Solo Musician Interview: Ali McGowan

Ali McGowan Photo

Ali Mcgowan is a central-belt-based musician and solo recording artist. I have reviews of some of their music coming up over the next day or two so keep your eyes peeled for that.

Where are you from?
I’m a Fifer originally! Moving through to Edinburgh for university was an excellent decision, and it’s been my home ever since. There’s something about this city that drives me creatively, or at least keeps me motivated to continue producing music (at my own horrifically slow pace, the last Gears record came out in November of 2016 and I had planned on the project producing something tangible every 3 months! Turns out that wasn’t to be the case!) Fife is a wonderful place but unfortunately there just isn’t any money in the arts in Fife. To be honest, there isn’t a market for the arts anywhere in Scotland, but particularly in that area of the world there is very little if anything. Edinburgh at least gives me a more accessible market due to there being two universities with music courses and the various college campuses around. Not as much as Glasgow, but certainly more than my wee home.

How long have you been playing your respective instrument(s)?
You remember that kid in primary school that seemed to have always been playing an instrument? I was that kid. I kinda got super enamoured with piano at like, 4 years old, and my parents obliged me (bless them because after nearly 20 years I am still absolutely terrible) and that was the start of it all. Piano was my first, through the primary school music system I was offered viola (and that probably set me down the course of appreciating the lower-tuned instruments), then I picked up classical voice around age 13. Incidentally this is also when i discovered Pink Floyd and immediately decided I wanted to play guitar. 11 years later and here we are I suppose!

I will say through all of these instruments, I have never EVER been a role model in terms of practise and ambition and drive. I’ve always struggled with upholding a work ethic – actually I’ve always struggled with executive function, the part of your brain that like, makes your muscles move to do the thing you want to do, or gives you the energy to actually carry out something, instead of just sitting down and thinking “oh I should do this thing” for hours on end. It’s not laziness because that implies you could do a thing if you wanted to, you’re just choosing not to. It’s a complete lack of ability to motivate yourself into doing anything, and it’s something I’ve had to deal with all my life. My parents called me lazy and tried to push me into doing things against my will a lot (like homework for example) and I don’t begrudge that at all, but it isn’t something I’m ever going to get over. That’s part of the reason it takes me so long to write a record! And also the reason why I still consider myself pretty terrible and the various instruments I have access and ability to play. Heck, the last time I played viola was probably about 6 years ago!! I should really give her some love!

The point here being that it doesn’t necessarily matter how long you’ve been playing an instrument, or how many hours you put into practise, or how many arpeggios you can play at 180 BPM for 1 minute. What matters is taking the time to learn, improve, and even write at your own pace. So when I say I’ve been a musician all my life, I mean it. Music is an intrinsic part of who I am, even though these timescales do not a virtuoso make.

What genre of music do you consider your work to be?
Kicking and screaming against my undergraduate dissertation in which I argue that genre doesn’t exist due to a number of factors (although forms do exist which serve the same function), I have always found it incredibly difficult to categorise my music. Unfortunately, Bandcamp forces me to use tags so people can find my music, so roughly here’s a breakdown of my 3 main projects:

Klone is a guitar driven instrumental metal project, which currently has two records to its name – More Than Nothing (2014), and Cardinals (2016). Cardinals was the first record I’ve ever written to feature my voice which seemed like a good idea at the time but now I consider it something of failed project. I can’t really listen to it! Classical singing I can do, heck that was my undergraduate instrument of choice, but popular styles elude me. The mixing isn’t particularly good either, but I’m still a young recording artist, and these things take time to learn.

Freonic is an instrumental electronic project and it’s been where my eyes have been for the past year or so. It’s incredibly freeing to be able to work with a digital piano roll and midi sequencing, instead of having to figure out of something is entirely playable and reproduce it which guitar engenders by its very nature. I’ve always found the process of tracking guitars difficult because I’m not the best player in the world and find it difficult to reproduce takes consistently. With electronic music you don’t have to do any of that, and that’s incredibly liberating for me! I can spend more time thinking about the instrumentation and what I want the overall affect to be, instead of just focusing on getting the best takes. There are currently 2 records out under that brand, under the project title Gears: Volume 1 – You’re Just A Machine (2016); and Volume 2 – After The Tragedy (2018) which is my latest release.

