Anne McCue – Window on the World
“Passion is no ordinary word,” sang Graham Parker, who perhaps hadn’t read much rock criticism. So abused and overused, it’s nearly impossible to know if the word means anything all. Any exertion by any guitarist or singer that transcends exercise, and some that don’t, can be called passionate. But music is more than a contest of sweat or sincerity. It’s always a mystery when individual or collective emotion rings true.
“What is passion?” asked filmmaker John Boorman. “It is surely the becoming of a person.”
Australian-born songwriter, guitarist and singer Anne McCue has spent a lifetime of becoming, of facing and channeling her passions, coming to terms with them, sometimes sacrificing them, sometimes finding herself overtaken by them. With her third studio album, Koala Motel, released September 19 on Messenger Records, she sees her passions all the way through. The disc begins with a song of a relentless downward spiral into darkness and ends with a flowing instrumental in three different tunings that spirals back out as wide and restless as her own story.
McCue was raised in Campbelltown, just outside of Sydney, one of eight children born to two devoutly Catholic parents. Her father was a milk man at night and ran an off-track betting franchise during the day.
“Campbelltown was a veteran’s estate,” McCue says. “My dad was a war veteran; all the men who were war veterans lived there. It was a rough-and-tumble place, not a lot of amenities, no cinema. Not much to do except get in trouble, which a lot of kids did. When I was a kid, it was still in transition to the suburbs.”
For McCue and her siblings, music was one of the few escapes from the boredom. “We just lived and breathed records. My older brother and sisters were big Beatles fans. The first song I remember was Donovan’s ‘Jennifer Juniper’. And then Neil Young, Led Zeppelin and Cat Stevens. My dad was into Paul Robeson and Nat King Cole. He played a lot of instruments, and was a really good dancer — the foxtrot and tango. He was a bit of a lad as a young man, a rambler and a gambler. He probably should have been a musician instead of having eight children.”
McCue’s older brother Michael was a gifted guitarist, and though she studied piano at home, she mostly longed for her brother’s guitar. Eventually she borrowed it, permanently. “When I first started playing,” she recalls, “I used different tunings because the strings might be broken. I had to figure out a way to tune it so I could play. I still find it liberating to play that way, not knowing what tuning you’re in.”
In her home, she was discouraged from pursuing music. “My mother was dead against it,” she says. “I was supposed to be a lawyer or a doctor. I ended up going to the University of Technology in Sydney, but I wasn’t sure what I was doing. I maybe thought I’d be a journalist or a novelist. But secretly I wanted to be a guitar player.”
McCue wound up with a degree in film studies and in 1990 moved to Melbourne, where she answered an ad for a lead guitarist in all-female band called Girl Monstar, which attained minor notoriety in Australia.
“It was like going to school,” she says. “The lead singer and drummer had been in bands since they were 15, so they were veterans. It was good discipline. The stuff I had been trying to write was freeform and unstructured. I didn’t even play in concert tuning; I didn’t even know what tunings I was playing in. So I had to learn to write a song and make a lead break effective.”
The rough and ragged Girl Monstar lasted four years, and then fell apart when their label tried to turn them into something they weren’t. “I was bereft,” McCue says, “like I was floating on an ocean on a plank of wood. I didn’t know what to do next. I was soul-searching. I knew didn’t want to play that kind of music but I wasn’t confident about being a lead singer, it took me years just to get used to singing my own songs.”
McCue retreated to the Melbourne blues jams and open mikes, where she learned to “play with feeling” and began to make connections with musicians, one of which would lead her to a year-long residency Vietnam.
“I was broke, it was dead of winter,” she says, “and I’d never been anywhere else besides Mel and Sydney. I never really had a rite of passage before that — never had a good time in the sense of being completely carefree. Coming from Australia, which is very strict in many ways, more strict than America, I finally felt free. I think that’s the intoxicating thing about Vietnam.”
McCue played the expatriate hotels and bars of Saigon, singing every night, any song she wanted, in any style. “I could experiment with anything,” she says. “I played at Maxine’s, which is sort of the Vietnamese cabaret, but we got fired from there. I started booking my own shows, places like the Red Rhino bar, owned by a French couple, and then all over the city. New Years Eve I played four shows at the Apocalypse Now bar, which was Vietnamese-owned. They were being a bit irreverent, with a ceiling fan shaped like a helicopter propeller. It attracted a crazy crowd.”
If Vietnam was a liberating rite of passage, it was also an introduction to the intersection of personal and societal demons that emerges again and again in her songs. “There wasn’t a Vietnamese rock scene,” she says. “Rock was considered a social evil. Once a year or so they’d crack down on rock ‘n’ roll. You had to give a list of songs to the government, and they couldn’t be rock songs. The last song I played in Vietnam was [Lucinda Williams’] ‘Something About What Happens When We Talk’. Right after that, the police came in and shut down the bar. That’s when I decided I’d go home.”