TO hear him tell it, he has always been a wanderer. “My parents met on a plane, so being a gypsy was always in my genes,” says Kiernan McMullan, born in Hong Kong to Irish and Australian parents, yet raised in Limerick.
McMullan currently lives in the music city of Nashville after a lengthy period criss-crossing the United States of America - “I just got a van and went for it,” he says - but Limerick, where he went to school, spent his formative years and where his parents still live, will always be home.
He feels such a tie to the place that he returned here on several occasions, most recently late last year, to record his new album with long-time friend, engineer and collaborator Owen Lewis in Noel Hogan’s studio and in the hideaway studio Lewis and Hogan have installed in the Bishop’s Palace on North Circular Road, rather than in Nashville, where studios are rather more plentiful.
“I wanted to record it in Limerick, with Owen, in that space. That was what took so long,” he says simply, speaking to City Life after a recent gig at the Creekside venue in the Hilton Garden Inn in Austin, Texas, where McMullan performed as part of the South By South West (SXSW) music festival.
“The album is called ‘Two Years’. It is a concept record about a two year period in my life, from November 2, 2008 to the same date in 2010 – a lot of highs and lows, good and bad, chronologically that is what the album is and is about,” he explains.
Some background is required here. A student in Villiers, McMullan studied in Dublin for a time, where he met Lewis, later to work with REM and other heavyweights as an engineer in Grouse Lodge studios.
McMullan put out several offerings, most notably the lo-fi, dream-pop album Perfect People are Boring, after signing his first record deal with Warner Brother’s sub label 111 Records. He took himself off to the States to with his guitar, a plane ticket and little else, and “spent the first three months on Greyhound buses and hitchhiking”.
McMullan would eventually spend some three years touring the length of the US, playing, he estimates, 250 shows a year, with extensive touring in the UK and his native Ireland, forging a relationship with bookers, promoters and venue managers such as the Bedford in London, who invited him to SXSW originally and have had him back now twice. But such touring clearly took its toll.
“I didn’t have a home, I was on tour the whole time,” he repeats. “I was booking on the fly, booking shows for the first six months as I was going – it was wild, I don’t know how I managed to make every gig or fill up all that time.
“I think every musician should do it, I don’t know that I am necessarily done doing it and I think it is important for every musician to do. It is like paying your dues – you need to play dive bars where you have to win over 100% of the audience and you have to go with it. That makes you a better person within music,” he adds.
The experience is captured on his latest album, just released on his own label, American Cadence Records, the fruits of settling in Nashville after a time living in Chicago, Kansas City and Boston.
“I had some friends in Nashville and it is an equidistant city in terms of touring. Most importantly, although I try to deny it because everyone says they go there for the same reason, but it is music city. That’s good enough for me,” he says with a grin.
The sheer weight and volume of this period of touring has shaped McMullan into a more confident performer, his set at SXSW demonstrating keen use of loop pedals, over-dubbed harmonies and soulful lyrics. The album is similar, boasting a sensitive heart among his gritty tales of the road. He says he can appreciate a gig at SXSW more having done that exhaustive touring, and dare I suggest, it has made him a better person.
“That experience makes playing the good shows better, absolutely,” he says.
“One night I would be in an amphitheatre or a coffee house or house concert with 15 people. There were definitely peaks and troughs. You see people don’t really have to work for it – they don’t understand that, they can’t come into a room and respect everyone equally, they consider themselves better because they have made it. But they don’t make it because they are better, they made it because they got a little lucky, and not because they worked hard.”
Two Years is out now, see AmericanCadence.org for more and details on upcoming shows.