Gary McClure’s music gained him the notoriety and acclaim that performers strive for.
But it wasn’t until recently that McClure created something that made him satisfied with the experience.
After struggling to come up with a follow to his collection of hard-charging and melodic songs, McClure spent a weekend playing his electric guitar and crooning into a microphone hooked up to his laptop. The result was what he calls Son of the Pale Youth, which has a radically different sound than what he’s created in the recent past.
“It was quite easy actually,” McClure said. “Because I think this was what I was supposed to be doing all the time. I always feel like there’s a potential in all the other stuff I did, which I never realized. And I feel like I’m realizing it now.”
With no drums, bass or slick production, Son of the Pale Youth is music without defined message or meaning — which McClure believes is the most effective way to connect with people.
“The trick is to write something and deliver something that sounds like you mean something enough for the listener to take away something that they want, but not too much it undermines their freedom to apply to it their own personal feelings,” he said.
Not giving up
McClure’s resumé in the music business is extensive. A native of Scotland, McClure was a member of the band Working for a Nuclear Free City. The Manchester, England-based group’s music found a wide audience, appearing in the video game "inFAMOUS" and the television show "Breaking Bad."
After moving to St. Louis five years ago, McClure released two albums on Fat Possum Records under the name American Wrestlers. In essence, American Wrestlers started as a solo project for McClure — and eventually evolved into a band that performed across the country. American Wrestlers’ self-titled album and its follow-up "Goodbye Terrible Youth" received warm reviews in music publications like Pitchfork.
But McClure felt something of a void with American Wrestlers. And it couldn’t necessarily be filled by accolades and praise.
“I never felt like I had done the right thing. And I can’t listen to those records,” McClure said. “It’s probably not because I think they’re bad. It’s just they don’t feel like a genuine representation. So it’s a bit ugly for me, maybe.”
McClure said he never found much with the music industry to be very fulfilling or enjoyable. He compared it to watching a grand musical, only to find trash and sandbags behind the curtain.
“Because the only fulfilling part of it is genuinely — and this sounds cliche — is finishing a song or a piece of music, which feels right,” McClure said. “And that’s more of a relief, really. It’s really working hard at something you’re driven to work at. And you finally get it right, and there’s a relief. And then you feel good for maybe a couple of days. And then you’ve got to do it again.”
After touring to promote Goodbye Terrible Youth, McClure released two songs, "Ignoramus" and "Devils," that were intricate and complex. In fact, he says he sang the vocal portion of Devils every night for six months.
One day, he heard a couple of songs from British singer PJ Harvey on the radio. He was struck by how Harvey could transfix a listener with just a couple chords and her voice.
“And there wasn’t that much to it than that. And it’s such a simple thing, but it reminded me of what I should have been doing,” he said. “The right thing to do was just to forget about all of this … I was thinking about music in the wrong way. So I went home and I set up a microphone, and I plugged the guitar in, and I pressed record. And over a couple of nights, I improvised like 14 song ideas.”
A strong voice
McClure’s voice is without question the main attraction of Son of the Pale Youth. In the past, he usually layered three or four vocal takes on top of each other.
“I hated hearing my voice on just a single take. But something happened with this breakthrough moment I had on these two nights,” McClure said. “It just felt so right. And I was even free from just a metronome or any other supporting thing. And it was just me and the guitar. And I sang. And it just felt really right. And I listened back, and it sounded great. And it wasn’t really a conscious thing.”
Some of McClure’s earlier songs touched on politics and the struggles of being young and growing older. But McClure didn’t put much meaning behind Son of the Pale Youth’s lyrics. To him, infusing messages into music takes away a listener’s freedom to think for themselves.
“And at first I wasn’t going to put any words on them, because I can sing and make it sound like I’m putting words,” he said. “But it wasn’t quite working. So I had to corrupt them and put words on it. That took me a little while to put some words that didn’t make me feel too uncomfortable. Nothing that really meant anything at all. And then I came back and I recorded the songs that you can hear for this record, I guess you’d call it, over a weekend.”
After being away from the stage for roughly a year and half, McClure debuted Son of the Pale Youth’s songs last week at Foam on Cherokee Street in St. Louis. The response was enthusiastic. Nearly everyone in the audience refrained from chatting among themselves or looking at their phones — their attention squarely on McClure alone on the stage.
“It was funny. I went to tell him that he was incredible, and he was like, ‘Oh, I didn’t think it went too well,’” said Keisha Griffin. “I had to explain to him what he did to the crowd.”
Despite their simplicity, Erin Alter said McClure’s songs are powerful.
“There’s more of a driving feel to it. It wasn’t ever loud or insistent, but it had a different undertone to it, and others were really melancholy,” she said. “It’s good music to listening to at night or on foggy days.”
McClure posted Son of the Pale Youth’s music on his Bandcamp page and is planning to release more songs throughout the year. He’s also talking with a couple of record labels about giving his music a larger reach. And he’s planning to play another show at Foam on March 22.
He said Son of the Pale Youth is the most satisfying music of his career.
“I think there’s just so much information out there. And I still think all language is flawed,” McClure said. “And where it fails, you need art. And hopefully this will make some people feel better.”
Follow Jason Rosenbaum on Twitter: @jrosenbaum
Send questions and comments about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.