INTERVIEW: Chuck McDermott

Pic by Kelly Davidson

Hi Chuck, welcome to VENTS! How have you been?
I’ve been great, thank you. This CD release hoedown is keeping me busy!

Can you talk to us more about your latest single “Belvedere”?
I wrote most of the original tunes on this album in the past two years. “Belvedere” is an exception. I wrote this in the early 80’s while living in LA. But when I began working with producer Lorne Entress on this project, he asked to hear as many of my songs as I could give him, and this is one of two that he gravitated to out of my older grab bag of tunes.

Did any event in particular inspire you to write this song?
Not in this case. But I was focused at that point on expanding the type of imagery I was using in my songwriting. For the prior decade I had focused on the challenge of writing within the guardrails of what I considered classic country music – starting with Hank Williams and early Haggard through Billy Joe Shaver, Guy Clark and writers of that ilk. By the time I wrote “Belvedere” I had begun working with songwriting legend John Stewart. Immersing myself in John’s body of work led to me to lines like “laughter thrown among the stones” as opposed to, say, “the good times are over”. It was a period of exciting experimentation and stretching out.

Any plans to release a video for the single?
Yes, we’ve shot video for “Belvedere” and three other cuts from the record that are being edited now and will be ready for prime time soon.

The single comes off your new album Gin & Rosewater – what’s the story behind the title?
“Gin & Rosewater” is the name of my fiancé’s perfume. Occasionally when you put two words next to each other, 1 +1 = something more than 2. And as a writer, you try to keep an ear tuned for exciting word choices, phrases and imagery. So when Anne’s answer to my question, “What is that fragrance” was Gin & Rosewater, not only my nose but my ears perked up! They’re provocative in combination because each word gives off a different aura. Gin – potentially intoxicating, dangerous, masculine. Rosewater – beautiful, aromatic, delicate, feminine. If both Anne and I had to be associated with just one of those words, it’s pretty clear how that would shake out. This is one way I can express my gratitude that she makes me feel the way I do at this point in the game.

How was the recording and writing process?
I give credit for what was a highly creative recording process to my producer Lorne Entress. Lorne has produced some of the best musicians in this genre – Lori McKenna, Mark Erelli, Ronnie Earle and others. Lorne’s production methodology is pick the right songs, then pick the right players. And give those musicians just enough in advance so that they know the structure of the songs but don’t suggest the arrangements. I mentioned how he approached the song selection process – “Give me all you’ve got” – and then we made our choices. Prior to recording the basic tracks, he had me record demos of each song with just voice and guitar. And that’s all the players heard before we hit record. So the revelatory part for me was hearing the taste, the chops and the choices they made as we ran through the songs. Lorne would guide it as necessary, but he let everyone bring their own game. We did all the basic tracks in three days with Kevin Barry and me on guitars, Richard Gates on bass and Marco Giovino on drums. So the basic tracks were really recorded live. Then we took our time over the next several months to add other instruments and to fine tune. We had the help of several very fine musicians – Duke Levine, Mark Erelli, Lyle Brewer and others, including my friend Stephen Stills. It was immensely gratifying.

What role does Politics plays in your music?
I mentioned my years working with John Stewart. After John had been writing iconic songs for about three decades he remarked one day, “I’ve spent so many years thinking about what to write about. Then it occurred to me, why not write about what I’m THINKING ABOUT”! And given the years that I’ve spent in the political and environmental advocacy world, there are“political” topics that I do in fact think about, sometimes obsessively, and those manage to creep into my writing. On this record, “Hold Back The Water” is my thinly veiled climate change rant. “James Foley Diaries” is me trying to get into the head of James Foley, the first American journalist martyred by ISIS. But it’s very important to me to feel that I’m not preaching. In “Hold Back the Water”, I never mention climate change. In “James Foley Diaries”, I never mention his name. For me, the story needs to reveal the message, not beat you over the head with it.

How has time work on your advantage – what have you learned from the past four decades in the scene that you still put in action?
It’s been the 34 years since my last record and like everyone, so it goes without saying that I’ve had many laps around the track. I’ve raised three children, I’ve been through a divorce, I’ve held different jobs. And at the end of the day, we’re sum of our parts. I may still write songs about love lost or found, but as seen with a more battered eye. I have my own family now, so I write about that. I’ve lost both parents, I’ve written about that. But one constant in my music that I continue to look for the humor in daily life and make some room for whimsy from time to time.

With Roots music gaining some popularity in the past few years – have you ever thought about jumping into that modern wagon?
I have a very simple rule about bandwagons – Don’t Jump On Them!! I learned a great lesson early in my career. I mentioned that I took a decade plus deep dive into hard-core country music. When I first headed down that road, it was NOT considered cool in the circles I was running in. But I fell in love with it and worked hard to learn the songs, write my own, study the musical history and submerge myself in that genre. Then a funny thing happened – it did become cool. I was in Boston in those years and suddenly there became a groundswell of interest among country music newcomers –driven by the music of Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker and others. My band and a small number of other long-haired country groups were there, ready to ride the wave, from Toronto to New Orleans. Other rockers tried to jump on that bandwagon, but they were late. So it proved an old axiom to me, which is “do what you love”. If you chase a trend, by definition you’re too late.

Where did you find the inspiration for the songs and lyrics?
Tom Waits has beautiful quote which I’ll loosely paraphrase as, “If you want songs to come to you, you need to be a home in which they want to live”. That’s just beautiful. Each of our “homes’ will be a little different, but for me it includes making long blocks of time with my guitar in my hands, keeping scrupulous track of lyric ideas and song topics as they float through my head, reading good literature, keeping a journal, keeping my eyes open, being honest about my own screw ups.

Any plans to hit the road?
Yes, I’ve got a number of dates through the summer in the Northeast, then I’ll be headed out to Arizona and California late August for some shows. Folks can find them all on

What else is happening next in Chuck McDermott’s world?
I’ve been writing quite a bit since we finished the album so I look forward to getting back in the studio sometime soon to see how that works out. Much of this year will be spent supporting the new album “Gin & Rosewater” and Anne and I will cap it off by getting married on New Years Eve. That news is a Vents’ exclusive!

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About RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

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