The song that sings Chris McNulty

In July 2011 New York based singer Chris McNulty tragically lost her son Sam McNulty (aka Chap One) in Melbourne, and this March she’s organised an event in Australia to launch the vinyl and CD of Strange Frequencies, a recording that features Chap One’s music in collaboration with herself and Paul Bollenback. The album also features Gary Thomas, Ugonna Okegwo, Barney (Boots) McAll, Jeremy Clemons, Adam Christagau, Mike Pope, Chanda Rule and Jesse Boykins III.The event will also see the launch of the double album, vinyl release of Future History and For the People’s Sake, collaborations with Chap One’s colleagues, Durban Poison and Tony Wolf. It will take place on Thursday, March 22nd at The Order of Melbourne – see the bottom of this interview for details. While in Australia for this sad and joyous event, Chris will also be performing some of her own music from her upcoming release as part of a small, subdued tour that takes in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane and also includes private masterclasses and workshops at the Brisbane Conservatorium of Music and Monash University. With her new CD The Song That Sings You Here due for release in August (on European label Challenge) this is a chance for Australian fans to hear new and familiar tunes. Chris agreed to an email interview with us, completed before she left New York to return to Australia for this short and emotionally charged visit.

Chris McNulty
Chris McNulty | Photo-Lena Adasheva

Jazz-Planet: Thanks for talking to us today, as you embark on a brief Australian tour prior to your forthcoming release The Song that Sings You Here. Can you tell us who is playing with you on the CD and what drove the choice to work with these particular musicians?

Chris McNulty: I think I wanted this recording to project a little of what I actually really do out there in the live arena. That not only encompasses a lot of touring, it also involves establishing some very important and often long-lasting musical relationships. They mean a lot to me for a lot of reasons, not just because it means we get to establish a rapport of sorts but also because we’re involved in a cross pollination of cultures and ideas. Each and every one of the players on this recording has been a part of that for me. I’m sure they can each talk about being a part of many others, but for me these players have played key role in performances that I’ve done around the globe – Russia. Australia, the UK and of course, New York City. From NYC: Paul Bollenback, Ugonna Okegwo and Marcus Gilmore; From Russia: Andrei Kondokov and Igor Butman; From Australia: Graham Wood and from the UK: Anita Wardell.

JP: Is there a theme to the choice of songs on the CD?

CMcN: I wanted to get a new record out as I hadn’t released since 2006. The plan was to release this project in 2009 but as luck would not have it, we had to wait ’til 2012. I think the economic crisis in the States played the biggest role in delaying this release, but there were other events that played a role. I wanted to do a more straight-ahead recording, something that in a way involved a lot less composing and arranging as Paul and I were both out on the road a lot in 2007, 2008 and 2009. I also felt like it was the right time to just show that side of myself again. I think in away I was thinking ahead to the next project which I absolutely knew was not going to be anything close to straight ahead. We also had a number of budget and time constraints so this is the first record date I’ve completed in one day, actually five hours. I usually like to do an album over two days so I can keep 90% of my vocals. We had so much going on that we could only find one day when we could all be together in NYC so… one day it was.

JP: ‘Letter to Marta’ has a real middle-eastern feel. Is music from that part of the world a particular inspiration? Are the demands on your voice very different? 

CMcN: Ha…close enough.. perhaps just a bit further to the west 🙂 There’s a story (is there never not?), so identifying the true modality of this song will come soon enough. I wrote the actual song when I was 14 years old and way before I’d any musical education. It’s far removed from anything I’d actually heard during my childhood, especially when you consider that the music that I was listening to on the radio at the time was Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, The Beatles, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Dione Warwick, Marvin Gaye …all that great 60’s stuff. Anyway because I had no clue how to write music, I went to bed every night and sang it to myself – melody and lyric, over and over. Looking back on it now, I hear it as completely pure and in a way archaic piece.I’m not sure I knew that at the time, though I was definitely aware of the distance between what I’d composed and what I was listening to and loved. I never forgot the song because as I said, I sang it over and over every night. I guess I wanted something fixed permanently in my memory, something that documented that time in my life. Why I knew or felt that was necessary, I have no clue. All I know is that I never did anything like that again until I got to composing at the piano several decades later. This song then lay dormant. I never really thought of it again and definitely never recalled it to memory. Then I guess it was around 1996 when I saw a movie called The English Patient, music composed by the Lebanese composer, Gabriel Yared. The thing that drew me in, that fascinated me was not only the music and the visual graphics at the beginning of the credits, but the voice. I often hear pieces of music in film and find a way of doing something with them. In any case I had to wait till the end of that very long movie to find out who the singer was. It was, in fact, the Hungarian folk singer, Márta Sebestyén.

