Tom McRae's Dark Side

The acclaimed British singer-songwriter is happy to be glum

By |

"If you're a singer-songwriter, you're the guy at the party who is wearing black and saying how bad the world is while everyone else is trying to have a good time." Meet Tom McRae, whose self-titled, Mercury Music Prize nominated debut record is garnering him comparisons to legendary party-poopers like Bob Dylan and Paul Simon.

"It's who I am, really," McRae admits. "I can't get away from it. I've never been the one to set up the deck chair on the beach first and to be happy sitting in the sun. I prefer to hide in the shadows a little bit."

Out of these shadows the British tunesmith crafted a striking album of unaffected acoustic arrangements, fierce vocals, trenchant lyricism and a social consciousness that links him to his celebrated predecessors. The only thing absent from his music is the mark of post modernism: genre-bending. There are no hybrids here, no hyphens, no backslashes. Sonically, Tom McRae is an eerily quiet and often disquieting acoustic guitar and vocals album, which is occasionally seasoned with the unexpected piano, cello, Hammond organ and electric guitar. But McRae's real mark as a twenty-first-century troubadour is his trenchant lyrics.

In "Hidden Camera Show," he takes shots at reality television: "We're all caught in a hidden camera show/And it's the thrill of deception, it's the chill of rejection/In the face of people we don't know." While in "End of the World News (Dose Me Up)," he targets rampant consumerism: "Every culture has it's own magazine/And information takes the place of you dreams/Finding ways to fill up the silence/But it's all that you need . . . turn on your TV."

"I'm not trying to replicate the Sixties or write [Bob Dylan's] 'Masters of War' or anything," McRae says. "It's just something that constantly plays on my mind. I don't want to get to the point where I'm talking as if I have a manifesto, as if I'm running for office, because I'm not. These are just songs. I'm just a songwriter."

McRae describes growing up in the small farming community of Chelmsford, Suffolk (population, 250) simply as "hell." "I hated it," he says with a laugh. McRae's parents were both vicars of the Church of England. And while his faith faltered and eventually collapsed as he got older, singing in the church became McRae's introduction to music, followed by tinkering on his mother's guitar and piano. He began writing songs at fifteen -- "my form of escape in the early days" -- and listened to what was available from his parents' record collections: Simon and Garfunkel, Pete Seeger, Burl Ives -- before raiding his older sisters' collections: Kate Bush, U2, Bob Dylan.

McRae left Chelmsford in his late teens. "I needed to get London," he says. "That was my big sort of ambition as a teenager so my excuse was to go and study there." And study he did -- politics, no less. "I was cynical about it before I went," he says, explaining his choice of major, "and became even more cynical by it and disgusted by it. But I think it's always good to know your enemy and to be informed about what's going on even though you don't agree."

McRae began playing in bands during and after college but with little success. With doubts about his chances to make a career in music, McRae "gave up." The songwriter launched a forty-eight-hour boycott of his desired profession "before I found myself sitting down with a guitar again, and so it was my last shake of the dice." Over a period of eighteen months McRae penned the thirteen songs that make up his debut. With the songs in hand, it was McRae's music collection that led to the break he needed. He noticed producer Chris Hughes' name on the back of some of his records (Elvis Costello, Squeeze, Nicke Lowe) and "offered favors" ("nothing to sordid" he says) to someone to pass along Hughes' number. It worked, and Hughes is not only the producer of Tom McRae but McRae's manager.

It's a happy ending that has let McRae take his "sad acoustic music" to the masses, touring with Dido as well as playing several festivals around Europe this summer including what "seemed to be some kind of death metal festival in Norway. Some of them of have been deeply inappropriate," McRae says laughing, surprised at his own success among all the angry young men. However, he does admit to sharing their feelings of disappointment and rage, if not their sensibility. "If I'm being honest," he says, "quite a lot of motivation for what I do comes from frustration and anger."