Steven got the opportunity to speak with renowned three-time Grammy nominated saxophonist Donny McCaslin prior to his show at The Limelight, Belfast on Wednesday 25th October 2017 as part of the Belfast International Arts Festival. That afternoon, Steven received the most surreal of phone-calls, picking up the phone to Donny himself arranging to meet with him at The Clayton Hotel before soundcheck. Originating from Santa Cruz, California and coming of age playing music with his father’s ensemble, Donny attended the Berkeley College of Music and join iconic NEA Jazz Master Gary Burton’s Quintet as a senior. Following this early artistic development and a move to New York, Donny has worked and performed with many musicians and producers over his extensive and prolific musical career that has led him across the globe. This eventually led him and his group to work with the late legend David Bowie on what later became Blackstar, Bowie’s final studio album.
In light of his show in Belfast, Donny is currently touring in support of his latest studio effort ‘Beyond Now‘ performing his own compositions and interpretations of songs by an array of electronic and pop artists. He kindly shared his thoughts and experiences on his songwriting, working with Bowie and his early artistic development.
Donny, it’s an absolute pleasure to be speaking with you this afternoon. Firstly, is this your first time in Belfast?
“Yes, this is my first time here.”
Have you had time to explore the city today?
“No, I got in about 2pm and then I had to eat immediately so I went down the way for lunch and have since been on the phone dealing with my manager. So, unfortunately, I haven’t had any time to explore the city, which is annoying, as I’m excited to be here. We came from Dublin and people have been saying that Belfast has a great art vibe and a great music scene so I would like more time to explore, to see what’s going on.”
Let’s get stuck in ahead of [your show at Limelight Belfast], can you tell me more about your most recent release, Beyond Now, and its conception?
“A lot of the original music I wrote for the record was directly inspired by the Blackstar experience. There were other influences as well like Kendrick Lamar, Deadmau5, [and] Aphex Twin. Part of Beyond Now was chronicling the experience of playing with David [Bowie], the impact it had on the four of us, and [how it] changed the depth of our interactions as musicians. David’s music was swimming around in my unconscious, even three months after we finished recording. When I sat down to write the original music for Beyond Now, that was still there.”
That leads me to my second question. I’ve read various articles on the release, many citing Beyond Now as a dedication to David especially with the inclusion of “A Small Plot of Land” and the Bowie-Eno collaboration “Warszawa”. How did the interpretations of electronic and pop songs by artists like Deadmau5, Chainsmokers and Mutemath, as well as the ultimate track listing featuring your compositions, come about for the release?
“With Warszawa, that was a tune we started to play not too long after David passed away and it was a way to pay tribute to him from the bandstand. It was at the Village Vanguard, which is this iconic venue in New York, and we started playing it every night, every set, for a week. It was really an intense time. I know I wanted to have that documented because the song is so meaningful to me as a way to express what I was going through at the time. The Small Plot of Land – it was suggested by my producer David Binney and we were having this back-and-forth about different Bowie songs and that’s one he mentioned that I didn’t know. I felt it was a big fit for what we do. I was really happy with how that one came out.”
“The Deadmau5 song [‘Coelacanth 1’] is a similar story in that I was listening to his record [while1<2] a bunch and that particular song stuck out for me. I figured it would be a track that would be interesting to see what we can do with it. Mutemath’s ‘Remain’ was another suggestion of David Binney… [They all just fitted into the vision for the record].”
[There’s such a real creative depth to those reinterpretations of these songs]
This is where the Bowie fan in me comes into action, what were your experiences of working with Bowie and [Tony] Visconti on what was his final studio album?
“It was tremendous. It couldn’t have been a more creative environment. David really wanted us to do what we do with the framework he provided, he encouraged us to go for anything we were hearing and to just feel free to add to what we wanted to. It felt like he really was utterly present in every moment. He was just taking everything in and processing all the information. When he was singing, he was totally focused, it was totally inspiring to work with him.”
How open was David on the concept behind Blackstar and how was the writing process for the album? The album contains a plethora of textures and subtle dynamics – was there a mutuality in the vision when you first met to discuss the record’s creative direction?
“It’s all David’s songs. He sent me demos and I distributed them to the band. For the most part, the song forms on Blackstar are what he sent on the demo. Our role wasn’t necessarily to create songs with him but to realise the music he had written and put our thing on it, with our interaction and our improvisation. I took on the role of orchestrating and adding to the horn parts, orchestrating what he had written.”
Treason as a DIY magazine on local music takes great inspiration from hearing stories of artistic development. Where did the young Donny find his way into music, and especially Jazz?
“My father is a jazz musician [a vibraphonist]. My parents were divorced and I’d see him once a week. He’d pick me up and drive me down to the mall in Santa Cruz, California where I grew up and that’s where he had a gig from noon to five. I’d help him set up his instruments and, when I was young, I’d sit on a chair on the bandstand and listen to his band for hours. I’d help him pack up, we’d go play basketball, football, baseball, whatever sport was in season, then he’d make me dinner and that was my day of the week with my father. I think that’s where I got exposed to music, and all things sprang out of that experience.”
Your back catalogue is extensive, where do you draw your inspirations from when writing and collaborating?
“I draw inspiration for what I’m listening to and those who I play with.”
[Feeding off each others’ creative energy?]
“Yes, but also listening to records and finding things that speak to me.”
Finally, what advice would you give to a young musician who is looking to follow a similar artistic trajectory to you? What advice would you give to a budding musician in general who are looking to pursue music?
“This is the kind of life you go into if you feel that this is your true calling, there’s no guarantee of financial remuneration or guarantee of how it’ll play out. It’s something you go to if you feel you’re all in on it and feel that this is your calling. With that comes a certain amount of dedication, you have to work extremely hard to refine your craft and that could look a lot of different ways. My case was working hard to become proficient on the instrument(s) and express my ideas effortlessly. To have that fluency on the instrument and the language of the improviser, that can look a lot of different ways, for me it was really jazz-based but it’s kinda grown from there. Whatever genre you’re into, you have to work to develop the tools through which you express yourself. It’s hard work and there’s no way around that.”
“It’s important to be part of the community and interact with other musicians, to play with musicians, because ultimately that’s whats going to help you to work as a musician. It’s playing with other people and conversing music which is the key thing. You also have to let your imagination got to where it’s being called and seeking things that feed that creative energy. Don’t worry about the genre, let it go to where it goes.”
Transcription by Steven Donnelly
Header photo by Steven Donnelly (2017)
All other images have been credited to their respective photographers
Special thanks to Belfast International Arts Festival for facilitating the opportunity!