Five questions with: Bill MacKay

Feed Me Weird Things, Vol. 3 Edition #11: Bill MacKay w/ Vero Rose Smith

Trumpet Blossom — Thursday, Sept. 27 at 9 p.m.

Bill MacKay will be at Trumpet Blossom on Thursday, Sept. 27. — photo by Kevin Richard Shafer

Feed Me Weird Things Vol. 3, Edition #11 brings the brilliant guitar improviser Bill MacKay from Chicago to Iowa City on Thursday, Sept. 27. Tickets are $8. Iowa City’s Vero Rose Smith, with her shimmering vocal tones, opens.

MacKay lives on the unexpected razor’s edge between jazz and experimental folk, stylistically, but his guitar is conversational in a sense typically only associated with the blues. His compositions are frequently described as radiant, which has too few denotations for my taste — to me, they are illuminating, in all its meanings. MacKay answered some questions for Little Village via email ahead of his upcoming show.

As someone who is a writer and a visual artist as well as a composer, is it clear to you when you get the spark of an idea which medium will suit it best, or do all of your artistic enterprises sort of inform and feed each other, with the same ideas woven throughout each?

I think they all sort of feed each other, and if I start something on guitar, it pretty much lives and is finished there. If on paper, it remains as art on the page, rather than jumping elsewhere. On the other hand, the ideas really do overlap. It’s kind of like absorbing cinema: You might see a series of green hills that remind you of some pivotal scene in your life, and you’ll get this urge to say something, to draw it out in a riff, or a lyric. In my mind, the different mediums get transposed, like carbon-paper membranes — laid on top of each other, you might see the points where their designs meet.

How does your solo work differ from your collaborative and other composition (soundtrack, etc.) work? That is, when you’re in conversation with other musicians or ideas, do you say less? Or do you feel your voice is even more distinct in contrast?

That’s very interesting you mention playing less or more, as I think that’s very key when with others: to not overcook things, and do too much. So that is something I try to watch out for. But essentially the sharpest line between them is that each has a different benefit. Playing with others allows you to rely on a kind of net, yet you work within more parameters, while playing solo is really creatively free, however there is no net, less safety. It can be kind of freaky in a way, but it’s invigorating — and the challenge gives you a lot back. I aim to be distinct in either case, but you know how it is, sometimes you can take more risks than on other days.

Why guitar — how did the instrument romance you?

Romance, great word! Yea, it was just very seductive from a young age. I would stare at record covers a lot, and on most of them the guitar was part of an alluring landscape. When that mixed with my immersion in the music itself, it was too much to resist. The guitar was such an enigma. I had to get one.

Especially as someone who was adopted by the Midwest, how strongly does place inform your musical awareness? In what ways, if any, are you a “Chicago musician”?

Place as inspiration has been essential to me, and my hometown of Pittsburgh was also, and still is, a radiant source. Living in Chicago has acted in similar ways on my art mind. I see Chicago and Midwest music as not belonging to a single style or feeling, but as a crucible where artists often tend to push themselves to stretch — and explore unorthodox ideas and ways of working. And this goes along with an intensity people think of when they consider the arts here.


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What stories do you feel most compelled to tell? What truths do you most want your audiences to hear?

Those songs that have a sense of soul, an electricity, an urgency, and that incite the imagination — those are things I feel are vital to play. I’d like to operate in that arena, doing work that wakes me up, and gestures toward freedom. If I can dive deeply into it, there’s a chance to transmit that vibration.

Drawing bridges between what’s tradition and what is avant-garde is something I work through a lot. It’s a long road devoting yourself in any field, so it’s a real gift to me, to be able to bring out this work. Everyone in the room is what makes it happen.

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