Interview: Murray McLauchlan

Murray began writing songs and performing them in his late teens. Hanging around the coffeehouses of Toronto he was also a staple performer on the folk festival circuit where he rubbed shoulders and shared the stage with some of the world’s most iconic folk performers. 1970 he signed with True North Records and grabbed his first Juno with “Farmer’s Song.” In 1986 he starred in a television special called “Floating over Canada” in which he piloted a Cessna 185 float plane across Canada and in the early 90’s he hosted the highly rated CBC Radio program “Swinging On a Star.” 1998 he released his autobiography “The Ballad of Murray McLauchlan: Getting Out of Here Alive” while still touring and recording. 2004 he formed Lunch at Allen’s with Ian Thomas, Marc Jordon, Cindy Church and himself and has since released 4 albums with them. 25 albums, 10 Juno Awards, 23 nominations, an Order of Canada and an induction into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame, you’d think that would be enough. Nope…

Mb: Hey Murray. How’s your day?
Murray: It’s been early and it’s been busy.
Mb: Written a hit song yet today?
Murray: (laughs) Ah, no. I’ve been overseeing the repair of my sister’s house actually.
Mb: Ah, real life stuff. So, first I want to talk about the early days playing Yorkville coffeehouses. What a romantic period in Canada’s music history….
Murray: (laughs) Well that was a long time ago and it’s been a number of years so… The first place I played, I was actually in art-school, was called La Rive Gauche, The Left Bank. I was paid the princely sum of $25 for the entire weekend, for God knows how many sets. That was the first place. Then once I got out of art school, and got away from riding freight trains, I moved into the basement of the Village Corner Club up on Avenue Road. I played there quite a lot. It was the club that gave rise to people like Ian and Sylvia. It was a pretty respected folk club at the time. I started going down to Yorkville to do auditions at the Riverboat for the Mariposa Festival. So I went down and played their open mic nights and I got accepted, initially, to do a songwriter’s workshop at Mariposa, when it was up at Innis Lake. I did a workshop and Joni Mitchell was in it, who was a fledgling songwriter at the time. Eventually I got a gig at the Riverboat itself and I started playing there. That was after I came back from living in New York. I would play at the Riverboat and people would drop by all the time. Jack Nicholson came by while he was shooting The Last Detail and hung out in the dressing room a lot. The backstairs of the Riverboat is where a lot of business got done. I went to see Tom Rush for the first time there and that’s when he decided he was going to record two of my songs on his first album for Columbia Records. That was a big help for me and precipitated me going to live in New York for a year. The club scene developed into a circuit and the whole idea of doing clubs was cool because you’d actually be somewhere for a few days and you could make friends or hangout with people. Different from doing one-night concerts where you come in and then you go.
Mb: And an opportunity to hang out with fellow musicians who.. I mean, the talent you must have bumped into…
Murray: At that time, the festivals were quite an important aspect of the whole deal. The writers would get together in a room at a festival. I remember one particular afternoon at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, we had a song pull. I think it was in Steve Goodman’s room, we’d all go around in a circle and play our new stuff, everyone trying to out-do the next guy, and it was Steve Goodman, John Prine, Jim Croce, Tom Waits, Loudon Wainwright III and me. That was kinda cool. Those were good days.
Mb: Sheesh. As every musicians loves to name drop, to be able to say those were the circles you were sitting in…
Murray: I hope it doesn’t sound like name dropping! (laughs) They were my contemporaries and people you’d meet a lot because we all met each other on the road. You’d go see each other when someone was coming to play in town and they’d come and see you.
Mb: How’d you meet Bernie Finkelstein and get signed to True North?
Murray: I knew Bernie because of the Yorkville scene. Bernie, at the time I first met him, was managing a rock band called Kensington Market. Bernie didn’t have an office. He did all his business from a cafe on the corner of Yorkville and Hazelton called The Upper Crust.
Mb: Table at the back?
