Michael J. McEvoy, multi-instrumentalist and composer: Something Else! Interview

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Michael J. McEvoy is behind the music for many TV programs, films and works with well-known musicians. It is likely most people have heard his music, even if they do not recognize his name.

Among his many credits are Richard Linklater’s Me And Orson Wells, the indie feature Forget Me Not (named best film at the London Independent Film Festival), Nothing Like the Holidays, The Heavy and the Japanese anime film Vexille (which won for best animated feature at the 2008 Philadelphia Film Festival). For TV, he has worked on BBC/CBBC’S Dani’s House (2011/12), The Wire (2009), Nova: Einstein’s Big Idea (2005), Summer in Transylvania (2010), Live From Abbey Road: Series 3 (2009), French Beauty (2005) and many other programs. Michael J. McEvoy’s classical works include the orchestral piece Fragments of a Dream (2001); and Aer Philos (2004), a string trio in three movements.

He has written songs with Push, singer/songwriter Mary Leay, singer Kathy Troccoli, vocalist and instrumentalist Patrice Rushen, R&B singer-songwriter Lalomie Washburn, and the groups Soul2Soul, Curiosity Killed the Cat and Ian Dury and the Music Students. McEvoy also contributed to Dury’s theater show Apples, and has performed or recorded with Sting, Scritti Politti, Steve Winwood and the Bee Gees — just to name a few. He has also played sessions on a range of instruments with musicians including Nina Hagen, Robert Palmer, Seal, Hot Chocolate and Teena Maria, while performing live for BBC6 music and teaching at the Royal College of Music, London. Michael J. McEvoy’s worked with the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, as well as lecturing, and teaching piano to disadvantaged children as a volunteer.

I wondered what makes this multi-talented, multi-instrumentalist, multi-genre musician like this tick and decided to find out, as Michael J. McEvoy joined us for a Something Else! Sitdown.

“I was born in Camden, New Jersey, and grew up in a family that loved music,” McEvoy tells me. “My Dad played ukulele and my parents played everything from the Beatles and Bob Dylan to Mozart and Bach. We had a piano, which was given to my parents, in the house — and I’ve been told I started picking out melodies by ear when I was 3 or 4 years old.

“In 1964, we moved to London as my Dad won a PhD fellowship at Imperial College, so my earliest schooling was in London,” Michael J. McEvoy continues. “My parents were both from a working-class background, so to get a PhD was a big thing. My parents fell in love with Europe and its cultural stimulation — including the National Theatre and art galleries. We moved back to the U.S.A., and from ’68 to ’73 we lived in Worcester, Massachusetts — apart from a six-months sojourn to Switzerland – where my dad was a professor at Clark University. When I was 7 years old, I was given piano lessons, and at around the same time fell in love with rock music. By the time I was 9, I started teaching myself guitar. I loved the Rolling Stones, Johnny Winter and Deep Purple.

“In 1973, my parents returned to London for a number of reasons, some of which were due to me and my musical future. They were disillusioned with the U.S.A. — which was then embroiled in Nixon, Vietnam, Watergate — and they wanted their children to have a different perspective on the world. I was a bit of a tear-away and quite rebellious — probably the influences of the times, rock ‘n’ roll and feeling a bit unstable in terms of solid roots, as we had moved around a lot. All the moving around had an effect on me and proved motivational for me getting deeper into music. Music had become my companion, a way of expressing my identity and articulating complex feelings that I had no other outlet for.

“I started viola lessons in school at the age of 13, because my dad thought I should play an orchestral instrument and had heard viola players were always in demand,” Michael J. McEvoy adds. “In London, I was accepted into the Centre for Young Musicians, which was a Saturday music school run by the Inner London Education Authority in Pimlico. Django Bates and Steve Sidwell were there at the time, and we used to jam in the lunch breaks. We all played in the London Schools Symphony Orchestra, which was a very good orchestra made up of secondary school students from the London boroughs.”

“So,” I asked, “where and with who did you first perform on stage?”

McEvoy replies: “I had my first group aged 9, called Cloudy Heaven. We played tracks like the Jackson 5’s “Rockin Robin,” the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and [Jimi] Hendrix’s “Hey Joe” — tunes that were on the radio in 1969-70. We did a few concerts in Worcester Downtown, the local shopping center. It must have been novel to see three 9-10 year olds playing these tunes. The lead singer was Reggie Jeffreys. He played bass and guitar and had this great voice and great charisma. We were best friends and used to hang out at each other’s house all the time. The third guy was drummer Tommy Murrey. We’re still in contact.

