Don McCloskey understands the implications of eight years of Jesuit education. After all, he graduated from Fordham University with an English degree after completing his high school studies at St. Joseph’s Prep. “The Jesuits are like real-life Jedi,” he says. “You have to finish your training.”
As we speak, the Chester County-based singer/songwriter is prepping for a July show at Ardmore Music Hall—one that will ultimately be thwarted by COVID. Right now, though, he’s in a light mood and happy to discuss his upbringing and his music. Mostly, he wants to talk about his latest album, The Chaos and the Beauty, and how it fits neatly into his progression as a musician. Here are his thoughts.
MLT: How did you start your musical journey?
Don McCloskey: I grew up singing in church, and a couple members of my family were musical. We had a big, Irish family who were always listening to music and albums. Everybody had an appreciation of music to some degree.
MLT: When did you start playing guitar seriously?
DM: When I was 13, my cousin, Lou Piri, taught me my first chord. He was a great guitar player—still is. I loved it immediately. He taught me the E chord and how to play it up and down the neck of the guitar. By the time he came back for my next lesson, I’d written a couple songs. He gave me a couple lessons and said, ‘This is how you do it.’ I got some books and started playing.
MLT: Who were your early influences?
DM: My mom and her sisters listened to singer/songwriters. They loved Dylan, Leonard Cohen and John Prine. I was writing songs without having lived anything. I was definitely trying to figure things out and express myself. I’d play some at friends’ houses and parties.
MLT: When did you start your first band?
DM: Late in high school and early in college, I was writing more serious songs. My first band was called Mother Bacchus. We played alternative and indie rock like R.E.M. After college, we lived in a loft in Newark, New Jersey. The place was barely zoned for human habitation, but we were able to do the entire rehearsal and band thing in that loft.
MLT: Did you have any gigs?
DM: We played CBGBs and the Elbow Room in New York. We played J.C. Dobbs in Philadelphia and some frat parties at Penn State. This was around 1999-2000. We went into Phil Nicolo’s studio in Conshohocken and recorded an EP.
MLT: When did you go out on your own?
DM: I broke off and started playing solo acoustic. I went to the Sidewalk Cafe on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. There were a bunch of idiosyncratic songwriters taking music in weird, cool directions there. It was a lab to try out new songs. In 2003, I recorded my first record, Bombs Over Bristol. It was just me doing a Beck impersonation, playing all the instruments with a lot loops. Any instruments I didn’t play, I had some friends play.
MLT: How has your music evolved?
DM: I feel really good about my first record. I was trying a lot of different ideas out, different genres, different instruments. I was using instruments you wouldn’t hear in one genre. I was mixing and matching. Bombs Over Bristol found an audience. G. Love heard the record and really liked it. It was getting good press and won a couple Philly Music Awards. I went on tour with G. Love and started working on Northern Liberties during the tour. That was more stripped down. My third album (Corporal Spirit) was the first time my voice sang what I wanted to be sung. That felt good.
MLT: The Chaos and the Beauty definitely has its own sound.
DM: It’s a way back to my early influences from the ‘80s groups I loved and gravitated to. I’d been to Malawi during the recording. I attempted to learn the guitar parts from (Paul Simon’s) “Graceland” and “Rhythm of the Saints.” Those were African sounds I’d never tried to learn before. The Chaos and the Beauty song “First in Flight” has two interlocking guitars and is evocative of African music, with some American country and Americana in it.
MLT: The album even has some rap in it.
DM: Some of my friends were listening to hip-hop, and some were listening to folk. I saw similarities between folk and rap. They both told stories. I wanted to combine them.
MLT: Your music sounds optimistic. Is that what you want to convey?
DM: I’m a realistic songwriter. I look at what’s happening in the world, and the theme of this record is that it’s bleak and stark. I’ve done a lot of soul searching, and I’m finding out the reason for living is relationships that give us purpose.
MLT: That is optimistic, don’t you think?
DM: Anybody who wakes up and gets out of bed every morning is doing that on some level. It’s something worth living for. They’re trying to move forward in a world that can feel like overwhelming darkness.
MLT: Has that been your consistent theme?
DM: I feel if you listen to all the records, you’ll see a very clear musical progression. What I’m writing now feels like a continuation of that path.
Hear Don McCloskey live Aug. 12 on WMMR’s Preston & Steve Show.
Related: Meet WMMR’s Pierre Robert, Voted Best Radio DJ by Main Line Today Readers