An Interview with Drew McAlister


Drew McAlister has long been recognised as one of the nation’s premier songwriters and performers. A singer from the age of 7, he’s worked as a commercial composer for TV and radio, performer, recording artist and songwriter.

As a teenager, he travelled the country with the cast of the Broadway hit, Jesus Christ Superstar, alongside John Farnham, Jon Stevens and Kate Ceberano in the principal roles. He later performed as part of Johnny Cash tribute show, Aussies Walk the Line and with various bands over the years. Originally being signed as a pop-soul artist with EMI, a trip to Nashville shifted his focus, steering him towards his home-grown roots in country.

He released his debut solo album independently, There To Here in 2008 – copies can be found on eBay, he jokes. In 2008, he teamed up with Troy Kemp to form McAlister Kemp. They later disbanded in 2014. The powerhouse duo released three studio albums and numerous hit singles; earning them various award wins and nominations including an ARIA-award nomination for their 2012 album, Country Proud. After the duo broke up, he released his second solo album Black Sky, with singles Til Summer Slips Away, Last Night On Earth and the title track.

It’s already been a busy year for the Narrabri-born artist – taking home the ARIA Award for Highest Selling Australian Artist as part of the super group, Adam Brand and The Outlaws, and co-writing with Paul Costa on the title track from his latest album, Whisper in the Crowd and on Matt Cornell’s My Soundtrack. Matt launched the album earlier this year, with Drew sharing the stage to the sing the title track they penned together with Allan Caswell. More recently, he wrote with Adam Brand for his upcoming 20th anniversary release.

Now, Drew’s hard at work on his third solo album, set for release late September and will later be launched at the Deni Ute Muster.

“Some of the songs were written quite a while ago and some are really fresh. The one thing I always wanted to do was stay true to the lyric – I love country and then make it as contemporary sounding as possible. The sounds of country are obviously going to change over time and it’s changed dramatically recently. It’s sounding way more pop than it ever has!”

“I take a leaf out of Zac Brown’s book. He writes great lyrics but still keeps it fresh. He does some pretty obscure stuff. Tim McGraw – his music is very current sounding audio wise but he still keeps that lyric integrity in there. That’s what I’m trying to achieve with this album. I’m pretty confident with the songs and I think people will dig em.”

He’s been busy writing and finishing demos for a long time. We spoke in December when he was already far into the project. And now, the push to finish the album is tight – with recording, mixing and filming the music video scheduled within the spam of a month.

“The fact that I get to do this album is a blessing. I’ve been around a long time. This is my sixth album project including MK, so the fact that I get to do this I don’t take it lightly. ABC [has] pretty much given me free reign to record my songs, so I’m pretty lucky.”

Having previously produced Black Sky himself with input from Ben Robertson, he decided to take a step back and work with a seasoned producer, as he says he’s limited in what he can achieve on his own.

Wanting that current, country sound that’s coming out of the States, he enlisted the help of LA-and-Sydney-based producer, Andy Mak (Vera Blue, Tina Arena, Bertie Blackman) at Grove Studios to get a more contemporary sound. Although he’s most known for working in pop music, his efforts with Australian country music trio The McClymonts on their latest release, Endless, demonstrated his genre versatility.

“I got Andy, because it’s going to be a bit more contemporary [and] he’ll come from a different head space. The one thing I love about country is the messages in the songs, so I’m trying to stay true to that, but still have some fun with it and record an album that’s going to translate live. I wanted to compress it into something that pops! It’s the same principal I had with Black Sky.”

The new album features co-writes with Allan Caswell, Matt Scullion and Michael Carr. Rounding out the ten-track album is a song written by Drew alone and two others he sourced – though he tweaked the lyrics to make sure it fits his overall vision. The track Wake Up Call is inspired by his time with McAlister Kemp.

“Towards the end of MK, and doing that last album, there was times I wasn’t in a good place. Coming out of that and doing this next project is sort of a wake up call. In this particular song, it talks about a guy who crashed his car and he could have died that night but he didn’t. I can relate to that because I nearly died twice. I had meningitis a few years ago. The only reason I survived was because my Mum’s a nurse. She got me to the hospital within hours of basically going into a coma and dying. The other time I was surfing up at Byron Bay when I was about 17. I washed out around the lighthouse. I don’t know how I survived that but I got taken to hospital via chopper. Wake Up Call is something I can relate to and other people can too.”

Another track Kissing A Girl Goodnight is about the journey of two lovers from 16 right through to when they have kids.

“It’s a really special song. There’s elements that people will take something from and they will go, “I can relate to that” or “I get that” – that’s what we’re trying to achieve. The end goal is to move people. I want to write songs that I love [and] that people get. I look at artists like Brad Paisley. He writes about things no one would think to write about, still makes it cool, but can still relate to it.”

He’ll debut the first single in July – which has yet to be chosen – live at Broadbeach Country Music Festival in Queensland. Last year saw over 30,000 flock to the Gold Coast to attend the free three-day event. This year will see over 25 acts provide more than 110 hours of entertainment, including performances from English-rock band America, Troy Cassar-Daley, Kasey Chambers, Travis Collins, the Wolfe Brothers, Sara Storer, Shane Nicholson and more.

“Broadbeach is a point of difference. Some festivals, they’re in remote locations, but [at Broadbeach] you’re essentially in a metropolis and you can get every kind of food you want. Everything’s a walk – so it’s all close. It’s a massive tourist hot spot, so if you happen to be in town, this is a great thing to go and see. There’s a plethora of music to see – plenty of stages and artists.

It’s just a bit more city-ised, if that’s a word, so you don’t have that mosh pit feel about it (laughs). [But] they still get into it – they still love it – they still party, but it’s not like you’re standing there in your boots in the dirt kind of thing. The thing about country fans is a lot of those fans will have been to other festivals where it’s a bit more rustic. That’s the thing about country fans – they come out and are devoted. It’s really cool to be involved.”

He’s opening the festival with an acoustic one-hour set, something he says he doesn’t get to do a lot of, followed by two-nights playing with his band.

“I’m up there for three days. The band flies up on the Saturday, and then we get to rock out at the next two gigs, which will be a lot of fun! I can’t tell you how much fun it is to play with my band! (laughs) Anytime I get to play with the guys, I just love it! We’ll put a couple of covers in the band sets just to mix things up a bit, but generally speaking, it’s all originals.”

As well as appearing at large festivals, his solo tour is ongoing with new dates being added regularly. One to note is his Car Park Party at the Oriental Hotel in Springwood in New South Wales on Saturday the 19th of August.

“I’ve had this idea for a long time. I wanted to put on an event rather than just a gig. We’re going to have jumping castle, face painting for the kids [and] two food vendors. Yeah it’s about me and the band playing, but it’s also based around the community. We’re going to film the whole thing as well. I’m looking forward to it. If it works, maybe it’s something we can do every year.”

Seleen McAlister and The Smoking Willies will also perform on the day.

Drew McAlister performs at Broadbeach Country Music Festival (July 28th-30th).
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Originally posted at the AU Review

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