Cruisin through Anne McCue’s ‘Broken Promise Land’
Anne McCue’s Broken Promise Land dropped back in May – a fierce, rocking disc which is heavy on the electric guitar riffs, and smooth on the jams.
What struck me most about this disc is the way McCue attacks her guitar – a point which has frequently caused reviewers to mention that she plays guitar really well for a woman. Being myself a woman guitar player, and a lifelong musician, the assertion that someone is a good instrumentalist “for a girl” has always confounded me. I ran into this a lot when I first picked up a guitar – the dudes in the guitar shops condescending my choice of strings (I always had to get a higher gauge because I played so hard they’d pop), the bar hosts offering to tune my instrument for me, etc. That was just me, playing small bars, coffee shops, and clubs, unitarian churches, the like. I always kind of assumed that once you reach a point where there’s an honest living to be made through playing your instrument, people would admit that women have always excelled at music – look at Elizabeth Cotten.
Alas, reviewers zero in on McCue’s femaleness when discussing her playing. To bring up another woman of whom reviewers have often said “she’s good for a girl,” McCue plays guitar the way Liz Phair writes her lyrics. Which is to say that there’s a darkness in her playing – a raw, thick, muscular darkness. An energy so filthy, it’s hardly demure. Maybe my peers who discuss how she can play guitar as good as the guys mean just that, though that still strikes me as preposterous. Most of the women who come to mind as guitar players (Ani DiFranco, Bonnie Raitt, Caroline Wonderland) approach their instrument with a certain ruthless tenacity. It’s not a maleness, it’s just a level of artistry few players manage to achieve.
Of course, here I am going on and on about it, drawing yet more attention to the fact that, yes, Anne McCue is a woman who can rip hard on the guitar. Just felt like I had to counter the assertion that this fact is at all surprising – that a woman who rips it is somehow stepping outside of a mold. That the common expectation of a woman holding a guitar is that she have a man in her band who can really play over her subtle strumming. I realize perhaps that’s the image that’s still more prominent in the mainstream consciousness, but when I initially spoke with McCue, she reiterated that there’s quite a vibrant community of great woman players out there, ripping it hard. Why they don’t get celebrated as often is kind of confusing and worth considering.
In fact, our first conversation wound up centering so much on this and similar topics, I had to call her back at a later date so we could actually talk about the record. Excerpts from that conversation are below. But first, I’ll urge you to pick up a copy of Broken Promise Land – it’s a great disc, and McCue is a remarkable talent. She’s also just produced a disc by an Australian singer-songwriter named Tracey Bunn titled Shut Up and Let Me Breathe, which sounds like it belongs on a film soundtrack, from what I can tell. In the good way. And she has a couple of dates coming up in Kentucky, California, and Michigan – check out those dates and more on her website.
KR: This record is quite a bit different from your last record before it. Was it just time to rock again?
AM: Well, I did an acoustic album by myself [last time] because I’d just moved to Nahsville and I didn’t know many people here. My manager and agent had resigned, the record label closed down in the first six months of my moving here, so I was kind of left high and dry in some sense. I wrote all these songs and record them by myself at home. I realized after I’d done about six songs that I was making a record. That’s how the East of Electric record came about. So I decided to make it just an acoustic, folky record. All along I intended to make a rock and roll record, but it took a while to get the budget going.
I got some money and started recording – six songs in a few days in Nashville. Then it took another six months to get the rest of the money and finish the recording up. These things take a long time. Even though I only recorded for maybe five days, it costs a lot of money to do that in a studio. But, finally, I had a rock record done. It’s kind of a tribute to my favorite guitar players from Australian bands like Midnight Oil, Rose Tattoo, and AC/DC, and then other bands like Led Zeppelin, the Yardbirds, the Doors, people like that. I just got to play on the electric guitar, which is my favorite thing to do. My favorite thing to do is to just have a jam – a rock and blues jam. So this record accommodates that.
KR: It sounds like you were trying out a lot of different guitar styles just to have fun playing…
AM:That’s right, yeah. I like a lot of different kinds of music, and I got to record some of my friends’ songs. I like that Harry Nilsson approach where he’d do half of his own songs, and half songs by people he liked. I wanted to do that kind of thing, because other people tend to write the kinds of songs that I’d never write, but wish I had. There’s a song called “Cruisin’ Paradise.” It says “I no longer feel like I’m losin’, I’m just cruisin’…” and I like those words. That’s such a good feeling when you’re just sort of cruising along. I wouldn’t have written that, but I love the imagery there. So I did some other songs [like that]. There’s one called “God’s Home Number.” I got to do my kind of synth guitar on that song. There’s a song called “Motorcycle Dream” that has a spooky, dreamlike feel to it which is kind of cool.
I really like recording other people’s songs, and arranging them. Arranging things is another one of my favorite things to do.
KR You said some of the recording sessions are more like jams – do you come to those with an idea of where you want it to go, or do you just kind of riff off of what everyone’s playing?
AM: I’ll riff some stuff. In the second batch [of songs we did for this record], there were a couple of songs I’d never played before, so we kind of just hung around there in the studio for a half hour or so and came up with the arrangement structure, then jammed over them. “Cruisin’ Paradise,” I came up with the brass arrangement at home and played it for the brass players.
KR: You’ve been producing other people’s stuff. How much more difficult is it to come into someone else’s work, compared to producing your own, which you know a little more intrinsically?
AM: It’s about the same. But, I haven’t written the songs, so I can be more objective. I’ve had so much experience on my own in the studio with great producers like Dusty Wakeman, so I had a lot of technique and a lot of advice from Dusty and Ray Kennedy [working on Tracey Bunn’s album] – I could call them anytime I had a question. I really enjoyed it. I loved it, actually, it was great. Just being able to hear it in my head and get the general direction…it wasn’t too dissimilar to doing my own, but it was a great relief not having to write and produce and sing and play all at the same time.