Hear the song on YouTube >>

Ah… the mist slowly lifts to reveal a little of the mystery… but not all of it. I fell in love with her and then went looking for any thing I could find with her on it. This was when Tower Records on 66th Street was still in existence. I came home with a bundle of CDs and listened to a bunch, kept four (the more traditional ones) and took the rest back (you could even do that back then). I spent time playing through this music. At some point during the listening I noticed myself humming along to one of the traditional pieces, and then l realized I was singing a song that was at once familiar but unrecognizable in another way. I can’t really say how the thing just manifested itself in its entirety with every word in place, every verse in order but there I was in the living room, rather gobsmacked singing my song in the same key as I had written in at age 14, along with a very traditional Hungarian mode. At around the same time two other events/revelations happened. I had wanted to visit The Cloisters (located in Fort Tryon Park in northern Manhattan—The Cloisters’ collection comprises approximately three thousand works of art from medieval Europe, dating from about the ninth to the sixteenth century). I was standing in line with my friend, sharing the recent discovery that the little folk song I’d written when I was 14 years old was in fact a Hungarian mode, when lo and behold a young woman with a distinct European accent apologized for interrupting but explained that she couldn’t help overhearing my conversation about the connection to Marta Sebestyen. She told me that she knew her. More gob smacking… this woman’s name was Zuji Maderaz and she became a very dear friend. We spent many hours together talking about Hungary and Marta.

Around this time, I had also begun exploring the lineage of my Nana McNulty. She was the matriarch on my dad’s side and was loved and adored by all of her eight children and 36 grandchildren. We spent just about every Sunday at Nana McNulty’s on Hunter Street, West Brunswick and were raised with the understanding that we were Irish Catholic… although there were many times when we heard threads of stories that hinted otherwise. With a name like McNulty (the only McNultys in the phone book were our relatives), it was difficult to imagine us any anything else but. We’d heard the story about the Swedish sailor who jumped ship in Melbourne and married my great grandmother – Nana McNulty’s mother, whose name was Rachel Bryant (clearly an anglicized Jewish name). My great grandfather’s name happened to be Peter Gellert. I always wondered how that name could be Swedish, so I started researching the name and after a few days of looking around the internet, found out that Gellert is in fact, not Swedish but has it’s origins in, yep, you guessed it… Hungary. I think I’ll leave the rest to the readers to decide how/where the inspiration for writing ‘Letter to Marta’ came from. Obviously I gave it that name after I decided to include it on this latest recording.

JP: Are there any songs on the CD that are particularly important to you because of how they came about or what they have come to mean during the process of recording or writing them?

CMcN: Continuing the thread from the former question. I decided to just sing my song ‘Letter to Marta’ from memory in an acapella setting because that’s how I first imagined it. It was also how I sang everything back in those very early days… unaccompanied. I chose to prepare very little. I set up Pro Tools and my Neumann mic out at my house in Pennsylvania and on a glorious spring afternoon, with all the windows open… full view and ears to the surrounding forest, I pressed play and sang the piece from top to bottom, once through. The bird song was not added for effect. They actually started singing along, with very little encouragement from me… However, the more powerful occurrence was the thunder arriving in the first four bars, then the birds, then the rain, then the crickets and then the very dramatic re-entry of thunder right at the climax on the ending four bars. I couldn’t have orchestrated that any better if I’d tried. We took the Pro Tools file in with us to the studio session a few weeks later and had the ensemble accompany the acapella track. After listening through a few times, we decided to see what it sounded like just leaving the piano in there alone with the voice. What you hear accompanying my voice (and birds, thunder etc.), is the gorgeous rendering of Russian pianist-composer, Andrei Kondokov.

