Interview: Paddy McHugh talks City Bound Trains and controversial lyrics

Brisbane-based Paddy McHugh‘s music and songwriting is raw, honest and authentic. His latest album City Bound Trains, depicts tales of a life in Australia and touches on many topics of interest – indigenous culture, same-sex marriage, equality and more.

You toured and released your second album, City Bound Trains back in October. What was the response like to those shows?

Fantastic! It was good to get out with a full band; I hadn’t done that in quite awhile. We had a great response to the shows particularly as the album had a bit more time to be heard, get out there and get a bit of love. It sort of grew and by the end of it, we finished up here in Brisbane, which is my hometown, we had a fantastic show. It was really great to be on the road and with a full band.

What are your shows live like? How would you describe them to someone who hasn’t seen you play before?

It’s pretty energetic [and] very political – it’s not the kind of show that you go to, drink and let the music wash over you. I try and challenge people with my music. I sing about things that are important to me and I try to encourage the audience to get involved in that as well. That being said, it’s not all serious. It’s also a bit of fun and very upbeat. The band I’ve got is really great at the moment and it’s a really good, fun night out.

Because a lot of your songs do have quite a political or controversial message attached to it, have there been any walkouts or have you received any kind of abuse?

No, not on this tour. Thankfully. I think the people who are coming to my show these days have been doing it a while they know what they’re going to get. I suppose I get a lot of sympathetic people, but it’s happened in the past, definitely. I’ve played festivals, one comes to mind in rural Queensland, Gympie; I remember singing a song about indigenous massacre, cause it’s a part of our history, it’s something that happened and I think it’s something that’s very important that we acknowledge and deal with. Some guys yelled abuse and walked off completely offended.

I’ve got thick skin, I don’t care about that. If an artist on a stage can offend people to the point where they hurl abuse and move away from the stage, it means I’m obviously talking about a topic that is important, that’s polarising people and that needs to come out. And I didn’t just take it; I told them to fuck off and made my point very clear. I’m very confident in where I stand with my politics, what I’ve got to say and that was just a couple of people in the crowd of a thousand. The rest of them were there to support our Indigenous brothers and sisters and acknowledge our real history. So, it’s happened in the past, but I’m not afraid of it, I’m happy to get up there and say the uncomfortable things. In a way, I see that as my job.

In those situations often the rest of the audience seems to attack those not in the minority. Were the people hurling abuse at you receive backlash from the rest of the crowd?

Yeah, not physically, a few people booed and told to piss off but they were on their way out anyway. Obviously I don’t advocate violence and I would never want anyone to physically do anything to people. But the fact that there’s people still out there who are able to be offended by somebody mentioning a real event from history, as uncomfortable as it is, just goes to show that we’ve still got a lot of work, particularly in this area, in terms of educating people and changing the way people see our history and how it’s perceived.

I find there’s very few people out there who sing about these issues, not just indigenous, I sing about a couple of things – social justice issues that I think are important, that they don’t get enough air time, so to speak. Protest music and music that has meaning to it has taken a backseat in modern times. Pop music’s always been there, but it seems to be more pervasive these days and it seems to be everywhere. People are digesting music to let it wash over them, make them feel good and move on. But I still think there’s definitely a really important place in music for the protest music, music that makes you think, music that makes you uncomfortable. We’ve got to keep doing it. If you look back historically, a lot of great artists and a lot of movements have been driven by music and song, and given people hope and encouragement. I’d like to try and work in that area.

That’s what I like to do. We can always do more. I mean let’s look at the current state of politics. We’ve got all this turmoil in the world. Look at the whole same sex marriage thing – that ripped apart and polarized people and it’s really important now more than ever that we will use music as a tool and as an art form to inform people, keep political debate going to push ideas and bring people together, and to get people to think and challenge people.

Are these themes represented on the album? What themes are on the album?

I sing about something that has affected me directly many times over the years which is suicide; in particular rural suicide and looking at the high suicide rate of Australian men. Growing up in a small town, I lost many friends to suicide. I still lose them and it still happens. Australia’s got one of the highest rural suicide rates in the world and I think we’re getting better at talking about and acknowledging it, but it’s still something that happens far too frequently. We’re happy to throw our resources at things like cancers and other health crisis, but this is a significant one that, because it’s uncomfortable, gets pushed aside.

I also sing about a topic, I’ve had some personal experience with through other forms of work I do, which is inhalant abuse and petrol sniffing by seeing the damage firsthand what that does to young people in Australia. That’s really affected me and I wanted to sing about that and make people aware that it’s happening. I also sing about gay marriage, which we just won the fight on for legalizing it.

But it’s not all political, obviously, there’s a lot of things I like to talk about in there but I’m not ramming these things down people’s throats. I do it through story, I do it through trying to humanise these issues and make it that people can engage with the songs and get them to think, and, hopefully, even with some of them, maybe, even change their mind.

Playing music is easy but it’s sometimes incredibly hard to engage with a room or crowd of people, especially if they may not know nor care who you are – this can be especially so, at a festival like Gympie, that you mentioned before – with having such topical songs though, I imagine it would be harder as an audience member to not pay any attention.

Yeah. In Australia, with such a high rate of suicide, if you’re singing to an audience of a couple of thousand people, I almost guarantee that most people there will have the personal experience of someone they’ve known in the family, friend group, worked with or grew up with. And when you sing about these kinds of topics, that are very human and very emotive in their nature, you do find people relate to it. They personalize it and they make it about their experience. They get this impression that you’re singing to them and that’s the magic of song writing and performance.