“It was really tough for me leaving those guys when my parents decided to relocate our family to London,” McEvoy says. “By then, we had another great guitarist Duke Levine who’s gone on to play regularly with Mary Chapin Carpenter and sessions a lot in Nashville, as well as releasing some incredible bluegrass-inspired jazzy virtuoso solo material in his own name. In London during my teen years, I was always in a band, including a band with Nick Woodgate and his brother Dan who went on to join Madness. Music was my passion, and I had decided I would be a musician when I was 9.”

“Who inspired you to play and experiment more,” I wondered.

“I was not really into what was then understood as jazz — bebop, the standards — in my teens,” Michael J. McEvoy answers. “I was interested in funk/jazz and fusion, bands/artists like Earth Wind and Fire, Steely Dan, Weather Report, George Duke, the Crusaders, Pleasure, ’70s-era Herbie Hancock. The closest thing in the U.K. at the time was Hot Chocolate, or Heat Wave.

“I was accepted into the Leeds College of Music — the only place I knew of in the U.K. offering a jazz course. My jazz piano style was more jazz/funk-orientated than traditional bebop and standards style, so I took viola as first study instrument. At 17-18, I was a multi-instrumentalist, sometimes playing bass as well and writing jazz/funk tunes. My underlying motivation for getting into all the instruments was I wanted to understand the different instruments in the rhythm section, so I could work out good parts for musicians.

During my first term at Leeds,” McEvoy continues, “my interest in composition and improvisation — and a girlfriend — led me back to London, where I worked as keyboardist in a band run by saxophonist Dick Heckstall-Smith called Big Chief. Filling in once or twice a month wasn’t going to keep me busy enough, so when an opening at a London studio came up I began an apprenticeship at a London recording studio Matrix, where I met and collaborated the with African conga drummer Reebop Kwaku Bah [Jimmy Cliff, Traffic, Can].

The brother of the girl I was seeing was a producer for Rough Trade [Adam Kidron, who’s worked with the Slits, Pere Ubu, Scritti Politti, James Blood Ulmer] and I started doing sessions for him, arranging brass, playing bass and keyboards,” Michael J. McEvoy says. “Kidron was into disco and funk, so he liked what I brought to the music. This was the punk/new wave era, so to be a muso was not a good thing. I began my career as a session musician and arranger, working with artists such as Scritti Politti, Delta 5 and Orange Juice. Later on, Kidron introduced me to Ian Dury via an album we did for the Blockheads’ saxophonist Davey Payne. Later on, from the mid ’80s to late ’90s, I worked in the studio and live with tons of bands, artists and DJ producers as a musician/arranger/songwriter — including Curiosity Killed the Cat, Soul2Soul, Mark Morrison, Des’ree, and Steve Winwood.”

“What was it like,” I asked, “working with Ian Dury?”

“After working with Davey Payne, Adam Kidron was called in to produce Ian Dury’s solo album 4000 Weeks Holiday, and he put me forward to write with Ian,” McEvoy says. “I met Ian and we got along, he liked jazz and we did a lot of jamming at his house. I ended up writing half the album and helping him put a band together called the Music Students. Working with Ian could be challenging, as he was quite volatile, but he was an interesting and charismatic character. It was a tricky time, but Ian and I were able to work together on a number of projects off and on — including Apples which was his theater project.”

“Why the move into film and TV work, away from pop?” I asked.

“Pop music felt a bit limiting, whether it was the conventional length and structure of songs, the harmonic and/or melodic possibilities that you might be able to get away with,” Michael J. McEvoy says. “Also, I depended on calls from artists who might want to hire me. Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, I was fortunate that I had some great acts invite me to be a part of their musical endeavors. One was Curiosity Killed the Cat, a great band for their time who, in my opinion, never got the credit for what they were about. They were pigeon holed by the industry as a pin-up boy band, when in fact they were damn funky with great influences. The best two tracks on the Get Ahead album that I co-wrote were produced by New Orleans giant Allen Toussaint, who essentially came out of retirement to work with us in the UK. Quite a coup! Soul2Soul’s Jazzie B was also a great guy who appreciated what I brought to the party. He got me in as a co-writer on some tracks also: “Love Come Through” on Vol. II: 1990 – A New Decade, and a Teena Marie track that Jazzie and Nellee produced called “From Day One.” Then, I had five years working with Steve Winwood, first with his re-formed Traffic in 1994 and then on a solo album and tour for his album Junction 7.

“In 1998, I moved to Nashville with my wife and daughter after getting a co-write called “We Will Find Love” on an album by a Christian artist Kathy Troccoli,” McEvoy says. “The album, Corner of Eden, won the Dove award in 2000. We lived there for five years until 2003, and I decided to make the transition away from sessions/touring and make composing and writing music for film and TV my main musical focus. I found my life had drifted into responding to the requests of others to service their musical vision, and I had put my own music on the back burner. While in Nashville, I studied music by some avant-garde and modern composers: John Corigliano, Toru Takemitsu, Charles Ives and others. I was also inspired and influenced by the music of composer/arranger Mike Gibbs, who generously let me into his musical world, sharing some of his scores. I was in particular taken by his reinterpretations of Toru Takemitsu’s compositions for brass/jazz ensemble.

