Cameron McGill: local fortune hunter

Cameron McGill stands a full two heads taller than me (I’m a humble five foot seven, on a good day). He shakes my hand warmly, and catches me off guard with his cheery, approachable demeanor. Oddly handsome, almost shy, the keys attached to his belt jangle pleasantly. He’s, “hipster,” in the most un-hipster way possible. Cameron McGill invented hipster. He’s genuine, in the most genuine way possible. Cameron McGill invented genuine. I wonder to myself how this gentle man is going to perform on stage.

With soft clicks and a smooth hiss of his tongue, McGill takes the stage. I sit on a bench against the wall. The room isn’t overly crowded, but you can tell these people are here for him. Suddenly, he transforms right before my eyes. The easy going, soft-spoken, man I had met just an hour before becomes a monster. He commands the stage with a fury I clearly had not expected, he introduces himself and the members of his band. Being a sucker for anything including a Baritone Saxophone, I felt myself melt against my seat (only slightly, promise).

There are two types of shivers—shallow shivers that cause a slight goose pimple in your arm, and deep, dark, shivers that start in your core and turn your blood to ice. This performance lent me the kind of shivers that start in the bottom of the gut. Throughout his performance, McGill was hunched in artistic reverie. Slamming his fist into his thigh, eyes clenched tight. He has created true art, possessing a flamboyant showmanship that can only be achieved by an artist truly connected to his craft.

At one point, McGill sings, “What am I doing here? I don’t know,” I felt myself looking within. What was I doing there? Not physically, but emotionally.  Truly, I had no idea. I was in a famous Chicago dive bar, listening to an artist that had blown me away, and I couldn’t help but think that I was the luckiest, albeit new, fan in the world. McGill guided me through heartache, insecurity, and sadness. But at the end of that sad little tunnel, was a burst of light. He told me I was going to be okay. And the chill in my arm told me he was right.

Cameron McGill is the artist that every music writer wants to experience. He validates the live concert blending into a smooth, jazzy finish. He tantalizes with light, sweet notes. Dark chocolate bass and a strong, volatile voice, McGill delivers a live show that needs to be experienced before all else. If I die, I can die content because Cameron McGill sang me to Gallows Etiquette. Cameron McGill sang me to the other side.

Prior to the powerful set, McGill and his bassist Rodrigo Palma joined us for some truth telling. The interview went a little something like this…

OnTour: You used PledgeMusic to fund your most recent album Gallows Etiquette and Kickstarter to fund your last album Is a Beast. As I understand, Pledge Music allows you to give back to the community by donating money to a charity of your choice?

McGill: They do if you decide to do that. You don’t have to. So, yes, I wanted to do that. I’m sure a lot of people do and I’m sure a lot of people don’t. But, you can pick your own charity and then you can pick how much and when you start collecting a percentage of what you give to them. Once we met our goal we decided to give a percentage of what we raised after that to the charity. I think it might be 20 percent or something. I wanted to do that aspect of it. They clearly have done a lot of work at Pledge Music to make that easy for you to do. And it made a lot of sense to have them do a local charity in Chicago that was music based. It was kind of a no-brainer. We knew that we were kind of on the smaller end of how much we’d be raising, as opposed to another bands that bring in a whole lot of dough. It was more about the thought behind it, than how much we’d be bringing in.

On Tour: You really pushed your limits writing the lyrics for Gallows Etiquette. I’m interested to know how you came to that title. 

McGill: Well, I got [Gallows Etiquette] from the title of a Charles Simic poem. Who is one of my favorite poets. A friend of mine gave me some of his books long ago. I came across that poem and it made a lot of sense to me. Not that the context of the poem necessarily had anything to do with our band or music, but the idea that there was and could be a choice in what the etiquette in the passing of certain things would be. Our previous incarnation of the band had broken up and we were starting from scratch. There was some loss of friendship involved in that as well, I felt like we had a choice in how we could let those things die. You know, we could either be positive about it and move on, or you can let it bring you down a bit. We decided to try and be positive about it. Also the context of the record, a lot of the songs being influenced by a frustrating time when I was writing a record during the last election. The amount of political detritus that was out there was so disheartening, you know. At that point [Gallows Etiquette] was really about working into my place in America. I have a choice as to how I view myself as a citizen and as an artist in America. And again, there’s that choice, that etiquette. What am I going to do? Is it more important to try and answer these questions in lyrics and songs, or more important to work through it than to become angry? So it was more about finding that etiquette. And you know, it’s also a little bit of a play on gallows humor. Because there’s a decent amount of humor in the record, but it’s dark humor.

On Tour: Your chemistry with your bandmates is clearly visible. I can imagine that playing with a new group of talent can be challenging, but you clearly pull it off. How did you get here? What’s next? Where do you see yourself going?

McGill: To the practice space first. God, do we have to (laughs)?  I don’t know if I can do that.

Palma: Well, I can answer the first part. As to how we got here. The last incarnation of this was more guitar-centric. It was cool, it was fun, it was becoming kind of a guitar rock band. But then, with promoting the last band there were some tensions that kind of split everything apart…for awhile there it was just Cam and I. And we had our friend Charlie (who played drums tonight), he had been within our circles and he had filled in before when someone else wasn’t available. And Cam had these songs, he brought them to us, and we started making a record. There were a lot of songs that didn’t make the record, even as B-sides. You know we just started putting things in order. They weren’t guitar songs. They were piano songs. Cam had just come from playing with Margot & The Nuclear So and So’s, and they just have a very different vibe. We started getting together and we made the very conscious decision that it should feel full as a three piece. Like, it should just feel full. It actually kind of took us a while to get where we are. We were talking about certain influences and certain sounds. We were trying to find something, I guess, that worked. Really. In a practical sense, something that just worked with these instruments. And over the course of that year, playing more shows, I think we found it.

McGill: We were building the band almost as we were making the record. We were figuring out what the songs needed. We came across a few things that we weren’t even sure were going to happen. But we had worked so hard on the lyrics, the piano parts, all the different melodies and the different parts that were happening. We were just trying to figure out what kind of space that would leave, and we didn’t feel the need to go in with any preconceived idea of what the record needed to be.

-Cole Scott, junior editor, On Tour Magazine

You can witness the tenderness of Gallows Etiquette live tonight as McGill and company take the stage at Schubas. Show begins at 8:00 P.M. $6 gets you in the door for some live band fun. Bring a donation of canned goods and get $1 off at the door.