Despite a recent move to North Carolina, Dylan McGonigle's music was forged from his many years living and working in Kansas City. A talented songwriter in the folk tradition of early Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs, McGonigle is a masterful lyricist and guitar player. His musical ties to Kansas City still run deep and we're fortunate to share an interview with the man himself about his songwriting, why he moved and what inspires him.
Please introduce yourself. Where do you live and work?
For many years, I lived and worked in Kansas City—going to school at UMKC, working at local coffeeshops, and playing bass in My Brother's & Sisters with Jamie Searle, and with other folk here and there, like Calvin Arsenia for his album "Catastrophe."
In July of this year, though, I relocated to Asheville, North Carolina. It's on the western end of the state, in the Appalachian Mountains, so it's sort of surrounded by natural beauty — mountains to hike, rivers to swim in. And it's also a pretty great little music town. Despite the fact that it has a metro area population a fraction of the size of Kansas City—under half a million—there's over 20 music venues here that have something going on pretty much every night of the week. There's variety of styles too—from the old-time fiddle music, to jazz, to funk and everything in between. So I guess there's lots of places to draw inspiration, and to try to play gigs.
Currently, I'm working my way into the local scene, and running sound at a listening room called White Horse Black Mountain. It's my first live sound gig, and I love it! I'm learning a lot, and getting to meet amazing performers. Every show I feel like I'm growing by watching these master entertainers.
Last week, I was the engineer for an blues-ragtime guitarist named Roy Book Binder. He started playing in Greenwich Village in 1965 or so and he hung out with big names like Dave Van Ronk, Ramblin' Jack Elliot. (He told me he never met "The Bob"—that's his name for "the other Dylan"—but he breathed the same air.) And he incorporates into his show the incredible stories of the real old bluesmen he learned from, who spent their lives playing on the streets, in traveling medecine shows, and as record label session musicians—like Rev. Gary Davis, Pinkney Anderson, and Robert Lockwood Jr. (stepson and only student of the legendary soul-selling-at-the-crossroads, Robert Johnson). And so it's pretty cool to get meet these folks who have literally lived in the music history that I am so obsessed with.
How long have you been writing songs? Who were some of your earliest influences?
This is something I don't think about often enough, actually. I've been writing songs since I was about fourteen or fifteen. I even recorded a couple demous and put them online. But when I started playing bass and getting shows with my first bands, songwriting sort of took a backseat. During that time I was learning a lot, and playing with increasingly serious musicians, and getting more serious myself. I was writing behind the scenes too, but it took until I was twenty-three, when the post-graduation oh-crap-what-do-I-do-now feeling was starting to really sink in, for me to push my own songwriting out there.
Outside of all the music I grew up with—Dylan, The Beatles, Paul Simon, lots of Neil Young—the biggest influence has always been the people around me. When I was a teenager, it was the folks in the Lawrence band Cowboy Indian Bear, and especially Marty in that group, who welcomed me as a friend and helped me to grow how I thought about songwriting. Then I joined My Brothers & Sisters. Jamie Searle and everyone else in that band was a huge influence on me, as a musician and as a person. I was the youngest. I was with them the entire time I was at school. They became an extension of my family.
And it's really my family who were my earliest influences. My mom wanted me to have the chance to play music, and got me lessons. My dad is a guitar-player and a songwriter in his own right. (I dream, one day, of producing his first recording.) And I learned a lot sitting around on Sunday mornings with him and a good family friend who knew hundreds of tunes, including virtually every Beatles song, just trying to pick up on what they were playing. In the beginning there were many times I'd get frustrated and stalk off, but a half-hour later I'd be back at it again. So it's really them I have to thank, above all else.
Talk about your recently released EP Live in Studio, and your full-length Dylan Moses. How did these recordings come about?
Haha. Really, they were a bit more spontaneous than I'd like to admit. I'd say the EP really was the result of my years playing bass in Kansas City. Everyone playing there with me was an old friend. And that felt pretty special. Jace Hughes, who played electric, was in My Brothers & Sisters. So was Andrew Wilson on keys, and he later played with me and my dad whenever we'd throw a band together for a farmer's market or porchfest. Bree Plaster on drums was a friend I made playing at a Neil Young tribute event KKFI puts on every year the night before Thanksgiving. (It's at Knucklehead's on Nov. 22nd this year, and I'll be coming home just for that, so you better be there!) And Skylar Cowdry, who played bass, is one of my oldest and dearest friends. We've been playing together since I was fifteen, writing my first songs, actually.
It was last summer. I had only written the songs a couple weeks before. I'd never pushed my own songwriting before in my life, and looking back, I guess I wanted to do something to ramp up my courage about it. I called everyone up, taught them tunes, we had one group rehearsal, and then we went into the studio and knocked it out in a day. Joel at Element Studios did a nice job setting us up with enough isolation to track it all live, and basically be playing in the same room. My friends generously gave me their time, and for them I'm super grateful.
The full-length I recorded by myself, and I also tracked it live. It was done on a free morning with borrowed microphones, in a borrowed space just before I left town for Asheville. I guess I wanted to show up to the new place with something solid in my hands to prove to myself the year of work that I'd done growing as a songwriter and performer, since I'd recorded the EP.
I'm pretty proud of both recordings, but I'm also excited for the next phase. When I started writing songs again, I didn't really know if it would stick, so I've been thrifty and wary of spending money. As you might guess, I don't really have a lot of money to spend. But I'm looking forward to doing something a little more deliberate, and a little more planned next time round. There's some great studios here in Asheville. I have dreams of a free week with my the best in my old and new homes collaborating. So be on the lookout. There may be a fundraiser soon. Haha.
You definitely have a gift for lyric writing. Do you tend to write more lyrics than songs or are the two closely intertwined for you?
I do have a lot of lyrics. And there's a good amount of cutting and editing that goes into a song for me as well. I would say that it's different for each song. Some tunes on the full-length, like "Monadnoc" were written in their lyrical entirety almost, before they had any music. Others, like "The Fish Song" came all together. I'm a fan of the Emerson quote, "Art is the path of the creator to his work." You can take that many directions. But it centers process. Oftentimes, I think, the way you go about writing a song (or creating any art, for that matter) determines as much or more about the finished piece, than whatever it was you intended to say.
What inspires you about music in Kansas City?
The people. Without a doubt. I have met so many kind, talented musicians in Kansas City. The scene, too, is very warm and familial feeling. And I think that's special and worth holding on to as Kansas City music grows. It was great as I began to stretch my songwriter wings, going to every open mic I could and talking to the other folks, how quickly I became one of their own. I've been given a lot of support by people who've never asked anything in return. There's a love, a passion, and a generosity to those in the music scene here. And I hope that as Kansas City makes a name for itself, we all can remember to be open and welcoming to new folks, so that they can get those same benefits I did.
Dylan's book, film and music recommendations from the Johnson County library catalog
In no particular, this is what I can give off the top of my head. Moby-Dick became my favorite book the summer that I turned twenty, and that hasn't changed yet. Right now I'm obsessed with Bob Dylan's "Love And Theft," and I'm reading and listening to on audiobook, in a fantastic reading by Joe Morton, Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man, and a history by Edward E. Baptise called The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. All, I have found, are greatly informative with regard to the strange, troubling times we are living through. Each, I would say, had an influence too on the new song.
I would also recommend Elegies for the Brokenhearted, and Dead Girls and Other Stories by Emily Geminder, which will be released on October 17th this year. I've had the pleasure of having spent time around both authors—Hodgen was a former professor, and Geminder a graduate student I shared classes with while I was an undergrad—and I admire both of their talents greatly.