Shadowy Folk From A Shadowy Province

shadow folkShadow Folk are one of many young, psychedelic-influenced bands making great music in Halifax right now. They also happen to be one of many Halifax bands filled with talented ex-Truro, NS residents. Recently it seems Halifax’s music scene has directly benefited from an exodus of young talent from Truro.

Justin McGrath shares songwriting duties in Shadow Folk with Ian Bennett. McGrath, who grew up in Truro, frequently collaborates with other Truro-born musicians. He plays in Truro ex-pat Scott Nicks’ band, as well as Walrus – a band founded by Jordan and Justin Murphy, who grew up just outside Truro in Hilden. McGrath started Shadow Folk as a solo project, but it grew into a fully fleshed out experiment in rock and psychedelic music.

Shadow Folk released Mystery Park in May. The EP is influenced primarily by the Kinks, and 60’s music. You get the impression McGrath was the typical “Let it Be” t-shirt wearing, classic rock lover in high school. But it wasn’t until he went to study jazz guitar at St. FX that he had his stereotypical stoned Beatles-influenced breakthrough. One day at his school’s music library he checked out The Magical Mystery Tour, lit a joint, put his headphones on, and boom. Explained McGrath, with a laugh: “it just exploded my mind.”

He wound up quitting his program at St. FX, moved to Halifax, and started playing in bands around the city. McGrath wrote his songs on Mystery Park between playing guitar for Walrus and Scott Nicks, and writing songs for the Age. The EP is a stripped down extension of the guitar-heavy sound Shadow Folk have developed as their hallmark. “It was the first time I had recorded anything on my own,” McGrath said.

Mystery Park is barely a month old, and McGrath promises two new releases in the near future. Before the end of the summer Shadow Folk is planning to release a split with Sunny Beaches, the project of Keith Doiron, another friend made growing up in Truro. “When I first started playing guitar he messaged me on MSN totally out of nowhere, we hadn’t even met, and said “hey man we should put a band together for this talent show.” That was the first time I ever played in public and I’m not even sure how he got my MSN.”

Secret East met up with him to talk about the making of Mystery Park, his approach to collaboration and songwriting, and how he tries to emulate his idols.

shadow folk live july 14 gusSo you grew up in Truro, right? Did Walrus come fully formed when you moved to Halifax?

Justin McGrath: Yeah. I met Jordan (Murphy) through playing with Scott Nicks. He grew up in a small community outside Truro called Hilden. I got him to play with me in Shadow Folk. I met his brother Justin, who was always hanging around. At first Walrus were sort of more electronic-y almost. When they fleshed out the band they asked me to join. That was a big thing for me. I loved the band anyways. Definitely similar sound. Walrus might be almost a little bit more psychedelic, whereas Shadow Folk I try to do almost straight up rock and roll type of thing. Might be a little bit garagey, but I try to do a really 60’s rock n roll type of thing with psych influences.

It’s a little quieter sometimes.

JM: They probably sound similar with Jordan drumming in both bands, I play guitar in both bands. That alone will give you a similar vibe.

For Shadow Folk songs, is there a point where your and Ian’s styles intersect?

JM: Our songs match well because he is a big R&B, soul head. That matches really well with rock and roll, I think. They come from the same place I find.

I feel those styles diverged from the same point in history kind of.

JM: Right. Today it’s much different. In the 60’s that’s what rock n roll was. He’s really good at that type of thing. The songs he writes, they don’t sound like R&B songs, but they come from that school. I was really impressed with the couple songs he had on Mystery Park. He wrote “Chaos” and “Harold’s Letter”. When he played me “Harold’s Letter” it was mind-blowing to me. It was sort of a sad story.

Very depressing.

JM: It had like one of the coolest chord progressions. That’s what I like, chord progressions that really perk your ear up, take off at a certain point. Make you ask “hey, what was that?” That’s what I’ve strived to do more recently with my songs, have more interesting chord changes. Hit a certain chord that’s unexpected.

Where Shadow Folk and the Age are bands that feature multiple songwriters, do you look at music more as an opportunity to collaborate with your friends?

JM: I find collaborating a little difficult sometimes. It has to be the right situation with the right person. When I write a song, I personally like to have it my way 100 percent. I don’t want someone else to change things about it. I’ll really have it exactly how I want it. It’s not an ego thing, I don’t think I have a big ego.

Is it a perfectionist thing?

JM: It might be. It’s not that the song is necessarily perfect. But I just don’t like having someone else change things about it. At the same time, Ryan from the Age will write a song, and we don’t necessarily have the same songwriting ability. He’ll have a single idea, or something like that, and he’ll need almost someone to work on it with him. I’m really good at coming in, taking an idea, and making it a song. I’m really good at hashing out a song. I guess because I’ve done it a lot at this point. When someone comes to me I can build on that, and hash it out. He will sometimes bring a vocal line, but not know which chords should go behind it.

How long have you been writing music?

JM: I started in 2011 or 2012. At least three and a half years. I’ve got enough written that there’s a formula in a way. You know how to get a song done.

Do you feel like your influences have changed much?

JM: I think I’ve really just learned how to construct an interesting, catchy song. A lot of music that I hear, doesn’t have anything pop out about it. There’s lots of awesome music, but general stuff you hear on the radio, it’s a little boring. There’s nothing that really pops out. That’s my thing, and it’s hard to describe, but having a nice part, then following it with something else that lifts off. That’s the term I use, when a change in the song feels really satisfying.

Like a hook?

JM: Yeah. And it doesn’t necessarily have to come back. But it lifts off and sounds satisfying to the ear. I want to say I get it from The Kinks. They’re basically my favorite band. They always have those moments in their music, where a new part lifts right off. And I always think, “hm, let me figure out what chord they went to from what chord.”

You said you don’t like to collaborate after you finish writing. Does it take you a while to put the finishing touches on a song.

JM: It can. Sometimes it comes right out of me and I don’t change a thing about it. Sometimes it takes a while. Sometimes I’ll write a melody and it’ll take a long time to get down.

Tell us about putting Mystery Park together.

JM: Mystery Park came together kind of randomly, but I almost wanted to have something to tide people over until the split. I recorded that at Ian’s place. It was the first time I had tried to do any recording myself. I usually go to the Echo Chamber. “Return to Mystery Park” is a whole other song. The EP version is basically a demo of a song that will be on the release after the split tape. The EP version was a recording my friend Kate did when she happened to be recording us practicing. That’s just me and Ian sitting around the living room practicing that song. But it sounded so nice when she showed me the recording I decided to put it on there.

It has that feel, with the impromptu ending.

JM: Yeah! We played it perfectly then at the very end I hit the wrong chord and the three of us laugh. Whoops.

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