Drew McAlister, formally one-half of the country duo, McAlister Kemp, released his second solo album, Black Sky, last year. And personally speaking, he’s one of the nicest (and tallest) guys in the Australian country music industry. I recently spoke to Drew, fresh off Cruisin’ Country No.6 to talk all things cruisin’, the importance of songwriting and that most wonderful time of the year.
What was your personal highlight from Cruisin’ Country No.6?
[I’d played in the theatre] before as McAlister Kemp [but] getting to play in the theatre on my own and to 800 people for two sittings – that was a big thing for me! [Also] getting to hang out with my [wife and two daughters] and meeting lots of cool people [too].
Were people constantly coming up to you and asking for photos and autographs when walking around the boat?
The best thing about a country audience is they’re pretty chilled, they’re laid back [and] they don’t encroach too much. I figure if you’re gonna be on there; there’s no need to hide in your room. I couldn’t think of anything worse than staying in my room. You gotta have some fun with people – that’s what the whole experience is about. I don’t mind it at all – hanging out with people, meeting people, getting a few photos and having a beer. It’s cool walking around saying hello to people.
Is the cruise also the perfect platform for artist’s to meet and collaborate?
Most times, all of us artists, we’re like ships in the night. We don’t really get to catch up, so [the cruise is] a good chance for everyone to stay more than five minutes, have a beer, chat about the year, what they’ve been up to, and then organise some co–writes.
The duet, of your latest single, Last Night on Earth, with Lyn Bowtell on the cruise was pretty epic – was it preplanned or an impromptu performance organised on the boat?
I’ve always wanted to sing with Lyn over the years. The song was just perfect; she did it justice! Singing [it] on my own now, I feel like she is missing (laughs). At the Gympie Muster, we did it there as well. Hopefully we get a chance to do it again. I’d like to do a tour with her [too].
You were with McAlister Kemp, with Troy Kemp, for six years, before you disbanded in 2014. Going into making a solo album after the split, how much pressure did you put on yourself to make something better than anything MK had done?
Well, it was never going to be better – it was always going to be different. You can’t compete with what you did in the past. [We were] a powerhouse duo – and songs were catered to that. I had a complete self-belief that I could record this album and deliver songs that I believed in 100% and would translate with people.
Before MK, I was a singer in a band for years, so I slipped back into it. I really enjoy it. No regrets. In fact, it was probably the best thing I ever did. Even though it’s sad and it’s the ending of an era, so to speak, in the end it was too broke to fix and [that’s] just the way it goes sometimes.
It must have been refreshing too to go into making that solo album and having the final say on the sound, themes and everything overall without having to get the okay from a second person.
Oh absolutely! I remember Ken Outch, a good friend of mine; we had an arrangement where he helped me get through that transition. I had completely free rein on the songs that I picked, how they were going to be produced and how they were going to come up. I remember him saying to me, “you’ve just got to back yourself, because it’s all in your hands now.”
That’s freedom right there! I jumped into it and ran with it. It’s a great process and I can’t wait to do it again. I’m going to do it much the same way, with a couple of new people on board to bring their ears to the table, but now I just want to do better than the last album. Better songs, better production; and we’ve got quite a few months to get it right. I’ve got a better album in me, I know that. I want to go above and beyond on this one! I can’t wait.
Does that mean you’ve started work on the next album?
I’ve started writing and doing demos – which is a long process because you’ve got to figure out exactly how the songs are going to be played by a band. It takes quite a bit of time, for me, anyway, to sit down with these songs, figure out their structure, their personality and how they’re gonna come across. It’s not going to be out til the middle–til–late next year.
Production wise, it’ll be different. The thing I love about country music is the themes, the songs, the stories about people. That won’t change. But the production will definitely be more contemporary and it’ll be more now, absolutely. Country music’s always gonna change and evolve; and you’ve got to move with the times. [You can’t] be afraid of progressing and doing new stuff, because that’s how new trends are created.
[On Black Sky] there’s not one song that I wish I hadn’t done. You’ve got to be able to walk away and go, “I did my absolute best. I know I can go out and sell these songs on stage and believe in them” – and the same’s got to apply for the next album.
How important is it for you to write your own songs?
The songs are key. It’s like, if you’ve got a car without the engine, it doesn’t go anywhere. As Jason Aldean says, “if you ain’t got the songs, you got shit.” That’s pretty much it. The songs are everything, and you can sometimes get it right and you can sometimes get it wrong; that’s why you’ve gotta write a lot of songs to try and find those ones that are gonna translate with people and translate live.
It’s more personal and, from my point of view anyway, there’s a certain kind of ownership in having a hand in those songs – when you go out and sell it, you believe it. Like on MK’s last album, there’s a bunch of songs that we didn’t write and as a result, they’re songs I have no emotional attachment to, so when I was out there singing them, I just didn’t feel it.
The way I’m doing it this time, I’m going to start most of the songs on my own. Kind of the way I did [the MK song] Fight Me – I wrote most of the lyrics and had an idea in my head [of how I wanted it to end up] before I finished it with Troy, so I really want to put my stamp on it to start with.