“In Nashville, I took conducting lessons, became a teaching assistant to Michael Alec Rose at Vanderbilt University – a fantastic professor and composer and very generous with his time,” McEvoy continues. “I wrote my first orchestral pieces, and my wife found me a studio space at 615 Music. The owner, Randy Watchler, gave me work scoring A&E and Biography Channel documentaries and commissioned some library music from me. I grew a lot as a musician/composer and also got back into practicing piano regularly. I scored a few small budget features in the late ’80s and some documentary projects for director Gary Johnstone, but it wasn’t until 2001 that I realized that scoring to picture was what now excited me most as a creative collaboration using my composition skills.

“I had had enough of trying to make it as a hit songwriter, and decided I wanted to study composition seriously,” Michael J. McEvoy says. “In 2002, I was accepted by the Royal College of Music to do their masters degree in composition for screen. We moved back to U.K. in August 2003, and I spent 13 months studying for my masters at RCM. That led to my being represented as a screen composer by Marc Marot, who between 2006-10 supervised a number of feature films which featured music I either produced, wrote or co-wrote.”

“How do you feel,” I asked, “when performing or listening to your own compositions?”

McEvoy replies: “When I’m performing my own material I feel a certain quiet excitement and anticipation. I’m also aware of what an incredible privilege it is to have the attention of the audience, so my concentration is 100 percent focused on making sure the musicians and I are conveying the essence and soul of each composition. My compositions grow from quite specific emotions or events, whether personal or events taking place in the world. Social injustice, prejudice and ecological destruction are themes in a lot of my compositions, so there’s a lot of concentrated meditative energy going into each performance.

“When performing others’ music, my focus was on trying to capture the feel and essence of the music,” McEvoy says. “Of course, when working for others the vision comes from the artist, so I would obviously be doing all I could to tune in to what they were aiming for. When performing with Traffic in 1994 and Steve Winwood during 1996-99, Steve always carried and projected the essence and inner pulse of his music and songs, so it was clear what he needed from his musicians. With Soul2Soul, it was also quite clear, although there were additional challenges taking things live, which meant incorporating the sound and vibe that the looped beats gave the recorded tracks.”

“How about when you see/hear your music in a TV/film setting?” I asked.

“It’s always exciting hearing my music with a film or TV project, but I’m not always 100 percent happy. That’s because I’m a bit of perfectionist,” Michael J. McEvoy admits. “Music is not such an important element in many respects. Deadlines are often immovable, as there are broadcast dates pending and many different departments all moving together towards the finish line. So, as a composer, you have to commit to an idea and move forward. It’s not like being a recording artist. It often depends on the director and/or producer, and how much they value the music. I’m lucky that I have a couple of very satisfying creative relationships with directors and producers who I’ve worked with a number of times over the years. Director Gary Johnstone is someone I have a long-standing friendship with and he’s brought me in on a number of his big documentary projects. He’s imaginative, always looking to experiment and I enjoy working with him. I’ve also done a few kids and children series with Candida Julian-Jones, who has a great sense of music and where and how it works.”

“How does film/TV writing work,” I asked next. “Do you see the script first or do you have pieces to tailor for films?”

“Every director and/or producer I work with has a different approach,” McEvoy says. “I prefer to read scripts up front before seeing any pictures, then I begin to get a vision of what it could be. I often develop musical ideas and thematic possibilities at this stage, before seeing any footage. I might even send them to the director while they’re still shooting on the set. That way, we begin a dialogue before they get into the editing room and the pressure of the deadline. These demo ideas might even be used by the editor in the early stages as temp music — so the feel of the visual is underpinned by my music from the get-go. There are many advantages to this, as the executives will be involved in the process — seeing (and hearing) the work in progress with my music — so if there are any issues with the direction of the music, then I get to know about it early in the process.”

“What kind of music do you listen to?” I asked.

“At different points in my life I’ve listened to different things,” Michael J. McEvoy says. “At the moment, I’m going back to listening only to vinyl. I found I wasn’t connecting to music on such a deep level when it’s in a digital format. I’m not certain why, but I have a few theories. I’ve gone back to a lot of the music that I listened to and was inspired by in my late teens — music created during the ’70s like George Duke, Earth Wind and Fire, Weather Report, Steely Dan, the Crusaders. I also go and see a couple of artists every year at Ronnie Scott’s when they come through London, including the Yellow Jackets, and Jeff Lorber. Also, I liked Billy Cobham and vocal a capella group Take 6.”

