Friday, October 3, 2008

Who You Are: An Interview with Band Leader Trevor MacDonald

For those of you who aren't from the Ithaca, NY area, you may not know that we have a pretty great local music scene here. That said, I have been immersing myself in the eponymous debut album from Ithaca's Who You Are over the past week. And I can tell you that Who You Are is now leading the charge as my favorite local recording of the year. Since I began listening to it, I’ve been trying to figure out how to describe it. What I came up with is this: Americana Trip Hop. Trevor MacDonald, the band’s leader and songwriter, took some time out of his busy schedule as a musician and a farmer to answer some questions about the band, Ithaca, music, and more.

Dynamic Meter: You’ve been around the Ithaca music scene for a good bit of time. How do you think its change in the last 10 years?

Trevor MacDonald: Many of the old venues are gone. The old Haunt was a small club that used to mix national acts with local music and brought fresh energy to the community. The Rongo is on life support. Now there is the State Theatre, but even they struggle to keep it together. If it weren’t for GrassRoots where would we really be? A decade of change . . . more Big-Box stores, less culture.

DM: Is Ithaca really as supportive as it seems for local musicians?

TM: On one hand, absolutely; on the other . . . I don’t know. Some people still see me as the kid from Sunny Weather . . . what I'm doing now is more honest. The town seems to be increasingly jaded. Especially compared to what we found on our first southern tour. I see a lot of people hanging out in coffee shops pretending this is Brooklyn, but doing nothing. At least there is creativity and a thriving, successful music scene in Brooklyn. I guess the grass is always greener . . .

DM: What is the genesis of Who You Are?

TM: Last weekend we were billed as Who We Are, Who Are You and Who They Are . . . I don't even know WHO I AM
ANYMORE! (The band is actually called Who You Are.)

DM: So other than confusion about the name, was the band your concept and you brought in the other guys?

TM: Yes, after finishing Porch Light I was floating a bit. So I tried to take on what I would call, grown up responsibility. I was renovating a house I bought downtown, I was bartending for this catering company, I was doing music (mostly on the side) and to be honest I was feeling kinda dead. However, like a lot of people I had a mortgage to pay, so what do you with your dreams? On a trip to NYC by chance I met Al Kooper, a musician and a bit of a legend. He played with Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival the first time Dylan went electric and also produced Lynyrd Skynyrd. We sat and talked about life and what, in his opinion, you should do with it. I came home quit my job, and began this journey, which led me to Who You Are. Now I have this band, a record label (yup nope Records) I started with my manager and a better outlook.

DM: Do you approach writing and arranging differently than you did with Sunny Weather or your solo work?

TM: Yes, I am always writing. To me music is like the ultimate jigsaw puzzle. Each piece has a different shape. I don't get musicians that stick religiously to one formula. So for me the change in the sound is a natural evolution. When you are 15 your brain does not meditate on the same things that it does when your 35 . . . but I'm not 35 yet so I'll let you know.

DM: There seems to be a political vibe to the record, especially with a track like "Your America." Is this an important part of your writing?

TM: What this country represents to me makes me proud. However, there is a dark side to our government that we, as individuals, need to deal with. Sometimes you hear things that don't add up. For instance they tell us that we all have a voice . . . our vote counts . . . but it appears to me that the lobbyists with the most money are the ones they hear the best. I am no expert on politics, but I think that they’re ultimately important . . . in the sense that we, the people, must try to make an impact however we can. So, if you’re paying attention, these realities start to creep into our lives and in turn, into our songs.

DM: In 2007 you were involved with organizing a benefit for the Ithaca Health Alliance/Ithaca Free Clinic. Are you still involved with that work?

TM: Universal health care is something I firmly believe in. The Ithaca Free Clinic is a first step in that direction . . . ironically, that benefit was a rude awakening . . . I was left with a sense of just how far we really have to go. I always like to use my experience as a musician to help my friends and neighbors. I will do it again when the time is right.

DM: You guys have started gigging around a lot. Is it nice to be back playing with a band after working solo?

TM: Definitely, I love the power of a live band. But in actuality it can be a pain. The band dynamic can often be a struggle for me. As a singer/songwriter I have to balance my creative force with the side of me that just wants to be in a band. Sometimes I think we, me included, could use a little Band Boot Camp.

DM: You’re also a farmer. Is there any synchronicity between farming and music?

TM: The hours suck for both jobs. But one actually keeps people from going hungry?! The average person may not realize how much goes into making something out of nothing . . . farming and music share this challenge. That may explain the success of Britney Spears and Burger King.

DM: Who are you digging musically right now? Anybody off the radar?

TM: I find that more and more I listen to talk radio.

TW: Wow, talk radio. Who do you listen to?

TM: As funny as it may seem, and this is not meant as sarcasm, my favorite was Jerry Springer's radio show. I can't find it anymore, but his show was the smartest one out there. Currently, I like to listen to programs as diverse as Democracy Now and Rush Limbaugh . . . because there are two sides to every story and somewhere in the middle is where you get the real scoop. People need to remember that more these days. With the upcoming election we are in one big propaganda spin cycle so you have to do some of the work yourself in order to keep focused and sane. That being said: be alert, listen with care and make only well informed decisions. . . .

You can stream the album below.
Who You Are


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