01 January 2009

About A Boy

Written by Published in Music Interviews

Singer-songwriters are cheap to keep. All they need is a guitar and a broken heart and they’re happy to mope about in their cold garrets churning out songs until the old liver gives out. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that in the past couple of years we’ve had a flood of James Blunts and James Morrisons foisted upon us by financially challenged record companies looking to keep costs down.



Aside from the likes of the two Jameses, other talent is emerging,among them Eugene McGuinness, whose debut mini-album Early Learnings of Eugene McGuinness was released in 2007 on the stylish Domino label. It revealed a witty muse unaffected by the self-pitying tendencies common to the genre (though he is not averse to the occasional funny-sad refrain). His eponymously titled debut album proper, released last autumn, reinforces those first impressions. Here is a singer-songwriter (complete with band, by the way) whose songs are delightfully rich in evocative detail as well as in melodies that sparkle with joie de vivre. Sublime caught up with the 22-year-old Londoner to find out more . . .


Sublime: The cover of your album depicts you in a fencer’s outfit. What’s that about?

Eugene McGuinness: It seemed like a good idea at the time! Fencing is quite an upper-class activity, and there’s a lot of posh singer-songwriters out there, so I guess I was trying to be ironic. I suppose people who don’t know anything about me might think I’m some sort of Olympian fencer. Well, I might be!


S: If you’re not the posh type of singer-songwriter, what is your background?

EM: My parents are from Northern Ireland, I went to school in London but grew up mostly in Essex. I also spent a lot of time in a small town on the coast of Northern Ireland called Portstewart. So there’s Essex, London and Ireland in my upbringing. University took me to Liverpool, and for the past few years I’ve been yo-yoing between Liverpool and London.


S: What did you study at university?

EM: Music, but I didn’t do very well at it. Studying music is for classical musicians or people who want to pursue opera. The thing is, it can actually cripple you if you want to do the sort of stuff I wanted to do. I’ve had benefits from it, but it wasn’t really for me. In fact I spent the whole time cheating.


S: How can you cheat in music?

EM: You get people to help you out. I can’t read music, which is quite important when you’re studying it. My marks were all based on my performance. I’d always average out and get a pass, because my performances would get very high marks, but the more theory based things were completely winged.


S: What did you major on?

EM: Singing. Plus a bit of guitar and composition.


S: Did the course help you to understand the music business better?

EM: They certainly try to teach you that, but that’s the stuff that bores me to tears. It may be for certain people but it’s definitely not me.


S: You hear horror stories about people getting ripped off. Did that not worry you?

EM: No, because all I want to do is make records. I probably will get ripped off here and there, but I’m not all that bothered. I’m not very protective about what I do. I don’t have any responsibilities, I haven’t got a mortgage or a kid, so none of that really phases me. I suppose I’m open to getting ripped off.


S: Do you think there’s anything specifically Irish in your perspective or your songs?

EM: I don’t think there’s anything directly Irish in what I’m doing. I just try to make songs that are an honest kind of portrayal of what I’m about. Maybe the humour is a bit Irish. I like some of Van Morrison’s records and I’m also a huge Pogues fan. I adore Shane McGowan’s lyrics, although he’s actually from London.


S: You seem to enjoy telling stories about characters in your songs . . .

EM: Yes, there are a few stories in the songs. When I meet people and get to know a little bit about them, I often go away and add all these fictional things, then turn it into a song.


S: Your songs are full of characters one might have a drink with. Are you a devoted pub-goer?

EM: Yeah! There’s certainly a couple like that. A lot of the songs are set around night time, and involve coming across different characters, people you only seem to meet when you’re out and about late in town.


S: The album is really playful. It sounds like you’ve tried out many different rhythms, and no arrangement sounds like the next.

EM: If it comes across like that I’ve done good. I wanted to make quite a relaxed album. And it was goodfun to make. After my EP came out I wrote a whole batch of about 20 or 30 songs. Some of them are terrible! Much of the album was done live, and when you play live, they’re always different. The songs change, depending on the mood, or on what’s happening. The album is like a documentation of those songs at the time we were recording them. Whenever we play them now they’re different. Songs evolve – sometimes they get busier, other times they get simpler and more relaxed.


S: How many songs have you GOT stashed away at home by now?

EM: Plenty – I try and write every day – but not all of them are any good. If I write three songs there’s probably only one that sticks. This week I’ll write, say, three songs: one’s a keeper, and I’ll play it for a while and it’ll end up maybe on the next record. One will be all right, kind of sitting on the fence. And one will be absolutely terrible, no one should ever hear it.


S: What did you listen to when you were growing up?

EM: A mixture of my dad’s record collection and what was out at the time. I was about 14 when The Strokes and The White Stripes came along, and they really knocked me for six. I absolutely loved them. Before that, I listened to a lot of the stuff that was on Top of the Pops: Oasis, Blur, Eminem. And everything my dad was into: Dylan, The Beatles, The Kinks, Chuck Berry. Plus he’d got into The Clash and The Smiths as well, somehow.


S: Do you see yourself as part of a group of contemporary artists who do similar things or have similar aims?

EM: I’m not part of a group, I’m part of the masses. Everyone’s making music now, and that’s what I do. I don’t know about anybody else’s aims. I don’t really have any aims myself, except just to make more records. I don’t know if this record will be become massive, or if it will do even remotely well, but just having it released is fantastic simply because it exists. Through the annals of time people will be able to see me looking like an idiot on the cover.


S: How did you end up on the Domino label?

EM: They found me on MySpace. They hadn’t seen me live or anything like that. One day when I was still a student I had just got home from the supermarket and was putting bags of shopping down when my mobile rang. A woman’s voice asked, Have you heard of Domino? I hadn’t, but then I remembered the back of the latest Franz Ferdinand CD which I’d just bought – I’d seen their little logo on the back of it – and so I replied, No, wait, yeah! And as I was talking to her I looked across at my CD collection and realised I had half their catalogue.


S: Are you saying there’s actually somebody at Domino who goes through the MySpace pages, surfing for talent?

EM: The people who run the label seem to follow up all sorts of ideas, and sure, I got that phone call out of nowhere. I hadn’t even sent them round a demo. It’s quite a modern way of being discovered. If I’d waited another day I could have saved the ten quid for the Franz Ferdinand CD!


Eugene McGuinness, The Early Learnings of Eugene McGuinness is available on Domino records.

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