If there's one thing British singer/songwriter Tom McRae learned on his recent U.S. tour it's that Americans have more imagination than Europeans.
Overseas, McRae is constantly compared to fellow red-hot guitar-toting performers David Gray and Badly Drawn Boy. In the States, he hears Nick Drake and Jeff Buckley.
"I'm trying to get away from David Gray and Badly Drawn Boy," McRae said Tuesday (August 28) from his London home. "I don't think my music is anything like theirs, except that it's a little bit acoustic and we're all trying to write songs."
Comparisons to Badly Drawn Boy likely stem from McRae's nomination this year for the prestigious Technics Mercury Music Prize, England's equivalent to an Album of the Year Grammy. Like Badly Drawn Boy last year, McRae is an underdog newcomer competing against more established acts like Radiohead. McRae doesn't think he stands a chance, though neither did Badly Drawn Boy and he won it. (This year's winner will be announced later this month.)
McRae is just happy to be on what is dubbed "the shortlist" along with Radiohead, PJ Harvey, Basement Jaxx, Turin Brakes, Super Furry Animals and a few others (see "Gorillaz, Radiohead Up For Mercury Music Prize").
Upon learning of the nomination, "I was quite pleased," McRae recalled. "I think I shouted quite loudly in an airport in Switzerland. Something like that is something you hope for, but when you get it this early it is quite a surprise, really."
McRae's self-titled album, released August 28, is his first recording outside of some early bedroom demos. It's an intensely personal record rooted in his experiences moving from rural Sussex to London and spending more than six years struggling for a record deal.
"If you write an album like that and it's fairly consistent in its tone, people think you are a manic-depressive and that this is my life," McRae explained. "Well, some of it is, but some of it is also from my imagination. It was written at a time when I was quite frustrated, and a lot of that comes out in the lyrics. There's also some other things going on in the songs and some of them are bit more narrative. They may be about me, but it's a little ambiguous."
The album's haunting opening track, "You Cut Her Hair," is about a photo McRae saw of a Jewish girl whose head had been shaven in a World War II concentration camp. McRae whispers the tune over gentle guitar strums, a heartrending cello and the crackling sound of an old record spinning.
"I just couldn't get around to how someone could do that to another person," McRae said. "It's not the most brutal of acts, but just having her hair shaved off was a way of stripping her from everything and removing her self-esteem and preparing her for death, really. It just seemed so horrible and inhuman I had to explain it to myself in this song."
Tom McRae is a sad album, he admitted, but a lot of the songs have hope in them, he said.
"Draw Down the Stars," for instance, is about one of McRae's favorite things cities. While they are known for being fast and stressful, polluted and dangerous, he tries to see just the good in them.
"Having grown up in the countryside, cities are something that represent an exciting, different form of life to me," McRae explained. "That song is about being away and taking something with you and loving a city and knowing that it is actually killing you at the same time. I see cities as frontier towns. That's where the future is unveiled. Rather than being in some countryside setting writing about sunsets and crickets, I would rather write about what's going on in the city."
McRae recorded the album with producer Chris Hughes, who also became his manager and helped him get a record deal. He released several singles from the record in England, and though they sold well, he has yet to really break through to radio. His first U.S. single, "End of the World News (Dose Me Up)," is having the same issues.
"The trouble with that kind of music is because it's often personal, a lot of it is often quiet and doesn't fit the format for playlists," McRae said. "It's not the sort of music you want to hear if you are in a factory making shoes."
McRae doesn't seem too worried that he hasn't made the same splash Gray did. "I try to make [my career] more organic and get away from constant overexposure and all the shouting at people to buy your record," he said. "I want to creep into people's subconscious and start from there."
Tom McRae tour dates, according to his publicist:
- 9/25 - Dallas, TX @ Trees
- 9/26 - Austin, TX @ La Zona Rosa
- 9/27 - New Orleans, LA @ House of Blues
- 9/28 - Nashville, TN @ 328 Performance Hall
- 9/29 - Atlanta, GA @ The Roxy
- 10/3 - Washington, DC @ 9:30 Club
- 10/5 - New York, NY @ Irving Plaza
- 10/6 - New York, NY @ Irving Plaza
- 10/8 - Boston, MA @ Avalon
- 10/10 - Toronto, ON @ Phoenix Theater
- 10/11 - Detroit, MI @ St. Andrews Hall
- 10/12 - Chicago, IL @ Metro
- 10/13 - Minneapolis, MN @ First Avenue