The bird song was not added for effect. They actually started singing along, with very little encouragement from me…

‘One Less Bell to Answer’ had been on my ‘ballads to do’ list for a decade or so. It’s often the way I approach ballads. I have to wait until I know I can own the story, the melody, emotive delivery, completely. It has to get into my bones. This one was in my bones which is why I chose to add the duet as a bonus track (see YouTube below). It was another one of those, set up Protools with the added benefit of video camera and roll the tape or should I say press the space bar, moments. There’s an ensemble version on this album too, but I truly like the sparseness and bare bones treatment that Paul and I give this song. There’s a small tragedy to this particular recording. Out of all the Protools files on 3 external drives, this one (and only this one) disappeared off the face of the planet after we created the video file, so we had to master it from the Quick Time file… we were therefore unable to do anything with it as far as mixing it or adding plug ins…so it’s bare but I still think it stands alone.

‘Long Road Home – The Song That Sings You Here’… well what can I say. I wrote it before my son’s tragic passing but so much of the lyric and sentiment sounds like I wrote it for him. So what I’m saying is that sometimes we know things, we have a deeper insight. We’re not always aware of what we’re tapping into… most often we’re not. Some are more aware than others. I think my son was able to do this. I may not have been aware of what was coming thru me but I felt it and it came out of me, regardless. On the recording it’s a 1/2 step too high. I would like to have had time to re-record it a 1/2 step lower… perhaps I will, perhaps I won’t. Sometimes one has to leave well enough, good enough alone and accept that it’s done. If your instincts tell you to go back and try again, and they win out, so be it. I won’t know that until I attempt this long journey home.

The song has several layers. I tend to write lyrics that have double or several meanings going on at once, which obviously means they can be interpreted in several ways as well. ‘Long Road Home’ is about spiritual love that never dies. It’s also about romantic love … lost and found. It’s about life lost but also forever eternal and it’s about Australia and coming the full circle. All these things I feel very strongly. Sometimes we don’t know where the music or lyric comes from. I’ve talked about this before… it’s like we tap into something… it’s out there in the universe. We create from some energy source, the purer the connection, the more profound the music, the writing, but you still need a set of well honed skills. There are genius composers out there, I’m still just touching the tip of the iceberg. I’ll just say this, I was aware when I was writing this song that it would have deep and lasting meaning but I never dreamed it would hold the significance that it does now.

There’s too much quiet here right now so I just grabbed any disc I could find out of a container (it was blank) and put it in the CD player. It turned out to be Toots Thielemans and the song I’m listening to is the ‘Shadow of your Smile’, accompanied by a full orchestra. Man, the way Toots expresses music, makes the melody seep way into your soul. That’s what I call tapping in.

The role of words and story

JP: In an interview in Jazz Improv magazine a few years ago, you spoke of writing, as your first creative output as a girl, before you started singing. The songs that I’ve been listening to, from this forthcoming CD and from your previous recordings, have a strong narrative content. How important do you think the story is, for you as a musician? What does the story add? Do you ever write music that doesn’t end up with ‘narrative’ lyrics?

CMcN: I may have answered some of this above. I think the originals on Dance Delicioso and Whispers the Heart might have an even stronger narrative content as they both have more original content. I never planned to include much original work on this current project. I think I was shooting for a fairly straight ahead recording, In any case I think I’ll just reference a track on Whispers the Heart called ‘Young Boy Gone’. I’d already composed the music component several months earlier but it had remained lyric-less. The original idea came after listening to a very short but beautiful piece of music at the end of a Jane Austen movie, called Persuasion. I’d originally planned to write a lyric dedicated to Jane Austen but the lyric never manifested itself – it just didn’t come. I’d resigned myself to this one being a lyric-less vocal piece. Then just a few weeks before going into the studio, I was down in Baltimore for a concert at Peabody Conservatorium and found myself sitting in a little café, which reminded me of Australia actually and I picked up the local paper. On the front page was a photo of a beautiful boy. His name was Vatell Murray and he was just 15 years old. I felt compelled to write his story and I knew then and there that the song I’d written was for this boy. So you can see sometimes the most unexpected thing can arrive to change the course of a piece of music forever.

As I answer these questions and have to think about the source of my writing and also the narrative content, it seems even more incomprehensible to me now that I wrote a lyric about a beautiful young boy in Baltimore who lost his life to a gangland killing, never thinking for a minute that my own beloved and precious boy would be gone just a few years later. My son was not safe for very different reasons but the connection of loneliness and dislocation, safety nets and family, is a hugely significant one.

