Protest Songs still alive

Protest Songs still alive

Michael McDermott tells Adam Shaw about making sense of Brexit and Trump via music

For every person who claims to be interested in politics, there is someone else who wouldn’t exactly put it at the top of their list of topics for conversation. This year has changed all that. While it would be careless to admit a complete disregard for politics, before the seismic events of 2016, there were many out there who didn’t give it more than a second thought.

The UK’s decision to leave the EU. Donald Trump’s election to the Presidency of the US. These events – for better or worse – have made people sit up and take notice.

Michael McDermott is not a political man. Like many in America, and around the world, he was aware of governmental goings on, he watched the news, he took the time to vote. But things are different now.

He’s now living through a period of uncertainty, the atmosphere has shifted and a cloud hangs over his country. As a person, he has a right to feel anxious; as a musician, he feels as if he can do something about this.

“It’s totally different already. There’s a general malaise and anxiety; things are very tense and you feel as if you have to watch what you say,” he explained. “And I think there’s been a call to address it so I’ve already been putting a few notes down to describe the situation through my music.

“I’ve never been too political but you can tell something big is going on. I’m not necessarily talking about being a protest singer, just getting something out there.”

Michael recalled a tour to post-Cold War Eastern Germany and compared the feeling there to the current one in the US; a perpetual melancholy.


He also spoke of a recurring dream – or nightmare – and how that alone has sent his mind racing. I dream of Donald Trump. I dream about him every single night. I mean, that’s not right, is it? It’s a great concern.

“You wake up in a bad mood and you’re all angsty; it’s enough to make you realise that you should do something.”

Political songs are naturally inspired by current affairs and the world around but, when it comes to style, things get a little more bespoke. For Michael, that would involve tapping into a treasure trove of sounds which have spanned across a 25-year musical career. And while circumstances have changed due to changing tastes and the emergence of the digital age, there are some things which have always been close to his heart.

“For me, everything started out with the old, classic Irish tunes,” he said. “That was my school and it really the best way to learn; with the real authentic songs.

“Growing up with Irish family it’s always there in the background and Irish music is as much a part of my life as American music is.

“My grandfather came over from Tipperary and I love the concept of storytelling which goes alongside the music. And the literature – the actual words – is just beautiful.” Despite his affection for Irish music, the Chicagoan still harbours his frustrations at, even with Irish blood, he can’t fully grasp it.

“As much as I wish I could fully get to grips with it and just jump on those gorgeous melodies, there’s just something about it which means I can’t quite get it,” he explained.

Celtic overtones

That still doesn’t stop him from trying, however, and while he might not be first on stage with a fiddle or a tin whistle, there’ll still be Celtic overtones to his tracks. And his passion for Irish culture doesn’t stop at his solo offerings. This year he released a record as a member of The Westies, a band which takes its name from the infamous Irish-American New York gang.

“I was doing these very personal, very spiritual songs and then I thought, why not just do a crime song?” he said. “I read about these guys, The Westies, through crime author [and fellow Irish- American] T.J. English and they were absolutely fascinating.

“They were taken so seriously but they had no organisation and there were never more than 12 to 20 of them.

“They were essentially a bunch of drunk guys who were ruthless, psychotic killers.”

If Michael does produce some form of political number, perhaps he shouldn’t take too much inspiration from a bunch of murderers and drug traffickers. Donald Trump, for all his faults, can no doubt be dealt with in a different way.

It is something which the singer still has to come to terms with and, for in the meantime, he is enjoying living away from the city and spending time with his family. It is the culmination of his lengthy career to date. From the huge success of the early 90s to slipping down a gradual downwards slope, he is getting another go at the big time.

“I was really lucky when I first came onto the scene but I was young, stupid and self entitled and things sort of went downhill,” he said. “I’ve been given another shot, and I’m really lucky to have that, now I’m just trying to take things easy and enjoy it.”

Michael isn’t entirely sure of what his future holds, but he sees this as a blessing. It’s clear what he thinks about what’s happening in America and he noted how a return to the Old Country, or perhaps the UK, could be on the cards.

“When I’m over in London and Dublin, I’m going to start looking at flats because I absolutely love those places,” he said.

And it needn’t be the end of his political songwriting aspirations. After all, we’ve got a bit of a conundrum over here too.


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