Going Beyond the Tears: Barry McCabe Talks About Evolving as an Independent Musician

Interview by P.L. Miller

Irish guitarist Barry McCabe is an independent in the truest sense of the word. Based in his hometown of Virginia, County Cavan, Ireland, he travels all over the world to play his music — generally without the safety net of an established band, and always without financial backing or sponsorship from any record company. The music itself is an intriguing blend of Celtic, blues, and straight-ahead rock and roll, which he makes widely available for download (often for free) through his website (www.barrymccabe.com) and through CD Baby (www.cdbaby.com). In today’s largely over-commercialized music industry, it’s heartening to see someone who’s succeeding by following his passion.

The following interview took place via e-mail during October and November of 2006.

“I was never that busy with chasing the ‘big deal.’ If you care enough about what you create, how can you just throw it to the wolves?”

What first drew you to express yourself through music? Was anyone in your family musically-inclined, was there something else that nudged you toward it, or did you come to this all on your own?

Hah, that’s a very interesting question to start off with and I’ll tell you why. At first I thought I was really the odd one out in my family, as I loved music but nobody else seemed to be that busy with it. My parents were dead set against me doing anything in the music business. So much so that I was actually playing for about six months or so before they even found out I was in a band (as I hadn’t dared to tell them)!

Barry McCabe Photo by Brendan van den Beuken

Barry McCabe
Photo by Brendan van den Beuken

Anyway, to cut a long story short, it seems indeed that there was music in the family on my mother’s side. A couple of uncles of mine played music and they had their own ‘big band’ in New York in the forties. In an even stranger twist, my mother only told me recently that they had also played traditional music over in the U.S. and had played with some of the McPeaks. The McPeaks are a really famous musical family in Ireland and, in fact, Francis McIlduff (whose mother is a McPeak) played the uilleann pipes with me for years. So without me knowing it, I was continuing a tradition set in place many generations before (McCabes and McPeaks playing together).

Just to add another twist – my mother was McManus before she was married. Pat McManus, who is a ‘special guest’ on the CD, comes from another very musical family called McManus (obviously). It seems my father used to book them as a band way back and they are related to my mother.

So yes, there is a history of music there (that I only discovered lately). Phew, the relief!

You toured with Rory Gallagher, and obviously he’s been a huge influence on you. Can you tell us a bit about what it was like to work with him?

Well, actually, by the time I finally got to play with him it all felt quite natural, really. I’d gotten to know him over the years and knew all his crew really well also, so it was quite a stress-free zone supporting him on those gigs. Rory’s manager (his brother Donal) and his crew were always very good at taking care of his fans and it was no different with support bands, I suppose (at least, certainly in my case, it wasn’t). Donal basically said ‘give the boys whatever they need,’ but I suppose we had what we needed already – the boards and the chance to play to Rory’s audience. They liked us, obviously (as we were a hard rockin’ three-piece power blues band at that stage called Albatross) and my approach to working live at that time would have been VERY Rory-influenced.

Rory Gallagher

Rory Gallagher
Archive photo

One moment I’ll remember for the rest of my life is having that ‘in the moment awareness’ and realising that I was standing in the very spot that Rory would be standing in later and singing through the same microphone and hearing myself through the same monitors.

That was just a very special moment and later as I watched his show from the back of the hall I just smiled to myself thinking about it again.

Do you find it difficult to maintain a balance between developing your own style and respecting or paying homage to your influences and inspirations (such as Peter Green & Rory Gallagher)?

Not anymore. I suppose like a lot of musicians growing up, the first songs you want to play are your own personal favourites. So it’s obvious that you’ll also try to sound like your favourite artists and you’ll probably take over their style of performing too (as you’d have watched them on TV or on video/DVD too). So it’s not that strange that people will latch on to you through your emulation.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. I mean, if you watch and listen to Rory, for example, you’ll see and hear traces of Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters, as they were people who influenced him. I’ve been catching a lot of live shows lately and I notice a big Coldplay influence in a lot of modern artists. So it happens all the time.

