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Byron Shire
February 28, 2021

Life on the Mike

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A true-blue baby boomer, McClellan is not slowing down, he’s not picking up his pipe and slippers or playing lawn bowls. Mike’s career is forging ahead, with tours both here in Australia, and then appearances at invitation-only showcases and gigs in the US. Sure he’s sea-changed and fulfilled the demographer’s prophecy and moved to Noosa, but it’s more work than play these days for McClellan. I guess when your work is play, then that’s not such a bad thing.

Mike has been playing his highly personal brand of music for 40 years. In 1975 he made the cover of every music magazine in the country; he toured with Roger Miller, Melanie and Dr Hook; he compered National Star Quest on the telly, then took the host spot for ABC program Country Road, which became Mike McClellan’s Country Music within the year. At the peak of his career, McClellan bowed out, taking a job writing at Mojo, the most dynamic ad agency in the country, but still managing to release albums. He is now writing, and playing full time – and he couldn’t be happier! Mike believes music and the arts are a vital part of our greater emotional and psychological health.

‘I think what they (the government) have failed to recognise,’ says Mike, ‘is the cultural impact of music and that the impact music and the arts have on the psyche, how fundamental they are to who we are as people and as a community.’ Mike’s two siblings are both lawyers, and Mike himself was also headed for the bar, but grabbed a guitar instead. His brother is Justice Peter McClellan, charged with heading up the royal commission into child abuse. Mike says he says the same thing. ‘He loves music. He comes home and relaxes by playing the piano.

Politicians look at everything in terms of dollars and the political advantage. They fail to understand how important cultural activities are – it’s how we get our sense of connectivity. Somewhere like Woodford Festival is where you see this in action. It’s remarkable to see it in a festival that is so big. I have just come back from the US and they don’t have a folk festival over there anywhere that size!’

For Mike, life right now is good. He’s happy and full of gratitude for his life as a musician.

‘It’s an extraordinary privilege to get up in front of audiences and share something that you wrote in a little room and then go “wow people do like it!” I never know, when I finish a song, how its going to go. I generally know if it’s a good song by my own standards, but I never really know what will connect with an audience. The last album was intensely private and there was a song I didn’t think would make the album, but it ended up being the one that people related to. I went through a bad marriage breakup four or five years ago; it was a difficult, stressful marriage. In the end we should probably have never married. For a long time I struggled mightily, never admitting that it had failed and that it was failing, desperately hoping that you could make it work, that you could fix it…’

Perhaps part of Mike’s re-enchantment with the music industry is linked with his new love.

‘I have never been happier. My kids are really happy to see me enjoying life again. And without a shadow of a doubt it’s impacted on my performance onstage and impacted on my writing. I have banned the word retiring!’

‘I think I am probably writing better now than I have ever done,’ says Mike.

‘I find you have to find the focus of what the song is about – then you have to mine that idea for every good line and every melodic development. There is a favourite quote of mine that says: You don’t write songs, you rewrite songs! Over the years I learnt quickly you might want to say far too much but cut it down and learn what to leave out. ‘

‘It’s a discipline you learn slowly as a writer.’

Mike is finishing off a tour, but he’s back to the States at the end of February to do a showcase for the biggest festival directors’ conference in the country, and then off to Nashville to speak to a publisher, and then to Florida for a gig…

Mike McClellan plays Ballina RSL Club Saturday at 8.30pm

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