Tom McShane’s “The Ural Winter”: A Story of Creative Risk, Collaboration and Mojo Recovered
On January 16th, 2010, I held the first ever Soul Ambition Sofa Sessions in my home in south Belfast. With a backdrop of art by local artist Tommy Ball, I had paired visiting musician Chris Farmer, who was then playing mostly in Nice-based post-punk noise band Meuros, with local balladeer, Tom McShane. I was a big fan of Tom’s music and wanted to have him perform in juxtaposition to Chris’ edgier style; both singing about love, loss and the pleasure/pain of relationships but expressing it in wholly different ways.
Both performances went down a storm, with many blown away by Tom’s as-yet-unreleased songs – if memory serves me correctly (there was a lot of wine about), people loved Fighter and Flowers so much they asked him to play them twice. So I was delighted when I heard about Tom’s ambitious plans to record a new album – live, with minimal takes and in collaboration with a load of talented musicians from various other projects. Tom had begun to feel jaded by the standard studio recording process, and had taken himself off on a tour of the USA, to find inspiration.
“For some reason, it just wasn’t working for me any more, being in a studio environment, laying down tracks one at a time, and doing overdubs and that kind of thing – it just left me cold as a process.”
In Sun Studio in Memphis, RCA Victor Studio B in Nashville, and in the many bars and house parties he performed in on his creative odyssey, he re-discovered his mojo and came up with the idea for the recording of The Ural Winter. Inspired by those live studios that had produced iconic recordings of legends such as Elvis, Johnny Cash and Tom Petty, Tom decided a live, minimal-take recording – terrifying a prospect as that was – was what he wanted to produce.
One Saturday in July 2010, then, the main room in the Oh Yeah Centre became a live studio for Tom and his assembled collaborators, with Rocky O’Reilly of Start Together Studio producing and Across The Line‘s Rigsy compering proceedings.
The format was this: 2 sessions – one in the afternoon, one in the evening, with the ‘band’ recording the album at each and the best takes overall being used for the final album. We in the audience were forbidden to clap – which was hard given the performances that followed. (I settled for enthusiastic air applause.) As Tom said in a local documentary:
“I don’t think I ever wanted it to be a live album, you know, with applause… that wasn’t really what I had in mind. I wanted it always to be a good quality studio album that just was special because of how it was created. And I thought that our performances and my performance in particular would be a lot more interesting and a lot better because of the presence of the audience.”
Arriving at the Oh Yeah for the afternoon session, the atmosphere was buzzing with anticipation – and a little bit of tension! I knew Tom was feeling the pressure of the goal he’d set himself but he’d assembled such a fantastic group of musicians it was only ever going to be a success. Amongst them were my great buddy Nick Fitzsimons, on drums, in the corner in a temporary structure that looked not unlike a sauna, along with local legend Linley Hamilton and good friends Amy McGarrigle (Arc Royale), Rich Dale (Escape Act), and Conor Scullion (NI Soul Troop, Katie & The Carnival).
Had any of us thought we were merely spectators, we were quickly disabused of the notion – before beginning A Personal Narrative of Life at Sea Part II, Tom announced that he wanted “a choir of hummers”, and Conor took on role of choirmaster, running us through the line a couple of times before launching into the live recording.
The whole thing really was an unforgettable experience – a proper face-tingling, breath-holding couple of hours of musical magic.If you weren’t there, you can get a feel for the atmosphere on the album; which you can buy on iTunes. It’s a beautiful piece of work; for more on the individual tunes (as well as a description of the evening recording), see Iain Todd’s piece here.
There’s so much I like about Tom’s project – the collaboration with so many talented musicians, the live atmosphere in the recording, the music itself – but mostly, it was just a brilliant way of shaking up something that wasn’t working for him, drawing inspiration from his musical heroes and taking a big risk to pull off something special. If you’re feeling stuck with a creative project of your own, maybe this will spark a few ideas for how you can get your mojo back
(Images used above are stills from the Babysweet documentary.)