With his untamed mane of salt and pepper hair, fondness for plaid jackets and traditional Celtic music, John McDermott may not be the first name one thinks of when they think ‘cool’ but the Irish-rooted, Scottish-born, US Congressional Medal of Honor Society award-winning Canadian tenor is cool.
Even in his casual moments around the breakfast table, McDermott doesn’t have to try all that hard to have a far more interesting New Year’s than most of us ever will. It was such a scene that McDermott opened 2016 with when he was catching up with a friend and wound up performing for an intimate – but captive – audience onboard the International Space Station.
Things began when his friend’s satellite phone rang…
“… and the conversation I heard was ‘yeah, okay, 20 minutes? Yeah, okay’,” McDermott said. “And he hung up and I said ‘who was that?’ and he said, ‘A buddy of mine’s a real fan of yours, Scottie, and he’s going to be going by in about 20 minutes, he’s going to give us a call.’
“I thought, okay, and I let it go. Twenty minutes later we get the call and Scott is the guy who’s the US astronaut who is the head of the space station. Scott was up in the space station for a year and he’s a McDermott fan so they called us to say hello and wish us happy new year and see if I’d sing something to them.”
Their request? “Danny Boy”.
“It was really fun to know that that’s who we were talking to,” McDermott said. “We looked around to each other at the table and said, ‘I betcha no one else is talking to outer space right now.’”
Although a bit harder to pull off on the fly, McDermott said he’d welcome the chance to perform the ISS’s request in person.
“In a heartbeat!,” he said. “Seeing the blue marble from there? Yeah, I’d be up in a heartbeat.”
For now, McDermott will have to view the world from Pictou… which is far more accessible.
McDermott is touring on his most recent album, Raised on Songs & Stories which was released around this time last year. Notably, the album has no silence or breaks between tracks.
“I’ve wanted to do something like this forever,” McDermott explained. “There’s no breaks on the recording, no breaks between songs. The song slowly ends and then a musical interlude picks it up and continues until the next track starts and it fades out. It allows you to just sit back and let the recording be a little bit of a rollercoaster ride. You don’t get off until it’s done. It’s pure Scottish except for one song I’ve always wanted to do called ‘Dublin in the Rare Ould Times’ which is a little nod to my Irish roots. But it’s totally a true Scottish traditional recording.”
He’s not lightly tossing around the term “traditional” either.
“I have a collection of old music books from, God, anywhere to 350 years old,” McDermott said of his selection process. “I flip through them and tag lyrics I like, or melodies if I know what the notes sound like, hum it a little bit… and then take it to Eric (Robertson, producer) and have him play it and we choose. We probably go through 50, 60, 70 pieces and narrow it down to something that flows the way I’d like it to flow.”
While Robertson keeps a pretty tight grip on the reigns in studio, McDermott takes more of a ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ approach to his live shows, something his guitarist Jason Fowler has to take into account during rehearsal.
“We as a band will get together and roughly run through our set list,” McDermott said, “I’m constantly driving Jason crazy because I like to change the set list in the middle of the show so he wants to make sure he has the right backups ready if I change my mind.”
It might be that inability to stick to a plan that’s kept him out of space… for now.
McDermott and band, along with guest performer Rosie MacKenzie, will be performing at the deCoste Centre, Saturday November 5.