Larry John McNally is an American treasure, and true songwriter's songwriter. Born to a working class family from Bangor, Maine, his keen intellect and curious mind led him to the works of Patti Smith, Allen Toussaint, and Mose Allison. He knew there was magic going on in the world, he just needed to figure out how to grab a piece of it. Eventually, Larry put his big city dreams into action, and one day, his determination led him (unannounced) to Aaron Neville’s New Orleans-based recording studio where he knocked on the door and never looked back. He ultimately went on to ink record deals with CBS and Atlantic, as well as sign a publishing agreement with David Geffen and our host, Ronny Vance.
Larry’s thoughtful, evocative songs have been recorded by everyone from The Eagles, Chaka Khan, Don Henley, Bonnie Raitt, Rod Stewart, Joe Cocker, Jennifer Warnes, the Staple Singers, and Aaron Neville. Currently recording what he alleges to be some of the best work of his career (under the name, "McNally Waters"), Larry joined Ronny for a very special chat during which he eloquently detailed his creative process, songwriting lessons, and eclectic mix of musical inspirations, which range from Anne Frank and the gypsies in Amsterdam, to Allen Toussaint and the Bible. Here are some of our favourite quotes from the truly profound discussion:
On a songwriter’s responsibility:
Your job as the songwriter is to articulate for the inarticulate, and it's a [big] responsibility. That's why I don't like crappy songwriting that gives you false hope or false truths, because people who are reaching out to music to get through whatever they're needing to get through,...are counting on you to help [them] through that, to [either] make it [easier], or even the opposite of that- to remind them, and help them celebrate what it's like to be alive. That's what the songs are there for, and you, as the writer of the songs, that's your job and your responsibility. It's a big one and it shouldn't be taken lightly.
On the importance of reading:
I read all the time, and the Bible is behind the scenes of almost all writing, because it creates stories to give our lives structure. All writing is in some way influenced by the storytelling that the Bible set up for us.
On his unlikely inspiration for the Eagles’ “I Love to Watch a Woman Dance”
While I was in Amsterdam for the first time, I went to the Anne Frank House and there's a quote that I thought I took from her:
“I feel my heart beating, and I wonder / Will it ever satisfy my longing? / I'm gonna hold on to you for as long as I can / For who knows, this dance may be our only dance.”
Something that she said inspired that [line]. The power of her entered this song, and you would never know that. That's one of the things I love to do, is plant that stuff. You don't know where it came from, you don't know why it's so powerful. But the power of Anne Frank is in the bridge of “I Love to Watch a Woman Dance,” without you knowing, because it moved me, and my hope is that it would move you.
On mastering your craft:
If you're going to work with the lyric part of songwriting, you need to become a master of language. That doesn't mean it's going to be easy, or that every time you sit down [to write] it’s going to come flowing out in perfect phrases. But there’s nothing worse for me when I read lyrics that are just kind of hacked together, and I don't know what the purpose of them is. It's important you are the articulator, and it's important that what you say matters.
On his evolution as a songwriter:
When I first started writing, I was so excited to write anything that rhymed and clicked and worked. My first song that was ever released was “Struttin on Sunday” by Aaron Neville, and it's a catchy little groove that doesn't have much to say. But at that point, I figured, okay, I can glue words together and make a song, and it was good enough for Aaron Neville to record. So that's something, but I wanted to go much deeper than that, and talk about the things that we're talking about now…I needed to go deeper.
On getting your music heard:
Somehow before the Internet, I found [Aaron Neville’s] address and I went to New Orleans and knocked on the door of the studio (Saint Studios) with my tape, and they opened it up like, ‘who is this guy?!’ But they let me in, and next thing you know, [he] recorded my song! But I actively went after it…My mother always said: “Larry, don't be a dreamer.” Well I would add to that, that maybe the thing is to be a doer and a dreamer. You have to dream, but then you have to do something about it.
On writing from the heart:
At some point, I had a revelation. Like something a father should tell a child. What is important to you, will be important to others. The most personal, is the most universal. In general, a person who doesn't write is looking for you to say what they would write if they could. It should be extremely personal and not calculated. You can't control it anyway. Just do what you love, in hopes that others will love it [too]. In fact, once I started just relaxing and doing what I love, that's when I had my biggest success. When I let go of control, and just wrote what was in my heart, everything began to happen commercially/financially or whatever, and it was kind of a lesson. If you deal from your heart, that's when it all opens up to you.
On the inspiration for his latest song, “Bang Bang”:
“Bang Bang” is a super important song, personally. When Eric Garner died at the hands of the police in New York for selling one dollar cigarettes in Brooklyn, it was terribly upsetting. Then things got worse as if they weren't always that way. If you're in your twenties, you're the target of the police.. Not that I'm against the police. They have a job to do, but it’s scary, and all those things inspired the song, and I think it's one of the best things I've ever written.
On being a “late bloomer”:
[My writing] is pouring out of me. I'm so excited about everything right now in my life. I guess I'm supposed to be winding down, but it's exactly the opposite. I think they're the best things I've ever done at this late stage of the game, and I'm just on fire with it.
For Larry’s full interview, and more episodes in our podcast series, click HERE.