Interview by Tom Munday
Folk musician David Ross MacDonald’s career has taken significant turns. From geologist to hit singer, the Australian musician has strived for (and accomplished) several vastly different professions. This multi-instrumentalist, after his stint as the drummer for successful folk-blues group The Waifs, has hit the road as a solo artist. I caught MacDonald between tours to discuss his career, music and influences.
1. How did you transition from geology to music full time?
It was a patchy and awkward and fun transition.
I used to rehearse and gig in my spare time between the professional demands of being a geologist until I made it through the audition process at the local music conservatorium and got into jazz drum studies.
After few years of study and networking, the bigger gigs started to come along.
I like to joke about it, but I kinda saved up enough money to become a musician and then got lucky after saying, “yes” to pretty much any heart-felt project regardless of the pay. It rolled on from that, and then I got lucky with The Ragabillys, The Russell Holmes Trio and then The Waifs, The Audreys and Missy Higgins.
2. Many musicians reflect upon their life experiences through music. How has your previous profession influenced your particular style?
I think that I am drawn to music for the same reason I am drawn to the sciences.
They are both such curious endeavours and full of unknowns and both help me to explain my existence and explore my creative sides. A few of my songs tap into the wonder I have for the natural world but it is the journeys I have made and the people that I have met that feed the art predominantly.
3. You worked with The Waifs before breaking out as a solo artist. Does the Australian music industry treat solo artists differently to groups?
That’s a tough question to answer because I have struck out on my own without tapping into the organised industry of Australian music.
While touring with The Waifs and seeing the industry from the inside, I felt that it would be a more realistic fit for me to forge my own humble solo career drawing upon the experiences of other solo artists I know and create my own small tour circuit and CD manufacturing and distribution networks. It’s been the perfect time to do this given the Internet and the growth of digital and social media opportunities.
5. What are the benefits and downsides of touring solo compared to touring as part of an ensemble?
The benefits and the downsides are two sides of the same coin. To be out on the road performing music to folks who appreciate is one of the biggest privileges an artist could possibly hope for. Both solo and band gigs have crazy travel and exhausting schedules but the payoff of having that great gig or to experience other musical folks at international festivals just melts the hard times. Anyways, you need the hard times to write some of the good tunes!
6. You have toured extensively around Australia. As far as crowds, critics and cultural aspects are concerned, what separates the Eastern states from the West?
With The Waifs, when the band comes back to their home territory of WA there definitely is a boost in fan numbers and the bands back-story does play into the vibe of the show for sure.
Crowds are always appreciative everywhere I play, critics will be critics regardless of geography but culturally and in general Australia is a very homogenised society with a strong tradition of supporting live music and drinking lots of beer at festivals and gigs.
We have also had the privilege to get involved in some indigenous musical projects and culturally, that is such a deep, rich and ancient story which deserves more attention than we could hope to have the time for here. Needless to say, we all have so much to learn from the original peoples who came here all those thousands of years ago.
7. You have worked with such monumental artists as John Renbourn, Tony McMannus and Chris Smither. How have such experiences affected your music?
These guys you mention are such pros and also all have a wicked sense of humour. If I have learnt anything from these maestros it would be along the lines of practice, practice, practice, be true to your art and try not to take it all too seriously.
8. Blues-roots music has developed into an exponential market in Australia. Why is this genre such a cognitive part of our culture?
I like this question because it feeds into a theory I have (or a hunch) about in the modern and privileged culture we enjoy in Australia.
In the 70’s, we had punk and war protest music which now has pretty much evaporated from commercial music and radio spheres. With a few obvious exception like the JBT (John Butler Trio), Michael Franti, Billy Bragg that immediately spring to mind, the scene feels like music is more of an ancillary part of our lives rather than being the heartbeat or representing the conscience of a peoples that it once used to be.
For fear of generalising, I feel that culturally we have turned the volume on social justice and human rights issues way, way down and now ask very little of our represented folks in politics. The NET effect maybe that we are more concerned about what we each want as individuals rather than what we want of our society. I have too many friends in rent traps, crap jobs too valuable to lose and with life crunching mortgages and it leaves me feeling that we have been somewhat hoodwinked. The saying “when you are holding on by your fingernails you don’t start waving your arms around” sums it up.
But what does that say about the types of music that enjoy such mainstream popularity?
I maybe painting myself into a fools hole here, but in the same way that we don’t ask much of our political leaders, the artists that seem to be enjoying good traction don’t seem to be asking much of their listeners either. This is not a criticism of those acts or their approach to their art, anyone who can turn a dime in this bizarre industry deserves a medal, but the number of times I hear “it’s goin’ to be alright” or “relax, take it easy” just leaves me feeling a little edgy. Bob Marley got there first and he had a point to make.
I don’t think I answered your question that well and I will get down off of my soapbox now.
9. Entertainment is, to a certain extent, governed by critical opinion. Do you pay attention to critical feedback? Has it ever affected your motivations?
Let’s be honest, a glowing pull quote from a music magazine from the big end of town can really be a great boost and open up some avenues of interest … or at least get someone to return an email.
A bum review sucks, and it will haunt you forever, but in the end and for what it is worth, it all comes down to the live show and the folks who support you by turning up and actually purchasing some CDs. They are the key and in some unknown ways will play pivotal roles in how your career pans out. This is true for the conspicuous part of your artistic pursuits but more importantly the hope is that art aligns with our own emotional and human needs so that we find comfort and expression that is consistent with our character. Otherwise, it would be a very empty goal to fill a stadium doing something you didn’t believe in.
10. Picture this: you are stranded on a desert island and you are left with five of your songs and five songs from other musicians. Which songs would you want them to be?
Ouch, what a question … let me pass on my songs and get back to you on the desert island. Top 10. Let me think here, Bob Marley, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Dylan, Drake, Springsteen, Monk, Beck, The Wiggles…..