Glen MacNeil:
writing for a distant home

An interview by Cheryl Turner,
May 2001

Glen MacNeil has been a musician for most of his life. Born into a family steeped in the musical traditions of Cape Breton, Canada, Glen's late father, Gerry MacNeil -- who passed away in October of last year -- was a guitarist who played with many of Cape Breton's fiddling greats. "If you can name the fiddler, " Glen says, "I'll guarantee he played guitar for them."

Glen began playing the guitar seriously around the age of 10. While growing up in Glencoe Station, a small community in Cape Breton, his home was host to no small number of parties. These infamous house parties (or, more likely than not, kitchen parties) are a deep-rooted tradition on the island, and responsible in part for perpetuating the island's musical traditions. Glen believes that "it is extremely important to be exposed to the music at an early age for it to continue." If it weren't for these parties, Glen says, "a lot of children wouldn't get to hear the music first hand. That is where it starts -- when you are young. A passion is developed and that passion must be nurtured in order for the music to carry on."

This is certainly true in Glen's case. Through these kitchen parties, or ceilidhs, Glen developed a love for singing and playing, and soon began composing his own material. "I wrote my first song at 15 shortly after I joined my first band, Marauder. ... I also played in a country group called Cape Breton Country." After high school, Glen graduated from Halifax Regional Vocational school before moving to Windsor, Ontario, where there is a vibrant community of Cape Bretoners who have transplanted their culture along with them. "In the Windsor/Detroit area there are ceilidhs all the time at people's homes. It is mostly Cape Bretoners who moved to this area many years ago and kept the music alive."

Glen does his fair share in keeping the music alive as well. After moving to Windsor, he began attending "open mic" nights, and he performed some of his own songs for the first time. "The reaction was great" he says, "and inspired me to keep writing." And that's just what he did. "After I was confident that I had some material that I wanted the public to hear, I formed a band called Common Ground. We recorded an album called War of the World. From this album we released a song called "Eastbound Train," which first hit the airwaves on CIGO Radio in Port Hawkesbury, Nova Scotia."

Having a song of his own performed on the radio is a songwriter's dream, Glen recalls. "''Eastbound Train' was in medium rotation on CIGO for about six months. Very exciting! Unfortunately, the band broke up shortly after." Since then, Glen has continued to write and perform on his own, as well as venturing into some collaborative efforts.

Glen's main focus is writing, a process he admits is hard to categorize. "There is nothing typical about this crazy process of songwriting," he says. "That is why I love it so much! You never know where the next idea will come from. That's why I find it so intriguing -- there's nothing planned when you depend upon inspiration." Does he always have to be inspired in order to write a song? "Usually, I have to be inspired ... But I guess if I look back and go over the songs I have written, the best have come from something that has moved me or affected me in some way. I have written songs just for the sake of writing and I wasn't too happy with the outcome."

So, which comes first, Glen's lyrics or his music? "I would have to say mostly the words do. After I write some words down, I look them over and I usually feel a mood from them. I'll get a sense of a ballad or an up-tempo song." It isn't until he has a sense of the lyrics that he decides what style of song he is writing, he adds. "I just write the song and then I might say, 'Well, you know, this one sounds kinda country!' ... The overall arrangement and feel of the song will determine the song's classification. ...When I start a song, I have NO idea where it will end up. But that's what I like about it -- the unknown."

Glen doesn't always write by himself. Recently, he began collaborating with other writers. "In the beginning, I didn't think I wanted to ever collaborate. I admit it was narrow-minded thinking on my part but I didn't know any better either! Now I think it's great." However, "it's definitely important for me to have a good working relationship with people I write with. I've only written with a handful of people and they are either good friends of mine or my brothers. We have fun creating together. If it gets to be work, then we probably won't do it anymore. It has to be fun."

Collaboration can mean anything from one person coming up with lyrics and another adding music, to a group of people sharing the creative process. Glen describes "Cape Breton's Crying" as "the ultimate collaboration. ... One person came up with the initial melody, another had some words, another came up with the music for the chorus and another came up with the bridge and so on. So I guess collaboration can differ much more than writing by yourself." This song has just been released on well-known Cape Breton musician Cyril MacPhee's new album Back on Track, and Glen couldn't be happier. "We are proud of it and excited that someone thought it was good enough to put on their album."

Although Glen is gaining more exposure as an artist, life as a relatively unknown singer/songwriter still has its frustrations, especially in the more populated province of Ontario. "It's tough. I don't really know where to bring my songs or who would be willing to listen to them. It can be frustrating, I guess. People, it seems, would rather hear a guy sing some classic rock or something they recognize. The bar scene is not really geared towards original music." Not so in Cape Breton. "Cape Breton is second to no one in promoting home-grown talent. ... I performed some recent stuff last summer and it was well received. A lot of the songs I write are influenced in some way by Cape Breton so I feel very comfortable performing there." But in the end, Glen says, "it is up to the artist to go and find his/her audience. It's like the old saying -- 'if you want something done, do it yourself.'"

Glen hopes having "Cape Breton's Crying" appear on an album will garner more interest in his work. "I would love to do more of that kind of stuff. It would be great to have people record my/our songs on their albums. Maybe people will take notice of 'Cape Breton's Crying' and wonder who the writers are. You never can tell what might happen!"

It would seem that Glen's chances of success are good. Here's hoping there will be more to come from this young talent in the future.

[ by Cheryl Turner ]