You might not have heard of Paddy McHugh, but one listen to his music will make you feel like you’ve been mates for years. With a warmth and sincerity to his songs Paddy is one of Australia’s finest young songwriters, wielding a powerful voice with a folk/country sensibility to create music that grabs you from the opening lyric and doesn’t let go until he’s finished his tale. A masterful storyteller and all round top bloke, Paddy was personally requested by outspoken artist Sinead O’Connor to play the support slot on her recent Australian tour, as well as winning the Alistair Hulett memorial award at Canberra’s national folk festival.
A genuine musician with unflinching honesty, Paddy is an artist that writes about the underdogs, the human stories that anyone can relate to, and regardless of what musical genre you are partial to, there is something in his music that will sit with you long after the last note is done.
On the eve of Brisbane’s Bigsound, where he will be playing at The Press Club, we had a chat with Paddy to talk about his thoughts on music, where he see’s himself in the musical landscape, and that time that Frenzal Rhomb came to Tamworth.
What was it like growing up in Tamworth?
At the time I hated it and couldn’t wait to leave. Tamworth is a small, ultra conservative sleepy town and as soon as I got the chance I left for the bright lights of Sydney… Looking back though it wasn’t so bad. It was carefree and I had it pretty easy compared to some.
Obviously living there influenced your music, but I don’t think you’d say you’re a typical country musician, what about Tamworth, or country music in general helped shape the differences in your music to the more traditional country style?
Many people don’t know it but there is actually a lot of really good, classy and epic country music out there. Unfortunately it is drowned out by the pop country noise that most people would be familiar with. Thankfully my Tamworth upbringing exposed me to enough of the good stuff for it to stick and that is what I try to emulate.
You describe yourself as “honest, no-bullshit country”, but there are a lot of folk and even punk influences in your music, some of the comparisons are obvious, Paul Kelly, Bob Dylan etc. but what are some of the stranger/lesser known artists that you think have helped shape your sound?
When I was 14 Frenzal Rhomb came to town. I was a huge fan and could not believe that they would bother coming to Tamworth. I rocked up to the gig early (in my school uniform) and they gave me beer and I hung out with them in the town hall carpark. They killed the show, drove back to Sydney and left me with my head spinning. Punk and Frenzal in particular taught me that music is fun and that it has a capacity to unite people. I still think that is true.
You really craft meaningful stories in your songs, some with some pretty heavy political overtones. You’ve said before that some are true, some are fiction, and if we can’t tell then you’re doing your job right. In terms of songwriting where do you start? With the very human, underdog stories, or do you try to meld those stories around something with a sense of activism? or a mixture of both?
Every song starts with a story. It might be something from my own experience or from something I have read but it needs a narative to underpin it. The politics is usually just accidental.
I bring up activism because you recently won the Alistair Hulett memorial award at the national folk festival, how was that?
Incredible. On a few days notice I was flown down to Canberra and got to play to a full house at the festival’s closing concert. The best part was putting out a call for muicians to join me and having a bunch of strangers step up and kill it with only a quick run through.
On the same activism kick, you also got to open for Sinead O’connor earlier this year, what was that like?
Surreal. I am a huge fan and to know that she requested me for the spot was flattering to say the least. She was very kind to me when we met and she was very genuine.
Do you see a bit of yourself in that type of artist? Someone who doesn’t really conform to trends, but is rather uncompromising and carves out their own niche in the music industry?
That is how I like to see myself. I am not making music for money or glory I write songs because they are the kinds of stories I want hear and if others can enjoy it too that’s a bonus.
You’ve said before that you look like a bit of a rough bloke, and that kind of fits with your unflinching style and refreshing honesty. There is a bit of nostalgia about it, but it works for a diverse range of listeners, is that something you notice at shows? The audience really is a mix of young, old and in between, and is that something you aim for?
Country music has always had a diverse and varied audience and I think it always will. When you sing primarily about people it will resonate with nearly everyone because you could be singing about a friend, uncle or old boss they know.
You’re a teacher as well correct? Is that something you do to facilitate music? You seem like a lifelong musician, as if you’d be comfortable playing in front of ten people or thousands, do you see yourself touring and playing shows forever?
Yep I am a teacher. I teach history to high school students at the Murri School. It is the only aboriginal community owned and run school in QLD. I love my job but I have aspirations to play music for a living. I’ll get there! Just taking it a day at a time.
You’ve gained a lot of support lately with the Sinead O’connor support, the folk festival award, do you dare to dream about your career down the track? Is there a goal, a dream show or anything like that?
My dream is simply to keep playing and be happy. If things go well that is a bonus. That being said I would love to go drinking with Shane MacGowan.
From everything I’ve seen you seem every bit as authentic as your music. There’s a sense of workmanship about it, is that something that’s important to you? Being genuine in real life and in your music?
Absolutely. If you are less in real life than what you claim to be people see through the crap and won’t listen.
Any plans for the next album?
With being a dad, husband, teacher and all the other hats I am wearing it has been hard finding the time to write. But I am nearly there and hope to be locking in some recording time in the near future.
I know you’re playing bigsound, but do you have any other shows or tour plans in the near future? Where can we follow your schedule?
You can download Paddy McHugh and the Goldminer’s album Trial and Cape Tribulation on their Bandcamp and make sure to catch Paddy at The Press Club on Thursday as part of Bigsound. Conveniently on Brunswick Street.