JP: In the same interview, you mentioned that you write music first and the lyrics afterwards. Is that still the order? Does it ever happen that words come first?

CMcN: Not yet, though, it’s amazingly close sometimes. Most times, I’m already getting the idea or the thread of what the vibe of the piece is about early on. If a title comes from the music quickly, I’m sure there’s a subconscious narrative being formed at the same time that I’m completing the music. I get into the harmony, the chords and the melody first because sometimes it takes me a while to write it all down. I’m hearing a lot of things all at once — pulse, meter, and sometimes the phrasing of the melody is sitting across the bar line in a way that can be difficult to write down. I’ve realized that the skill is in simplifying what I’m hearing to get it to work on paper. I’m working on organizing my ideas in a more exact and simpler way. At times what I’m attempting to write is a little more complex than what I’m capable of playing. It can be difficult for me to execute or I make it harder for myself than I need to. I absolutely don’t mean to, it’s just that I missed the basic/simple introductory training and dived in at a complex place. I feel like I have to get the song mapped out before I can give it that final brush stroke of the lyric… complete the panoramic vista.

Your Australian origins

JP: It’s impossible to ignore that you’re an expat – your roots are in Australia but you’ve spent so long in the USA, I’d like to know whether being from Australia informs your work and the way you interact with other musicians.

CMcN: No doubt it has and no doubt it’s also separated me a little. I guess just like my accent, I’ve never been that aware of how (or if) it’s impacted my work or my interaction with other musicians though I’m sure is has in some way or other. Some of it good, some of it not so good I’m sure. What’s important is to keep on striving, to never give up and to keep trying to elevate to a higher place. I’ve obviously learned some things in the four decades I’ve been out there, but nothing, absolutely nothing comes close to preparing you for what you learn from a loss like this and I’ve barely touched the surface of what I know I’m going to learn. I believe we’re here for a purpose. How we deal with life and the curve balls is part of the journey to becoming whole. We make choices and we’re given plenty. We don’t always recognize what the lesson is, but by God there’s always one.

I’m certain being raised in Australia has had its advantages and has offered a very unique perspective. Leaving one’s homeland definitely presents certain challenges. What serves as a positive can also serve as a negative. Just depends on how aware people are of the qualities that mark them as different, special, unique and how or if, they choose or are able to use them to their advantage. I think if you’d asked me this question at the beginning of my time here, I would have absolutely responded with a loud ‘Yes!’ but so much time has gone by now, I feel like the line is kind of blurred. Living here for this long definitely alters one’s perspective. You certainly have to earn those ‘New Yorker’ stripes, but I’m sure being born and raised in Australia informs my work and who I am. It’s just a little more vague, I guess. Australia is a deeply spiritual land. There’s something really powerful and ancient about it, that doesn’t exist anywhere else. I’ve always had an awareness that something deeper was at play. The topic deserves more time that we can afford it here. All I can say is that the connection with the Australian landscape is a very strong one. It was important to me as child and remains just as important to me now. There are beautiful places in the States and all around the world, of course, but nothing affects me or touches me as powerfully as does the beauty, sparseness and loneliness of the Australian landscape. I’m not just saying this now. I’ve always felt this way.

As far as if being Australian affects my interaction with other musicians? I think it’s much the same as it is with musicians everywhere else. I’m drawn to players who understand and revere the art of ‘listening’. I find working with musicians who can do that, immeasurably rewarding. It sounds like a given but to be frank, it isn’t always. For me it can be the single most important aspect to why a piece or a evening of music works (or doesn’t work). I’ve found just as many musicians in Australia who’ve learned the art of listening as I’ve found in NYC (ratio to population). To me that says a lot about the standard of teaching (who’s teaching) and also the ability of the musicians to appreciate the art of that skill, who they learn and interact with, who councils them. The Australian jazz scene is really healthy as far as what I see and certainly as far as what I hear. I have a ball playing down there, and in every city. I work all over the world and even in NYC, I hear players with enormous facility, with well honed skills in every facet of their playing. Hearing changes and scales is one thing BUT some have yet to truly appreciate the art of ‘listening’. Hearing and listening are not always one and the same. I might have trouble hearing the right scale over a set of changes (who doesn’t sometimes?), however there’s something about listening to what the music needs, what the melodic or dynamic treatment deserves. It can be a real subtle thing. What’s going on between the musicians, what’s in the room, the energy, that’s deep and spiritual too. You have to get rid of the ego to do this. It’s not always about showing everything you know. Yes, audiences want and deserve to be entertained and they like to be thrilled by flash and brilliance but I also believe they want to elevated and transported, touched and moved and I think that’s sometimes more impotent or at least it should not be diminished or less important than showiness.

