Alex McEwan is songwriter of rare and special skills, an Americana-channelling Scotsman with a warm, enriching voiceand a deft way with a lyric that cuts straight to the heart. And on his upcoming second album,‘In A World We Don’t Know’, this roaming, roving troubadour distills a lifetime of loves, losses and lessons into 10 perfectly wrought songs.
Even more remarkably, McEwan has pulled together this album under his own steam, at his own cost (he’s artist , manager, label-runner, chief cook and bottle-washer), to his own vision, within the restrictions of lock down, from the kitchen table in the cottage in the Home Counties countryside that he shares with his wife.
From Kent to the cosmos: these are melodically rich songs that speak to eternal truths, with deathless wonder, for anyone who loves a classic song, an intuitive connection and an instant singalong.
He starts as he means to go on with Bee In A Honey Pot, the effortlessly lovely track that opens the album. As ever with McEwan, he wears his heart and his art on his sleeve.
“It’s a song about time and how limited our time on earth is,” explains the singer/songwriter from Glasgow. “About feeling free, and about the person you love. And given what we’ve all been through in the last three years, it speaks to a desire to feel free again, like we were as kids. But,” he adds, smiling, “it’s also a love song to my wife.”
Then there’s the title track, an immediate stand out, with a big, easy, enveloping chorus that evokes the effortlessly feel good vibes of Jack Johnson. “A lot of people are liking that,” says this artist for whom listener connection is a foundation of every thing he does. “I’m getting a great response on Facebook, particularly from American fans. But, aye, everyone likes that one.”
A sense of love, of passion, of the connections and uplift that music gives us, has always driven Alex McEwan. It gifted him horizons beyond his immediate surroundings. Growing up in Glasgow, his life was lit up by the music his mum played as she set about the housework.
“My mother would clean the house listening to Johnny Cash, or Glen Campbell, or Dolly Parton. And that sort of music stuck in my head, probably because of my mother’s influence.”
When he picked up guitar, aged 13, he instantly went to the source–no matter how tricky for his untrained fingers.
“I started guitar by learning Sweet Home Alabama by Lynyrd Skynyrd,” he recalls with a rueful grin. “I remember my guitar teacher coming round, showing me that, and I was just mesmerised, and determined to learn it – difficult though it is! So that was probably an entry point into southern rock, country and Americana–all that good stuff!”
A few years later, he started playing electric guitar, too.
“Then my mother and my grandmother died a few months apart. I’d never seen death in my family, and I turned to the guitar to, if you like, soothe my soul. And I got more into writing songs as well. And what came out started sounding like country music or Americana."
For McEwan, that was a broad church. He was inspired by Scotland's own Del Amitri, notably their classic albums Waking Hours and Change Everything. He hoovered up everything from Tracey Chapman to Bruce Springsteen, REM to early Neil Young. “I think I learned every song on Harvest and After the Goldrush. And you can’t beat a bit of vintage Springsteen–I’ve been doing my version of My Hometown on Facebook recently.”
McEwan was a dreamer, but also a realist–he worked as an engineer and trained as a teacher. But music was his constant backbeat, his heartbeat. Having moved down south, he performed whenever and wherever he could. He busked on the London Underground and frequented Denmark Street’s storied 12 Bar Club, a venue that celebrated all kinds of folk-rock and Americana.
Then, on the advice of a record company executive who was impressed by what he heard, McEwan headed to Nashville–his trip largely funded by the proceeds of his busking.
“I went there, stayed for a month, hung out, soaked in as much as I could on Music Row,” he says. Meanwhile, hisunerring ability to make musical connections saw him hook up with Lou Natkin, the Brian Wilson collaborator and JoanJett guitarist. The pairmade a demo which helped McEwan land a deal with independent label Forge Records.
The resulting debut album Beautiful Lies saw McEwan become a mainstay of Radio 2 playlists, with Terry Wogan, JaniceLong, Jeremy Vine and Steve Wright all enthusiastically spinning the single Make a Wave. The resulting nationalexposure secured McEwan a slot on a UK and Ireland tour with Katie Melua, gifting the Scotsman 60,000 new fans.
Life, though, needs to be lived, and bills need to be paid. So McEwan went back to college to complete a Master’s degree before joining the world of finance as a senior manager at a huge international bank.
The music, though, never died. Pre-lockdown, McEwan and his wife were on a Caribbean cruise. One night in the bar,the mic was thrown open. At his wife’s urging he got up and sang the song that started it all: Sweet Home Alabama.
“The response was incredible, but I kinda put that down to people either being polite or pissed!” he laughs. “But nextday, this group of American tourists accosted me coming out of the lift, raving about my performance. That got me thinking again about making a new album.To be honest, I’d left music behind at that point. I was still dreaming songs, but overall I had a feeling that I needed to get on with life. But I had this nagging feeling that I’d left something behind. It’s like I was grieving, almost.
“So that was a nudge that kinda jolted me awake. I picked up the guitar properly again,started learning classical guitar, started working through these song ideas–and then we moved from London to the countryside. And that was another big creative moment. Now I had the space and the vibe to be an artist.”
He had a vision, too, for how he wanted to move on from his first album. “Sonically I wanted to make this one more contemporary. I love the songs on that album, but here, I wanted Ian Grimble to mix it–I loved what he did with Bears Den and, a bit further back, Travis. So I wanted something with a bit of an indie-rock edge.”
Over lockdown, he dusted off old songs he’d never fully fleshed out, one of which was In A World We Don’t Know. They were soon joined by new tracks such as the Counting Crows-esque piano-and-guitar boogie What Is Love. It was written during the depths of Covid, McEwan sat alone at the kitchen table in the wee hours. It was a song that channeled the isolation of the pandemic, and the need for connection and connectivity.
Speaking of which: as McEwan dug into his writing, he also fostered a new network of contacts and kindred spirits.Their talents are sprinkled like fairy dust across the album, which he’s co-produced with Graham Noon and American guitarist Austin Moorhead (Jana Kramer, Carly Pierce), and which was mastered by Ted Jensen at Sterling Sound, Nashville.
These include Swedish songwriter Lasse Andersson, co-writerof On Top Of The World; legendary producer and A&Rman David Kershenbaum as a consultant; David Arch as pianist on This Feeling Again, squeezing in a session alongside his day job as musical director on Strictly Come Dancing; Loudon Wainwright and Richard Thompson collaborator Alan Dunn on accordion on Hold Your Hands Out to Me; leading Scottish traditional musician Lorne MacDougall on pipes and whistle also on the title track; string arranger Pete Harvey (Deacon Blue); and last but very much not least,Nashville’s Brittany Hadley on backing vocals.
But the centre of gravity is McEwan’s songs. The overall orchestration and co-ordination are all his. These 10 songs are everything he wanted to say–and needed to say. That’s summed up in the glorious final track, On Top of the World.“That’s about hope, about how love can conquer all, about how we should never give up. And with that rockier,funkier, it felt like a positive, emphatic, uplifting end,” he adds.
In A World We Don't Know, then, is a story of perseverance and dedication and commitment. And it’s an album where the artist’s passion positively glows from the songs.
Alex concludes,“What do I think when I look at the album? A sense of achievement. I’ve put 10 songs together that mean everything to me. I get hundreds, thousands of people sending me messages on social media, saying how I’ve touched their hearts. That still blows my mind. And that’s what fires and inspires me as a songwriter. So if the album can mean something to some people, that will just be amazing. Every single connection I make with one of my songs is priceless.”