Songwriter took years to find his inner voice
By Denise Taylor | October 5, 2006
The “singer” part of becoming a singer/songwriter was the hitch for Luke MacNeil. He could play guitar, he could write songs, and he wanted to sing, but he cringed at the sound of his own voice.
“I was always afraid of my voice. I never even wanted to sing `Happy Birthday,’ and I couldn’t stand my voice on someone else’s answering machine,” said MacNeil, 23, of Milford. “So I’d just play weddings and on Sunday mornings at coffee shops and do acoustic pieces like `Greensleeves,’ and `Classical Gas.’ But eventually I wanted to sing.”
About two years ago, he finally worked up the nerve. Wading in cautiously, MacNeil began performing Radiohead covers at open mikes. Meanwhile, when he wasn’t at work at his IT job, he trained his voice with the same diligence that he’d studied guitar.
“I just kept at it,” he said. “I spent a lot of time going through vocal exercises, warm-ups, and warm-downs, and did a lot of open mikes, where I got a lot of practice singing into microphones. And I eventually saved up some money and went to see a vocal coach out in Revere, and he helped me out a lot.”
To hear MacNeil today, it’s hard to imagine what the fuss was about. Ranging from rumbling low notes to sweet highs, from soulful, rolling refrains to jazzy scats, his voice rides through a song like a fine-tuned car on an open road. And local folk venues are just now starting to notice.
Last month he played Pulse Fest at the Worcester DCU Center. He followed that with his debut at the local folk scene epicenter, Club Passim in Cambridge, where he opened for John Gerard. Tomorrow he performs for the first time as the featured act of the Red Door Coffee House open mike in Framingham.
“I’d always been hoping that somebody would ask,” he said of Red Door, where he’s lined up regularly with other musicians and poets as an open mike participant for the last two years.
The Red Door organizer, Holliston singer/songwriter Tom Driscoll, said it was time. “I don’t know how to be more expansive than to say he’s just really good. He’s a great guitar player and a passionate performer,” said Driscoll.
MacNeil’s crazy-quilt of influences makes for interesting songwriting. Though he says he grew up hating country music, the all-Hank Williams “hootenannies” his father and uncles held when he was growing up seem to surface with a slight country crackle in some of his songs.
“They only played Hank Williams, over and over. They played it so much I developed a Hank Williams phobia,” said MacNeil. “But when I found out I was named after him — he went by Luke the Drifter — I started paying more attention. I still don’t necessarily like his voice or his own recordings, but just his songs and melodies. He did, after all, write the songwriting book.”
In other songs, MacNeil’s teenage fascination with death metal bands like Cannibal Corpse comes through. And, oddly, the dramatic metal-style chord changes he borrows sound just plain pretty when welded with his classical fingerstyle picking and folk-inspired melodies.
“There’s a huge heavy metal influence in my music,” he said. “From listening to it and playing it for so many years, I developed strange habits with my hands. I play chords that normal folk musicians don’t play because they are meant to be played electric. But on an acoustic it’s really a beautiful sound. If you take the distortion away from death metal, it pretty much turns into classical music. It’s very technical.”
MacNeil also channels heavy metal’s dark mood. He describes his own lyrics as “depressing,” though earnest seems more accurate.
“When I listen to songs, I don’t want to dance, I want to be moved,” he said. “So I use music for that. I use it to work out that ‘Oh, I’m so sad,’ stuff.”
But he is upbeat about the new performance opportunities he’s getting and his newfound voice.
“I’m totally comfortable with my voice now,” he said. “But it’s like any other instrument. It’s something that has to be learned.”
MacNeil headlines The Red Door Coffee House Open Mike tomorrow at 8 p.m. (feature act at 9 p.m.) at Performing Arts Center of MetroWest, 140 Pearl St., Framingham. $8. Call 508-875-5554 or visit www.pacmetrowest.org