Over the years I’ve noticed one other hidden obstacle – that of spoken language and how Americans and Australians, use it in different ways with occasionally very different results – sometimes unintended. Accents aside, it can present some unforeseen challenges. It seems to me to be even more marked now, or perhaps I’m just more acutely aware of it. A simple misunderstanding in the way we interpret spoken language or an expression of it, can lead to some serious confusion. Even now, after 11 years with someone, I find myself having to use some diversionary tactics to get things going in the right direction simply due to some misunderstanding in the delivery or the phrase. I’m not sure that ever happens when we are having a musical conversation, in fact I’d say most likely never. I’d be interested to hear some other Aussie stories. I guess the ones who come for short visits might not even notice there’s any confusion or perhaps just some vague awareness of ‘um…what just happened there?’ but I’d say some of the musicians who stayed away for decades might have a chuckle or two… definitely a story or two. I’ve a wonderful ‘bitumen/bitchumen’ road story 🙂

JP: What have you had to give up by making the decision to live in a foreign land, and what are the gifts that such a decision brings?

CMcN: So much has changed since I first arrived in NYC in 1988. Musicians/artists in general, especially here in NYC, spend a lot of energy just trying to make it all work. Staying afloat and coping with the massive changes that have gone on in the industry, both economically and structurally has and continues to be a challenge for all of us, however I think it’s especially so here in States where there’s so little funding for the arts. The defense budget takes a huge chunk (no need to remind anyone of that!!). One thing’s for sure, one has to keep on top of things. It’s become much more a business of juggling several roles at once, multi tasking skills definitely come in handy. As musicians, we’d all just prefer to spend our time immersed in the creative process but that’s beginning to feel more and more like a luxury these days. Touring takes a lot, setting them up takes even more time.

Regarding the choice to live and settle in a foreign land, there’s loss and gain on both sides of this equation. Being separated from family, from a culture that’s familiar and from friends is never easy and there were many times when the dislocation and loneliness was unbearable. It’s not easy being an immigrant. Life was definitely easier in Australia, by a long shot. It goes without saying, Australians have a higher quality of life than most people living on this planet but it’s also a nation of immigrants. Many stories have been told of that very same isolation and discombobulation. The Indigenous people have experienced their own devastating isolation and discombobulation at the hands of European Colonialism. That travel/explorer gene gives one the ability to weigh it all up and endure to see a better day. The non-travel gene folks choose to stay close to home because it’s safer but it’s a safe bet its a whole lot less interesting – but families stay together more easily (I think?). The indigenous people who settled in Australia must have had a serious travel gene, big time. They remained Nomadic right up the European settlers arriving. Up till now, I’ve always believed that if you can hang in there long enough, the tide will turn in your favor. I thought that was happening for both Sam and I but some other things – people/events /bad luck, outside of his or our control stepped in. I have no answers for why what happened to Sam and I, happened. It gets put in a whole other basket. It’s certainly not something that’s easily endured, that’s for sure.

Did I make the right choice to stay? Right now I’m in the ‘it was a mistake’ mode. This one is going to be a hard one to flip, for obvious reasons. Regret and remorse only brings more of the same. There’s only a certain amount of time one can stay there before it starts to take its toll. I’m not sure I’m going to be out of the dark on this for long time, but I do know that you can’t stay there forever. I pray to have the courage to know when I’ve had enough and can move on. If a drastic choice has to be made, so be it. If I end up living in a village in Africa or in the central desert region, working it off, I’ll go there. You have to turn the negative in on itself and make it positive for others, for this world. Make it good for something at least.

