Some musicians will do anything — anything — to pursue their dreams of success and stardom. For Kiernan McMullan, who comes from Ireland but has lived all over the world, that meant doing some things last year that even had him questioning his sanity.
McMullan spent several weeks, beginning in November, 2008, traveling up and down the East Coast and playing his music for whomever wanted to hear it, or for whomever would give him a stage on which to play. When he came stateside, he didn’t know how he was going to get around or where he was going to stay. “I didn’t have a van, or any money,” he says in a phone interview from Chicago, where he was working on some promotion by doing photo shoots and radio interviews, as well as a gig or two. “I essentially booked myself two months worth of shows in November and December, and I hitchhiked and took Greyhound buses up and down the East Coast.”
“I just tried to get to places and play gigs the best way I could,” he says. Was he actually worried about his own personal safety? “You know, I was, actually, at times,” McMullan says. “But, for the most part, I just met great people all the time. It was a really original musical experience. When you travel a lot on Greyhound buses, you meet a lot of characters. You see weird people who turn out to be really nice. I met a lot of people and became friends.”
McMullan, 23, was born in Hong Kong, where his father worked in computer sales, and moved to Wellesley, MA, when he was a toddler. He lived in Massachusetts until eight years ago, when his father, who was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, moved the family to County Limerick in Ireland proper.
McMullan is not one of those people who has feelings of pride in country, or any sort of nationalism. His background — Irish father (Neil) and Australian mother (Michelle), a former producer of commercials — and peripatetic childhood has made him look at life from the perspective of a citizen of the world.
“(Over in Ireland), people do see me as a Yank because I have an American accent,” McMullan says. “I had an Irish accent when I first came over here, because I had lived there for eight years, but now that I’ve been back in America that (accent) has kind of come back into me.
“But I don’t feel any national pride or anything like that. I don’t understand how people can feel patriotic — it blows my mind. I’m not from anywhere myself; I have no real nationality. Personally I don’t have any bias toward any country. I don’t think any country is better than any other country.”
He has seen clashes of cultures in Ireland; the dueling Catholics and Protestants in Ulster of years gone by are now dealing with immigrants from all over the world, while in Ireland proper huge influxes of immigrants have transformed the national culture. “People get so uptight about immigration, about people from one place coming to live in countries where they weren’t born in. That just blows my mind. It’s all land, all there to be shared,” says McMullan.
Although he often plays with a band in Ireland, most of his stateside gigs are solo. McMullan says his music is multifaceted, full of a broad array of influences, from jazz to classic rock to hip-hop and funk. Last year he signed with One Eleven Records and released his first solo CD, “Perfect People are Boring.” The disc/EP he recorded in 2006, “New Age Robin Hood,” and a single from that disc, “Borderline,” which was the third-most downloaded song in Ireland in 2007, led to the signing.
McMullan chose an inopportune time — the dead of winter — to make his musical excursion to the East Coast. “Yes, it was terribly cold,” he says. “I would stay with people I met; I would meet people at the shows, and sleep on their couches. I slept at a Greyhound station one night (in Nashville), and sometimes I would take some money I earned playing shows and stay at a motel.”
During the Christmas/New Year holidays, McMullan stayed in Myrtle Beach, SC, with family members who had traveled there from the Northeast. At the time of this interview, McMullan was planning to play some shows in Michigan and New York before coming to Princeton to perform at the Indie Music Night at Griggstown Pavilion on Saturday, August 29.
Things have improved somewhat since the beginning of this year. McMullan now has a van that he uses to transport himself from gig to gig, from city to city. Although right now the van is kind of his address of record, McMullan expects to be moving into his own apartment sometime next year. Meanwhile, he keeps touring. Nonstop. “From January on, I just started touring again. I hit the road solid, did a bunch of college dates and a full East Coast tour, then a Midwestern tour, and then back over to Ireland, and then came back here.” McMullan plans to be on the road through the rest of 2009, with a short break in October in Los Angeles to record his second album.
“Literally, since January, I have put 20,000 miles on my van. Just roaddoggin’ it,” says McMullan.
As a young boy in Massachusetts, McMullan began learning the piano. “I didn’t really like it too much, or practice all the time, but I learned how to play music, how to improvise.” At the age of 14, he decided to learn the guitar. “I (stunk) at first, but I thought that if I kept with it, I would get better. So I did, and people started to like my songs and my playing. It became a domino effect; maybe I could make a career out of it.” He made the decision to go pro at 17.
After graduating from high school in Limerick, he studied at a technical school, working for a year as a live sound and lighting engineer at theaters. “I kind of got sick of that, and decided to get into music full time. So I packed up my apartment and moved back in home, trying to get my career started.”
His name — although kind of common in Ireland — is well known on the Emerald Isle. He, along with his band (McMullan sings and plays guitar and piano with Kevin O’Malley on guitars and vocals, Adam Brothwood on bass and Declan Clarke on drums) can traverse the entire island on tour in about a week and a half. America, on the other hand, is a bit different. “Over here there is a lot more work, but you have to work that much harder to get it, to get shows, and to get from show to show.”
But it is definitely worth it, and there will always be a market for what McMullan does, he believes. “At the end of the day, no matter how bad the economy goes, people always want to be entertained. No matter how bad things might get, people always need to have a good time.”
Indie Music Night, Griggstown Pavilion, 373 Bunkerhill Road, Princeton. Saturday, August 29, 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Free. 609-672-1813 or www.sarahdonner.com.