After that you get two schools of thought: those who want to continue (even preserve) a certain sound or style and those who want to find their own sound or style and move things on a bit. I’ve always belonged to the latter category. As much as I was able, I tried to find my own voice in what I was doing. As you progress you just get busier with that and hence the obvious influences become less obvious. Your own way of doing things starts to come to the fore, and as such, I suppose it’s a natural process as long as that is what you’re looking for.

Sometimes it’s good to re-visit the songs and artists that inspired you to play music in the first place because it helps to remind you of why you started playing, and that is healthy sometimes when you get too bogged down in very minute details and you can’t see the forest for the trees anymore.

I can still hear shades of those early influences on some of the new material. But you’ve definitely pushed through a lot of stylistic barriers as your music has evolved.

Was Celtic blues a deliberate decision of style, or did it just naturally emerge from your cultural roots and eclectic musical tastes?

It certainly wasn’t a deliberate decision. Like most things like that, it basically happened by accident – although if you look at the similarities of the two styles, then it was probably an accident waiting to happen. They are both very ‘rootsy,’ convey a lot of sadness, and belong to the common man. The Peace Within CD happened a bit by accident in that I asked Davy Spillane to play on one particular track and he ended up being on over half the album. Davy is very open to new things, so this was an opportunity for him to try and match the uilleann pipes and low whistle into a bluesier surrounding. I think he did a fantastic job, and I have great memories of making that album!

I love that album. I enjoy hearing the pipes almost as much as I enjoy blues guitar, so my interest was piqued just by the description of The Peace Within. And it’s got a lot of familiar songs on it – a great version of ‘Oh Well,’ to name one, plus that really unique take on ‘Pick a Bale o’ Cotton’ that just kicks – but in terms of style, it starts to branch out more from what you’d been doing with Albatross.

Over the past two albums, you’ve been writing about some issues that are somewhat political but also very spiritual in a way: making peace in the world through finding your own peace inside, getting past all the negative thoughts and habits that the world seems to generate in all of us. What moved you to become more philosophical in your writing?

The Peace Within Photo by Suzanne Delaney

The Peace Within
Photo by Suzanne Delaney

Spiritual politics, now there’s a thought!

What moved me to become more philosophical in my writing? Growing up, I suppose. I know it’s not true for everyone but most people mature as they age. I also realised as I discovered my own sound and style that it was easier to say what I wanted to say. I suppose the shackles of being too closely identified with one particular artist or musical style were broken. I’ve always been interested in people – whether it’s observing them or trying to help them – so I suppose it’s not that strange that my songwriting has gone in that direction. Now it seems somewhat frivolous to me to write about anything less.

How do you yourself manage to go beyond the tears and stay centered? Do you find it difficult to do, with all the day-to-day stuff that has to be dealt with on a regular basis?

Beyond the Tears Photo by Anne de Vries

Beyond the Tears
Photo by Anne de Vries

With great difficulty some days! I think the most important thing is to keep searching, to keep asking yourself questions. If you manage to get yourself into that frame of mind then it becomes easier. Then if you have a ‘bad day’ or a ‘relapse’ you recognise it as such and then just let it happen rather than fight it. This generally helps me get through it quicker and then you can look back at it and try to find out what it was all about, what was going on. It’s a constant thing – in that I don’t know if you ever get ‘there’ – so for me now, it’s more important to enjoy the journey, to be aware of the moment, to seize the day. You know, I’ve found out a very simple thing: things can only bother you if you let them!

Very true!

You’ve chosen to be an independent musician rather than signing with an established record company. How did you decide to go this route with your music? Can you tell us a bit about what it means for you?

