Rave April 18, 2003
By Corey Levitan
Kieran McGee could be accused of hitching a ride on the
singer/songwriter train chugging across the pop landscape. But the New York musician
has been recording albums of the wrench-your-heart-with-acoustic-guitar-strings
genus since 1995.
Palpably more impressive is his age at that time: 13.
“I bought a four-track recorder, and I was just writing
songs,” says McGee, now a ripe old 21. “I didn’t really tell anyone what I was
doing, then I started making little tapes for friends and stuff.”
Recorded in his mom’s basement in upstate Pine Bush, N.Y.,
those cassettes contained a dozen original songs, all reflecting a deep
understanding of the oldest strains of folk, blues and country. They were
packaged with liner notes and everything.
“I’d go down to the copy store and make little covers for
them,” says McGee, who doesn’t see his do-it-yourself ingenuity as any great
shakes. By 14, McGee was selling those cassettes, on consignment, to record
stores in Manhattan.
“I’d bring 10 or 15 of them
on each trip,” he says, “and they all sold.”
A year later, McGee found himself playing blues festivals and
bars he was six years to young to enter through the front door.
“There were a few times we showed up, and they wouldn’t let
us play,” he says.
He was also reviewed by national magazines. Said Entertainment
Weekly, of his first commercially available album, 1997’s “Left For Dead,”
“McGee delivers his songs with gut-rattling ferocity and insight beyond his
McGee’s always had an old soul. While most seventh-graders
read Mad Magazine, his mind feasted on Rimbaud and Jack Kerouac.
“Well, I was reading Mad Magazine, too,” he says, laughing.
While his classmates listened to Poison, McGee taught
himself guitar to his father’s Robert Johnson and Woody Guthrie records.
“Well I have to admit…”
No, not Poison, too!
“Yes, I liked Poison, too.” McGee says, laughing again. “Oh,
But there is an uglier reason for the true ringing
adult-strength emotions saturating McGee’s music…recording wasn’t the only
thing McGee was doing in private. He was also snorting heroin.
“It just happened that I knew somebody and I tried it,” he
“Since I was living upstate, without a car, I wasn’t doing
it that much. But when I moved into the city, I could get it all the time.”
“Eventually, it caught up with me, and I wasn’t writing
music or doing anything,” he says.
One night, in 2000, the love of McGee’s life --- a music
fanzine editor he‘d been seeing since they were in eighth grade – died of a
heroin overdose before his eyes.
“Poor Odessa in the Hotel Grand./The picture of decadence
sprawled across the bed/a bottle of pills in her hand.”
Amy’s death haunts “Odessa” and most of the 17
other mandolin-spiked songs slated for a forthcoming McGee album, recently
recorded in upstate Ellenville, NY.
“I was so messed up that it didn’t hit me until about five
months later,” McGee says of the tragedy. “I was there when she passed away,
but I was so closed off from myself that I wouldn’t let myself believe it.”
Less than a year after Amy’s death, another close friend
of McGee’s (the girl who introduced him to heroin) died after being hit by a
Yet another friend then died of a heroin overdose, leaving
behind a 6-year-old child she gave birth to in her teens.
McGee then overdosed himself, on the animal tranquilizer
ketamine hydrochloride (street name: Special K).
Add to the life experience McGee is way too young to have:
rehabbing. He bounced between two hospitals and three mental-health facilities,
which diagnosed him with clinical depression. (He began writing his new album
at Phelps Hospital in Sleepy Hollow, N. Y.)
“When I turned 21, it just hit me – I was only 21 and all
this (expletive) had already happened,” says McGee, who now has more than two years
of sobriety. “I wish it hadn’t happened, but there’s nothing I can do about it.
Maybe I am an old soul.”
Although none of his albums have been released by a major
label, McGee has enjoyed an honor bestowed on few musicians of any stature.
Because of connections through his father (Carl Perkins
friend and biographer David McGee), Kieran was able to record his 1998 song
set, “Ash Wednesday,” at Sun Studios in Memphis.
This is the puny but magical room where the young Elvis
Presley’s voice was first grooved into wax for the masses.
“That was a really incredible experience,” McGee says.
For a while, Rounder Records distributed Clean Cuts, the
Baltimore-based indie label that released “Left For Dead.”
However, by the time “Ash Wednesday” was ready for release,
left for dead had become an accurate description of Clean Cuts. The album never
had a proper release.
But commercial success can’t be that important to someone
whose soul is aligned with the great troubadours and bluesmen of yesteryear.
“It’s not something I really worry about,” McGee says,
“because I know somebody out there will put my music out eventually.”
“It would be better if it was sooner than later, but it’s
not eating me up inside.”
There probably isn’t enough room for more things to eat
McGee up inside anyway.