(Photo by Emma Delevante)
THIS IS SOMETHING OF A WTAF MOMENT: Arlo McKinley, folk/country singer of Cincinnati, Ohio – home of the Bengals, the Reds, the Dockers, the Mohawks, and Dr Johnny Fever’s WKRP – is wearing a Chelsea FC jersey for our conversation. I had no idea West London’s second-best team (if you query this I think Brentford fans might point you to the recent Man United result) had a reach that extended into America’s midwest.
“When we went to Europe I was picking up some football jerseys here and there so it became a thing,” McKinley says, fully aware of the blood tribalism he is stumbling into here when confessing he also has a Man United in his collection. “I wasn’t wearing them on tour because I know that means a lot more over there than, say, wearing a baseball jersey here.”
Ya think??? However, given McKinley – a man of substantial beard that suggests ye old tymes, a voice that eases into its work like a throwback to the early ‘50s, and songs that are a blend of Wilco Americana, post-industrial rustbelt living, and ‘70s country rock – is a collector or at least an accumulator, I think he may be the perfect candidate for what we might call the Reverse Marie Kondo.
In this exercise I’m asking what five things – place, song, person, book/movie/art, and one other of his choice – McKinley might bring into his life to give him joy. He’s up for it.
“I would have to go with Memphis, Tennessee, where I recorded [his second album] Die Western and this album [the just released This Mess We’re In]. I’ve been there a few times in the past and even the Die Western session was kind of just another visit. We were down there a lot longer for This Mess We’re In and I really got to take in.
“I got to see the music culture and learn more about it and learn more about the people I was making this record with. It’s kind of strange because it’s not really that far from here [in Cincinnati] but it seems worlds away just by the way people live. It’s almost like a collective of people doing stuff, and you don’t really get that in Cincinnati anymore. I’ve actually thought about possibly ending up there, but when you are touring so often I don’t really have time to think about living.”
The album was made at Sam Phillips Recording Studio, opened in 1960 by the man himself as a replacement for his original Sun Studios where a young truckdriver, Elvis Presley had put down a few tracks. Much of it, including the furniture and carpets in Phillips’ office, is pretty much what was there 60 years ago. Does a room with history make a difference when recording?
“I think at the end of the day, no, but in other parts, yes. I mean, I don’t want to walk out of Sam Phillips’ with a record that people look at as, ‘could have been better’. I like to put pressure on myself anyway but there were times where I took a step back and realised where I’m standing and what’s been there before me. I think this kind of an obligation to really respect the space that you’re in and take all of that in and let that room and the vibe of it be part of it.”
“I’ll pick this because I associate it with the whole recording process, though it actually has nothing to do with Sam Phillips. It’s Nick Cave’s Into My Arms. There’s not a lot of songs that I can say ‘this song is perfect’ but I listened to a lot of Nick Cave and Nick Drake [before and during making This Mess We’re In] – I often call this record my Nick record – and in that song we see someone being really vulnerable about what he believes. It touches on religion and stuff like that, but it’s also one of the prettiest songs I’ve ever heard, and it’s a song I often think that if I could have written a song that comes out with the same emotion as that …
“Maybe I have and I just don’t know it yet.”
With Drake and Cave there are two artist prepared to be gentle, to be soft, and that’s not common, though McKinley ventures into that territory on this new record.
“There’s nothing wrong with a man being vulnerable and being soft … being human. I think a lot of times we hold on to these kind of things and don’t speak on these things that are affecting us, and I just want to be the furthest away from that kind of person that I can be. I want to put my sadness or whatever, my feelings, on display and hopefully other people can get something else out of it. And not just men. That’s what Nick Cave and Nick Drake do for me: the feeling I get from some of the songs that those to make, I want people to have that experience with what I do.”
“I’m going to put out a Tom Petty answer and I’m gonna say this just because when I was starting music I looked at him as a blueprint in some ways of a person who can keep things simple but get a message across, and make stories that you want to be in.
“I was very unsure if people were going to like this and that: was I too simple? Lyrically I was always worried that that I wasn’t poetic. But I would always go back to Tom Petty and think this dude’s just writing whatever, he’s not writing the most poetic stuff in the world, but you get what he’s saying. He’s kind of the person that put a ‘less is more’ feel into me, so I would choose that.”
“Any Wes Anderson film. Wes Anderson soundtracks is where I first heard Nick Drake for starters, and he always just brings something to the table where I want to be in that world. I want to be in The Grand Budapest Hotel, I want to walk around and look in those rooms. I want to be on the road trip in The Darjeeling Limited. Film-wise, he is on top of things.”
On a very superficial assessment, some might say the absurdities, comedy and hyper colours of a Wes Anderson film seem incongruous alongside the softer, tougher, darker McKinley music. But I would argue what grounds Anderson’s films is a genuine love for the people in it, maybe even for humanity, and now we’re back in McKinley territory.
“That’s exactly what it is. I don’t want to say that they are all love stories, it’s not that, but I think he does well making movies about the human condition, drawing in crazy things along the way. I don’t know why I relate to those so much, and there are plenty of filmmakers that I like, but there are none that I get that excited over where I know that it’s going to be an experience. The Royal Tenenbaums is the one that really got me into him, and you’re watching thinking it’s this big thing going on that’s almost unbelievable in many ways, but then at the end it’s really just a story about a family, humans, just trying to get by.”
HIS CHOICE OF SOMETHING TO BRING INTO HIS LIFE
“Real relationships. Real relationships with people, real human connections, not empty conversation, not wasting time with people whether it’s a partner or a friend or family. I have fallen short on that – I’ll be 42 this year and I’ve fallen short on that probably my entire life – and something that I’m doing every day now is trying to learn something about myself, whether that’s something that could make me better or something that will make me better for someone else.
“I read something not too long ago that said we worry too often whether this will be the right person for me or are these the right people for them, instead of worrying about what’s the best me for these people. So having real connections with other human beings, whether it’s friends, family, partners, that’s what I want and that’s what I’m lacking in my life. But I think I’m on my way to finding it, once I figure out myself as much as I can.”
Arlo McKinley’s This Mess We’re In is out now.