"It’s all just about picking up ideas like seeds and taking them from one place and dropping them off in another through song,” says the singer-songwriter.
And that solo album?
“I keep making it and unmaking it. I feel part of me is like that character in The Plague, [a novel] by Albert Camus, who’s always trying to write a novel, but just keeps writing and rewriting the first line.”
So, no album and, this time, no band. After a decade on the road, following their eponymous debut, McGrath’s Christchurch band The Eastern “just burnt each other out”. Fellow band members settled into normal lives, “you know, families, or a house, babies …”, but 42-year-old McGrath doesn’t feel as if he’s suited to those things, so decided he’s just travelling on.
It’s a fitting decision for a restless workaholic who has a tattoo of US singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie on his chest and whose country-style music is gleaned from specifically Kiwi settings and stories. The Eastern’s last album, The Territory, may have sounded as though it was straight out of America’s dustbowl states, but it included a song inspired by McGrath’s distrust of Kim Dotcom and another about a love story set in rugby league clubrooms.
McGrath now has a place in Christchurch “where my stuff is”, but he has spent the past six years largely on the move, including a stint falling in love and following his heart to Switzerland. There was also a spell in an Arthur’s Pass cabin built by the father of fellow Eastern songwriter and banjo player Jess Shanks.
McGrath sees his ongoing touring schedule as part of the same craft of seeking inspiration for songwriting.
“When The Eastern started, we wanted to figure out New Zealand, because Jess and I had played music around the US, but we hadn’t done the same in New Zealand,” he says. “So, the idea was to use music as a vehicle to see things, meet people, have adventures and learn shit – to go everywhere and be a local band wherever we go.
“And that’s never changed. It’s all just about picking up ideas like seeds and taking them from one place and dropping them off in another through song.”
Over the next couple of months, some of those seeds will be scattered far and wide around cities, provincial centres and smaller towns, such as Murchison, Roxburgh, Putaruru and Waimamaku. He says a few of the songs may be drawn from his mythical solo album, but his refusal to prepare setlists means there’s just as much chance of hearing old Eastern tracks, stories he’s just learnt, songs he’s just written, or even the odd Tom Petty cover if the mood takes him.
Two covers that could find their way into his repertoire are songs he’s recently recorded for an album paying tribute to Christchurch songwriter and figurehead Al Park: the title track, Better Already, and the stunning Snowbound, which he shares with fellow Eastern member Adam Hattaway.
The album is a great collection, featuring such Kiwi artists as Marlon Williams, Jordan Luck, Delaney Davidson and Barry Saunders singing tracks written by a man who, in his days behind the counter at Echo Records, scared the young McGrath “shitless”. McGrath would hang out there with no money and no intention of buying anything, browsing the heavy-metal section.
“As soon as I figured out how to catch the bus to town by myself, I’d go to the record store and look for new records that had just come in, then just sit and listen to them. Al was always there and he was really mean, but since he deemed me worthy, or simply realised that he wasn’t going to get rid of me, he’s always been in my life,” he says.
Having that direct link to Christchurch through Better Already: The Songs of Al Park, and a collection of musicians McGrath grew up around, sometimes gets him thinking about “playing the long game” of setting up a home and settling down, but for now he’s happy to let his music keep him roaming.
“I don’t set goals, but I do have a mission: I want to write songs, I want to meet people and I want to see and learn things, and if music is the way to do that, then I’m going to have to keep working at it.”
Click here for Adam McGrath’s Ragged Ramble Tour dates.
This article was first published in the April 6, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.