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Interview: Maggie Magee (i.e. crazy) Sits Down With Michael James Keane

Interview: Maggie Magee (i.e. crazy) Sits Down With Michael James Keane

Claire Duncan / Maggie Magee / Wednesday 26th June, 2019 9:49AM

Pōneke folk-pop singer / songwriter Michael James Keane (So Laid Back Country China) put his album The Cascade out into the world just before Christmas last year, a heart-wrenching eight track solo collection that Keane’s described as "deeply and almost uncomfortably personal". In light of his upcoming North Island shows, Claire Duncan / Maggie Magee (i.e. crazy) caught up with Michael James Keane before joining him on tour, taking the chance to reflect on mental health in the New Zealand music industry…

Undertheradar proudly presents...

Michael James Keane
Friday 28th June - The Stomach, Palmerston North w/ Kane Strang 
Saturday 29th June - Nivara Lounge, Hamilton w/ i.e. crazy
Sunday 30th June - The Wine Cellar, Auckland w/ i.e. crazy

Tickets available HERE via UTR

What is this record about for you? I have a really intense time listening to it; it’s lush and delicate but also searingly melancholic and sort of monumental to me, super heavy and timeless. The idea of a ‘cascade’ is so epic – sort of out of time, ancient and overwhelming.

The Cascade is the name I gave to the negative and intrusive sounds and thoughts in my head around the time of writing. The musical motif that starts the record and appears throughout was both a musical and physical way of coping. I wanted to name and separate myself from the noise in my head so I could examine it.

Like a mindful creative transliteration of pain?

Yes, I was doing a lot of actual mindfulness at the time in a group at Wellington Hospital. It's amazing how consistent intrusive thoughts are when you try to stop them, I found actually physically playing the motif helped at the time. It might go against the principal of doing mindful meditation in silence, but I found my own process.

How does it feel now having a piece of art named for that feeling/experience?

It feels really good. I had to wait a while before I was comfortable sharing it, it's almost like it had to feel like they were songs from someone I knew, not someone I am. Not that I'm not that person anymore, just needed some distance. I somewhat joke that I have a breakdown after every new record, but with this record I just left the city for a year when it was done and tried to forget about it for a while. I moved to the Wairarapa and worked as a stonemason with a small outfit, it was a great move. Building river stone walls and being on the land, wrote a lot of new songs too.


I get quite buzzed out when my music becomes public / folded into a commercial world when it starts out as such a private, cathartic, conceptual thing. But I guess we're all subjects of capital, and creative work is not exempt from that. I find your music refreshing because it's not blasting this relentless positivity that you see in a lot of art and in conversations around mental health.

Some people have an idea of 'recovery' in mental health that doesn't always vibe with me. Tolerance and acceptance of oneself can go a long way. Changing habits that are negatively influencing your health is really important, but I like who I am. I'm never going to be a bubbly person who sees the positive in everything, and that's okay. I'm going to be scared of my life from time to time, and I don't think the focus should be on that stopping entirely.

What role has making music / art played in maintaining / recovering mental health for you? It's been a genuine life raft for me, many times.

It's a good marker for me, in that if I find I'm not working on something I should try and make myself. Again, I know that me not making music signifies a 'bad habit' that I can intervene in. Surrounding yourself with accepting people who want to make noise into the world is really important to me. Music can be simultaneously pointless and beautiful, we could all just stop and it wouldn't really 'matter', but that's what makes continuing to make music and noise so pure.

I feel it's important to talk about it as a way of de-stigmatising/normalising issues but I also totally understand that bringing that into a public sphere is not for everyone; under capitalism we are expected to exploit every aspect of ourselves and our creative work. What's your stance on speaking about these issues?

I feel a responsibility. The public mental health system in New Zealand can be really tough to navigate, and I have supportive parents who work in the public sector and are able to support me financially. I can't begin to imagine how hard it would be to navigate if you didn't have that kind of support. Hearing others stories, be them positive or negative, was always helpful for me.

And more specifically, what's your stance on speaking about your music full stop? Do you like doing interviews? Do you hate it?

I find other local musicians' interviews interesting to read or listen to, so I try to hold onto that. Maybe people find mine interesting. I do usually have an overwhelming feeling of 'who cares what Michael has to say' though.

