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McDonald, Brian - 2003 The Voyage Interview

McDonald, Brian (May 2003)
Taking a Voyage with Brian McDonald..

Feature Interview with Brian McDonald
Written by: Gdazegod (May 2003)

One of the most eagerly anticipated albums during the first quarter of 2003 is the symphonic rock-fest from Brian McDonald entitled 'Voyage'. Those privileged enough to hear the first mixes during 2002 knew that the end-result was going to be sensational - the final product released on April 14, 2003 confirming that view. Since 2000's equally sensational 'Wind It Up' album, Brian has turned his attention back toward classical themes, the sort of music he grew up with. Combined with his other love of melodic rock, the melting pot has certainly turned out a recipe of memorable proportions. Though it's early on in the year, 'Voyage' is already the 'symphonic rock album of the year', in my opinion, and no doubt will feature strongly in the end of year polls for many media types. Now that the job is over and the album is out in the market, Brian takes a step back to observe, and to cast a comment on the album. 'Thanks for that intro George - I know you're very selective as a listener and a respected ear in the press, so I'm thrilled to hear you say these things. Taking a listen now, I think the album has on it some of the best songs I've written and from that perspective, there's nothing I would change. The recording process also went well this time out and the songs made it to disc in the way I hoped they would.'

Well Brian, its been a good three years since 'Wind It Up'. What have you been up to since that time? 'Mainly writing, recording, and generally enjoying life - it's been a good time. I've also been working on technology projects that bring in some money to keep my music making habit alive and well.' During this time, Brian also made the move to hook up with Atenzia Records, continuing a long and fruitful relationship with Magnus Soderkvist and Stefan Polzer. 'No doubt - that the musical and business relationship is the reason I came over to Atenzia' says Brian. 'The label has a solid and growing roster of good artists that they've signed, which reflects how serious both Magnus and Stefan are about the music they love.' Yes, judging by the quality of the releases so far, you'll get no argument from me on that one Brian! The initial release date of March 31 was put back slightly due to mastering delays. How did it pan out in the end? 'Well, the mastering delays ended up being a bit of luck really, I was able to go back into the songs, automate each of the mixes and bring out some things I wouldn't have if I hadn't had the chance for a second go round. In the end, the vocals were much clearer and some of the details set down in the initial mixes were given some added presence.'

Some of us have been privileged to hear some of the earlier versions of the material. Apart from the final mix down, what were some of the significant enhancements made to the songs? 'Before the final mix, I did some arranging work on the opening track; the bridge section was revamped with some new vocal lines. As for the rest of the tracks, there may have been a few additions, but primarily the changes you hear were in the choices to bring up the levels on tracks that may have been set back in the roughs we sent out to you. The new mixes were different enough though, I'd go so far as to say that a few of the songs ended up being entirely different representations of the drafts you first heard.' The title and graphics we've seen so far suggests that the album has a nautical theme. But knowing Brian, I can suggest to the reader that it runs a hell of a lot deeper than that. A voyage that touches on Brian's life experiences perhaps. 'I think you may be touching on an earlier exchange we had a few years ago where we were both saying something to the effect that there are these intuitive and awareness generating moments that drive many of the important life experiences we have. So, yes, at least indirectly that's the case along those lines.'

'Initially, the theme for 'Voyage' came from the story that takes place in a port town in the 1600's and moves 300 years forward in time as you hit the final verse. But, you're right - it's a deeper hit. I don't know how to sum it up in words, really, because words around time travel and ocean voyages tend to become a bit melodramatic due to their tie-in with cinema and science fiction. Maybe the best way to say it is that, the subject of time has always been an obsession for me, and moving through existence is a voyage - see that's already getting a bit spongy, isn't it?'

'Oh, one cool thing I have to mention is the artwork of Christopher Butler, ( which has been inspirational for me. He's well known for his works featuring nautical and interstellar themes and I was so glad that he agreed to allow me to use two of them for the front and back covers.'

Musically we see less of the Def Leppard sound this time, but other comparisons crop up. How do you see 'Voyage' relative to 'Wind It Up'? 'A major difference is that every element on 'Voyage' is focused on making the most out of each lyric, and many of the tracks tell extended stories. Whereas on 'Wind It Up', the songs that made it to that album came from over a decade of sporadic writing, each following a handful of pre-conceived formats. So, the lyric/vocal-centric approach on 'Voyage' made it necessary to let go of the old forms and production choices and let the songs breathe and cut their own path. Similarly, the sound production choices had to open up as well. And once you do this, there's no going back, so I'm really interested in what will happen for the next album. I have myself in suspense here.' You have us in suspense too Brian, and 'Voyage ' has only been out a month!!