“Do you have a philosophy on life and music?” I asked.

“Yes, though it’s always evolving,” McEvoy says. “My ethos is rooted in the idea that nature is where I meet the undefined truths of life — not mankind or man’s concepts, which are always generalized in my opinion and cater to the masses. So, as I have the privilege of being a maker of music, I’ve decided that I should take on a certain responsibility to follow the quiet inner voice — found in the stillness — and to convey those realizations as best I can musically at any given time in the hope that there is a healing, positive energy emitted. It’s taken a while to get here and it wasn’t always clear, especially in my earlier life when I followed the mainstream and concerned myself with social acceptability and lifestyle security. These days, I try to put my trust into a higher sense of being. I believe in the waves, rhythms and tides of life. I like to listen to the wind, the birds. We all have a heartbeat, and that connects us to the soul of oneness. We all feel emotions, need and want to give love. In the words of the great Eden Ahbez song, “Nature Boy”: “To love and be loved in return.” That truth connects us all, whether we’ve lost our way, or forgotten that it exists because of trauma or painful experience. That is the energy that I always hope to convey in my music.”

“What made you come back to stay in the UK?” I wondered.

“After living on Nashville with my wife and daughter from 1998-2003,” Michael J. McEvoy replies, “we missed the multi-culturalism and more open-liberal world view that exists in the U.K. There’s obviously still a long way to go for the U.K. to become a fully integrated and just society but, at the core, I believe there is a genuine desire to move it in that direction. The U.S.A. is a very unfair society. There is no American dream to be had anymore. Simple as that!”

“Where have you found the most appreciative audiences?” I asked.

“To be honest I’m not really aware of any,” McEvoy says. “I’m not sure that there are many who even know I’m performing on recordings, scores etc. But that doesn’t bother me. I’m just letting things in my life flow. If people discover me or my music, and like it, that’s lovely! I know there are people who buy my music and I see regular sales on my indie releases Terra Cognita and, more recently, the album The Long Way Home. I’m lucky to be with a great agent, Maggie Rodford at Air Edel, but her main focus is to look after me for film and TV work.”

“With your music, how do you think it connects with people?” I asked. “How aware are you of musicians onstage with you. How would you describe the connections the music makes between band members and audiences?”

“Tuning into the musicians I’m playing with is paramount to performing and capturing the essence of my compositions,” Michael J. McEvoy says. “There is always room for each performance of any given piece to be different, and that often depends on the vibe coming from the audience. I always hope that my music is a positive, reflective and uplifting experience. That’s what I focus my concentration and energy on. I need to have a great vibe, a friendship, with my musicians. There needs to be a heart-felt commitment from them — and you can’t buy that. It’s either authentically there or it’s not. I like a warm, family vibe with my band. Relaxed but focused. I’m not an authoritarian. I don’t believe creativity can flow if you have to be dictatorial with your musician colleagues.”

“What of the future? Are there any projects up and coming or things you would like to do as far as the music or anything else?” I asked.

“I’ve just started writing the music for an ITV drama called Dark Angel.” McEvoy said. “It’s with a great director named Brian Percival, and the story is very compelling. I’m also halfway through writing an album with my long-time compadre, bassist Ernie McKone. It’s a Latin jazz/funk outfit called Tropica. There are some vocal tracks featuring Valerie Etienne, and some instrumentals. I’m also planning to record some more solo material — hopefully before the end of the year — to follow up on my 2014 album The Long Way Home.”

“How about away from music: Do you have other hobbies/interests?” I wondered.

“I like to go walking in the countryside,” Michael J. McEvoy replies. “My wife and I moved recently to the Kent coast, and there’s lots of wonderful walking all around there. I enjoy cooking, as well. It’s a completely contrasting activity in many ways — although there are certain common aspects like creating something people will consume and enjoy and also fill them with goodness. It also brings people together in a community feeling.”

“Do you feel people connect to music — especially jazz-orientated sounds — and that there are continuing developments for attracting younger people?” I asked.

“To me jazz is an umbrella term for music that allows large portions of spontaneity, improvisation, close listening and instrumental conversation,” McEvoy said. “That approach to music making is always going attract the most inspired committed musicians, because it’s challenging yet freeing.
There is nothing more exciting than watching and listening to great musicians converse and bring music in the moment.

If you listen closely, it’s clear that moment has long since arrived for Michael J. McEvoy. You probably already know his music, and it is my bet that you will be hearing a whole lot more.

Sammy Stein

Sammy Stein

The Something Else! webzine, an accredited Google News affiliate, has been featured in The New York Times and NPR.com's A Blog Supreme, while our writers have also been published by USA Today, Jazz.com and UltimateClassicRock.com, among others. Contact Something Else! at [email protected]
Sammy Stein
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