There are times that phrases like ‘new standard bearer of the tradition’ or ‘next big thing’ must be just as grating for musicians as ‘Destined for greatness’ or ‘Future Gold Medalist’ are for young athletes. When we anoint those with these weighty expectations, do we actually burden them instead of inspiring them? Music is littered with those that society loads up with expectation, only to have them disappear all together. I’ve sometimes wondered if all they really wanted to do was just make music, to just sing or play, but the weight of our expectation destroys what makes them love what they do. Piping might be different. Massive recording deals don’t exist for pipers, but often, other pressures are there. The pressure to succeed - to win. Some decide not to compete, some expand their musical horizons, some evolve into other areas - some end up just making music because they love music. Success can be elusive and shallow unless you define it for yourself - and John Mulhearn fits into the latter category.
Beginning his piping at the age of nine, John Mulhearn received his early tuition from his father Brian. Soon after, he went to Angus J MacLellan of Strathclyde Police and summer schools led by John D Burgess at Sabhal Mor Ostaig; their influence and inspiration evident in his early competition years.
“I remember always being quite impressed with the look of a pipe band, and seeing the young kids playing, thinking, ‘I can do that!’ It helped that my Dad played, and he used to say that I wouldn’t go to sleep unless I had a piping record on in the background. Funnily enough, I think one of the tracks was Desperate Battle from Seamus O’Neill’s album Purely Piobaireachd.”
Did that piece have an impact on John as a child? Who knows, but as a Junior, the prizes followed steadily and by the age of 18 he placed 3rd in the Silver Medal at both Inverness and Oban. Heady stuff. Would these wins be the springboard to the top ranks that so many gifted young pipers aspire?
When I met John in 2010, he had by this time taken a dramatic, if temporary, left-turn from competitive piping. I’d taken a room at his flat for the week at Piping Live and offering me a lift there from the Piping Centre, the talk was of Piping Live and not much else. I’d heard one of John’s tracks, The Desperate Battle Of The Birds (Featuring Allan MacDonald), a few months before, and without wanting to sound like an acolyte, told him that I liked it – a lot.
What I didn’t say was that I was as moved by the beauty of The Desperate Battle as when I first heard Liberation by Martyn Bennett with the gripping voice of the legendary Michael Marra. Both tracks left me with a feeling that someone had recorded the soundtrack of my dreams. Knowing there was more depth to this music than my laptop could provide, I splashed out on a pair of ‘high-end’ headphones. The reward from my new Sennheiser’s was ten-fold. There was so much more in it than the epiphany of the first listen. My understanding of Piobaireachd, in fact traditional music - full stop, had been issued a challenge and it was up to me to take it up. Where would this brilliant music lead me?
Music should do that for you. If you take the chance to wander the broader piping world (with an open mind), you are guaranteed reward. It’s all about the music.
I didn’t see much of John during that week; the odd crossing of paths at the Piping Centre and at the flat, but two things stayed with me from that trip. A winner’s Quaich used as a change jar and a stack of CD’s on the kitchen bench. I have no chance at obtaining the former, however, John gave me a copy of the latter. That CD has proven to be one of the most interesting journeys I have had within music. Three years down the track and I experience it with fresh ears every time I play it. It continues to lead me in unexpected directions.
Revisiting music that was formative for me has benefits beyond emotional comfort. I gain a greater understanding of history, culture and narrative every time I listen to albums like Mackay’s Memoirs. Recorded by the students of the Edinburgh Music School the morning after Martyn Bennett’s passing, the narrative, as well as the music, makes it all the more poignant.
John Mulhearn is a complex musician operating within simple parameters. The music must be honest and it must have something within its construction that supports a story. To me, John’s first album was a narrative. Each of the tunes from his first album has a story in it, albeit a re-imagining of a standard. It is also about the growth of a musician. The vision of his first album came as he took time out from competitive piping and spread his wings, both musically and geographically.
“I wasn’t really playing the pipes at that stage for about four or five years. I was working at the College of Piping, doing a bit of teaching, but I’d been filling my time with rock bands and other stuff. I’d been spending all these years practising, competing and developing a repertoire, since I was nine. It was pretty intense, almost ten years and I’d begun to take it for granted. I ended up getting a bit bored with it all. I realized that doing half a job of it was not going to work. In taking the time off, I think, it was better that way. Better than burning out and giving it away completely.”
