as it is often merging with pop. For me, I love that. You get these sound fusions, creating a guitar sound with the drum loops, and the sound grows, a new sound that I love. The sound now clicks with me as an artist, songwriter and producer. But visually, I tried the hat once and knew it wasn’t for me, but the umbrella is expanding in the UK. Even in Nashville you spot the tourists in the stetson!
This sense of musical fusion seems to be a part of the UK country scene. We did a feature on Laura Evans who is seen as a blues artist, but a lot of her sound is clearly country in the wide definition of the term.
That aside there is a song called “Hide Away” that Danny does, and we all loved the back drum beat on that one, it has to be a great song live.
Danny- That song had an interesting process. That song started the whole country journey. It started with one of my commercial writing friends, and he was unsure where to go with it. So I had been to a country festival and took the vibe to “Hide Away” and it naturally developed into a country rock feel. I love the drum feel too. There is a guy I work with, a drummer called Jay Cook, he’s a rhythmic drummer who plays the song and he comes in with this cool second verse. It came together naturally and got a lot of love. It has an American sound, and we played it in an Uber in the centre of LA on the sound system, that was so cool.
Another great track we wanted to ask about was one taken from the “Boys Cry too EP” (2019) and it is “Pushing my Hands Down.” It has this lovely piano sound to it, and it’s so nice, what a great track! Did Danny see this track as another side of him?
Danny- It is a different place. This EP was my sad boy time, and it was where I was at the time. That song is a male mental health song, and it looks to raise awareness. That EP is about that, it is heartfelt about me at the time. The piano part was done by the brother of the lad who did the drums on “Hide Away.” It was written as a different version on the guitar, and in a different manner with my synth pop band. But I was going to the States with the country sound, and my friend told me that song really had to come too, but needed to be rewritten with a country feel. I wondered if I would be accepted as a country singer, I was confused at the time over my musical identity, and it developed from there. I love the collaborative process and people bringing something to a song. Let people freely create. That is my belief as a producer and artist. The pianist on that track, Harry, is an amazing pianist.
Of course as you get older and mature your tastes change. Shirley King raised the point that she left the blues for years until she had lived and then returned to that music again. “Making Memories” came out in 2017 and we asked how Danny felt he had evolved from then.
Danny- You have to evolve as the music industry is mentally demanding, you have to evolve. Look at everything that has happened since 2017 and the music I make now, what I listen to and who comes and goes in my life changes things. I have spent time in Nashville, it’s such a unique place, a city focused on music, and that changes you. Everyone there encourages you to succeed, it is inclusive. And that team around you should be reflective of who you are too, my publishing deal and so much is based Stateside. It’s different for everybody, but it’s a subjective industry and we have to find our way through.
Lastly, we looked toward where Danny is now and what was on the immediate agenda?
Danny- well, right now, I’m thrilled with sold out shows, Bristol is tomorrow and thank-you so much to all of you who have bought a ticket and come to support me. I’m also working on the mental health awareness stuff that is so important to me. Then next year we have a range of very exciting things booked, I can’t reveal that just yet. But so much cool stuff is on the way, and do listen to the new single, “Forget about That.“
Can we also give a plug of support for the mental health side of things?Mental health is so important and it is the illness you cannot see. Someone has a broken arm and they get sympathy, but being depressed and lonely in the past has rarely had the attention it deserves. This feature has been a pleasure, and we ask you dear readers to have a listen to the music and follow the wonderful Danny McMahon.
By Benny (the Ball) Benson
Mark C Chambers
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