His varied career as an entertainer has seen Mike McClellan and his guitar weave his special magic of songs and stories on both stage and television and as a recording artist. His hits include Song and Dance Man and The One I Love.
Where did your interest in music begin?
It really started when I was a kid … school choir, church choir … It was almost innate, in that I always loved it from the time I was old enough to understand it and appreciate it.
In my family, I think I was the very first one to buy popular music 45s. I was the oldest child in the family, and I loved early Pop music. It fascinated me. I think that the real interest stemmed from there as a kid, which carried into my school life and adult life.
What was the catalyst then, for you to go from simply loving music, to performing?
I always loved performing at school – I had no fear of the stage … even after I left school and became a teacher, it was always in the back of my mind that I would one day try to make my living as a performer. In fact, when I left school, one of the things I wanted to do was go to NIDA. But, my father insisted I should get some qualifications, as he said most actors starved!
It was always something that I wanted to do, but when I left school, my love for music led me to people like Dylan and The Beatles, and that’s when I took up guitar. I think that was the time I really thought I’d love to be able to learn to play and sing that way.
How would you describe your music? Some would say it’s Folk, others, Country, and still others, Acoustic …
It’s a very eclectic mix of all of those. My influences ranged from Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, The Beatles … Black music in particular. I can remember being absolutely blown away by a single from a guy called Roy Hamilton the Fourth. I was in high school, and it was called You Can Have Her. It was one of those Black gospel sounding R&B records of the early ‘60s – and I loved it.
Essentially, my music started to be influenced by Folk music, by Dylan, by Country. I also loved early Don Gibson. What I discovered was that in the end, all of the music I loved had the same source … the same roots, and that was essentially English Folk music transplanted to America, which then mingled with the Black music of the Africans, who were brought to America to work in the cotton fields. Out of that grew R&B, the Blues, Country and Folk, which then blended with the more traditional music of Europe, which led you to people like Stephen Foster and all of the other great songwriters.
I actually try NOT to classify myself. If you listen to a song of mine called Good Companions, you’ll understand where I come from. The opening lines of this song say: “I ain’t Rock ‘n’ Roll, I ain’t Pop or Soul. Country Music, it ain’t quite my scene. I ain’t Blues, or Jazz, I don’t know where it’s at. I’m just somewhere in between.” That essentially is how I see myself.
You released your first album back in 1972 and there have been others since then. What was the standout album for you?
The first EMI album that had Song and Dance Man on it was the most influential album. The song itself was song of the year in 1974. The next two albums with EMI were not as commercially successful, and the subsequent album with Albert’s was very successful commercially, as it had the song The One I Love on it, which was a big hit. Then there was an album called The Heartland that came out … I would say that as a writer and a performer I’ve become better with each album. The album I did last year, If Only for a Moment, is the best one I’ve ever done.
It was a long gap between your last two albums. Why the long break?
I’d been pouring my creative energies into running a business. A lot of my creative work had been directed towards writing music for the advertising industry, some film and television. I felt a little bit disillusioned with the music industry at one point, and I needed to build some more security for my family.
I wasn’t enjoying touring and living out of a suitcase as much … I needed a change of direction. I still continued to write songs and perform a little – particularly corporate performing.
Then, after a period of time I thought that if I didn’t get the songs down and record them, I may never do so again.
Your career progressed from performing, to advertising and television appearances. Was this progression a series of lucky breaks – or did you plan it all?
To some extent, it was all planned. I had a distinct plan when I left the Education Department in the late ‘60s that I would go into television. When I was offered a contract with Channel 9, I thought I could work there for 2½ days a week and finish my university degree on the other days –which I did. There was always a plan to leave the Education Department and make a living off recording.
By the early ‘80s, when I decided I really needed a change and I went into advertising, there was a deliberate plan to build a reputation there. I worked two years for a company called Mojo, then a partner and I set up our own ad agency.
The ‘90s were less planned. I sold my shares in the agency I’d started and went out on my own. There was a downturn in the industry, and I was in the position of having to retract the business and retrench people – and I realised I wasn’t enjoying it as much as I had before.
This was pretty much a situation I feel had been forced upon me … but other than that, I feel as if things have gone fairly well to plan. As much as they can do, anyway!
You’re well known from your days with the ABC – especially for your program Mike McClellan’s Country Music. What are some of your best memories from this time?
I loved it. I loved performing and meeting people. I played concerts in virtually every corner of the country, from Darwin to Hobart. I didn’t find it daunting being in front of television cameras – I enjoyed it.
And you’re still drawing on your former teaching experience and conducting music workshops?
I do indeed. I had been teaching a songwriting course at the Australian International Conservatorium of Music up until last year. I’ve also been a tutor and senior tutor at the Tamworth Country Music Academy for the last 6 years. One of the things I’m committed to is passing along my knowledge and some of the techniques I’ve learned with songwriting to young writers.
Describe the performance you’ll be presenting at Laurieton in May?
It’ll be 2½ hours of songs and stories. I love providing people with some of the insights behind being a writer and the stories behind the songs. It’s a very intimate show, with me and a guitar. I also delve into some of the things from my advertising career – and by and large, have some fun. If people can walk out of one of my performances and feel that it was fantastic, then that’s wonderful.
Interview by Jo Atkins.
This story was published in issue 77 of Port Macquarie Focus