Anything written under the name of Ali McGowan (thats me!) is a blend of these two ideas. There’s not a lot here right now, except for a single I produced as a proof-of-concept in genre blending between these two projects called My Name Is Ali which I wrote after coming to terms with my gender identity. Being trans isn’t a real identifier for me, but because a lot of realising this is new to me it’s still something I’m figuring out. Writing under my name liberates me from the shackles of what came before and allows me to think about myself in a more complex way, a way which allows me to accept how I used to think of myself and still draw from that time, while looking forwards. It’s therapy more than anything else. I’m pretty proud of that track.

What are your influences?
Thats a big question, a really big one, because we are all influenced by everything that has come before us. Musically there’s a lot in there: David Gilmour, Joe Satriani, Aaron Marshall, Devin Townsend, Misha Mansoor, and the various projects they’ve attached themselves to throughout the years. For Klone, I would say a lot of the style and influence came from Aaron Marshall’s project Intervals which still is a wonderfully excellent project I keep returning to listen to. Their last record – The Way Forward (2017) – is an absolute triumph and you should wholeheartedly check it out if you haven’t!

In terms of overall influencers I’m gonna have to be corny and say my friends and loved ones. I’m inspired and influenced by what they do constantly, some of the things I’ve seen them create has been miraculous, and if you spend time around creatives like that you end up following along with them. Gears V1 came out of a collection of ideas a bunch of friends I was hanging out with at the time were working towards, and it fed into that, but it’s since become its own thing. I try not to let myself get pinned down by thinking too much about what influenced xyz thing, ultimately I am made of multiples and every project is the culmination of those things!

Do you do covers and if so what’s your go to?
I used to! I used to be very much into covering other songs, but nowadays I don’t tend to. For me it’s just a case of energy and what I have the ability to expend that energy on, and as someone who struggles with executive dysfunction an awful lot, expending that extra energy on covers isn’t something I’m able to do at the moment. There are some things I would love to cover that my friends have produced though! It’s always possible to keep an eye on my soundcloud just incase the urge takes me!

Do you have a process for writing your songs?
Honestly I don’t know where some of this stuff germinates. It’s never the same. Sometimes it’s a guitar riff that appears out of nowhere (Endgame, More Than Nothing), sometimes it’s an idea i’ve had bouncing around for years (the lead melody in The Problem, Gears V1), sometimes it’s a synth sound that sounds really cool (The Cog, Gears V1) but it all comes from somewhere. After that it’s a case of nailing that sound down whatever it may be, surrounding it with stuff I think makes it sound cool, and then I’ll sit on it.

I can sit on things for months, the longest I’ve sat on something was eight years because i was a fool and a coward (opening guitar riff, Question, Cardinals), and honestly leaving stuff for that long really doesn’t help them feel any better or more cool and exciting in my experience. I’ve found instead that you become to attached to the idea of putting something into a song that you end up just, not doing that. I’ve tried my best to break that habit but it’s something that’s so ingrained in my very being that i’m not sure how long that’s going to take.

Once I’m done sitting on a project it’s a case of building things out, thinking about how i want to build to the part I’ve made real already, or how to effectively close it. I feel like I’ve been most successful in doing that in only a few songs, but it’s what I strive to do anyhow. Whether or not that’s successful is entirely up to the listener!

Do you have any interesting/funny stories about gigging or touring?
I don’t really tour or gig currently and it’s been a long time since I have, so I’m afraid not! I could talk about the sordid affair that was my final year classical vocal recital but the less said about that the better I feel!!!

What song(s) do you remember most from your childhood?
A lot of Rick Wakeman’s solo work, which would lead me to the piano, which would lead me here. Really if it hadn’t been for the likes of The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Return To The Centre of the Earth, or even Sea Airs I honestly wouldn’t even be a musician at all! I’d probably have done something else completely different.

I remember listening to an eclectic mixture of music from both my parents. My dad’s a prog rock and motown person, my mom was into popular music, everything from Elvis to the Bee Gees, Joni Mitchell, Madonna, a lot of stuff. I formed my own opinions on a lot of music at a young age but I’ve always had a respect for every genre of music, even if it’s not something I would actively listen to! Without their musical education I would never have had that I don’t think.

