By Erika Mathieu
Sunny South News
When the music scene seemed to have stood still over the course of the pandemic, Canadian musician Eamon McGrath clung to hope and forged a path into the vast unknown, harnessing opportunity and bringing live music wherever he could find his audience.
For many entertainers, artists, and musicians, the performance-based element of their work was stalled during the rollercoaster that was the height of COVID-19. McGrath however, played a total of 80 shows in 2021 from July to December. “I felt like I was literally, the only one out there doing it,” he said. McGrath just finished another month-long tour through western Canada, to promote his album, “Bells of Hope” which included stops in Banff, Red Deer, Wayne, and a memorable show at the Owl Acoustic Lounge in Lethbridge on May 27.
McGrath said the impact COVID-19 has had on musicians and artists is diverse and ever-changing. “Honestly, the landscape changes every day is how it feels. Like it’s very ‘Twin Peaks’ right now. I think that in the music industry in general, there’s this overall feeling that’s it’s kind of (like the) phoenix rising from the ashes,” McGrath said.
The resurgence of live music and events in large-scale venues means many artists have been able to reintegrate back into performance spaces and have their careers play out in a way that more closely mirrors pre-pandemic times. For McGrath, the grind of writing, recording, and performing on the road didn’t change in the same way it did for other artists who were forced to take time off due to logistical challenges, maximalist sets, and high production shows.
“I think that a lot of people had just kind of like checked out or forgot that it was even possible to pull that off at all,” he said, with respect to live performances, and added, “I think the people had this assumption that there was no infrastructure for it.”
McGrath said his work as a solo artist, combined with a “minimalistic and economic approach,” to his music was a huge factor in remaining on the road during a time where many musicians and artists were not touring. “I think that like if I was an artist that relied on a band or you know had like a lot of production, I wouldn’t have been able to pull that off.”
Part of this was the cultural shifts taking place during the height of the pandemic.
“The fact that I’m a solo artist that can tour with the PA, and the trunk of a small car and put on my own shows (…) was the only way that I was able to do all that,” he said.
McGrath said even though he continued to tour throughout the pandemic, “the ratio of shows that I played in established rock clubs, or venues, versus DIY shows that I was doing was like 20 to one,” adding, “I was playing driveways and parks and boats, and cottages.”
While certainly not universal, for many people, the notion of performance-based entertainment often centres on elements of theatricality and excess production. And while this constitutes some of the live-music space, McGrath said he was intent on navigating the landscape of performance beyond the borders of conventional performance spaces.
“(Some) people aren’t connected to a grassroots approach to being able to play music outside of the established norms and infrastructure of the music industry,” even in light of the health and safety protocols and restrictions on gatherings.
McGrath explained, that even with the return to conventional venues, attendance can be hard to predict and has a financial impact on entertainers. “An artist like me, you know, that exists on pretty slim margins, I rely on people come into the show and buy my record and t-shirts. It’s definitely like, I know a lot of people that are waiting, you know, until things maybe get a little reestablished, which I get, but I mean, who’s going to re-establish it? Someone has got to carry that weight and take that brunt. I have just decided that I know that I can do this safely and responsibly and so I’m going to. I’m sick of having my livelihood put on hold. When I feel that it really doesn’t need to be because a lot of my audiences are very responsible and cautious and they want to make sure that everybody at the show is having a good time.”
It was previously reported that McGrath has recorded eight albums in 2020, but he revealed “it actually ended up being a little more like 10 or 12,” and added, “I tried to use the time as best as I could, and stay as busy as possible.”
While many artist’s work was put on hold, some creatives, artists, writers, and musicians were able to double down on their work with increased access to resources, and time, in a way that was markedly different to these creative processes, pre-pandemic.
“I was able to benefit from all the people that I always wanted to work with suddenly overnight being available, which was really great,” McGrath explained, and alluded to an emancipatory aspect to this new-found access and time during some of the most precarious months of the COVID crisis.
“I called them (potential collaborators) and they wanted to do it too because everybody was looking for something to do, right? So, I think that like paradoxically and ironically, the record (Bells of Hope) actually ended up being this really collaborative effort on behalf of me and all these people that I’d always, wanted to work with all the time.”
In a time which imposed constraints on so many people, McGrath embraced the liberating aspects of the unprecedented and strange global landscape; while the constraints of the creative process were still a consideration, there was also this opportunity for improved collaboration during this time.
Due to time and budgetary constraints in producing previous albums, “sometimes it works out and it’s a miracle, and other times (it) just doesn’t, and you settle for the record that you walk away with.”
“On this album, it’s a completely different situation,” McGrath explained
“The first couple months I had were particularly really rewarding for me because I was able to actually explore all these things that I’ve never had the chance to before, so that was great,” and added the sound was born out of the unique circumstances were in some ways a deviation from previous records.
McGrath said the process was, “a really nice healthy form of escapism and I was more interested in channelling that than I was trying to make a stereotypical rock record. I didn’t have a place where I could turn up an amp or be in the same room with a drummer or, you know, scream at the top of my lungs. I was constrained. I was making a record in my apartment in Toronto. I’m the on the third floor, you know, I had neighbours that were also home all the time — we were all in quarantine.”
“So I had to make a quieter album. I had to try and find new ways to record and explore new sounds that I was able to make with a pair of headphones and a laptop.”
This process resulted in more esoteric, introspective, and sometimes psychedelic sounds, which McGrath said, “was just out of sheer necessity. I just couldn’t play really loud, rock and roll, so that’s the result,” he said.
“I’m not trying to knock the studio experience. I love going to studios and being able to play a guitar in a really well treated sound-proof room with a drum kit and 10 microphones. I don’t trade those experiences for the world, but you know, you can’t deny the magical quality and making a record in this really solitary introspective, esoteric way I was able to make music that I probably never would have been able to make if I’ve had, you know, the flexibility to do whatever I wanted in a big acoustic space.” McGrath added the process of writing and recording “Bells of Hope” allowed him to, use his apartment, “as an instrument.”
While the notion of constraint-based writing may seem stifling, the opposite is often the case, in that the constraints force artists, musicians, poets, and creators out of their boxes, rather than into one.
“It’s like, I had all these limitations, but at the same time I had no limitations,” McGrath explained.
“If you’re willing to embrace the limitations that you’ve got it opens up all these other doors.”
Eamon McGrath is a Canadian-born musician. His music is available for streaming on Spotify, Apple Music, and for purchase at https://eamonmcgrath.bandcamp.com/.