Strange Frequencies

Chris McNulty
Chris McNulty | Photo-Lena Adasheva

CMcN: The music that Sam created before he came over to NYC in late 2007 stood alone as a completed project, however we’d talked about collaborating on a project for a while, so Sam put together about 30 compositions/tracks from a much larger body of work and we scaled it down to the final 15 tracks which ended up on Strange Frequencies. We added the live trio and background vocals in NYC and completed that component in 2008. As was the case for many other folks over the next two years, we had to pull in the reins and hang tough till the economic climate picked up. There’s some amazing writing, freestyle and singing by Sam and some great playing by tall the musicians and singers (names mentioned above). I think it’s unique, ground breaking and visionary. There’s nothing like it out there. Of course it’s a bittersweet moment for me. I’ve just spent four months working 24/7 running this Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to get the three projects out and then get the machine going to create the products – two vinyls and a CD. It was a lot of work. The big event is the Chap One – Sam McNulty – CD/LP release event taking place at The Order of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia, on Thursday, March 22nd. I’m excited and proud to be able to do this for my boy though I’d give anything in the world to have him here. To be doing this with Sam, not for just for him BUT for HIM it will be.

So, I have to get through this next few months and honor my son’s name. It’s heartbreaking and tragic that we lost this most precious, stunning, special human being but we lost him. I’ve made a pact with myself to hold my head up high, just like Donny Hathaway sings on ‘Someday We’ll All Be Free’ (which was played right at the beginning of Sam’s funeral service). There’s enough sorrow here to fill the Pacific Ocean and there’ll be enough time to fill it but for now I plan to make Thursday, March 22nd an evening of joy and jubilant celebration of my son’s life and music.

I’m also doing this for the family and many close friends and fans who are all suffering Sam’s loss deeply. He affected a lot of people, in life and in death. Many people are coming in to be a part of this.

Current inspiration

JP: What music are you getting into at the moment? Are you hearing anything particularly inspiring, finding yourself pulled into a particular direction?

CMcN: To be frank, I haven’t had much of an opportunity, emotionally or time wise to ‘get into’ any new music, not since July 16th, 2011 at least. Time kind of stopped for a while and has been passing by very slowly since then – grief and sorrow is like that. When I return to NYC, I’ll be looking to find the inspiration to compose a suite for a new project I’ll be collaborating on with the wonderful Aussie composer/orchestrator, Steve Newcomb [see our piece on Steve Newcomb here >>]. Steve is in NYC finishing off his PHD at MSM (Manhattan School of Music). This is a long awaited recording with strings. With The Song That Sings You Here releasing in August, and a few tours to Europe in the late summer and early fall, I’m going to be very busy. I guess I’ve gone the road of working off a lot of my sorrow, first by releasing Sam’s music and then up the road, composing. I know the journey to recovery is going to be a life long struggle so I’m just grateful for the love and care of family, friends and strangers AND of course this truly amazing music that Sam (Chap One) has left us.

For me, in retrospect, we know so little until suffering a loss like this… and then so much is revealed. Life and death. Fantastical and devastating. I guess what I’m saying is that there’s another journey after this and I hope and have faith that it leads to my boy. One final thing I’d like to add here. I lost Sam to the physical realm but he also left us this incredible music and as devastating as it is to lose one’s only child and someone as large in spirit as Sam was (is), I have to be grateful for the fact that he left us music that is so powerful and profound. Some people are left with nothing but memories. Sam can be remembered not just by this incredible music but also by how he touched people, young and old. What he contributed to humanity was his compassion, wisdom and generosity of spirit. I go on because I’m so proud that he was my son and I also just happened to be his mother.

Chris McNulty Australian tour

MelbourneBennetts Lane – 18/19 February with the Paul Grabowsky Trio (Paul Grabowsky, Frank Di Sario, Mike Jordan)

SydneyVenue 505 – 3 March with Steve Barry, Cameron Undy and Andrew Dickeson

10th March Private workshop 11am to 4pm (Gallery Music Room, Newmarket, Brisbane)
11th March House Concert 3pm to 5pm (Gallery Music Room, Newmarket, Brisbane)
13th March Qld Conservatorium Workshop 12.30pm to 2pm
Contact Ingrid James:

Melbourne – Monash University – 21 March, vocal workshop

Chris McNulty on the web

Official website:



Strange Frequencies and Chap One

The Order of Melbourne:


Top Spin:

Face Book: