Fame and fortune aren’t always the aim of every musician. Owen McAulay is a case in point. It’s entirely possible you’ll not have heard of him, or his bandSmackvan, despite their having released six albums with the guitarist clocking up another nine solo releases.
“I do like people hearing what I do, but as you’ve probably gathered over the years me and Michael (Feeney, singer in Smackvan) aren’t very good at the self-promotion thing.
“I don’t have the heart for it really!” he smiles.
“But I don’t just write songs to sing them in my room to myself,” the
Glasgow-based singer points out.“I haven’t got into the way of playing live very regularly, but the communication part is important; communication through music.”
Despite his somewhat underground status, McAulay does have a loyal band of fans, who will snap up the (very) limited physical copies of his home-produced CDs. Not least members of his family. The McAulay clan is an artistically-minded one after all, from brother Robert, who produced the painting for the cover of the new release, to grandson William who “plonked about” on keyboards on 2014 album ‘The Line’
And as is often the way, it was elder family members who got their younger sibling into making music.
“John got his first guitar out of the catalogue,” McAulay recalls, dating his brother somewhat, “and when he was out I used to sneak in and read the wee chord book with it… then brother Pat got a keyboard and I’d play that.”
The multi-instrumentalist has since moved onto saxophone, his wife Teresa buying him the instrument as a present, and advancing from freeform jazzy sax (or “footering around”) to quite the virtuoso performance on the new release’s ‘Life’.
And the making of music has also changed over the years – Smackvan’s original incarnation, Passkeepers, recording on a Tascam reel-to-reel tape recorder in the flat of bassist Gerry Tonner. “He was the guy who knew how to work the computer” – meaning that with the advance of technology, band and solo work was able to continue at home, DIY, and not at the mercy of recording studios.
McAulay’s own online biog begins: “As well as being a member of Smackvan, I write music and songs on my own when they are not looking.”
With Feeney being the band’s chief lyricist, McAulay lets his literary urges run free on his solo material – ranging from the poetic on the beauty of the Scottish countryside on ‘The Sleeping Giant’, to the mundane – ‘I Painted The Door’ reflecting on “ridiculous human traits”.
Although McAulay is in the process of putting his back catalogue online since physical copies have sold out, newcomers will miss out on the artwork of debut solo release ‘Six Songs’. Like new album ‘Evening’ its cover was designed by brother Robert (mcaulayart.co.uk) – though unlike the debut’s sleeve, scanned from a painting, the new sleeve was ‘commissioned’ specially.
And keeping with the simplicity of these self-crafted releases, a lyric sheet is included in the package.
“I always liked reading the lyrics and then listening to the song,” McAulay recalls. “Given the era I grew up – the 1970s – I always associate music with putting something on, onto a turntable or in a CD player.”
And this extends to the homespun, hand-crafted artwork: “I do like the whole process of making them up individually, starting with the blank CD cases and designing round that,” he enthuses.
With so much focus on his own material and the production process for his releases, it’s perhaps no surprise that McAulay doesn’t have too much time for listening to other musicians.
“Michael listens to a lot of new stuff, so I’ve heard a lot through him,” he says, mentioning David Berman of the Silver Jews, who passed away last year.
“But I don’t actively listen to a lot of new music,” he admits.
“I quite like silence now!“