Five Questions With… Scott MacKay
The PEI roots artist releases his third album, Stupid Cupid, this week. Here he talks about the inspiration for the project, his favourite songs, a love of classic country storytelling, and the importance of social media during a lockdown.
By Jason Schneider
From the sounds of slapback echo, twangy Telecasters and swooning pedal steel, it’s clear that Scott MacKay has an affinity for country music of the 1950s and ‘60s. But the singer/songwriter from Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island also has a sharp wit that shines through on the 10 original songs that comprise his latest album Stupid Cupid, a collection that offers a fresh, modern take on classic country.
Co-produced with Adam Gallant at The Hill Sound Studio in Charlottetown and mixed by Scott Franchuk in Edmonton, Stupid Cupid features MacKay backed by his regular rhythm section of Josh and Sam Langille, along with renowned guitarist Grant Siemens and pedal steel master Burke Carroll. For MacKay, this third album isthe first reflection of what he describes as getting bit by the classic country bug since his previous release.
The results of that hard work speak for themselves on Stupid Cupid. From the risqué new single Romance Novel, to Brand New Heart’s tale of someone receiving said organ from a man killed by his lover, to the surprisingly philosophical God Walks Into A Bar, MacKay effortlessly breathes new life into longstanding country music themes. However, it’s all designed to put a smile on your face, as well as a tear in your beer.
Stupid Cupid is available January 8 on all digital platforms and from scottmackay.bandcamp.com.
How did you come up with the concept for Stupid Cupid?
Shel Silverstein was the biggest influence for this project. I first got turned onto his children’s books and then found out that he was a songwriter and wrote for Playboy. A friend of a friend told me about Bobby Bare Sings Lullabys, Legends and Lies, an album of tall tales and myths all written by Shel Silverstein and include his signature wit. I was blown away by how clever the songs were and loved the humour that was infused throughout so I decided to include those ingredients in the songs I was writing.
I didn’t make a conscious decision to write an album that had a thread of humour woven throughout, but as I started looking at the songs I had written I noticed that there was. I wanted the album to be quirky and more playful than my previous work, but to also have a song or two on there that are a little more thought-provoking and/or emotional as well as to reflect all aspects of my songwriting identity and also make for a more dynamic listening experience.
What songs on the record have particular significance for you and why?
I’m particularly proud of When She’s Sleepin’ She’s Cheatin’. Country music has a history of writing cheatin’—not cheating—songs and I’d been trying to write one for a while but was struggling to find a fresh angle. One day I did a quick search for “silly things couples fight about” and started reading a bunch of stories from therapists. Supposedly, infidelity while dreaming is quite common and causes a lot of issues. Who knew? I immediately thought it was hilarious and also that people would be able to relate. It was the fresh angle I’d been looking for and once I nailed down the title the rest of the song came rather quickly.
Also, the song God Walks Into A Bar is a little bit of a black sheep on the album but it’s one I’m particularly fond of. I was reading through Sheila Davis’s book, Successful Lyric Writing, one night and was feeling the pressure to write a song because I hadn’t in a while. I woke up early the next morning and was thinking about what I could write. I grabbed my phone and this story started to unfold. I wrote most of it lying in bed next to my wife before the sun came up. I then sent it to my good buddy and co-writer Mark Times who encouraged me to add a couple of other verses and that was that. I had written a short story and another song with similar ideas a while back and wasn’t overly fond of them.
For whatever reason, on that morning I unconsciously cannibalized both of them, took what I liked, and then added what I needed to complete this new story. I’m proud of it because it is one of the first things I’ve written that marries several of my interests; Philosophy, Science Fiction, and Religion. I initially recorded a version with me playing acoustic but then recalled hearing Johnny Cash’s version of The Cremation of Sam McGee and thought it was so powerful to hear nothing but the words so I decided to do the same. I was a little worried that it wouldn’t jive with the rest of the album so I worked hard to bring in some humour by crafting the title using the “so-and-so walks into a bar” joke template.
What originally drew you to classic country music?
That's a good question. I think it started when I was living out in Calgary. You can't live in Calgary, Alberta and not get bitten by the country music bug. I had gone to an open mic at Cafe Koi and met an artist named Carter Felker. He invited me over one night for a jam session and introduced me to John Prine and that then opened the door into this world of country music that I wasn't overly aware of. I love the melodies and the instrumentation, but most of all I love the narrative element and the wordplay that is prominent in classic country music.
How have you adapted to engaging with your audience over the past few months?
I launched a Kickstarter campaign and have been more active on social media now than I have ever been. I'm so hot and cold with social media but have noticed a lot more engagement when I'm consistent. Who knew? It's so important to engage with audiences and with the lack of shows happening social media has become a crucial tool for doing that.
What's your mindset looking ahead to next year and the prospect of hopefully playing live?
I'm very fortunate to be living on PEI where we haven't been affected like other areas of Canada and the world. I'm having my album release show at [Charlottetown’s] Trailside Music Hall in front of a live audience. You heard that correctly, a live audience! I realize how unique a situation that is and am extremely grateful for it.
As for the future, I'm cautiously optimistic and hope to play the album in front of live audiences outside of PEI, but am also preparing myself for the possibility that these shows may be in front of a camera instead.