In 2017 local blues guitar identity and soul singer John McNamara released an acclaimed solo album titled Rollin With It, recorded in Memphis, Tennessee. In 2018 another respected Melbourne-based soul singer Andrea Marr, who is also a friend of John’s released an equally lauded soul album called Natural. Both John and Andrea share an American publicist, who knew both artist’s material well and it was he who suggested they come together as a duo to record. After making their way to Memphis earlier this year as winners of the MBAS Blues Challenge, John and Andrea sought help from some of the finest musicians in Memphis and proceeded to record Holla & Moan, the debut album of the newly formed McNaMarr project. The result is a fantastic, feel-good, heart-warming, good-time soul party, recorded and performed in a spirit that the genre’s ghosts would be proud of.
Ahead of launch shows for Holla & Moan, AM’s Greg Phillips caught up with John McNamara for a chat about his career and the new McNaMarr Project record.
How did you first get into soul and RnB music?
Originally I was a guitar player and listened to a lot of rock music, anything from Eddie Van Halen through to Mr Big, all the crazy fast guitar players. Gary Moore and Jeff Healey, guys that had one foot in the world of rock and one foot in the blues world. That made me go all the way down the rabbit hole until I ran into players like Son House. Once you go deep into the blues, it changes your perception and it has been my passion ever since, blues and soul … particularly once I got more into singing myself.
What were some of the records you played over and over and maybe still play?
One of my favourite albums that I can’t get sick of would be Sam Cooke’s Night Beat. Sam Cooke’s voice is something I have learned a lot from and I try my best to sound like him but not even close yet. In recent years I have been doing a Sam Cooke tribute show, which was well received and I hope to do again. Another album I listened to a lot … I mentioned the band Mr Big before, well the singer Eric Martin has this great 70s soul vibe and he did an album called Somewhere In The Middle, which was more of a ballad-based album. That album I listened to a crazy amount of times and then I was fortunate enough to tour Japan with him when he re-released that album in 2015 and I got to travel all over Japan playing those songs that I grew up listening to, so it was a great honour.
How did that tour come about?
I did a tour with Eric Martin in Australia. I put together a band and travelled as his guitar player and promoter, we got along really well. I think he was happy with the way our voices gelled. I kept in touch and I happened to be in Germany when Mr Big was there. Then when he came to do this acoustic tour in Japan, that’s one of his biggest markets. I was thrilled to play with Pat Torpey the drummer from Mr Big. We did a Live in Tokyo Blu-ray and cd, so that was a childhood dream come true. As a kid, that was the band I had written on my pencil case and I had posters on my wall of Eric and Paul Gilbert and Billy Sheehan. After I brought Eric out as a promoter, I brought out Michael Winslow from Police Academy and Pauly Shore, a few music acts as well. I got to see the industry from a whole different side. After doing that for a few years, that’s when I started doing blues music. So just back tracking, I played music, stopped and then worked as a promoter for about 5 years, gave that away completely and went back to playing music and playing blues.
You recorded your new duo album Holla & Moan with Andrea Marr in Memphis but prior to that you recorded an album of your own Rollin With It in Memphis, how did that happen?
In 2017 I was set to release my second album. My first was was called Alone With The Blues, which was all completely acoustic, as I perform most of my solo gigs with just voice and guitar. When I came to the second album I definitely wanted to amp it up and do something that sounded like the music I love so much, you know, Stax, anything from Memphis, Al Green, Bobby Bland. I was writing songs and in my head I could hear a brass section and hear that groove. It made sense at the time. I had to choose a band to record with and got in touch with Ardent Studios in Memphis and it was they who put me in touch with Lester Snell. Now Lester Snell has played with everyone … Isaac Hayes, Rod Stewart, even Keith Richards has him do his brass lines. Lester and I became friends over many phone conversations and he listened to my demoes and put together a band who were the cream of Memphis. We made an album which went to number #1 on the American contemporary blues charts for single and album, airplay charts that is … I wish it was sales but it got a ton of airplay and some great reviews and opened a lot of doors for me. Again, another dream come true. I got to play with guys who have played with the who’s who of that kind of music.
How did you and Andrea Marr come together to perform and record?
She released an album called Natural in 2018, a year after I had released Rollin With It and we had known each other for six years and always admired each other’s voices and got along well but never thought of working together. It just so happened that her album also got to the top of the soul charts over there. We use the same publicist over there, a chap named Frank Roszak and it took an American to suggest that we get together. He listened to both albums and said that we were like the male and female counterparts. He said you sing the same, you’ve got these albums out which are very much soul and blues with horns … he said that if we got together it could do a lot of crazy things because nobody out there is doing those male/female duo shows and even in history, there’s only been a handful of times that people have done that. We thought it was a great idea and we were so happy that when we sung together our voices just clicked because we had no idea if it would work or not. We sing in the same register and have the same inflections because we love gospel blues soul and funk and it got momentum from there.
We got together in about May last year and had this silly idea of entering the Melbourne Blues Challenge, which was just about to happen. We had not done gigs together but had been writing but because we live a few hours apart, a lot of it was through the phone and Skype. So we were actually backstage deciding who sings what verse, making sure we were in the same key before performing in front of a judging panel. We did that with all three heats of that challenge, which was nerve wracking but by some twist of fate we won it and that sent us off to represent the Australian blues scene in Memphis, which was the start of this year. Between winning it and getting to Memphis, we got around to playing a ton of gigs and festivals in Australia and then it got better and better. We got to the states and found our own sound.
