Colin McGrath: Itinerant Folk Orchestrator


Just the Music

Colin McGrath

hide captionNow back in his native New York, Colin McGrath continues to write both folk songs and instrumental music.

Courtesy of the Artist

Songwriter Colin McGrath discovered his voice while busking his way through Europe as a teenager. Though he studied classical music in college, McGrath was taken in by Irish music and bluegrass, and then fell in love with folk at a festival in Texas. His folk songs are steeped in storytelling, with characters and images drawn from old Americana.

But his new, self-released album Window Seat brings him back to his native city of New York. Here, McGrath performs with his band and tells host John Schaefer about the travels which inspire his music — including a moment during a recent trip to Ecuador which launched the song "Anochece."

"It all came out of a conversation I was having with a guy I met there," McGrath says. "He said, 'Cuando anochece, se dice buenas noches.' Which means, 'When night falls, we say goodnight, or good evening.' And all of the things that I was experiencing in Ecuador — all these little images that I saw — really, definitely found their way into that song."

Now living again in New York, McGrath says it's sometimes challenging to pull heartstrings in a city which prides itself on being hardboiled.

"It's kind of a challenge to stay present and try to stay warm here in the city," he says. "I mean, not just temperature-wise, but [to] try to stay in a state of mind where you're open to experiences, because there is so much. You know, it's hard to make it here, it's hard to live here, and you just have to have your communities of the people you enjoy and keep making music."

Apart from his colleagues in folk, McGrath has several communities he can draw on. Owing to his classical background, he works as a teaching artist with the New York Philharmonic, where he leads workshops in public schools and occasionally composes instrumental music for touring performances. He based one piece he wrote on a trip to Turkey.

"I was traveling around Turkey, and I was really influenced by the driving rhythms and strange time signatures," McGrath says. "And all that music got into my head. And then as I came home, I sort of filtered that through my own more American folk-music-based compositional style. And then that's what popped out."

As a singer-songwriter, McGrath says he aims to channel the world he sees around him — hence the title, Window Seat. He performs a song called "Ruthie," inspired by a imagined conversation with one of his troubled middle-school students.



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