From farm to fame – you can do it letter-by-letter in just two steps – but real life is typically much more ponderous. As Sam Holdom discovers, it has so far taken southern songsmith Ciaran McMeeken only a remarkably few short years, but that time has seen him taking numerous smart and propulsive steps.
A wise man once said that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. For the journey that is Ciaran McMeeken’s self-titled, first full-length LP, the single step was a piece of advice from an unlikely source.
“I had been toying around with the guitar for a while and was living and working on a farm near Owaka Valley. John the farmer and I were spraying some gorse one day, with some dodgy chemicals,” he recalls, a wry smile creeping onto his face.
“He says to me, ‘Look, mate, what are you doing?’ I started waffling on, saying I was saving up the money to buy this gear, and he was so grounded. He said, ‘How much money have you got, and how much does it cost?’ I said I have two grand so he said, ‘Mate, just go and get on with it.’”
As sage as the advice was, it turned out that getting on with it started from the very bottom.
“I went to Twang Town in Dunedin and knew nothing about anything. I asked the owner, Hyram, ‘What do I need?’ and he starts with a speaker. I was like ‘… a speaker…?’ I didn’t even know what an input was.”
That initial spend, plus a chance trip to Waihi to pick up some more music gear including a couple of key effect pedals, set Ciaran up to start writing the songs that would take shape in his self-titled album. He remembers the time fondly, saying, “I set up a little thing, spent that $2000, and just got writing and jamming in my bedroom at my parents’ house for the next six months.”
Ciaran’s genuine nature has led him to meet people and make connections that have shaped his journey as a musician.
“I met Tim Greenslade in Dunedin and that really changed things for me, having someone that really believed in me outside of my own family. I needed that validation in those early stages because I had no belief in myself whatsoever. We worked away for a couple of years putting together demos and releasing songs on Soundcloud. Tim gave me some structure.”
With his guitar, his new found validation and John’s simple piece of advice in tow, Ciaran’s journey has taken him across both sides of the Tasman and both halves of Aotearoa, with a brief stint in Sydney leading to him finding his place in Auckland in 2014.
“I got really overwhelmed by the world in Sydney, and I really wasn’t ready for it at the time. So I moved to the farm which was exactly what I needed. Then moving up to Auckland, I knew I was ready because everything has fallen into place.”
Everything refers to the connections Ciaran has made since being in NZ’s largest city.
“I’ve met some amazing people; all of my band, Robbie at The Bassment where I lived in a small room in the corner for five months, Tony Cowper, my manager, Greg Haver, my producer… it’s been amazing.”
Ciaran’s early days in Auckland saw him performing solo as he had in Dunedin, with a unique dual microphone setup – one dry through the PA and one running through loop and effects pedals to create rhythms and harmonies on the fly. As impressive as those early shows were, his journey was never his own to complete. Collaborations with songwriters from around the world, plus the formation of his live band, have seen his songs move into a completely different form for this album.
The band, featuring Chris Ruscoe on drums, Jesse Reeves on bass, Aaron Prictor on guitar and M Andre on keyboards, has been as influential as one might expect for someone who had played solo his whole life.
“Expanding with the band has been a huge game changer and they’ve played heavily on the writing of the album. There’s been a lot of feedback saying the album is quite country which I find interesting. Aaron was playing a Telecaster so there’s some of that twang in there.”
Any country rock is a far cry from the softer acoustic tunes that graced his early EPs, ‘The Valley’ and ‘Screaming Man’.
It was the songs from those first two EPs, however, that led him on a writing journey in NZ and abroad. Attending APRA AMCOS’s SongHubs in early 2016, followed up by a European writing escapade, saw him work with 20 other writers across the continent to craft material for his upcoming release. There is no shortage of star talent on said release – latest single That Feeling was a collaboration between Ciaran and MoZella, who has written for international bestsellers Miley Cyrus and Charlie Puth, among many others. The opportunity to work with like-minded talent from around the world inspired Ciaran’s own writing to no end.
“Collaborating with other songwriters was a big breakthrough for me and I connected with it pretty much straight away as well. I love that process of sharing and writing together and that has really painted its mark on the album. I think about 70% of the songs on the album are co-written.”
He remembers the process behind Which Way Shall We Go?, the first single from the album, very clearly.
“I was in London working with this guy Sam Craven. We had two or three days together. I was sick of it and had a bit of a headache and he was playing this huge riff that would repeat itself. I stopped him and said, ‘Hey, humour me for a second. Just play the start, and then the end.’ And that turned out to be the riff! That was probably the fastest song I’ve ever written.”
Not only is Which Way Shall We Go? the lead single, it almost became the album title. Literally posing the question to himself during his journey, Ciaran wasn’t quite sure which direction he was leaning when it came to the album.
“I was pretty set on ‘Which Way Shall We Go?’ until I had one crazy idea, ‘Eat The Strawberries’, based off a story from a mate that really resonated with me. I called my dad and said, ‘I’ve named the album – ‘Eat The Strawberries’.’ And he goes, ‘Son… sit down.’ My parents have been awesome, they really listened to the album and got to know it well. He had a really grounding conversation with me, talking about the dynamics of the different songs and how there was no title that could encapsulate them all. He said, ‘You’re Ciaran McMeeken, you’ve written these songs, put a photo of your face on the cover and call it a day.’”
Back on home soil, the recording process began in August at Auckland’s Roundhead Studios, arguably the pinnacle of recording music in NZ. With a staggering 50 tracks written for the album, some decisions had to be made.
“The ones that I wrote and didn’t record, most of them were crap,” Ciaran laughs. “The album kind of picked itself in a way. I love that about recording, you enter this whole new world. We spent a week at Roundhead and then three or four weeks at Nick Poortman’s (recording engineer, Ekko Park, Skinny Hobos) studio in Birkenhead, but that first week was magic. Everything came together and we were so invested and so happy and having so much fun.”
With all those steps behind him, does Ciaran see an end to his journey?
“My goal is to be the next Kiwi to win a Grammy,” he proudly proclaims. “It’s a massive statement. And even in the act of making it, I butted up against myself with a lot of fear and ego stuff. It’s not so much about the Grammy itself, but more about… it’s the Mt Everest of music, you know? I want to spread love and music to the world, but it’s good to have a focal point. It may not be this album, but it really feels like a matter of time.”