Highly regarded as a creator of understated, beautifully melodic music that transcends standard pop formulas, Grant McLennan has managed to elude mainstream stardom despite receiving a bounty of critical acclaim during his career. After more than a decade as part of The Go-Betweens, a group that never broke through to fame, he has continued to earn kudos as a solo act. As Paul Evans in Rolling Stone wrote in his review of the singer’s Horsebreaker Star CD released in 1995, “Grant McLennan is one of today’s best songwriters.”
McLennan was far removed from the music scene as a child, growing up on a cattle ranch in the Australian outback some 250 miles away from the nearest town. “I wanted to get out of there,” McLennan told Option about his boyhood in the boondocks. “I knew I wanted something different.” One of his favorite groups when he was young was the Monkees, whose pop hooks he found irresistible.
After attending boarding school in Brisbane, McLennan enrolled in the University of Queensland. At college he found a musical soulmate in fellow student Robert Forster, who shared his interest in the new punk music making waves from England. Both of them were also interested in movies and started writing a screenplay together, according to an interview with McLennan in the New Review of Records. Initially, McLennan wasn’t nearly as interested as Foster in performing music. McLennan had no musical experience and was focusing most of his attention on writing film reviews for the university newspaper, as well as short stories. “We started talking about music, but it took him about a year to persuade me to play with him,” McLennan told Option.
Eventually, Forster taught McLennan how to play bass guitar so that the two of them could perform together. When the duo was later joined by bassist Robert Vickers, drummer Lindy Morrison, and violinist Amanda Brown, the new group became the Go-Betweens. McLennan then switched from bass to guitar, which he taught himself to play, and also began composing songs. At this time he still had no intention of making music his career.
Initially, McLennan wrote songs that were sung by Forster. He made his singing debut on the Go-Betweens’ first album, Send Me a Lullaby, which was released in 1982 on the Rough Trade label. During the 1980s the group created a series of highly acclaimed albums that brilliantly merged a folk-style 1960s sound with a harder-edged punk sound, with the different pop strengths of McLennan and Forster merging beautifully.
Born on February 12, 1958, in Rockhampton, Australia. Education: Attended University of Queensland, Australia.
Joined the Go-Betweens, 1977; singing debut with Go-Betweens, 1981; wrote script for film short, Heather’s Glove, 1981; moved to London, U.K., 1982; switched from bass guitar to guitar, 1983; became solo performer after Go-Betweens disbanded, 1988; recorded an album with Steven Kilbey of Church as Jack Frost; released first solo album, Watershed, on Beggars Banquet, 1991; went to U.S. to record Horsebreaker Star, 1995; performed in reunion shows with the Go-Betweens, 1997.
As Holly George-Warren wrote in Option, “McLennan’s buoyant melodies and tuneful tenor vocals perfectly complemented Forster’s darker, edgier compositions.” Jamie T. Conway in Melody Maker also noted, “The greatness of the Go-Betweens lay not in the (peerless) songwriting abilities of Forster and McLennan, but in the fact that the contrasting moods they depicted offset each other beautifully.”
McLennan also developed a reputation for being able to churn out new songs at a rapid rate. “Grant was quite prolific,” said bassist Vickers in Option. “He really had a lot of songs, so many that we’d have to throw out dozens to keep the albums balanced.”
Romantic involvements ensued between McLennan and Brown, and also Forster and Morrison, but were follwed by breakups. This created a lot of stress in the Go-Betweens by the late 1980s, hastening the group’s demise. McLennan and Forster also wanted to go their separate ways in order to explore new creative directions. “It’s not as if I was happy about it, but both Robert and myself had other songs we wanted to do,” McLennan told the New Review of Records.
McLennan then joined up with Steven Kilbey of Church to record an album under the name Jack Frost, which was recorded in just two weeks. This release was followed by McLennan’s first solo album, Watershed, which came out on the Beggars Banquet label in 1991. Watershed offered a more polished pop sound than that offered by the Go-Betweens, proving that McLennan could survive musically without collaborating with Forster.
Two years after releasing his mostly acoustic Fireboy in 1993, McLennan reached his solo peak with the double album Horsebreaker Star, which Mark J. Petracca in the New Review of Records called “his most arresting and intense work to date.” Produced in Athens, Georgia, by John Keane, who also produced R.E.M. and the Indigo Girls, the songs for Horsebreaker Star were recorded in just nine days with musicians McLennan had never met before.
The songs on Horsebreaker Star covered the pop spectrum, from the countryish “Don’t You Cry for Me No More” and “Hot Water,” to the haunting strains of “Open Invitation,” to the rocking “Dropping You.” McLennan’s ability to pin down feelings of disillusionment with a catchy lyric was plainly evident in Horsebreaker Star. A perfect example is “I’ll Call You Wild,” where he sings, “People are talking about living in a new Renaissance / Only thing they care about are their tickets to the seance.”
Despite being received well by record reviewers, Horsebreaker Star did not receive much airplay on radio stations and failed to win McLennan a large following. “It is a challenge that a lot of labels have to deal with when they have a really quality musician, a singer/songwriter who doesn’t obviously fit into one format or another,” explained Michael Krumper, Altantic’s director of product development, in his discussion of McLennan’s plight in Billboard. McLennan, however, took his relegation to “cult status” in stride. “You can’t really think about that, because the average Joe is interested in what Lisa Marie and Michael are eating for breakfast,” he commented in Billboard. “I’m interested in different things. There’s enough people discovering what I do to make me stay optimistic and happy.”
Continuing his pace of an album every two years, McLennan came out with In Your Bright Ray in 1997. This release confirmed the songwriter’s ability to capture many pop moods, ranging from the psychedelic flavor of “Malibu ’60” and country feel of “Sea Breeze” to the rocking rush of “Do You See the Lights.” A reviewier in Space remarked, “From the title track to the final shimmering, beautiful The Parade of Shadow,’ [McLennan] carves out a niche for himself as a producer of truly sublime adult pop music.”
In the summer of 1997, McLennan joined up with the former members of the Go-Betweens for a reunion tour in Europe. He continued to divide his time between performing and writing songs, stories, and film scripts from his base of operation in Brisbane, Australia.
Watershed, Beggars Banquet, 1991.
Fireboy, Beggars Banquet, 1993.
Horsebreaker Star, Beggars Banquet/Atlantic, 1995.
In Your Bright Ray, Beggars Banquet, 1997.
Billboard, January 21, 1995, p. 16.
Melody Maker, October 27, 1990, p. 29; August 23, 1997.
New Review of Records, 1996.
New York Times, January 12, 1995, p. C16; January 13, 1997, p. C16.
New York Times Magazine, October 29, 1995, p. 34.
Option, September/October 1995, pp. 59–65.
Rolling Stone, February 23, 1995, p. 76.
Space, Autumn 1997.
Village Voice, July 25, 1995, 76.
Vox, September 1997, p. 8
Additional information for this profile was obtained from publicity materials supplied by Beggars Banquet Records.