Behind the Music: Interview with Jim McHugh

‘I love trying to be inventive – there’s so much cliché in the music we hear on radio today.’

Ahead of his new album ‘Pretending to Wake Up’ arriving Friday 28th May, we chatted to Monaghan-based Jim McHugh about what inspired the release, the importance of anthemic guitar riffs, and how his approach to vocals has changed in recent years.

Hi Jim, thanks for taking the time to speak with us. What first drew you to becoming a singer-songwriter? Thanks for having me. To be honest it was never something I thought about becoming. When I started learning guitar at 12 years of age, I was immediately drawn to improvising and finding the more obscure places of the guitar that produced interesting sounds. I enjoyed creating these and then developed into writing full songs with lyrics.

What would you cite as your most prominent musical/non-musical influences? I have a broad range of influences, but mainly take from Irish folk music artists such as Christy Moore, Luke Kelly, Dubliners and Paul Brady. Then there are metal/rock/grunge bands such as Metallica, Led Zeppelin, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, and Nirvana. I’m a huge fan also of Radiohead and Blur. Mash all of that together and that’s me. My father was always an interesting music fan and he’d often come home with some out-of-kilter music such as Pecker Dunne or Joe Heaney. 

Who is involved in the creation of your music and what do they bring to the sound? I do all of the singing and guitar work both electric and acoustic, I sometimes pull out the keyboard or mandolin too. Paul McCabe has played bass on the current and previous 2 albums. He’s a fabulous musician and can play anything. He also sang backing vocals on a few tracks for new album. This was his first time singing on anything recorded and he has a wonderful bass vocal which I believe is quite rare. James McNeil aka Butch is on drums and likewise has played on all 3 albums. Both of us played in a previous band since we were 15 for about 10 years so we know each other quite well. He brings that John Bonham style to the songs and is serious craic.

Paul Sherry also played on a few tracks on the album. He’s a wizard who really puts me to shame and makes me want to get better. He’s also a fierce MMA athlete so mess with him at your own peril! Lastly, Alex Borwick produced the album and also sang backing vocals on some of the songs. He’s a trained Jazz musician and plays trombone on a few tracks. He has a brilliant way of being really productive without you knowing it.

‘In re-tuning my guitar to a different pitch, my creative soul is tricked into thinking that something basic is something brand new.’

Your new album ‘Pretending to Wake Up’ is soon to be released. What is the story behind it? The title itself came from another song I was working on around the same time as all of the songs on the album. The line in it was ‘delighted to me you, pretending to wake up.’ Essentially it’s an observation of how false people especially politicians are. All of the staged photos where they are greeting people, smiling with hands outstretched, holding babies etc. In reality, they are just saying, ‘let’s get this photo done and we can move on.’ It also points to the irony of the ‘woke’ companies who pretend they care for the environment, third world countries, and support human or LGBT rights. In reality, these companies would sponsor literally anything if it meant the public wanted it and they could sell more of their products. Where were they 5 or 10 years ago?  The wake-up part is really where the irony lies as you cannot wake someone up who is pretending to be asleep. 

The first taster we had of the album was the anthemic track ‘Dave’. Why did you choose to lead with this one? To be completely honest, I wasn’t that sure which song to pick. I did a survey of 10 people, asked them to listen to the album, and pick their top 4. Dave came number 1 with a few people but it was very diverse. I knew it had an edge to it and was heavy on guitar so it would probably mean fewer mainstream radio plays. I’m much more of the view now that I’m much happier pushing the songs I really want regardless of radio.

In not just that track, but others too, guitar riffs are key to your sound. What is your process for forming these and deciding how best to use them? Absolutely, I love guitar riffs or chord progressions that are unusual. I do a lot of experimenting with different guitar tunings and try to find ways of tricking my brain. I find it very difficult to play in standard tuning and create new music as I’m constantly reminded of other songs from artists. I can escape that by re-tuning to a different pitch, and even though I’m probably playing something very basic in normal tuning, my creative soul is satisfied or tricked into thinking it’s something new. I love guitar riffs and melody, but I think lyrics can get in the way of a good song. In that I mean you need to engage your non-creative side or non-flow of the brain. That’s for me anyway.

So thinking about the album as a whole, which track do you think will surprise your listeners the most and why? There are a few surprises in there. Perhaps, ‘Shut Your Mouth’ as it has a kind of Jazz vibe to it with the clean guitar playing and trombone. The lyric is actually uplifting and essentially wants the person to stop giving out about silly problems and go live your life so ‘Shut your mouth and sing’.

Turning to your vocals, there is a real balance of playfulness and power throughout the album, but in particular ‘Hey Jimbo.’ What are the biggest influencers on the tone you choose? I don’t pre-think about tone or which way to sing, I try and just sing how I want it to play out with the melody or get the mood across. I have taken weekly vocal coaching this last 3 years which I love and have learned so much – I was very ignorant about singing for many years and never really knew my own voice. I feel much more confident with expressing my true self now and relating this to the subject matter in the song. For ‘Hey Jimbo’ I really enjoyed singing and had some of those Paul Simon African-influenced albums in my head, trying to get the rhythm into the tongue.

And linked with this, the chorus of ‘Hey Jimbo’ is one you really want to shout from the rooftops. What are your secret ingredients to creating a knock-out chorus? I just love melodies and trying to be inventive – there’s so much cliché in the music we hear on radio today. I feel it’s a case of generic voices and styles over and over again. I do of course draw from many influences, but I do try hard not to fall into that trap. I know in my heart I have something when it won’t leave my head for days or nights on end. 

Reflecting on your career to date, what aspects of your approach to songwriting have remained the same and what has changed? I think I definitely take more notice of my singing and making sure I’m comfortable with it. I have to admit that previously I was a little wayward and would plod through a song without knowing the vocal notes inside out. Now I try and be more critical – in a good way, ensuring that I’m singing in tune 🙃 . I’m still on the path, enjoy finding new ways of getting the songs out, and am looking forward to the next challenge!

Other than the album, what plans do you have for 2021? I hope that I can play some gigs, continue to develop as a musician and a songwriter. Ideally, I will have written another fantastic album and be looking to record. Who knows.

Who are the musicians that you are really excited about at the moment and why these ones? I think that the local scene here in Monaghan is strong at the minute, and something great is bubbling. Charles James Livingstone, Me Good Self, Dani Larkin, and Some Finn are artists to watch out for.

And finally, with the return of live music on the horizon, where would you love to play your first post-lockdown show? At this stage I’d play more or less anywhere just to get the feel of the band again. My dream is to play a sold-out gig in the main venue in Whelan’s, Dublin. I think I’d cry if that was to happen so it would be an interesting gig haha!

Thanks Jim McHugh for chatting with Listen to Discover

Photography Credit: Brendan McElroy
Hey Jimbo Artwork Credit:
OLI MCHUGH

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