Songwriting’s something I love and I’ve been doing it for a long time. I was fortunate enough to always be able to sing but songwriting’s something I have to work really, really hard at. I don’t think you ever get it right. I don’t think any song’s ever finished. You can always go back and tweak it again, but one point you’ve just got to put it to bed.
How beneficial was it to have Adam Brand as a mentor back when you started out in MK?
Oh man, everything! He basically gave us our start. We were just guys out there in the wilderness before that. Brandy got us signed and he would been managing us [and] have produced our first album if he hadn’t have got on Dancing with the Stars, which took up a lot of his time. I always say I have a lot to thank Brandy for. He’s been great over the years too – if I got a problem or something, I give him a buzz. Brandy’s been in the industry a long, long time. He’s been around that boy (laughs).
You then joined Adam for his Adam Brand and the Outlaws project this year, alongside Travis Collins, Matt Cornell and Mike Carr. Was there a gap in between the MK split/going solo before you joined the Outlaws?
There was a bit of a gap, but that first phone call I had with Brandy was pretty much when it finished. I remember the phone call. He says, “So, what’s happening?” I’m like, “Nothing mate, it’s all over.” He said, “What’s over?”, because he hadn’t heard. And he says, “Well, perfect timing then!” (laughs) So, the Outlaws was formed – [it was] perfect timing.
Quite a bit of time passed once it was all being organised – choosing the songs, rehearsing, photo shoots and recording. [Putting tour dates] together takes a long, long time – especially with all us guys who all have separate careers.
How familiar were you with the other guys?
I knew all the guys pretty well over the years of being in the industry. Trav and I were in college together way back when. We’re all pretty tight and there weren’t any egos. We were just dudes hanging out in a band having fun. That’s why it worked I think.
[But now it’s] all finished. It’s one of those things that ran its course and then we all move on to do different things. Trav’s working on a new album. Matty’s writing for a new album – he’s got another four songs to write and he should have his done. Brandy’s got his album in the bag. So, as I said, if you want to plan this thing, you’ve got to do it 12 months way ahead so everyone can do it. It was great for what it was [but] never say never.
With Christmas just around the corner, I thought we could find out a little bit about what a McAlister Christmas is like. So what is Christmas Day like in the McAlister household?
It’s basically, barbeque on the deck. Roasting meat, grilling meat, eating meat, cooking meat, beer, kids running around like crazy, wrapping paper all over the freakin’ house – it’s family, man. Music cranking, having an awesome time – that’s us.
[But] particularly barbecuing – I’m a real big fan of that. Hence the hat I wear all the time which says barbecue on it (laughs). I love spit roasting and I’m starting to get into smoking meat. We don’t have a traditional Christmas, as in having a turkey and things like that; we just do whatever the hell we feel like cooking. One year we had an Asian Christmas – we cooked duck and all sorts of things. This year, I’m gonna have pork ribs and smoked meat. We’ll have a spit on and I don’t even care if it’s 35 degrees – we’re still gonna have a spit.
That’s pretty much my Christmas. Mum is way up north, so it’s just going to be my Dad, my brother, my girls, me and a couple of friends. It won’t be a big one – it’s pretty rare that we get everyone in the same town.
Do you have any Christmas traditions?
Not really, but just make it a great day. We all put the Christmas hats on (laughs). [We] open bonbons and stuff like that. Christmas, for a long period is just Christmas, but when you have kids, it changes it. It’s so much better. The kids get excited. It’s a wonderful, wonderful time of year.
What are you hoping Santa will leave for you under the tree?
I don’t really care as much about receiving presents as I do giving them. I know that sounds a little silly, but I just want my girls to be stoked and have a fantastic time. I don’t have a wish list per say, but I could go really extreme and say a Harley Davidson – that would be awesome, but that’s not going to happen (laughs).
Do you get involved in the putting up the decorations?
Yeah, the girls and I do the tree every year. The rule in the house is we can’t do it until after [my daughter] Jessica’s birthday [on November 6th]. As soon as that’s done, then we can put the tree up. One year we forgot to put the tree up, we realised two days before Christmas, and, for me, it was like Christmas didn’t happen. I want to put [the tree] up as soon as possible so Christmas lasts longer.
Do you start playing Christmas carols early as well?
Yeah, we’ll stick the iTunes on and play em’. Gotta get the Christmas vibe early.
Do you have a favourite Christmas song?
When a Child Is Born. It’s probably not as well known as a lot of the other ones, but that’s the one that comes to mind. There’s a lot of them out there to choose from.
Do you have a favourite Christmas movie?
Bad Santa. That’s the funniest movie ever, man! When [Billy Bob Thornton as Willie] gets cranky at the kid, and he’s got lettuce coming out of his mouth (laughs) – it’s hilarious!
And lastly, what is your favourite Christmas memory?
When we were kids, we used to go to my uncle’s farm and have Christmas up there. Our family would get together, and that was pretty much a regular occurrence, so there was lots of us! There were kids, aunties and uncles everywhere! And all the presents from everyone would be under this tree. This tree must have been four metres high and the circle of presents around it must have been three metres. It was enormous!
I remember one year, I started giving out presents; because there was so many presents, it must have been 20 minutes and I still hadn’t gotten a present. I said to my Mum, “I don’t think there’s any presents for me” and eventually one got pulled out – there were lots in there, that’s all, so that’s a good memory.