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Introducing…. Boots McMahon

Brighton based singer-songwriter Boots McMahon is regarded with much affection by fellow musicians and audience members on the open mic circuit.

He tells intriguing stories that are “inspired by the loners, the damaged and the broken-hearted” and repeatedly wins crowds over with catchy lyrics and upbeat melodies.   

Boots recorded his first single at the age of 49 and released his debut album Story Time last year. Tenacious, enthusiastic and with a remarkable determination, he is here with the message that it is never too late to start doing what you love.

“Performing is like trying to catch smoke in a bottle.. but it isn’t supposed to be robotic”

Boots McMahon, thank you for being ‘the first scoop is the finest’ very first interview.  I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know you over the last few months…

Some wouldn’t call it a pleasure but thank you for your kindness!

Let’s get started. What were your musical influences growing up?

I’m a kid of the 70’s and was bought up in a household where the radio was always on, so it was all your glam, all your disco and stuff like that.  My parents were very young when they had me, so it was Radio 1, and we had that typical thing where we all watched Top of The Pops as a family.

My parents used to play music downstairs, so I was listening to The Carpenters, which still makes me cringe a bit. There are not many happy Carpenters tunes! My dad got completely hooked on Autobahn. And my mum was a massive Elvis fan and still is. So that’s probably why I am so all over the place with my stuff, because one minute you’ve got German Kraftwerk and then you’ve got the fucking Carpenters! 

What was the first record you bought?

The first band I really got into was Frankie goes to Hollywood. I went completely bat-shit-bonkers over them. We didn’t have a lot of money in the house when we were kids. I remember a friend of mine lent me his cassette of the album Welcome To The Pleasuredome, and I must have made it go transparent with the number of times I played it. Then a guy I went to school with lent me Queen’s second album, Queen 2. That was it, I was off and all I listened to was Queen, and I still am a complete Queen anorak.

The first album I ever bought was Fun Loving Money by Mel and Kim. I really am not cool at all! I couldn’t stand the Smiths although I acknowledge their musicianship. I missed grunge, it completely passed me by! Because at that stage I was listening to Hendrix, Cream and The Who. I have never been cool.

As I got a little bit older, I got into Bowie. A friend of mine lent me all his vinyl and I recorded every album he had and listened to him all the time. And now I get people saying to me “you’re a little bit Bowie”, so he was an early influence, but Queen really kicked it off. It was Freddie and all his harmonies and the complete bonkersness of it all.   

Were your parents’ musical?  

No no! Despite my name, I do not come from a Bohemian background. My parents certainly weren’t hippies. My dad was a labourer and put up sheds for a living. My mum’s been a receptionist, a dinner lady, those sorts of jobs. My mum, she loves her music. She loves Roy Orbison and was into Queen as well.

“That’s probably why my stuff is all over the place, because one minute you’ve got German Kraftwerk and then you’ve got the fucking Carpenters!”

I am the only musical one in the family. I am the odd one out a bit. Although it probably is in them, but it didn’t come forward like mine did, but then I had more opportunity. My mum had me when she was 18 and my Dad wasn’t much older. So, the last thing on their mind was being some arty farty musician, it was, “have we got enough money for the gas meter?”  They had to learn stuff in their 20’s.  If I imagine me being a father of two kids at the age of 21, fuck off… I could barely be trusted with a bank account!

So when did you become a musician?

Well, I was late to the party, I didn’t record my first song until I was in my 40’s!  

I started playing the guitar at 18, I had all the gear and no idea.  I was useless, I didn’t practice, and I really wasn’t confident. I played a little in my twenties then I got a bit discouraged and gave it all up, and got rid of all the gear. I sold everything for a silly amount, massive mistake, I should have just stuck it all up in the loft! I still cringe about that now.

I then did all this other stuff instead. I was trying to find vicarious ways to feel like a musician and a rock star. So, I started playing paintball at tournament level, so I could be in a team which was a bit like being in a band, and paintball back in the 90’s was a bit rock and roll.  It was mental, I got seriously into clubbing, I worked to go clubbing. My favourite club was Electric ballroom in Camden on a Friday night, dancing like a lunatic, pulling girls.