Upon first impression, it feels that 'Voyage' has more classical components in it than 'Wind It Up', something Brian agrees with. 'Yes, and those choices were related to the song-driven approach used to record the album.' he says. 'It was a small step toward bringing more orchestral stuff into the writing, the next album will go further, I can feel it already. Each song I wrote for this release seemed to head more and more to the melodic lines and harmonies I cut my teeth on as a young listener, a time when I listened to nothing but piano and orchestral music. You know, I should add a point here - many people think of this as mellowing out. If so, they really haven't listened to what I'm talking about: the pounding rhythms of Stravinsky's 'Sacre du Printemps', or Beethoven's wild and hairy late string quartets, there are many universes within this genre and so many of them more raw than anything I've heard in rock music. Put these kinds of approaches in a modern music production setting, and they will resonate with listeners that love a harder and more complex sound.'

I remarked in the G-DAZE review of the album about the choruses being absolute huge. How does one go about layering vocals to that degree? 'It's a production choice and personal preference' says Brian. 'When I want the choruses to 'hit' in a way that contrasts the single voice of a verse, there a few ways to achieve the effect. One method is to multi-track each part in three or four successive passes, which I used only for a few songs. For the rest of the songs on 'Voyage' I backed off of this approach slightly and the choices in the harmony lines themselves drove a lot of what is there. For example, making use of vocal lines that hang on the same note throughout a moving progression of other voices can create a thicker, more present sound within a traditional four-part treatment. I used this technique on songs like 'Shadows Of Angels' and 'Patriot Dreams' for instance.'

Everyone is saying that yesteryear artists like Styx, Chicago all get a look in this time around. I asked Brian whether this was deliberately planned, or did it just pan it out that way. 'The first of these, not so much really. It's okay for the comparison, I don't mind it. But really, if there is an influence to be had from the so-called 'progressive rock' space, it would really be the band Yes which influenced all of the bands in that line which came after. 'Close To The Edge' still gets to me. Were any similarities deliberately planned? Not in most cases, although I can tell you what I was thinking and you can make the decision. For the first time in making an album, I delayed recording almost all of the songs until the writing, arrangement, sound, and production choices were worked out in my head. While I was in the various stages within this phase for the first songs written for the album, I took a listen to music that inspired me when I first started listening to rock music, specifically listening to song production techniques.

After saying this, there is an exception for your second example - for the slower tempo songs, it would be difficult not to hear similarities between any melodic rock artist's or band's approach and the many great ballads from Chicago in the 1970's and 80's. They were the prime influencers in the way pop and rock ballads would be written for the next several decades. As these things found their way into musical choices I made, I'll be the first one to say 'yeah, I hear that too' when listeners ears direct them there. We all love to do this when we hear anything new; it's part of the fun of listening to music.'

There are a few recurring aspects that crop up on the album. The war theme for example is one of those, and Brian's approach to describing things that he's experienced along those lines. Ironically, with all the Iraq conflict, the messages are just as timely now as they were when he was growing up, as per the lyrics of 'Patriot Dreams'. 'Interesting point there, and it crossed my thoughts several times during the mixing of the album which coincided in time with the prelude and initial events of the Iraq war. Important to note, and I know you understand this entirely when you called it an irony, that any relationship between the themes in these songs and current events is altogether coincidental. And hard as I tried not to make these songs become anything close to current event message carriers, the themes themselves seem to make the central point that resonates now; that is, they give the sense that we as human beings have always been and continue to be relentlessly caught up in the currents of war. It's obvious that we as a species will always be hard pressed to live without conflict for any extended period of time. Unfortunately, these subjects and messages will always be timely, no matter what era or timeframe.'

The Beatles-esque 'Where You Are Where I Am' takes us back to a different era, that particular track is markedly different from anything else onboard. 'The original seed of the idea sounded like a '60's Motown tune to me' says Brian, 'and growing out of that came some ideas to pay a bit of tribute to others as well in the overall approach. It's different from the rest of the songs on the release because of that, but there are melodic threads running through many of the other songs on 'Voyage' in a basic way they all seem to be tapping into very similar, simple melodic lines.'

'But to your point, this is definitely one of those cases of me purposely moving the glass over the music and production influences from the 1960's and reflecting through the proverbial rose coloured glasses on a mix of those things. Another song that takes me back a few decades is 'Out Of Time' - more to the 1970's as you've noted in the Wurlitzer electric piano choice and the harmonic progressions.' All the reviews so far have been excellent. It certainly gives Brian kudos for all the hard work that's he's put into it. 'Yeah, it feels great that listeners like what they're hearing, including those that happen to be press folks - which is always a bonus as that helps the music to reach a larger audience. It was a real blast and good piece of work to get this one out, and it's an awesome thought that the numbers of listeners responding to the music are growing so fast in the first release month.'

