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Interview: James McGuffie, When Life Gives You Lemon Trees

James McGuffie has sonically astounded us since branching out from project Mcrobin, venturing wherever his creativity takes him. ‘Lemon Tree’ is the Melbourne singer-songwriter's debut song after a decade of extensive touring. The song was a finalist in the Vanda & Young Songwriting Competition alongside the likes of The Teskey Brothers, Lime Cordiale, and Thelma Plum.

We had the pleasure to discuss the inner working and beliefs around what prompted this new chapter and what years of being a musician has taught him as he conveys his philosophy and pure form of artistry.

What in particular drew you to being a musician?

"I started playing when I was really young the same way most kids start where their parents get them lessons to see If they are interested. There are home videos of me singing songs but making up new words to songs that already existed. Through teenage years lived in a small town, couple of my closest mates played instruments and they didn’t know anyone who sang, and I could kind of sing so in small town I was their only option. I ended up forming a great mate ship with those guys, so I think the thing that probably kept me in music was the sense of community. I don’t think I could do anything if there wasn’t a sense of community. Even though it’s such a solo pursuit a lot of the time there is so much comfort in chatting to another person who is doing the exact same thing".

What was it that made you want to branch off solo?

"The last project was something I started on my own, and then once there was a band formed it became more of a collaborative thing and I think as with any collaborations particularly in a band format it was a little bit like let’s just follow our noses it was cool but then it got to the point where I felt like there was a whole bunch of stuff that I was creating that didn’t fit the band. And I thought well sometimes I would be working a month on a song or like or going down this really interesting music rabbit hole for a few months and feel like this doesn’t fit the band it just made me realise if I just release under my own name and make it a solo project no matter how many collaborators, I get at different times there will never be a song that doesn’t fit because it’s just me."

Which artist have inspired you?

"Well I guess the artists that released under their own name so that they could really have an eclectic array of songs in a way they never let themselves be put in a box and I think that Joni Mitchel is a great example of someone who did that and was sort of unafraid to put out an album that she knew would have a part of her audience that definitely wouldn’t like it but there would be a new audience that would find her and might only like this, so that kind of fearlessness I have seen in Paul Simon and Neil Young. These artists who had their own hits along the way, but the focus of their journey has been on being prolific in creating in constantly creating and constantly sharing but also in not settling on anything just constantly moving towards something that interests them and I think that both musically and as artists the way they approach their art is very inspiring for me."

When did you realise you were on to a good thing with “lemon tree”?

"This song was one of the ones as a songwriter you hope for, and you hope you get more of them. I had been really hacking away at another song and it just wasn’t budging, so I just kind of like the equivalent of a fresh page, changed guitars and just stopped playing what I was playing almost like a pallet cleanser for myself. And these new chords that are relatively simple in the song just started happening, and when It came to writing the lyrics there was a rhyme scheme that I had stuck in my head possibly from another song, I liked the structure of the way that the lines rhymed with each other. So, I wrote multiple verses, I might have written 25 verses and there is maybe 6 in the song. I was just on a bit of a roll within some kind of context of this idea of being on the phone to my mum. Almost straight away I knew there was something about the song. I haven’t really written in this really collocal conversational type way before so there was always that fear of like is this me? is this like me enough. And then I reminded myself that if this is a solo project, then everything is me so nothings off limits.

But I also remembered an interview I was watching with David Bowie once and he was saying “if you’re feeling like whatever you are doing is really revealing too much of yourself then you are on the right path” That’s the feeling you actually want to find and the fact that I was referencing my own mum and even mentioned my wife’s name, took me a bit to remind myself that that’s what I love about other people’s songs that they are the only person that could of written that song."

What was going on in your life when writing the song?

"In the transition from doing the band project to making it a solo project there was a whole bunch of self-doubt that I all my song writing friends, we all experience it. I was just about to turn 30 when I wrote it, and there is something about when you have perused being an artist for about 10 years at that time and there is something about getting to the age of around 30 where I just started to feel like have, I missed the boat sort of thing so there was a bit of that floating around. I was just trying to find the common ground with myself and other people and I was thinking about my folks and how they aren’t musicians or artists, but they have had certain things they have worked towards and for them it was making their garden just really beautiful. Consistent work is there nothing different about that and the idea of picking up your guitar every day and working at something. So I knew and as soon as I drew that comparison and realised that there was plenty of source of inspiration from just seeing how the work they have put in and how that has paid off for them and just to remind me that it a long game if you love it enough knowing I will always want to play music then your like well there is no such thing as missing the boat you’re going to create music today, tomorrow or the next day it’s all that you can control its all that really matters."

What were the break throughs and difficulties in finalising the song?

"So the trickiest thing was that I hadn’t released anything before that I just recorded myself id normally just done demos myself and gone into a studio and had engineers and producers help me. It became this song that I kept re-recording to try get it better and bigger by adding different things like drums and bass, all these different ingredients that I thought would make it a bigger and better song. But there was something about the original demo version I kept coming back to which I recorded the weekend I wrote the song and I just couldn’t no matter how well or how big I re-recorded it with all these extra elements it just wasn’t making me feel the same way that this raw recording did, so reminding myself that feeling is the goal for me to feel it but to also create a feeling in other people is the goal not how professional or epic can you can make your recording sound. As soon as I reminded myself about that then I was just okay with the fact that the recording I was going to release was the version that I whipped up, definitely not intending it to be a final recording, so that was the main thing. So theoretically I could have released the song a couple of weeks after, cause that recording was there. But it took months and months of me coming back to really just accepting that the song and the important part of it was captured in that raw recording."

What would you say is the difference between a professional studio and a home studio?

"Well like I think that with anyone if you invest a couple thousand dollars in a good computer, mic, interface and a good instrument then you have 99 % of the ingredients that you need. For me it’s a blessing and a curse to be able to walk in in your pyjamas at any time of the day and hit record because the only downside is actually finishing things, and when you are in a studio and you have paid for the studio for four days and you have got these 8 tracks to get done you work extremely efficiently. I think that it’s possible If you get really self-disciplined with how you want to use your time at home that you can be as efficient at home but yeah, I think at the very least it’s so much easier to get to that vulnerable place that obviously everyone wants to hear in your singing and in your performing at home and it can obviously be done in the studio but it can sometimes I get either switched on or off by the aesthetic. Sometimes I’ll just sit on the couch and play a song and think man that’s the best I’ve ever played it damn I wish I recorded it. There is just something about when you feel like you’re not doing it for the recording you’re just doing it for the magic of playing and making music. "

Do you have any style or new ideas that you want to explore in the future?

"Yeah, I write quite a bit of music on piano and I haven’t really found a place for it in the past or in my previous projects to really embrace that part of me, but I feel like there’s a bunch of songs that are like ballads or folk piano-based songs. I’ve got all these demos that only I’ve heard, and they are making me feel something great so my plan this year is to release maybe 3 or 4 tracks at the least for each of them. But coming back to the start of the conversation about not Pidgeon holing myself I want to let myself embrace all parts of my music creating that I enjoy. So yeah, I’m looking forward to sharing that part of my creating."

What do you like to do in your spare time ?

"I’ve got a dog so a lot of walking with the dog out in nature near the parklands. I spend almost every day going for big walks there. Having grown up in North East Victoria I was just a child full of activities like mountain bike riding and swimming in the river. So, I have carried that into my adult life and so many of my friends have different hobbies, so I just dabble in everything recently its been bouldering. But I think because I have a job and then have this artistic pursuit i kind don’t have a whole lot of time left so I just find myself dabbling."

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