Brennen Leigh and Noel McKay Take on the World

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Brennen Leigh and Noel McKay craft story songs with equal measures heart and humor. Evidence: The Austin-based songwriters’ seamless Before the World Was Made.

“These are modern day country duets a la George Jones and Melba Montgomery but with very sophisticated songwriting,” producer Gurf Morlix says.

Leigh and McKay spoke with CMT Edge about the new collection, scheduled for a Sept. 24 release.

CMT Edge: Tell the story behind writing the title track.

Leigh: I stole that from William Butler Yeats because he’s my favorite and I used to read him a lot as a kid. I just stole the title line from him. I guess that was the first song we ever wrote together.

McKay: I think that’s right. We started kicking it around and working on it at the house.

Leigh: Yeah, we were all, like, in love and stuff.

Oh, way back then?

Leigh: Yeah, way back then. (laughs) We had just started writing together, and that was exciting, probably 2009.

Did you purposely decide to collaborate and will this be your direction from now on?

McKay: Yes and no. Yes, we did decide to do this as a collaborative album. We instantly thought of Gurf. We both wanted to work with him. We kind of set out to make out a record of songs that we were singing together, even if it wasn’t specifically duet songs. I think this isn’t what we’ll be doing specifically from now on. We’ll probably revisit this over and over, but we both have individual solo careers to think about. This is a nice thing that we can keep on doing, though.

Leigh: We got to where people were asking us about certain songs and lumping us together in their mind, so we thought we should make something to pay homage to that.

Describe each other’s best asset as a songwriter.

McKay: I’ll go first. Brennen’s really great at melodies. She’s always kicking around a melody around the house, and it’s great. Then she’ll attach it to a lyric idea that’s equally great. Brennen writes characters in her songs like a novelist. She’s really good at that. Those are two of the many great aspects of Brennen Leigh. (both laugh)

Leigh: That’s nice. Thank you. I feel like Noel has the line. It’s like, “How are we gonna wrap this up? How are we going to finish this and bring it around so it makes sense?” He always ties it up. He always knows. He’s very prolific, and I don’t just mean per song. I mean within the song, he’s prolific. He’ll write a multitude of verses for one song, and we’ll have to chop it down from there [even though] they’re all good. He’s good at lyrics. He’s a poet.

Tell the story behind “Let’s Go to Lubbock on Vacation.”

McKay: That was Brennen’s idea for a song: “We need to write a song called ‘Let’s Go to Lubbock on Vacation.’” I said, “OK. That sounds pretty cool.” I lived in Lubbock. I was sort of raised there and in the Hill Country [of Texas]. One thing about Lubbockites is they’re self-deprecating about Lubbock as a town. They’re always half putting it down with a wink and a nudge. It’s a cool town where lots and lots of famous creative people have come from. It is cool, but it’s also way in the middle of nowhere and it’s flat and it’s not that interesting of a place, too.

Leigh: We just imagined two people going there to really prove that they liked each other. (laughs)

McKay: Yeah, and this friend of ours had an old Nomad, I guess a 1957 Chevy Nomad. One time, he had it at this venue that he owns, and we were like, “Wow, that’s a great car!” The car made it into the song. (both laugh)

Humor seems essential in your songwriting.

Leigh: Yeah, it just ends up in there, I think.

McKay: It does end up in there, partly just because that’s our point of view. I mean, not all the songs have a sense of humor but most do.

Leigh: Of course, people like the ones with the sense of humor the best. They’re just flashy in a way that more serious songs are not. Usually, the sense of humor is revolving around something slightly tragic. In the case of “Lubbock,” it’s not. That’s just a funny-happy song, but lots of times the sense of humor is there to mask whatever sort of semi-disastrous thing we’re writing about.

What songwriters do you draw from as lyricists?

Leigh: Guy Clark. I also listen to a lot of Louvin Brothers. I listen to Stephen Foster. That record [Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster] is huge for me. I really like that. I like finding old stuff. I never realized this until recently, but I think I’m really influenced by the show tune stuff from the ’40s and ’50s. I don’t know where that came from — maybe from watching old movies when I was a kid. I like the big ways that things were said in those tunes.

McKay: Yeah, Guy Clark more than any other songwriter, but I’ve also been influenced by lots of female songwriters like Suzanne Vega and Natalie Merchant and Lucinda Williams. I think women tend to be verbal in a way that men aren’t necessarily, and I’ve found myself frequently drawn to that.

What brought you to Austin?

Leigh: Well, I’m from the Midwest. I was playing music with my brother from the time I was 14. I was attracted to the scene here. I thought it was cool and there’d be a lot of country music. When I did come here, I found that it was a really inclusive scene, and all the musicians were very welcoming. I found it’s a good place to learn, to get better at what I was doing, and I’m glad I didn’t try to get some big record deal when I was 20 because I didn’t know what the hell I was doing or what the hell I wanted. It would’ve been a disaster. I think before you put yourself out into the world it’s good to accomplish a few things first.

What’s the best part of being involved in the Austin music community?

McKay: All of the great people who are trying to do the same thing as we’re doing. That emotional support that comes from other people who are believing in what they do and writing songs. More than the actual gigs at the clubs that are here and available to play, it’s great to be around like-minded people and go over to their house and sit around and play music. That’s the best part.

Leigh: Yeah, we were just talking about how it’s like a family in a way — a big, weird, dysfunctional family. I feel that way after being here 11 years.

McKay: Yeah, I’ve been here 22 years, and I’ve seen several incarnations of people who are songwriters and get together. They sometimes gravitate apart, but there’s always a core group of people sticking together. After 22 years, I feel the same way.

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