Murray: No, he used the pay phone. Bernie was kind of a counter culture rockstar. I used to ride up to The Upper Crust on my old Triumph flathead motorcycle, park it, go in and drink coffee and shoot the breeze. Eventually I started talking to Bernie about doing something, but that didn’t really gel until after I was living in New York. We got in touch, I can’t remember if I called him or he called me, just to say hello and he told me he was starting a record label and he was going to make a record with this guy named Bruce Cockburn. So he said “Do you want to come back up to Toronto and maybe we’ll do something?” I said, “Sure, absolutely!” So we made the album, Song from the Street and it sort of took off from there. Next thing we were doing college concerts. Bernie and I had a management relationship but we never had a contract. Never in all the years I worked with him. We just did it on handshakes. A biker agreement you might say.
Mb: A testament to Bernie. So lots of road in your life. Lots of gigging.
Murray: It’s still the case. Between myself and Lunch at Allen’s I have like 38 concerts booked already for 2020.
Mb: Tell me about Lunch at Allen’s. How did that come about?
Murray: Well, I knew Ian Thomas really well, and I knew Marc Jordan really well and I had met Cindy Church in the past when she working with Ian Tyson’s band. For reasons, I had to go into the hospital to have an emergency surgery and afterwards Ian and Marc showed up, it was just before Christmas, and they sang Christmas carols at the foot of my bed, and turned the whole ward into a Frank Capra movie. So I was very emotional and very grateful and after I got back on my feet I called a lunch at this place on Danforth Avenue called Allen’s Restaurant. Lunch turned into dinner and pretty soon we had a table for 12 and it was Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor and Tom Cochrane and Ian and Marc, everybody was there and at one point I had my arm around Ian and said “Shit, we should do something together.” Even though we’re as far apart musically as it’s possible to be and Ian said, “That’s a good idea.” So not long after that, I’d done a gig at Massey Hall with the Everly Brothers and I get a call from an agent who wanted to put together a songwriter’s stage tour of about 8 different theatres. I’m not really a big fan of those things, because often times it’s like that actor’s joke, “Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit, my song,” so I said “If I did agree to do it, who would I do it with?” And the guy said “Anybody you want. It’s your deal!” So I thought, “Oh, that’s different.” I got on the phone with Ian and said “You’ve been locked in the studio doing film and television for the past 10 years and you haven’t been on a stage, how would you like to go and play some music for some real people?” He said “Ya, sounds like fun!” So I said “We have three slots, who else should we get?” He said “How about Marc?” So we called up Marc and said “Do you want to do this?” He’d been a contract songwriter in LA for ages and ages and was quite reticent to go on the road, but we talked him into it. And then Ian suggested Cindy Church. I thought “She’s really, really good. Great harmony singer, great instrumentalist, let’s call her up.” And Cindy said “Sure!” So what we decided we wanted to do is like a Crosby, Stills, Nash, and a Girl. So we went into Kensington Sound Studios and wood-shedded for a week and put together a repertoire of our best known songs, went out and did this little tour. One night there was a bunch of industry people in the audience and Dean Cameron, who was the president of Capitol Records at the time, came up to us afterwards and said “I want to do a record, I want to do a DVD, I want to do a live concert, blah blah blah…” and we thought “We’ll do this for a couple of years and see how it goes” And now I think we’ve been doing it for twelve!
Mb: It’s so great that you’ve been able to keep a career growing your entire life and with no sign of slowing down…
Murray: I think there’s a very real reason for that. First of all, I love making music. It’s what I do. But also, when I go out and do a concert, I have a profound respect for people who put one foot in front of the other and show up. I don’t take that for granted. My idea is always to make them feel a little bit different when they walk out, then they did when they walked in. That’s what an artist is suppose to do and my best days are still ahead of me.

Murray McLauchlan performs at Showplace Tuesday Feb 25, 7:30pm
Writer’s talk: Tues May 5 @ Market Hall