Again, ace guitarist Reb Beach has thrown his fleet fingered six-string prowess into the 'Voyage' project. Through the advancements in technology, Reb was able to remotely record his parts, though in an ideal situation, working side by side in the studio is still the preferred environment. 'I hooked up with Reb again face-to-face for the first time in over ten years when he came through with Whitesnake on their recent tour.' says Brian. 'We've been good friends for so long and he's played on at least a few tracks on each of the albums, and we're able to do it easily enough remotely. But for the tracks on Voyage, time constraints left us doing the remote recording thing again. It's good in that it allows the tracks to be recorded within tight schedules, but obviously, the things you miss out on doing it this way are the inspirational musical accidents that happen when you are in the same room with another writer or player. We've just talked about getting together to write some things and I know good things will happen as a result.'

For those budding studio musicians with an eye to doing something similar, Brian elaborates on the sort of technologies he used to put the 'Voyage' project together. 'The more critical processes and methods of writing the music and lyrics haven't changed - still using pen and paper and moving things around in my head for the most part. But how the ideas make it down to disc has changed considerably over the last few years, for the better.'

'While the recording setup changes for every song, eventually, through various pieces of gear, each song is brought over to a Digidesign Pro Tools system where the tracks are managed, others instruments are recorded, and the completed songs are eventually mixed. You hear studio owners and musicians praising their new rigs all the time, but, you know, its not that you have the latest gear that makes the sound so much better, the great part is in the saved time and effort and in more opportunities to make creative decisions at every point of recording and mixing the music.'

Our last interview we touched on the many creative influences that have affected Brian, both musically and philosophically, and second time around he's come up with an updated list, mainly classical composers. But there are some not so well known figures: Paul Davies, E.W Korngold, Alicia DeLarrocha for instance. 'Paul Davies is one of those physicist writers who is influencing the way I interpret things around me - specifically he's one of the few people on the planet more obsessed with the concept of time than I am, so I'm constantly reading/re-reading what he has to say.'

'Erich Korngold was the ultimate early Hollywood swashbuckler film composer - in the 1940's and '50's he was writing in that orchestral style that influenced so many film composers that would follow, you can hear echoes of his themes and orchestration style in every action adventure film ever written. There are elements of his spark in the title track on 'Voyage' where I couldn't help but nod to him because of the context of the lyrics. Listen to that last solo melody in the violin at the very end of the song - I can almost see Errol Flynn, the Seahawk, and smell the saltwater when I hear that line.'

'And Alicia DeLarrocha, out of so many Classical pianists I've heard, is to me the most musical. That's a personal statement to be sure and very subjective, but her name is on the list because her interpretations of so much great music have influenced the way I listen to music.'

With 'Voyage' getting strong coverage in Europe and Japan, the question remains as to what happens for Brian and his music in the USA, admittedly a struggling market for melodic rock these days. 'Yes, always an interesting exercise trying to understand what's happening in the industry in the USA. For artists releasing albums in Europe and Japan, American listeners have limited means to buy CDs like 'Voyage' as imports, for example, through the NEH Records site or'

The CD distribution channel in both the USA and elsewhere is certainly a topic up for debate. With Online File Sharing facilities rearing its head of late this has thrown more fuel onto the fire, a point Brian touches on. 'I think you'll agree there's a change in the wind now with every major U.S. label jumping on the Internet file sharing bandwagon. All of them have signed deals with Apple in what seems to be the first big piece of that music store solution targeted at users who will pay for a high quality download and song file ownership with no subscription' he says.

'I think they're on to something with this because as a listener, I've wanted the chance to audition and buy high resolution tracks for some time now, you know, the files with better fidelity than the hoards of MP3 files available from file sharing services. The current free-for-all music swapping will continue to grow, and I'm not making a judgment on that, but I'm saying that as a listener, it'll be good for me to have a dependable alternative in place. We'll see how it plays out in the next few years, but eventually 'Voyage' and the albums I release from here out will be distributed in the U.S. using this or a similar method, as this shift in media distribution gets both U.S companies and listeners out of the current narrow CD distribution control mindset.'

And what's on your itinerary over the next 2 months or so Brian? 'Summer's on its way, so much to do! I'm looking for collaborative sessions with other artists and have some interesting sessions lined up. Playing and writing music will take up a good part of the summer and hanging out on the water and in the sun as much as I can will take up the rest of it.'

Thanks again for spending some time with us, and thanks especially for sharing some wonderful music with us. It certainly has been a privilege! 'My pleasure as always George, I really appreciate your good words and focus on what matters in the music, thanks.'


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