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Don McGlashan is out of the attic and taking flight

Don McGlashan: shining his torch around an attic of songs.

Don McGlashan is taking some old unloved songs on his New Zealand tour. 

It’s taken the best part of 35 years, but Don McGlashan is finally starting to fathom some of his early songwriting.

As a 23-year-old, he spent much of his time between bands Blam Blam Blam and the Front Lawn sketching out songs and soaking up New York’s avant-garde and punk scenes that were turning out such acts as Richard Hell and the Voidoids and Laurie Anderson, with her eight-hour performance piece United States Live.

One of those songs, No Plans for Later, ended up on the first album of another of his bands, the Mutton Birds. He now calls it an “odd, ungainly” two and a half minute experiment. At odds with the bold pop of Dominion Road and that closing cover of Woodstock-era Nature, it never made its way into the band’s live set.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Now, though, he sees it as a “really fun” addition to his solo sets, thanks to a couple of years working with Shayne Carter and letting the Dimmer/Straitjacket Fits musician rifle through his old songbooks.

“Shayne opened my eyes to particular songs such as No Plans for Later, and now I really like it,” he says. “But it’s also meant I am able to look at my back catalogue with a little less shame. It’s given me interest in going up into the attic of my songs and shining a torch around. There are always songs you write that don’t feel right, but if someone else wakes you up to them, sometimes you can see that the song has some merit you weren’t aware of.”

Having comprehensively toured his most recent album, 2015’s Lucky Stars, the 58-year-old has started a month-long national tour entitled “Free Flight”. He’s playing a combination of “songs I’ve overlooked”, some familiar crowd-pleasers, a handful of covers and some new material.

Among the new ones is Song for Sue, which dedicated to Sue Paterson, the former manager of the Front Lawn and a well-known arts administrator who died of cancer in July.

As a result of heavy demand for soundtracks and such commitments as being the music director for World of WearableArt, McGlashan always seems to have a full diary, but he says he’s found “some clear space to finish some songs”. And his deliberately “gentlemanly” touring schedule is also allowing time for writing.

Although he admits feeling stretched to get to 10 songs an album, he has found inspiration in traditional storytelling folk musicians such as Andy Irvine and Dónal Lunny, who were the other side of his early 80s New York adventure.

“I was really excited about all the performance-arty things and all the rock and roll I was seeing in New York before the Front Lawn, but listening to this old stuff made me aware of the power of being able to shoehorn all that storytelling into one song, if you do it right. With this upcoming album, I may be able to approach sessions with more raw material than I need, which is pretty rare for me.”

Don McGlashan’s 20-date tour ends in Queenstown on October 21.

This article was first published in the July 14, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.