The success he had in competition as a youth and the rather sharp deviation from them, may lead you to wonder where his passion truly lay.
Playing in rock bands and taking to electronic music as an outlet may have given him license to come back to piping with a different perspective, however. This perspective grew idea of a new type of piping album. The Extraordinary Little Cough, John’s first album, grew in part while working and travelling in Australia. The change of pace and climate may have helped give birth to ideas rolling around in his head.
“In Brisbane, initially at Sandy Campbell’s shop The Highland House, then with the Queensland Police was really the first time I’d worked professionally in piping. The genesis of the album was playing about with The King’s Taxes and Donald MacLeod singing the tune, this grew both in Australia and back in Glasgow, into The Extraordinary Little Cough CD. That album was really just an experiment more than anything else. I’d been tinkering away with this idea in my head of using electronics to try and approach pipe music. A few years into the rock band thing, I felt that I was wasting the start I had, but it gave me the idea of moving back into it.”
That time in Australia, and the freedom it gave John to work this ‘treatment’ of light music, gave him enough material to do more than think about an album. The culmination of this process, working with Allan MacDonald on Desperate Battle and Lament for Owen Roe O’Niall, upon his return to the Glasgow and teaching at the National Piping Centre, brought the experiment to it’s zenith. These two tracks, the most visceral of the album, show a focus and craft that belies experimentation.
“I was always after an organic sound in essentially a digital medium. I found a huge amount of samples on the Internet. The web certainly helps your work flow, but it’s recording things yourself in different places which makes the memory of it all the more valuable.”
With Tiree Bridal Song, John recorded ambient sounds from his friend Phil Cowan’s backyard in suburban Brisbane, the melody line of the tune coming in and out, like a lazy memory. One of the most distinctive tracks of the first album, this track is one that requires the listener to step into the environment, and become all the better for it. You might wonder, as a piper, from where does the tune writer get their inspiration? GS MacLennan and the genius of his dripping tap in The Little Cascade or the harrowing power of the coda in Duncan Johnstone’s Lament for Alan, My Son; two tunes that stand out amongst a myriad of other great tunes for their simple musical virtuosity. Truly innovative interpretation of a great tune is a rare thing to find in piping. When you do find it, revel in it.
With Jock Wilson's Ball, John went home, much in the way you might go home to what you know for comfort or for sustenance. Of all the tracks of the first album, this was one of the standouts.
“I went into the workshop with my Dad, who runs the Ayrshire Bagpipe Company from home, and recorded all of the percussive sounds I could think of; ferrules in a box, lathe chucks, emergency stop pedals, levers of all kinds, grinding machine, milling machine, tool box drawers. I then started playing about with making beats from all of these samples, which was a lot of fun. The tune is harmonically quite interesting so I spent quite a bit of time arranging the guitar parts and bass lines - and again the mandolin found its way in.” he said.
The idea of disposability of modern music is a common refrain, as is the viciousness of an industry renowned for chewing up and casting aside young hopefuls. It was ever thus, argues John. “They don’t make them like they used to… In an interview, back when The Beatles still had mop-top haircuts, Paul McCartney said basically, ‘I don’t expect to be singing Please, Please Me in 10 years time…’ This is so true. An essential part of music is constant reinvention.”
The need to reinvigorate the music itself is on one hand an economic necessity within the music industry, and again, the expectation of a better, different album each release. This invigoration also has the benefit of spurring on the next generation.
The Extraordinary Little Cough received some very good independent press and was very much noticed on alternative music blogs, however, like most recording artists, by the time it came out, John was ready for the next project, almost bored with it.
Says John, “ The basis of the first album was to experiment with the traditional music in an electronic world. The two final pieces I produced, both featuring Allan MacDonald, were almost the precursors to the idea of the next album, just with my own compositions to the front.”
The true success of The Extraordinary Little Cough, I believe, will not be in this decade. My guess is it will act as a precursor to other young artists, who in their own liner notes, blogs and virtual worlds will attribute John Mulhearn as one of their great influences. What of the next album?
