John McDermott: Traditionally Yours

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Submitted by Bill King

Editor’s Note: In celebration of St. Patrick’s Day on March 17th, we wanted to pay tribute to an amazing Canadian icon who has a great set of Irish/Scottish lungs – John McDermott.

John McDermott is a fascinating man - one who seems to have dropped in from another century. He’s outspoken, a politician, a musician, enterprising, spontaneous and always on the move. His life is a rigorous schedule.

When Derrick Ross, president of Slaight Music suggested I record John as part of our signature duet series – piano and voice – I thought why not – this is a big leap out of the box for me. Not so much in tone but musically. I’d worked a few tours with Irish tenor John McNally back in the 80s and had a feel for the material and importance of each line or lyric in those songs that bond people with country. I’d also recorded Gloryland, a solo piano panoramic back history (1860-1960) spanning 100 years about our family and growing up in the fertile heartland of America where African, Irish and Scottish influence abounds - from jazz to blues to folk. Each step backward means stripping away complex harmonic and melodic layers which come with much invention and historic attention and arrive back at a place where word and note sustain much longer than any given Oscar Peterson solo. It’s the trimming down to bare bones – the long note that caresses barren landscape – the women who bear children under harsh conditions, the winters of discontent, wars that breed untold causalities and the drinking that sustains men’s aspirations. It’s roots songs of people hundreds of years before.

John and I met on a couple occasions and talked songs. McDermott brought with him songbooks that came with original art – melodies absent chords. That was my blueprint – the rest was research. We had one rehearsal then off to Inception Sound – a nine foot Steinway grand piano – an amazing engineer, Mike Haas – then we recorded thirteen songs in three and a half hours. John looks at me, “that sounds good to me.” I’ve listened many times and never questioned the outcome. Traditionally Yours is much like a John Turner painting. It’s a big bold painting right down to the cracking edges of aging landscapes that hang on walls in a sitting room.  It’s that brief moment of light shining on a boat lost at sea. It’s McDermott at his finest. We recently spoke about life and leisure.

John McDermott in the Studio Recording Traditionally YoursJohn McDermott in the Studio Recording Traditionally YoursBill King: Would you call this time of year – down time – let’s play some golf?

John McDermott: This time of year is for U.S. Touring( late January through March 1st) and then a break for 10 days to relax and recoup.

Bill: Where does John go to unwind?

J.M: Our reading room, it has a great view of the lake and is beautiful in all seasons, very comforting, nice place to hang out with my dogs.

Bill: Are the concerts as plentiful as in days past?

J.M: I am doing as many as I choose and the last two years as will be in 2015, have been as busy as I want them to be; about 50 to 70 shows a year.

B.K: You had a busy 2014 – what were some of the highlights?

J.M: Celebrating the 20th anniversary of touring; connecting again with musicians I have worked with over the years.

Bill: Traditionally  Yours – how is this different from past recordings?

J.M:  Completely. It is the only recording I have ever done with just piano and voice, it was refreshing to hear the melody and lyric so clearly and beautifully accompanied on piano, it is truly one of my favourite recordings and takes me back to the root material; songs and melodies I love so dearly.

Bill: How did you go about selecting the material?

J.M: For that recording I went back to my original days of recording in 1990 and looked at all the old pieces that we have never done, so many wonderful pieces to choose from, so many more to do.

Bill: You prepare and spend little time in the studio. Would you call yourself a first or second take guy? And why?

J.M: You are only as good as good as your engineer and musical director; it is key to have both of them on their game. I draw on the talent of confident creative people and that allows me to focus on what I need to do. Having said that; it is them that make it possible to do it in one or two takes.

Bill: You travel with a compact unit who know your music inside out – how many years have you been together and why these players?

J.M:  Approximately 14.  My sound tech, Mick Schmidtmeyer has been with me since day one and he is the best out there. Musically, Jason Fowler has and continues to make it more enjoyable and fun with every show, he is a brilliant guitar player/musician and talented arranger - always making it better than the last and never mails it in.

Bill: Do you every worry about being far from home and dealing with health matters or the unexpected?

J.M: Absolutely not. I use Medipac Travel insurance and they are the absolute best, every Canadian who travels should use them.

Bill: What was your first paying gig?

J.M: McVeighs Tavern in Toronto, I won $1000.00 in a karaoke contest and the money barely covered the bar bill for myself and my 11 friends. (Mistletones)

Bill: You seem to know all the corners to cut to make recording and manufacturing profitable. Have you ever been treated to the big budget album?

J.M: All the early productions with EMI were big budget as were the PBS shows with the Tenors.

Bill: You’ve shared the stage with many luminaries. Can you share a couple rare moments that will never fade from memory?

J.M: Herodes Addicus in Athens in 2004 with Nana Mouskouri, a truly magical tour and finale that was quite surreal. Touring with the Chieftains gave me early insight into the stage and the business of touring. Touring with Judith Durham and the Seekers, working with the amazing Marvin Hamlisch.  There are so many moment that stand out - performing for those who served and serve is still  a highlight.

Bill: Do you play and instrument yourself?

J.M: Not if I can avoid it ….piano a little.

Traditionally Yours John McDermott with Bill KingTraditionally Yours John McDermott with Bill KingBill: What stays on the smart phone – any music that keeps your interested?

J.M: All of the Seventies, Beatles, Prine, Mozart, Oscar Peterson, Bennett, Sinatra, Mills Brothers , Queen … I listen to a really mix bag.

Bill: You seem to manage most your affairs through quick response either by phone of email. Are you much more comfortable in this environment rather than depending on outside management?

J.M: ABSOLUTELY.!!!, I think all artists new and old should take a more active hands on approach to every aspect of their career, leaving everything outside of the show to others is a dangerous plan. Know your business. I am not saying don’t have an artist or business manager. It works for me because I like to be hands on and had great managers in Bill Ballard and Michael Cohl for 10 years. I learned a lot from both of them. I trust my musicians and my techs because they are focused on their job. I do too but I also like to know what’s being done and said. I would insist on reviewing and making final decisions on all and any performance offers you receive, as well as any and all things related to recording, manufacturing etc…., don’t bog yourself down with it, just be aware of what is happening and keep your finger on the pulse.

Bill: What do you see in your future?

J.M: Touring and recording for the foreseeable future and a greater focus on fundraising for

Quote from John McDermott on Traditionally Yours:
Jazz great Bill King came to me to collaborate on some of the finest old Irish and Scottish songs ever written, loaded with nostalgia and fond memories – and accompanied by Bill’s haunting piano work. Songs include: Cockles and Mussels, The Dark Island, Carrickfergus, Down By The Sally Gardens, Broom O’ The Cowdenknowes, When You Were Sweet Sixteen, Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral, Leaving Of Liverpool, Oft In The Stilly Night, Flower Of Scotland, My Wild Irish Rose, A Little Bit Of Heaven, and When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.

To order John McDermott CD’s or just check in for a wee visit go to