A former student of painting, Daniel McDonagh began to refine his songwriting craft over leaving university in 2012. While he now enjoys being ankle-deep in the mud as a scaffolder, Daniel flits between construction and art. We spoke with him about his new EP Toward Winter, discovering new music and much more!
Why did you decide to enter the music industry?
This wasn’t a clear-cut decision – more a case of having some songs recorded and perhaps sharing them with an audience outside my family and friends. Once you have played the songs to death at home the desire for a sentient audience is strong. Intimacy is hard with four walls. The logical step for me was to find someone cute enough with recording equipment and then take it from there.
Can you tell us about your release Toward Winter?
Toward Winter is my debut release. After a year of recording around 25 demos at Squarehead Studio in Kent with the brilliant Rob Wilks between 2018 and 2019. I had what appeared to be a coherent body of work. This I intend to record and release as an album. Essentially the EP is a collection of tunes I am particularly fond of for reasons both musical and personal but had no thematic bearing on the intended album.
What was the recording and writing process like?
After leaving the University for Creative Arts in 2012, I was given over to despondency. The art world, in general, was at odds with my aspirations for a traditional tutelage rooted in drawing and observation. I believe drawing is the language of the plastic arts. We have in our folly forfeited a language developed since the cave art of the upper palaeolithic, but that’s another story. So, with this in mind, and the inevitable ending of relationships after such an isolated and sheltered three years, I entered adulthood.
I illustrated after a while and did odd jobs, loved a couple more times and came to know grief. This is when my songwriting took a turn and began to explore such things through melody and word. It’s a cliche to call it cathartic, but it is. I feel exegesis is unhelpful in regards to songwriting because, for me, it hasn’t much to do with the intellect. As soon as I bring the mind to the matter the heart baulks.
Between the ages of 24 and 29, now 32, I had written hundreds of mostly rubbish songs. I continue to write crap, but not nearly enough according to Tom Robinson, but 35-40 songs remained. The best I recorded with is Rob Wilks at Squarehead. I loved working with Rob. His enthusiasm and patience married with his technical skills and encyclopedic knowledge of music/studio geekery was what I needed to take the bedroom playing status up a notch. At first, I was put off with the studio and its lights, knobs and metronomes, but soon that fear dissipated and gave way to the idea that this could be fertile ground for exploration and creativity.
The day started with three acoustic takes or so of a song idea. Rob would ask me where I had intended it to go and we’d chat. All pedestrian-sounding for most musicians, but for me, it was exhilarating and terrifying when confronting such questions as: does this sound as though an American medical drama could utilise it during a particularly emotional break-up scene. I would reference a sound I heard on a record and wanted to emulate and Rob would then filter that in his own way. I cannot wait to get back and annoy him further.
Does the single have any significant meaning for you?
The single ‘Toward Winter’ is the obvious choice from the EP as we felt it most accessible. It doesn’t require too much from you like the darker, slower tempo songs from the EP. Not to say it is lesser, but when you listen to the EP it is a clear standout in terms of sound.
I had initially hoped it may lead any possible listeners to give the other songs a chance. The lyrics are an amalgamation of phrases and words I had accumulated around the idea of a song about online dating and courting in general. The insincerity of it all is depressing, but then I imagine courting a woman through the eyes of a 13th-century Provencal troubadour, which is neither helpful nor practical in the 21st-century.
What do you hope people take from your music?
I simply hope it connects with the people at this stage. If they aren’t sold on the lyrics, I hope they are melodically or vice-versa. An EP is a wonderful promotional medium and, of course, more financially viable, but as a complete statement, it is lacking. So, as a debut from an unknown artist, I guess those limitations and any reticence from listeners is to be expected.
What is more challenging for you – melody or lyrics?
Lyrics are always the graft. I think Graham Nash said that and I couldn’t agree more. Without a title or some imagery in words, I cannot even enter a song space. Melodies follow the imagery and words. This mysterious connection ushered in seemingly by what Philip Guston called the “third hand” needs to synchronise word, image and melody. It’s beautiful when it happens and everything seems possible.
How do you keep yourself motivated?
I keep myself motivated by the idea I may one day be the lucky git bestowed with a beautiful melody. To write a song as good as Townes Van Zandt would be damn fine, but I subscribe to the great American art teacher Robert Henri when he said: “All any man can hope to do is to add his fragment to the whole. No man can be final, but he can record his progress and whatever he records is so much done in the thrashing out of the whole thing. What he leaves is so much for others to use as stones to step on or stones to avoid. The student is not an isolated force, he belongs to a great brotherhood and bears great kinship to his kind. He takes and he gives. He benefits by taking and he benefits by giving.”
How would you describe your sound?
My sound, at the moment, is acoustically-led with folk and alternative influences. People hear Radiohead in there, Portishead, Shack and Coldplay, but I am lyrically focused a large part of the time. The lyrics are very important. I am in awe of the poets; their command of language can sometimes astonish and so it is to them I turn when I need a kick up the bum.
What do you think is the best way to discover new music?
For me, working with other musicians is a great way to discover new music. Talking to people is the best way to discover a lot of interesting things, I hope it makes a return. Though, research after my EP found blogs to be helpful too alongside such obvious platforms as Spotify and SoundCloud.
What does the future hold for you?
I hope to record a new single, perhaps another EP, but always with a view to getting the album recorded. Also, of course, honing my craft on stage.
Do you have a message for our readers?