Quite often I have people come up to me after the shows and tell me about the person they know that meant something to them. And I’m not necessarily singing it out to the people in their lives but through the nature of song writing, playing and performing, you have that connection with people and they want to come up and have a discussion. I’m always happy to have it; I love it. That means I’ve had that connection with the audience and they might buy me a beer too, so I’ll take it (laughs).

Talking before about the song writing and I looked you up on YouTube and I came across a video called My Name Is Paddy McHugh. In the video, you’re singing and it looks like you’re on the verge of tears and I thought it was a good example of the power of music and the vulnerability that comes with that. Is it hard to be vulnerable when you’re performing to camera and live especially?

Yeah, absolutely. Particularly as a musician, if I was to say I was bullet-proof and I didn’t have my ups and downs like anybody else, I’d be absolutely kidding you and I wouldn’t be dishonest about that. It is hard to be vulnerable, but at the same time, when you do tell your story, no bullshit and you talk honest and to people as people from your perspective, and just be real, I’ve found that’s when people respond to, not only your music, but you and you get to make that connection.

I’ve been lucky enough to go to many gigs and the ones I’ve enjoyed are the ones where I’m sitting in that audience, might be thousands of other people around me, but I think that person on stage is singing or talking to me. And the only way you get that is when they show themselves to that real human being, that you can actually connect with. When you get those connections with people who are listening, they’re really powerful and meaningful; and that’s what motivates me to keep going and keep writing.

Who are some of the artists you have connected with when you’ve seen them live?

Oh, there’s many! One that comes to mind recently that really won me over was seeing Billy Bragg at Blues Fest last year. Just one man one guitar – it wasn’t even in tune. His voice is scratchy. So there’s all these elements that you’d say would actually discredit a live show, but because he got up there with his heart on his sleeve, spoke honestly and sung to everybody out there individually, he cut through. I honestly was standing there with 30,000 people and I honestly thought he was, not only singing to me, I thought he was looking at me. That’s the power. That was one artist that really nailed it that day. It’s funny, I spoke to my friend after the show and told him what I thought and he had exactly the same thought. It was almost like we weren’t even there; we were totally engaged with what he was doing on stage.

It’s been four years since your released your previous and first album, Trials & Cape Tribulation. How have you grown as an artist in those years and how is that reflected in your music?

I’ve had a couple of kids in that space. I’ve grown up. Many years have past and you always evolve and change as a person. Also, I’d like to think I’m getting better at what I do just because I keep trying and doing it, and when you do anything for a while, you tend to improve or you hope so anyway. I’m not trying to outdo myself, change or go in a direction, I’m just trying to write the best songs I can and write the songs that I’m happy with. That evolution, that’s what I’m thinking my next one’s going to have a natural change to it.

Are you hoping the next release won’t take another four years?

It’s funny; I sometimes get worried about the gap between, but another way of looking at it saying: I have two beautiful children [and made] a transition into a teaching career for an Aboriginal community that I live and work in and that I really enjoy. I’ve also done a lot of things: I started my own radio show and music is a very potent part of my life, but it’s a bit of a cog in a wheel. I’m like the next one out in under four years, that’s for sure, but you never know what life’s gonna throw at you! I’ll take any opportunity that comes my way and the music will come when it comes. I’m not stressed by the pressure of it. No plans, but it’ll happen. One day. There’s a loose promise.

Was your album recorded very early on in your music career or had you been doing it for a while beforehand?

Yeah, I’ve been playing music in bands for many years, but I was always doing pub music. I used to play in a rock band, thrash band and punk rock bands. The first album I did solo was the first time I branched out into the singer/songwriter thing. I had some songs and things that I wanted to talk about and a couple of songs I’d written and then put together an EP, and put it out there really not expecting much to come of it. It was more for my own sake but it got a really positive response. People really like the songs and I got booked on quite a few gigs and festivals as a result and gave me the confidence to go on, write another full album and keep slogging away at it.

You were raised in Tamworth, the country music capital of Australia. You later moved to Sydney before settling in Brisbane. Do you think all that moving has affected your music in any way?

Yeah, I left Sydney because I had a friend who passed away from suicide. I was living poor in Sydney; I didn’t have a proper job. I was living hand-to-mouth and I found it really difficult. It was a bit of a strain on me. I moved to Brisbane and it was a really good move. Life’s not as intense and hectic and I think it suits my temperament. It’s been a good move coming to Brisbane in particular, because the music community up here is very small, very supportive and I think any musician can appreciate working and living in that kind of environment.

Tamworth Country Music Festival will soon be upon us. The ten-day event sees 700 performers perform over 2800+ shows in January. What do you have in store for Tamworth next year?

I’ve got a couple of great gigs I’m looking forward to. I’m doing Americana in the Park, one of the council events, which is always fun and it’s kind of strange to be playing there. I grew up in Tamworth and Bicentennial Park, normally when the festival is not on is a quiet place. As a teenager, I’d go down and drink goon with my mates, and to be going there on a packed stage, on an official festival event is a very weird turn of events. It’s something I’m looking forward to.

The other gig I’ve really excited about is one called the Cake and Cordial Session. That’s an event I put on with my friend Megan [Cooper]. Originally it started, we couldn’t get gigs in Tamworth so we thought, “Fuck it! We’ll make our own gig!” The only venue we could find was a church hall and they said, “You can hire but one condition no booze.” So we made the cake and cordial sessions, took the focus off alcohol and this is our fourth year. The event’s really grown; we’ve had some fantastic artists. This year is the best line up yet. We’re really looking forward to putting on a really great singer/songwriter event.

City Bound Trains is out now.


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