What was the band you used his time in Memphis?
We went and met with Johnny Phillips who runs Select-O-Hits. This was a company that was started by the Phillips family, being Sam Phillips who discovered Elvis Presley sixty odd years ago. This company is still in the family and we got to meet Sam’s nephew Johnny and he liked the music so we signed this great distribution deal. He picked up Andrea’s album, My Rollin With It album and our forthcoming album together, which we hadn’t even started recording yet, which was really exciting. Once again, we thought how are we going to record this? We thought that it would be great to use Memphis players, so we called Lester Snell and this time he gave us a list of musicians and said who do you want to choose? He gave us a list of drummers, keyboard players, we got to pick our dream team. We had Willie Hall, who played in the Blues Brothers band, Bobby Manuel on guitar, who has even played with Elvis Presley on stage, Wayne Griffin on bass, the Memphis Horns and Lester Snell on keys. These guys got right into it.
Is there a track on the album that you are more proud of than the others?
There are a few that stand out. I guess the title track Holla & Moan sums up the album and our sound nicely because it’s really got that cheeky lyric and a lot of energy and back and forth singing. Then track two, Missing You is a track that Andrea wrote and it’s a stand out for me. There is only one co-write that we both wrote half and half and it’s quite special, it’s a ballad called History and the only song on there that is a bit of a heart breaker, every other song is very positive. I am really proud of it and I think it has a life beyond us.
Did you get to play some guitar on the album or leave that up to Bobby Manuel?
I did all the lead parts so I was like a lazy guitar player, I didn’t play any chords on the album. I just played the lead lines which was a lot of fun for me.
What is your main electric?
At the moment I have gone back to using a Fender Stratocaster that I got in my late teens. Before that on the Rollin With It album I was using a B&G guitar, which is made in Israel. I was fortunate to work with that company for a few years when they were launching in Australia. For this particular sound I wanted that single coil thing and I am loving the Strat all over again.
It’s a tricky thing when you are playing blues, the more effects you add, you can lose that old school authentic sound. Anytime I added any effects it just sounded wrong, so we took ‘em out and kept it clean.
What amp are you playing through?
Through this album it was a Blues Junior and I didn’t touch the settings, just rolled off the volume and recorded the whole album like that. Then we used a little bit of dirt from an amp that was siting in the studio, we just drove it a bit harder to get a bit dirtier from time to time. We didn’t use any pedals. It’s a tricky thing when you are playing blues, the more effects you add, you can lose that old school authentic sound. Anytime I added any effects it just sounded wrong, so we took ‘em out and kept it clean.
You probably didn’t use any acoustic guitar on this album but I believe you’re a Maton guy?
I am I have been playing Mini Matons at my solo gigs for the last six years. I did a couple of Edinburgh Fringe Festivals, went to Germany twice, South East Asia with these Mini Matons and they’re amazing. They are so small, which makes me look bigger and that’s a big plus they sound so big and punchy. I love flying the flag for Maton, they are beautiful guitars and of course made in Australia.
You have some launch gigs coming up, what will the band consist of?
This is exciting … the launch at the Groove Bar (Crown Casino) on Sunday, September 29 and we have a 9 piece band. Andrea has the guys from her band, The Funky Hitmen who are an amazing brass section and we have our main band, a lot of them from Ballarat and they’re great players. Geoff Achison used some of them on his last album. So big show at Crown and then the week after that we have an album launch show at the Cabaret Club in Ballarat as a six piece and then Summerfield Winery and Andrea and I have performances on the Blues Train, Bendigo Blues Festival, as a duo and as a six piece as well as being the after party band.
Do you hope to take this music back to America and perform?
The good thing is that it has just been released over there and sitting at number #4 on the soul and blues airplay chart and we’ve had some great reviews coming in. We have our eyes on Europe. Last time when Andrea and I got a lot of heat on our albums, we never got to go over and play so that is something we want to make sure we do this time and hit some of these festivals that are biting and make the most of the buzz that is happening around the release.
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SUNDAY 29TH – McNaMarr Project – “Holla N Moan” Album Launch 9-11 8 piece band – Groove Bar @ Crown Melbourne – Free Entry
SATURDAY 5TH 8PM – McNaMarr Project – Ballarat Album Launch – The Cabaret Club Ballarat
SATURDAY 12TH- McNaMarr Project – Paella in The Pyranese @ Summerfield Winery
SATURDAY 19TH- McNaMarr Project – The Blues Train Queenscliff
SUNDAY 20TH 3PM – McNaMarr Project – Federation Square Blues Festival – The Paddock, Federation Square Melbourne 3pm
FRIDAY 8TH, 9TH, 10TH- McNaMarr Project – Bendigo Blues Festival
SATURDAY 30TH- McNaMarr Project – Mount Gambier Blues Festival
TUESDAY 10TH 8PM – McNaMarr Project – MBAS House Of Blues Feature Act – Flemington Bowls Club 8pm – Free Entry
SUNDAY 29TH 3PM- McNaMarr Project – Hotel Warrnambool – 3pm – Free Entry