What has been your biggest challenge as a performer/Producer? Have you been able to overcome that challenge? If so then how?
Fighting the idea that what you’re making is not good enough, or that you’re not good enough, or that you’re bad at what you do. It’s the worst. And the worst part about that is that it’s so EASY to tell yourself you’re s**t, to tell yourself that you’re not good at what you do and to become jaded and hypercritical of everything you do. Falling into that trap is very incredibly easy, keeping your head above water and reminding yourself that you’re not perfect and that not everything you do is going to be the best, and that you’re ALLOWED to struggle with things is the real challenge, and until very recently I struggled with that a lot. I’m lucky that I’ve made a few very very good and close friends that allow me to screw up, allow me to not be the best at everything all the time, and have helped me reconcile myself with that in my artform as well. It’s a constant – and I mean constant uphill battle, but it’s worth every second when you finally get that album done or that other project finished whatever your artform may be and think “wow, I did it, warts and all”. It’s a very good feeling that I cannot explain, and I would encourage everyone I know to experience for themselves at least once!

How can fans-to-be gain access to your music?
Everything I produce that I feel is record-worthy is posted to one of two bandcamps:


I also tend to post semi-regularly on Soundcloud whenever I have a demo I’m working on I want people to hear, over here:

I also have a Patreon, where backers get access to even more cool things like project files and master stems, and secret WIPs when I’m in the midst of steamrolling towards a release! You can find that over here.

Other than that, I’m most active on Twitter. I also tend to have no filter on there so follower discretion is advised!

Have you released anything yet/if you have then how has it gone down and are you planning anything for the near future?
I’ve been incredibly fortunate in that the people that listen to my work generally tend to like it! That does not however mean that always turns into a financial turnover. Because I tend to make music depending on what I need to make most and don’t just churn out music as hard and fast as possible, and because I’m genuinely terrible at marketing, my records don’t tend to make an awful lot of money at the moment. I would love to say “I make art for the fans and not for money” but I’m also an artist living in a terrifying horrible ever more dystopian late-stage capitalist society and I need to be able to support myself. I have nothing but undying gratitude for everybody who has ever purchased any of my music. It floors me that people even want to in the first place, and understanding that most of my current audience are not exactly financially set themselves, it’s a great privilege to know that people enjoy my music enough to spend money on it. If I canmake enough to pay my rent per month, between record releases and monthly Patreon payments, there really isn’t more I can ask for, and while that’s not the situation currently, I have faith that it will be a reality at some point! That to me would be success. Not glitz and glamour and fame, just enough success from a core group of supporters that I can make this my everything.

Where have you performed? What are your favourite and least favourite venues?
As a classical musician there is nothing better than being in a good choir or orchestra with a really good sounding room. I still have a lot of love for the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, but other less well known rooms include Central Hall in the Tollcross area of Edinburgh which I’ve had the chance to perform in with a few orchestras in the past, and also the concert hall at the RCS (formerly the RSAMD in Glasgow) which has a wonderful warm acoustic to it. Every venue has its pros and cons. As an audience member, I’ve always found the acoustic in the Liquid Room, Edinburgh to be just the wrong side of good, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t loved seeing acts there!

Do you have any upcoming shows?

Not currently, but who knows!! Keep an eye out for something in the future if anything does happen, right now I’m much more comfortable working as an online recording artist!

What do you think about downloading music online?
Without it I wouldn’t be able to do what I do. It’s an invaluable platform for distribution. Yes people are going to do what they can to steal stuff if that’s their MO – what can I do about it? I’m certain that most people have done such a thing, even if they won’t admit to it. It’s a risk/reward trade off I’m willing to accept.

What’s your outlook on the record industry today?
Exploitative, capitalist, wrong. The whole system is broken and favours CEOs and business people over the artists they represent. It’s pretty abhorrent. If a record company wants to approach me they better have a really good contract to offer me if I’m honest.

And let’s end with something a little different…Which famous person, alive or dead, would you have dinner with and why?
If we’re talking celebrity? I would love to sit down with Aaron Sorkin (screenwriter, The West Wing, The Newsroom, and more) just to see what he’s like! But if we’re talking about famous for other reasons then I think Marsha P Johnson deserves to see what world they helped create. As an openly trans person, I owe her and her peers so much. There’s still a long way to go, and we should not ever get complacent, and there are still people in this world that would rather see us dead than accepted in any capacity. But through activism, speaking truth to power, and advocating for change we can make those things a reality. Without Johnson and the rest of those involved in the Stonewall uprising, I cannot imagine where we would be now.


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