Then I got into marathon running because I wanted a healthier type of living. And the great thing about running was in three and a half hours you get to listen to A Lot of music, so it was like research and development.

I lived part of my life as a transvestite, that’s what I was doing in clubs. That’s why, in some respects, performing is easy.  If you can walk into your average boozer in Crawley dressed in a skirt and make up and fish nets, then getting up there and singing songs to your friends should be a piece of piss, because cos they’re not going to bottle you… hopefully! 

So, when did you decide to take music more seriously?

I didn’t get back into taking music seriously until I was in my 40’s.

“I remember my Dad saying to me, ‘I’ve got to get out of here, I’ve got things I want to do. I’ve got to get cracking’. That’s when I thought, I am not going to be on my death bed with regret, like I didn’t try”.

In 2014 I lost my dad. He had two terminal illnesses and in his last two weeks in ICU I remember him saying to me “I’ve got to get out of here, I’ve got things I want to do, I’ve got to get cracking”. I didn’t say anything, but I just thought, it’s too fucking late.  That’s when I thought, I am not going to be on my death bed with regret, like I didn’t try. Even if it goes nowhere, even if it fails, I will not be on my deathbed wondering.

So, that’s when I started taking it more seriously. I said I am going to quit my job and go to music school, at 47! My singing teacher couldn’t believe it!

My Dad was already dead when I recorded my first song.  He died when I was 44 and I recorded A Letter To when I was 49.

When you decided to take music seriously, what was your vision? Has it turned out like that?  

Originally, I was going to write tunes for other people anonymously. I only wanted to sing to do guide vocals. I didn’t want to be the front man…although of course I did…this is me!   Then I had singing lessons, and I realised I could sing so I thought I need to do something with this. My first open mic night was at The Brunswick in 2017 and it was purely instrumental. The second one was at the Three Graces, now The Crow, and it was the first time I had ever sung. I was absolutely fucking terrified.  I couldn’t play standing up, I always sat down. I was playing acoustic, and it kept feeding back, and I only had two songs and the guy wanted more but I said that’s it all I’ve got!

Tell us about a famous song that has meaning to you…

In the late 90’s I had an epiphany in the sock section of Debenhams. I’d just bought Cast’s album for my brother-in-law. I used to buy music for others that I liked as well, then record them onto tapes so I had a copy. I was in a shitty relationship that was now just horrible, and Live the Dream came on.  I suddenly got an inkling that my life could be very different. I changed my name the following year. I got into clubbing and there began what I call the party years, and I met my now wife. 

I probably will cover Live the Dream. It is a touchstone of a song for me.

What was the first song you wrote?

Mr Crow was the very first, but it was all spoken word over a guitar.  The first song I wrote and sang was called “I cry”. When I did my first paid gig, we were asked for an encore and didn’t have any more material, so I played “I cry”.

But I always say Stardust as that is the song everyone knows.  Sometimes you don’t have confidence in songs, and it might be someone else who says you’ve got to do that. My song writing coach Jenna is always encouraging me to perform “I cry”, she loves the melodies in it.

Because I am a complete control freak, I want to sing what I write. As time goes on you soften a little bit and start doing covers and you include other people in it in the process, as you realise you can’t do it all.

“Songs always come at the wrong time. Not when I’m sat there with the guitar, it’s when I’m going out to dinner with my wife… and I’m like… hang on!”

What is the creative song writing process like for you?

If I am happy with a song, then my creative brain goes into hibernation. As long as I don’t push it, songs will come to me.  I tend to have loads of stuff hummed into my mobile. Songs always come at the wrong time. Not when I’m sat there with the guitar, it’s when I’m going out to dinner with my wife, and she says, ‘are you ready?’ and I’m like ‘hang on’ and humming into the mobile.  Then you listen to it later and say, ‘what the fuck was that!?!’

My songs are all quite different and it can make it awkward when you are writing and doing an album. I don’t know if it really matters any more, because of things like shuffle but there is always this thing about making an album hang together.  So, if you are really all over the place, it can be a bit disconcerting. But it’s almost like your jukebox.  That’s what the Beatles were good at.

