Mac DeMarco: Solitary Man

For DeMarco, songwriting is an activity best experienced alone.

Photo by Coley Brown

As a performer, Mac DeMarco presents a very specific version of himself to the audience. He’s a happy-go-lucky troubadour, a jokester and unlikely heartthrob whose live shows often find him indulging in extended jam sessions with his band that sometimes feature schlocky cover versions of Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “Takin’ Care Of Business” or Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five.” He’s the kind of guy who’ll pen a heartfelt ode to his favorite brand of cigarette (“Ode To Viceroy”) and include his address as a bonus track on his 2015 EP Another One, with an offer to make you coffee. And yes, as a matter of fact, people actually did come to visit him in Queens, a good hour-long drive from Manhattan. “It’s called Far Rockaway for a reason,” he says.

The DeMarco that people see onstage isn’t a fabrication — he’s not playing a character or doing anything so calculated. But Mac the performer and Mac the songwriter are almost yin and yang, two complementary aspects of the Canadian-born artist’s artistic personality. His new album This Old Dog, released in May via Captured Tracks, is a window into the Mac DeMarco that his listeners don’t always see or hear. It’s his subtlest and most reserved record to date, not coincidentally a reflection of the circumstances in which it was recorded. To date, DeMarco has played nearly all of the instruments on all of his albums, and This Old Dog is no different.

DeMarco, who has moved to Los Angeles since making his New York address public, views songwriting and recording as something very different from playing live. For him, it’s an activity best experienced in solitude.

“I never have anyone play on my records,” he says. “It’s always the way it’s been. I’ve had people play on some of my stuff here and there. The first EP I put out, there were a couple people who’d come over and play a little bit. I’m totally down for collaboration or whatever, but it has to feel right. It has to be natural. I don’t know. It’s kind of like a private experience for me. Maybe someday, but not this time.”

This Old Dog is a characteristic album for DeMarco, seemingly breezy and carefree and emblematic of his ability to effortlessly turn home-recorded sessions into perfectly pleasing jangle pop. Yet, more than any of his previous albums, This Old Dog actually seems to reflect the intimacy of the circumstances in which it was recorded. DeMarco spends much of the album strumming away on an acoustic guitar, a subtle shift for him but a noticeable one. DeMarco cites some musical heroes for influencing the slight change in approach, one of whom he refers to simply as “James” various times in conversation.

“I was listening to a lot of Paul Simon and James Taylor,” he says. “And maybe I was aiming for something like that, but I didn’t get close at all — those guys are pretty heavy hitters.

“With Paul Simon … there was a lot of stuff I hadn’t heard and got more into before I wrote these songs. But I kind of skipped over James Taylor,” he continues. “It’s weird. It’s very smooth, it’s very soft, it’s very safe sounding. But if you listen to it a little more there’s this hidden darkness. He was a complicated guy. He was a junkie. It was tough. I think I liked that juxtaposition. That kind of soft, buttery voice, but still pretty tortured.”

To DeMarco’s credit, he takes a similar stab at tackling bigger, heavier topics on This Old Dog, wrapped up in some of his most stripped-down, laid-back arrangements to date. It’s an album largely concerned with growing up and the passage of time, many of its highlights reflecting realizations that only come with age and experience. In first track “My Old Man,” DeMarco is faced with the startling realization that he has similarities with his absent father (“Uh-oh, looks like I’m seeing more of my old man in me”), while “One Another” finds him viewing a breakup through the filter of a silver lining (“Hey kid, everybody’s prone to mistakes”).

“I think it’s just something that being alive is always about. Being alive is weird,” DeMarco says. “I think about it and … I’d like to imagine that growing older, things become more clear and easy and understandable. But not really. It just becomes more and more confusing. I’m a young guy, I’m 26. I’m just trying to make some sense out of everything.”

Though he might be more baffled by life’s curveballs than ever, Mac DeMarco seems more grown up on This Old Dog. Yet the chain-smoking, BTO-riffing goofball, even as a younger man of 21, had an unlikely maturity about his songwriting on albums such as breakthrough 2. It’s not something that’s labored over, either. If a song doesn’t come naturally for DeMarco, then it simply isn’t worth the trouble.

“If it doesn’t come quick, then I kind of get tired of it,” he says. “If you push something for too long it can get very frustrating. But that’s the thing. You hit lucky streaks and it’s like ‘Hey, this is working.’ And you can do it, but when you don’t, you just start pounding your fist on the table. It’s something that’s unexplainable. But it’s cool. There’s some little weird magic shit going on in there.”