When Whitehorse musician Ryan McNally returned north from a trip to New Orleans last year, he carried with him a valuable souvenir: his next album.
During his month-long stay in the Big Easy, McNally immersed himself in the city’s culture – most notably the local music scene – and emerged with his first solo album in half a decade.
Writing Steppin’ Down South wasn’t McNally’s goal when arriving in New Orleans, he says. The intent was to take a dedicated chunk of time to work on skills learned in Memphis, Tennessee with one of his musical mentors, blues guitar expert Andy Cohen.
“I took a train to New Orleans, rented a little studio there, and tried to make myself a bit of a schedule to practice a lot of what I’ve learned,” McNally says.
“I wasn’t going down to write a new album or anything necessarily. I didn’t want to put so much pressure (on myself).”
Along with the practice, every day McNally would dive into the vibrant music scene, soaking in the different styles that emanate from the bars and coffee shops that populate the New Orleans avenues. While the city is most famous for its Bourbon Street jazz, McNally was subject to a variety of musical styles, such as blues, zydeco and Cajun.
He found each genre would come with its own rhythm and dance step, something he learned first hand.
“That’s what’s cool about that town… Dancing is such an ingrained part in the community,” he says.
At first, McNally was hesitant to partake, but he was quickly convinced to join in the fun.
“If you look like you’re having a good time listening to the music, somebody’s going to come up and ask you to dance.”
One of the biggest takeaways for the singer/songwriter was how each musician wouldn’t deviate from the basic tenets of their chosen genre. Rather than forming the dance around the music, the music would contour to the dance step, McNally says.
This concept is readily apparent in Steppin’ Down South. While each track is unique in its own right, the vibe is concretely similar across the album without sounding formulaic. The simple two-step dance feel infiltrates each song, getting toes to tap effortlessly.
“That inspired a lot of the tunes that I wrote,” says McNally. “I wanted them to be easily danced to.”
McNally was also inspired by 1920s jug band music, with its lo-fi instruments like washtub basses and washboards. Rhythmic and lively, this style popped up in southern states prior to the Great Depression, particularly amongst African American communities.
And though McNally’s instruments are not as rudimentary and inventive as the original jug bands (save perhaps the washboard), the hand-made feel is certainly still there.
The whole album was recorded “live off the floor,” with the entire band playing together, rather than recording instruments separately. McNally posits that this method leads to a more cohesive feeling.
“I was really much more happy with the energy that was at the live show,” he says. Going down a lifeless checklist of parts to record didn’t suit McNally’s fancy. “I knew that wasn’t going to capture that energy if we did it that way, so that’s why I wanted to do it all live.”
Joining McNally in the studio were Patrick Hamilton on banjo, kick drum and vocals, Kieran Poile on fiddle, Justin Rubenstein on both trombone and trumpet (often in the same song) and Christian Leclerc on tuba.
Just like anything hand-made, perfection wasn’t the desired result. McNally reveals there are some tracks that have slight flaws – flaws that aren’t detrimental in his eyes.
“There’s a couple flubs,” he says. “But you know, the more I listen to it, those are my favourite things.”
Ryan McNally will be holding an album release party at the Old Fire Hall on Saturday, April 2, at 6 and 8:45 p.m. Tickets are $20, available at Dean’s Strings.
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