You can hear in my songs a little bit of Oasis, Kinks… a bit Buzzcocks, and a little bit Teenage Kicks. I’ll rip anything off, but I think what you are really saying is, I like that song so much, I’m tipping my hat to it.

When you performed Mr Crow at the Neptune Inn a couple of weeks ago, you could hear a pin drop…the room was completely silent. How does that feel?

Mr Crow has gone through some changes. I can’t take all the credit, Jenna gave me the chord for that song.  One of the nice things about playing the Nep is that Theseus used to sing the chorus of Stardust back at me.  He had to hear me sing that for a year!

Performing is like trying to catch smoke in a bottle.  It’s that thing of catching an audience and keeping them with you. Sometimes you’ll have them, and someone will drop a tray of glasses at the back, and you’ve lost them. But it isn’t supposed to be robotic.  Sometimes you have nights where nerves get the better of you, and other nights you really enjoyed it, and sometimes, the audience couldn’t give a fuck.

Recording is the same.  If you’re in the studio, as you are in an environment that is not the most comfortable or you are feeling under a lot of pressure because it’s red-light time, even though you are well rehearsed, you can lose the atmosphere and the vibe.

Tell us about a couple of your songs…

A letter To is a song about bullying and mental health, and it’s about lying. The mental health aspect is when you try and convince someone something isn’t happening, and people twist things due to how they want to interpret it.

Stardust came to me when two of my friends got back together again. We were out having this brilliant night in Worthing, it was post punk 90s, and everyone our age was up dancing. I hung out with them, and they said we are going to give it a go. And it was brilliant, like the band had got back together again. But because I knew them, there was this little thing in my head that said, this isn’t going to last. I started thinking about doomed couples like Kurt and Courney, and their glamourous lives and the dark side of being a celebrity, how it isn’t always as great as it looks.

There is a little bit about my Dad in there, the line, you’re on it then you’re off it. It was something I spoke about in therapy. Because I don’t believe in the afterlife, I said we are all just on this timeline. One minute you are on it, one minute you are off it. It’s the same with the cancel culture. 

What’s been your favourite musical experience so far?

I get so nervous in the studio that I kept needing a piss. I’m always in and out.  When it’s all done, and you are doing the mixing, that’s when it’s really fun and ideas come out. With Flower Girl, we couldn’t make it fly for love nor money and Jake sent me home for a while. When I came back, we did a backwards reverb, and a slap back echo on the snare drum, and it was fun.

The first time Jenna sang backing vocals to Stardust was incredible. That was a special moment. Also watching her play the piano for A Letter To.

Have you got any advice for aspiring musicians?  

There is not really any right or wrong. If I want to record a six track EP of a brick going around a tumble dryer, I can do it, someone will buy it! Everyone else will quite rightly tell you it is shit.

As long as you are happy with what you do, and you stand by what you do. You will do stuff which doesn’t work out and the tricky thing is that has to live with you. But you can say that is who I was then.

With music, always be honest about your motives, whatever you do.  Be honest about any type of genre you want to get involved with.  I always said I wouldn’t play in covers bands.  Song writers can fall into a trap as it can pay more and people think it will fund other things, but the trouble is people just come and see you doing the covers and they won’t come and see you doing your originals.  And you’re fucked. So, you have to say, well I’m writing and performing what I want to do but I don’t get to make as much money.

Last question, I am curious to know…who takes forever to choose at the pick n mix?

Haha, I was out walking with my wife at the bottom of George Street and there was a couple in front of us. The woman was blonde, 70’s boho, brown suede boots, block heels, afghan coat over her arm. The guy, 90’s blue jeans, white trainers, FILA top, and they looked like a really odd couple to be together. So I said to my wife I would write a fictional factional song about them. ‘She takes forever to choose at the pick n mix’ is just a line. ‘Light weight’ is about my friend, who was my cleaner, her husband used to have parties on a Saturday and was such a lightweight couldn’t get up until Sunday evening.

I do weave people into my songs so watch out Rebecca, you may turn up in a song one day!

I look forward to it! Thank you Boots 😊  

Catch Boots performing live at The Bees Mouth on Saturday 5th August 2023. Ticket info and more at https://www.facebook.com/BootsMcmahonMusic

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