GGPAA: 2018 laureate Murray McLauchlan reflects on a magical musical career

Murray McLauchlan. Photo: Peter Robb

As a much-decorated singer, radio personality and raconteur, Murray McLauchlan has been a very public figure for more than 45 years. But when he got the call that he was being honoured with a lifetime achievement award from the governor general, he had to pause and and think about what that meant.

“I am not sure it has sunk in, but it did crack that superstructure of reticence,” he said in an interview. “I really had to sit down and pour myself a single malt. It’s the kind of recognition that doesn’t happen very often.

“When I got the phone call from Doug Knight (the chair of the performing arts awards foundation) late last summer I was blown away. So I have had to keep quiet about it.

“It means a lot because it’s not an industry award. It’s being recognized by your country for what you are trying to do as an artist.”

His career began in the early 1970s in his hometown of Toronto. His brand of urgent grassroots folk exploded into the Canadian music scene with the Farmer’s Song, Honky Red and Down by the Henry Moore. He was part of a wave of music that was emerging into a nationalist Canada that was feeling its cultural roots and he has been on for the ride ever since winning 10 JUNOs and touring the world on the strength of his music and his words. His career has spanned the blossoming of Canadian culture over the past 45 years and more.

“When I think about those (early) days the thing that really bubbles to the top, they always say that there is a matter of timing. Being in a certain place at a certain time and riding that wave. It occurs to me we came along when there was this nascent cultural nationalism that was a really powerful force.

“We also got really lucky because FM radio was just emerging and the (owners) didn’t know what to do with the (stations). So they got DJs to stay up all night. You’d get guys like Reiner Schwartz who would play the latest album from England and then he’d play an entire side of a new Bruce Cockburn album.

“The result was all those university students who were studying all night” heard the music. Suddenly university concerts opened up on campuses across the country.

“The kids then thought the music was good and important.” he said. “We got into this interesting little curve.”

And also at that time Canadian subjects were being written about and were connected to a specific geography in the country.

“I was trying to make art but my context was Canada. I was just looking at the Martin Scorcese film The Last Waltz again and noting first of all who was dead. But second of all marvelling at the fact that only one guy in The Band wasn’t Canadian (Levon Helm) and who was on that bill … Joni (Mitchell) and Neil (Young).

“There was a real predominance of (Canadian) singer-songwriters making huge inroads in the U.S. and the world.”

McLauchlan says that he wrote Down by the Henry Moore as a shout out against feeling less than the American experience.

“It was my antidote to that feeling. It was specifically meant to be that. If you want something to be happening make it happen where you are.”

He studied visual arts first at Toronto’s Central Tech High School  where Lawren Harris is an alumnus. McLauchlan’s art teacher Doris McCarthy is someone he credits with opening his eyes to the world of creation, he said in an interview at the Canada Council on Thursday morning.

That visual sensibility informs, he says, the way he writes to this day. “I always try to write visually, to put someone into their context. Doris really taught me a lot about art and writing as well.”

At Central Tech, art was taught as a way to have a career as a commercial artist. But Doris McCarthy didn’t follow the rule book. She took him somewhere else.

He is an active painter still, with work that is Harris-like, an influence he acknowledges.

“I keep meaning to do other stuff but every time I go out I’m absolutely gobsmacked by the landscape. You can’t not be that way in this country.

“People do draw the lineage between myself and Lawren Harris, because of the idea of taking natural shapes and abstracting them. It is prevalent in the way that I approach a painting. They are ‘realistic’ but not really. I use the tricks I was taught, for example, by not letting the eye escape from the composition by blocking the path out and drawing it to a certain point.”

Another passion has taken him far afield for his painting projects. McLauchlan was an avid pilot and is an overall aviation nerd. He knows the names and histories of planes and has even attended seaplane pilots’ conventions.

“The first income that I had from making music went immediately to taking flying lessons.”

His childhood was spent in Paisley, Scotland, near Glasgow, where the heroes of the day were Spitfire pilots fighting in the Battle of Britain.

His parents had met at a dance in Windsor, Ontario, where McLauchlan’s older brother and sister were born, but they moved back to Scotland because his father found work there. This was during the depression. McLauchlan was born in 1948. Five years later, the family, without dad, was back in Canada.

Over time, McLauchlan’s career has moved in many directions including into radio.

“One of the reasons that I did five years on Swinging on a Star because we had a child and I didn’t want to spend a ton of time on the road at the time. So I was able to be a dad. I was the guy in the shower with the whooping cough. It was important to me.”

He had not had that chance with his daughter from a previous marriage.

He is still performing regularly with his friends Ian Thomas, Marc Jordan and Cindy Church in the band Lunch At Allen’s which formed after McLauchlan had an emergency surgery. After recovery and to celebrate his buddies gathered at Allen’s restaurant on the Danforth in Toronto and one thing led to another. After a few beverages, the next thing you know a band was formed. Fourteen years and three records later, they are still going strong.

He doesn’t dream of hit songs anymore because “there isn’t really a mechanism for that. But ironically I got one but it wasn’t me.” The American rockers Widespread Panic have covered Honky Red and, he says, it has become their most requested concert song and they have also put it on a record.

Murray Many Heads is a nickname that Lorraine Segato attached to McLauchlan years back because of his many passions.

“I’m just interested in a lot of things. It keeps life interesting. My son is the same way.”

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.