It means everything to me and always has!!! It’s great to see that more and more artists are either taking control of their own careers these days or wrestling them back from the various companies that abused them for years. To be honest, I was never that busy with chasing the ‘big deal.’ I always felt the deck was rigged in that sense. You’ve seen acts that had ‘made it’ but then everything seemed to go wrong for them. You’ve heard the horror stories of bands sinking deeper and deeper into debt even though they were selling lots of records. You’ve read reports of artists who’d been ripped off since day one (especially the old blues guys).

So basically I stayed outside of all that. I’m a very independent-minded character anyway (some might say too much so) but if you care enough about what you create, how can you then just throw it to the wolves? My songs and my music are my babies and I treat them as such. I know I’ve got to put them on a record, or a disc, or available for download but I do it with the utmost care. They are not just means to an end. I don’t write or play music so that I can own a big house with a swimming pool or whatever else some guys chase. I have no problem with it if it comes along on my terms, but I’m not going to change what I do just to get it. Do you know what I mean?

Absolutely, yes. It’s great to hear someone doing what they love.

I noticed that even while you were recording Beyond the Tears, you took time out of the studio now and then to play some gigs. Do you prefer live performances or working in the studio? How do you balance the two, and what are your favorite aspects of each?

At this stage I think it’s a 50/50 situation with me. Certainly in my early days it was all play, play, play. Why do you think I recorded three live albums in a row? I suppose I was more Rory-influenced at that time. I’d seen him play all over the place and I wanted to do the same. Like a lot of people, I felt that Rory’s live albums were much more exciting than his studio ones (certainly in his early days) so I didn’t want to take the risk of ‘watering down’ my songs by recording them in a studio.

However, things had changed a lot in my life by the time I was ready to record The Peace Within CD. For the first time I felt like the studio might offer me a better chance of getting what I wanted out of those songs. I was lucky enough in that I found a studio where not only did the engineer know me and my music but he had a very ‘live’ way of recording in his studio, so it was perfect for me.

Photo by Suzanne Delaney

Photo by Suzanne Delaney

I must say I settled in right away and had a great time recording that album. It was a real eye-opener for me and I ended up using the opportunities that recording in a studio had to offer. A lot of it was still recorded pretty ‘live’ in that the rhythm section (drums, bass and rhythm guitar) were all played like we would on stage and pretty much all vocals are first-take vocals. However, being in the studio allowed you to work at a slightly slower pace, it allowed you to listen to what you were doing, it vastly improved the sonic quality, and, in fact, hearing my music under those circumstances triggered new thoughts in my brain and so I was able to add things to the songs that I’d never have come up with had I recorded them live. So that was quite a turnaround for me.

I still play live quite a bit but it’s not as hectic or as all encompassing as before. I realise there is a life outside of trying to play 300 shows a year! I leave that to B.B. King these days!

Looking ahead, are there things you’d like to try musically that you haven’t had the opportunity to do yet?

To be honest, I don’t know. Even though The Peace Within might not sound exactly like my live Albatross stuff, and my new CD Beyond The Tears might sound slightly different again from The Peace Within, it’s not that I sat down beforehand and worked that all out consciously. Like I said, I sort of stumbled across that Celtic-Blues sound on The Peace Within CD and I came up with the music I did on Beyond The Tears by working the way I did in the studio this time, so I have no idea what will cross my path or my mind to make me want to record something else/new. In any case, the whole business is changing so fast these days that it might not be too prudent to make any sort of long-term plans these days. I don’t work that fast (in the sense of banging out an album a year or some thing like that) so by the time I’m ready to record again there might not be any such thing as a CD!

We’ll see. A blank canvas never frightens me. It can also be an opportunity to try something new.

How do you envision your music developing from this point?

Well, I suppose my answer to this is a bit the same as the one above. I am confident that it will develop if I continue to write from my heart because I fully intend to keep developing myself as a person. So I suppose my next release (whatever that might be) will probably be another record of where I am in my life and how I feel about the things I see around me.

© Copyright 2006 by P.L. Miller. Republished 2011, 2015.

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