Self-proclaimed local troubadour of the Ottawa music scene, Joseph McDonald released his first solo full-length effort, Human Dogs today.
A gifted picker and inspired storyteller, Joseph’s modern-day brand of Outlaw Country strikes a fine balance of influences, stemming from his countryside upbringing, rowdy bar-hall gigging and navigation of what’s important in life while coming of age.
RX Music had the pleasure of sitting down with Joseph McDonald earlier this week to discuss his musical journey to-date and the release of this down-to-earth collection of tunes, Human Dogs.
RX Music: Congratulations on the release of Human Dogs. It’s got a very rootsy and earnest feel about it. I sincerely really dig it.
Your last two projects, The Ramblin’ Valley Band and Joe McDonald & The Walkin’ Hawks were fairly hard-driving and much more blues and rock realm. Was it a conscious effort to move towards country?
Joseph McDonald: It was sort of a natural thing. I’ve been playing a lot of gigs, all over the place. I like playing country music live, I like playing blues music live, and so it was very natural for me to switch in to recording country because I’ve always been playing country. With the Ramblers, we had country influences going on there as well, and to me blues and country are so similar, it was a natural thing. I’m already thinking of the next album and it’s probably going to be another jump of genres. You know, I like hip hop beats, I like minimalism music, I like blues, I like country.
That’s another reason why I changed my performing name to just Joseph McDonald, so that now I can just release any sort of music, you know?
RX: I was going to follow up and ask if the album was inspired by your surroundings, while you were living out in the country, but I guess it might have been inspired by barrooms as much as anything.
JM: Speaking to my roots, I grew up on a farm so naturally I play a lot of country music and I was brought up on country music.
I just like playing all forms of music, that’s the biggest thing. And for me, I find every time I release something, whether it was with the Ramblin’ Valley Band, or with the Walkin’ Hawks, or this country project, I find I learn a little bit more about myself. I find I get closer and closer to who I am as an artist, just by going public with things.
So that’s why I like to pump out a bunch of stuff. The Walkin’ Hawks album was only about a year ago, and now Human Dogs, and I’ll probably pump up out another one next year, just to be learning as well.
RX: How has the live reception been for the tracks so far?
JM: Good. That’s the one thing that I really appreciate about Ottawa and my situation right now – I gig three or four times a week, and those are long gigs. I’m playing in bars, they’re like four-hour gigs. I get to try out a whole bunch of tunes. I can try out a Willie Nelson song, a John Prine song and see how people are reacting. Then I’ll throw in one of my own songs and see what the reaction is for that. So a lot of these songs were tested in the barrooms for the feels. A lot of this album was an exploration of my singing style as well, which has been something that I could try out live to see how people are reacting to my voice, so I’ve also kind of adapted that way with my voice.
They’re always right, the people listening in the bar scene. Sometimes not everybody is listening, but whoever is listening, if it hits them a certain way, or they respond to it a certain way, that’s pretty good immediate feedback.
RX: Are you finding that it’s a lot of old fans in the crowd from your rock and blues days, or new demographics that are more into country?
JM: This is what I realized, you know, you often get that line where people say they don’t like country music, but I find the type of country that I play, it’s really just honest roots music. I find regardless of who’s there, whether they like that style of music or not, they’re generally warm to it. But yes, I’m seeing an overlap of the blues people, because the country style that I play translates well to the blues crowd. It’s a bit of a hybrid, what I’m doing. To me it’s the same stuff – whether I play a blues song or a country song, it means the same thing to me.
RX: So how did the writing and recording process work? Was it a collaborative or an independent operation?
JM: It was a pretty independent operation. For this album, it was all morning writing. My wife wakes up pretty early, so I get up around 7am. I would shower, have a coffee and then I start writing from 8am usually to 11, 11:30 – that’s when I kind of burn out. I wrote like, man, must have written 30 songs. We even recorded more songs than are on the album. I just thought these were the best ones that could go together and would give a little bit of everything. I was very disciplined about the writing. I just kept writing tunes and writing tunes. It was basically me sitting on the couch with a piece of paper. That was basically the writing process.
RX: Well it paid off, man.
JM: For the recording process, everybody that’s playing on the album are basically session musicians. They’re really good players. We just had one really long rehearsal, like three and a half hours or something. I had written charts for them and we played through the tunes. We basically went into the studio, set up as a full band and recorded the whole thing to a tape machine. That had its own limitations because it only has 16 inputs. But yeah, we laid it all down, basically two days of that with the whole band. I did all my vocals and everything right in the moment. Later we did a few overdubs with pedal steel, some harmonies, and I overdubbed some guitar lead stuff as well.
RX: That’s a pretty quick sounding recording process.
JM: Yeah, we went at it pretty quick.
RX: Will any of those same session players be doing any shows with you?
JM: Oh yeah. I’m always playing solo, duo, trio, full band shows – a little bit of everything. The next full band show is November 8th, at Irene’s Pub. It’s one of the better live music venues here in Ottawa.
RX: Human nature seems to be a bit of a common theme on the record. Was this something you were intentionally driving for or just how it turned out?
JM: It’s just kind of, what’s been going on in my brain, you know. I was just trying to write things where each line means something to me.
One thing that resonated with me, which was sort of a philosophy behind all this writing was something Hemingway said, that if you just write one true sentence and just get that down, then you can feel fine. And to me that really stuck; make each line mean something to you. And yeah, you know, just dabbling with what’s going on in your mind, especially at this age of late 20s, just married, now living in the city. It’s just all those things that you go through as a human being, like emotions.
RX: Yeah, you captured it all well, and I dig the Hemingway quote. That’s cool.
JM: I’m just trying to learn here, you know, by exploring different emotions and seeing how they get conveyed.
RX: This collection of songs definitely has a pretty old soul feel to them. Are there any contemporary country or roots artists that you’d cite as influences?
JM: Tyler Childers, he’s someone that’s been moving me. I was thinking of him on some of this stuff, a song like “Headroom” I’d say is influenced by him in terms of feel and the content of it. I also like Colter Wall, he just does cool stuff. Vincent Neil Emerson, he’s also cool. They’re all doing old school sorta country, nowadays. Like contemporary old school.
RX: And you too have tapped in well to that.
JM: Thanks, man.
RX: Any plans to tour the album?
JM: I’m going to keep playing gigs here in the Ottawa area. I’m planning on coming up to Toronto to put on a show at some point. I haven’t decided on touring or anything like that right now. I’m just trying to get this thing launched. Maybe I would see myself doing something in the summer next year, my intentions are to get into more festivals and more fairs.
RX: What can we expect next?
JM: We’ll see what comes. I don’t know what sort of stuff I’ll start writing next, right now I’m just letting the well fill back up.
RX: I’m excited to hear what comes next.
JM: Me too.