Fighting Fire With Song

McAlister Kemp have a reputation as Australia’s foremost country-rocking party band, but there’s a certain depth to their music that defies expectations.

It could well be that this aspect of MK’s music is largely thanks to the sensibilities of Drew McAlister – a man who’s not just one half of the duo, but also one of Australian country music’s most prolific songwriters.

In fact, just a few years ago, McAlister had all but given up dreams of being a performer, instead setting his heart on the less glamorous (but arguably just as rewarding) life of the old-school hitmaker, writing catchy tunes for new artists with label support and marketing budgets.

“I’d been doing the solo singer-songwriter thing – and in fact I won the Gympie Muster Talent Search” says Drew, “but I knew how much it was going to take and the financial backing I would need to continue down that road – it seemed to make more sense to write songs for other people”.

To make a living, McAlister joined a covers band, playing regularly in Sydney with charismatic singer Troy Kemp. Despite their close working relationship, the two never really considered working together on an original music project.

“It was actually Michael Carr (another successful Australian songwriter, perhaps best known for his alter-ego – comedy-country act Buddy Goode) that suggested that Troy and I do something. We gave it a try and a record deal soon followed”.

McAlister was around thirty-six when first signed, a fact that he notes is “highly unusual” in an era of disposable teenage pop-country acts. The fact that MK were not only signed to a major, but also a fairly immediate success, is even less common.

I suggest to Drew that perhaps this was due to the fact that the band fill a niche – they write and play the kind of tough, up-tempo but thoughtful music that folks like Steve Earle have enjoyed success with for twenty plus years in the USA.

“I think you’re absolutely right”, agrees McAlister. “No-one else was (or is) doing what we were doing in country music, or rock music for that matter. We have the party songs, of course, but we also have the songs that reach a little bit deeper. Our stuff rocks, but it also always has some element where it’s still heartfelt”.

Amongst the latter category is recent single Fight Me. The song tackles schoolyard bullying and has been a runaway social media success, thanks to a provocative music video and a Twitter hashtag campaign.

“I started that song on the train”, explains McAlister. “I had the title and the lyric, but didn’t finish it until I went on a Writers Weekend up on Fraser Island. I was determined that the song couldn’t be a ballad – it had to rock – it had to be empowering”.

For McAlister Kemp, the song has kept their profile high and maintained their position on the upper branches of the Australian country music tree. For victims of bullying, it has probably done a lot more.

Such is the power of the song-with-a-message – even today when protest or political songs are out of fashion. It’s great news for McAlister, who continues to write whilst the band tours heavily.

“My first publishing deal was with EMI and with them I traveled to Nashville, Las Vegas, New york, Los Angeles – all over the place. I’ve now signed with ABC and I’m enjoying the opportunity to keep writing with and for other people. In the first half of this year I’ve written forty songs”.

McAlister Kemp play The Hallam Hotel on Thursday October 9.



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