For a man readying himself to step onto stages throughout Australia all on his own, without his once iconic band standing with him, Joe McKee sounds remarkably self-assured. A humble determination and confidence can be heard in his voice, both throughout our twenty-minute conversation and on his debut solo record, Burning Boy. It’s a bold reinvention of sonic character for McKee, whose time with Perth four-piece Snowman ended after eight years together with the release ofAbsence in 2011.
On Burning Boy, McKee trades the aggressive energy of past Snowman releases for a more tempered yet distinguished approach, in which his deeply resonating pipes are brought to the forefront. For McKee, it wasn’t a calculated move. Though it wasn’t one he shied away from either. “I suppose so,” says McKee, after being asked if he felt the need to bring his voice to the forefront with his first solo record.
“Maybe there was something subliminally that was telling me to do that. There are some people that think it’s shrouded in some kind of oceanic reverb, but to me it feels a lot more natured. When it has my name out there, I didn’t want to hide too much. Perhaps it was a bit of a coming out and that’s what this record is: burning off the past and moving forward. Stepping out. There was an intent to expose myself.”
The need for McKee to let the world in, per se, had been building for some time. For the last three years, McKee has been travelling as much as possible, and writing along the way. When asked to name some of the places he’s hit up over the past three years, McKee lists off a barrage of countries throughout Europe that would make any Lonely Planet fanatic salivate with envy. But for McKee, his travels weren’t about bragging rights, but instead to create experiences and absorb sounds that would eventually influence Burning Boy.
“The more you travel and the more people you meet, the more sounds you pick up. It’s more about throwing yourself into any situation instead of being in a country and trying to pick up on the local sound. I didn’t go to Spain and try to get into Flamenco music. Through the people I met,” he continues, “I found myself experiencing records I hadn’t heard, books I hadn’t read and generally just having experiences that I wouldn’t have had normally.”
After Snowman relocated to London in 2008, McKee experienced something of a disconnect with his Western Australia roots. Augmented by Snowman’s split, Burning Boy is the product of this disconnect. More contemplative than brooding, McKee’s approach exercises a manner of restraint not often heard in Snowman records. And it’s a level of restraint which he believes not only gives the record emotional weight, but will create a more meaningful resonance with those who hear it.
“Restraint is something that comes with maturity. I wanted to seduce people with this record, rather than bludgeon them. It was a practice in restraint for me and it was about creating something delicate. It wasn’t an angry record for me; it was an escaping, cathartic record which I didn’t feel the need to exploit.”
While catharsis isn’t always easily attained, McKee was able to realise the true aim of Burning Boy early on. What’s more, he understood exactly where Burning Boy needed to come into fruition as well. “A lot of this record was about trying to reconnect with my past and my childhood. That was part of the reason I came back to Australia to record it. Being dislocated and travelling a lot, you don’t necessarily have these kinds of triggers to remind you of things. I was just trying to explore this cosmic soup in my brain; so maybe this record is more internal than any external conceptual idea. It’s me trying to sort through some filing cabinets in my cerebral cortex.”
With his mental cabinets sorted, McKee can now step onstage and give Burning Boy the wings it needs live to ultimately become a timeless record. But there’s a thirst and drive within McKee that means he won’t be happy until his music has found its rightful home. Lucky for his fans, McKee is ready to share.
“You know, I’ve always enjoyed playing in kitchens and living rooms,” he says. “People come away with something that’s been shared. I just don’t like the divide of being up on stage. I’d much rather be in a place where we’re all on an equal playing field and we can all share the music. I don’t want this to sound idealist or utopian, but I do want the experience to be shared. And that’s not too much to ask for.”
BY JOSHUA KLOKE
JOE McKEE debuts Burning Boy at the Grace Darling Hotel on Saturday August 11. Burning Boy is out now through Dot Dash/Remote Control.