Waulking songs are a fascination for John, as is including guest musicians and vocalists on key tracks. The richness provided by a signature vocal style to an individual piece of music is a common collaborative theme. The modern idea of remixes with the ‘feat.’ appellation is not restricted to Hip Hop, House or Pop music, it can just as readily be seen in modern piping albums. Hello World by Lorne MacDougall is one of a string of albums featuring varied contributors, enhancing the overall album.
John hasn’t restricted himself to solo and electronic production. He has had The Big Music Society, an 8-piece band project, seemingly the natural progression of the final experiments for the album The Extraordinary Little Cough, as a most successful experimental ensemble venture. Combining the talents of some of the best young talents in the business and debuting at Celtic Connections, its aim was to be as true as possible to the origins of Piobaireachd. It received significant recognition and praise from many quarters and interest from other festivals. The financial strictures placed upon large ensemble projects of professional musicians made it untenable for John to continue with it as an independent project. There is hope for it to return, however.
“I like being the composer, producer and artist. That is the way things can be these days. It can give you a great amount of freedom, infinite sounds, opportunities and control. The infinite number of sounds available to you can work the other way though. Your music can get cluttered. My aim is to keep it minimal and keep a coherency throughout the album. I was thinking along the way to this interview about trying to explain the creative process; but there really isn’t one. It just occurs as it occurs. That is the freedom you get from being in control of the whole process.”
With that freedom, though, comes the obverse of the coin - Money. Gigging and touring often consumes more money than it produces and musicians are rarely paid what they are worth in talent, experience and hard work. Funding through arts foundations and collaborative enclaves is often the apparatus that keeps music, and musicians, alive. Having a steady job helps too, but only so much.
“It’s always a problem when funding inhibits your project, but it seems to be the way things are. Arts funding is available, but the paperwork and hoops you need to jump through make it hard to concentrate on the reason you’re actually there - to make music. I did want to expand The Big Music Society even further, to have a full string section; to add more texture to the music, but the problems associated with getting a large ensemble of professional musicians together is difficult. Everyone has multiple projects going on, money is tight. It’s still there, still in my head, I’ve got all the scores ready. It’s really just timing and funding it.”
What I like about John Mulhearn is his somewhat diffident approach to commercial success and a clear direction in music. Influenced by what he was listening to yesterday or last week, as well as last decade; his palette is as rich and varied and his desire to be rich and famous is absent. He just wants to make music.
John is quite direct about this, “There is no aim. No grand plan. It’s just about making music for the sake of making music.”
The beauty of John’s first album and his follow-up project The Big Music Society is that he may achieve both re-invention and re-invigoration in his new album; both for himself and the seeding in new minds of new ways to appreciate old tunes; and the inspiration of young composers to take a very traditional music idiom and forge a new genre and in a new package.
How important is the whole package of the music? A limited edition vinyl album and free download defies the disposable market, the package suits the audience. Vinyl has it’s own qualities that digital can’t provide for many artists. For mixing and sampling live, vinyl still has it. It is also the tactile nature of the album, the delicate nature of the disc and the purity of the organic nature of capturing the music onto a medium. Vinyl can be considered (unkindly) by some to be the ‘this season’s constant new black’, but for John and many others, it seems that both the tactile nature of the physical manifestation of his music is an important part of the process. It also reaffirms one of the ironies of music. Musicians and producers spend days, sometimes weeks, perfecting the balance and the subtleties of a piece, or even a measure of music, only to have it played on cheap laptop speakers or bud earphones, then discarded. Such is life, as well as music.
One of the satisfying things about John Mulhearn’s music is his wandering style. He easily transcends many styles of music, but never loses the integrity in any of the genres he crosses. The wee taster I had of his musical treatment of Robert Burns’ Tam O’ Shanter for the Scottish Youth Theatre in 2009, reeks of class and innovation, yet maintains the integrity of the original poem and story. Echoes of Martyn Bennett, again.
Being in the front-rank of a new generation of shape shifting musician-producers, John Mulhearn proves that boundaries are for people without the artistry or the courage to break them. The competition boards are back under his feet (John was runner-up in the 2012 Gold Medal at the Argyllshire Gathering) and the music, big or otherwise, still under his skin.
The depth and breadth of John Mulhearn’s musical experience will again be on display soon. Keep an ear out for a new download only EP release sometime in 2013 and an album following hot on its heels.