Heaps of people care. What were some influences going into making The Cascade; sonic or otherwise? I hear hints of kind of crossover alt/folk/experimental stuff as Scott Walker, Mount Eerie, Low, Swans.

I listened to a lot of Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie and Lowell around the time which sonically kind of influenced some ideas.

That makes sense to me – especially the treatment of the guitars and some of the synths. SS is a figure who has really helped pull folk traditions into the more 21st century alt-mainstream. Do you like his record Age of Adz? I found that record to be a fucking trip.

When I was 16 and really into country and folk music, Sufjan Stevens started to become popular at my high school and all of a sudden my banjo playing was cool. I owe him a lot for that to begin with. Age of Adz is great, he's just someone I've always followed. I'm not very good at listening to music in a lot of ways. I don't think I've ever listened to those other artists you've mention expect for Mount Eerie. I mostly listen to Shania Twain and 90s Country Pop when I listen to music.

I love Shania Twain. Come on Over was one of the first CDs I ever bought. How did this process and the project as a whole differ from your earlier work with So Laid Back Country China?

One of the main differences was not envisioning the songs as a live performance at any point up until after the record was finished. That gave a lot of freedom to arrangements. I missed the collaborate feel I had with SLBCC, and it gave me a greater level of anxiety about the whole thing not being a group of people presenting the songs, but being on your own.

I feel that. No one to hide behind/with. I tend to dress up behind pseudonyms which is tremendous fun – I can’t imagine attaching my personal name to a piece of music.

I'm not really sure when it came about, it was always just Michael James Keane.

What was your songwriting process like for the record?

The songs were written and demo'd for the first time in Te Whare O Matairangi when I was an inpatient, an OT helped me out with a mic and recording software. When I got out I began to score the string parts that were in my head. When we started tracking at the Blue Barn Studio with James Goldsmith we were able to record the string right at the start, before any guitar.

The arrangement and production of each track is exquisite. For example, the strings in Hello, Can You Please Stop the Cascade. Or the autotune in Rode which I love. Again, it reminds me of Mount Eerie’s Pre-Human Ideas.

Graeme Cummick and myself spent a few months in pre production, heading out to a studio in Lindale and tracking demos and playing with ideas - that’s where the auto tune came from, and most of the synth parts were tracked out there. My original vision was really just strings and nylon guitar with voice, but that expanded in the time I spent with Graeme. There are a lot of songs that never made it on the record but were an important influence on the process, kind of place holders for ideas.

Who is Graeme Cummick? I don't know him. What's he worked on before?

Graeme is a local musician and a friend, I played with him in D Burmeister and the Blind. He was a member of Family Cactus and The Body Lyre.

So you can notate/transcribe music?

It’s just something from high school music I always kept up. I played classical guitar and cornet quite intensely and composed and read music when I could. I'm no good at using recording software and never have a recording set up so it's always been my way of writing arrangement ideas. I can generally do it in my head or transcribe from guitar.

And what is your history with engineer/producer James Goldsmith?

I've made music with James Goldsmith ever since the first So Laid Back record, and he had become a really important part of what I do. Creatively he pushes the songs and production, but most importantly I trust him. An example being the drums of The Cascade - I really had no vision for drums, but James arranged Callum Gay to come into the studio when nearly everything else was finished to track the drums. He was right, they really add dynamics when needed while still keeping the songs too.

NZ has a pretty wild tradition of experimental folk and I can definitely hear aspects of some of that in The Cascade, are there local artists whose work inspires you?

It’s been interesting and lovely working with Donnie Cuzens (electric guitar) and Callum Gay (drum kit) from Spook the Horses, they are one of my favourite Wellington groups. Womb are another big favourite - I think watching them be able to hold a room live is something to aspire too.

What are your plans for the coming months/years? You're based in Wellington right now – will that continue?

James, the band and myself are currently tracking the next record. It's different while still keeping influences from The Cascade. It's brighter and closer sounding, vocally dense, drum focused. We've been out at Lee Prebble's Surgery MkII which is a beautiful studio. I plan to stay based in Wellington. I am in my second year of undergraduate Psychology at Victoria which keeps me busy. I also work part time at San Fran Bathhouse, which is great. It's awesome to work so closely with music and see so many acts live that I wouldn't otherwise. Sun Kil Moon was a big highlight recently.


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