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Ali McGuirk (OJ Slaughter for WBUR)
Ali McGuirk (OJ Slaughter for WBUR)

Singer Ali McGuirk blends the serious and playful to create her signature sound


In the summer of 1994 in Concord, Massachusetts, a small barbecue was taking place at Ali McGuirk’s house. At the time, McGuirk was around 6, but she had already begun to identify as a singer. On what was otherwise an ordinary day, her dad’s friend orchestrated what could now be seen as a wink from the universe. He set up a microphone and headphones in the living room and left her to it while the adults mingled. The little artist was amazed that she could hear her own voice flowing through her headphones, and she started riffing, singing ‘90s hits from pop divas. McGuirk didn’t realize that her dad’s friend had been recording the entire thing.

In our interview, a wide smile stretched across McGuirk’s face as she sang the hook to“You Gotta Be,” a song by Des’ree that she remembers belting that day as a child. “He called it ‘The Angel Sessions’ and gave it to us as a gift,” she said. On one side of the cassette, a young McGuirk crooned a stream of consciousness; on the other, her family friend played an accompanying guitar. It was a small, sweet gesture — and a foreshadowing of what was to come.

Ali McGuirk (OJ Slaughter for WBUR)
Ali McGuirk (OJ Slaughter for WBUR)

McGuirk released her first EP in 2016 and since then has been nominated for seven Boston Music Awards, a New England Music Award and has made her way onto countless “best of” lists. This spring, she’ll play at Boston Calling, one of the most celebrated music festivals in the country. But what truly sets her apart is her fearlessness when it comes to music-making.

“I definitely have a jazz background, and I feel grounded, in a way, in jazz music. I can go back to that and find my approach,” said McGuirk. She studied at UMass Amherst and took on jazz as a minor. “I was always taking every opportunity to perform, even before I had original music.”

In fact, her live performances caught me off guard. When I listened to her first album, 2017’s “Slow Burn,” I imagined she would have a typical jazz stage presence. I thought her head might be downcast, that the stage would be dark, and that she would sing and sway side to side.

That image abruptly changed when I came across a video of her 2022 performance at the Kennedy Center. Right away, it’s clear that it was no tame, moody concert. She strums her electric guitar and turns to smile mischievously at her band. Then she looks off to the side at something invisible to the audience. It’s as if a presence is onstage with her. By the 30-second mark, she is already having a moment with the music in a way that only true artists can. McGurik’s not showing off or overcompensating; she’s fully present in the sound.

“I'm giving something away that feels very vulnerable. Over the years, my relationship to that and letting go has felt so good. That's what I want to do. I want to have those moments of freedom,” said McGuirk. “That's why I perform.”

Ali McGuirk (OJ Slaughter for WBUR)
Ali McGuirk (OJ Slaughter for WBUR)

McGuirk felt comfortable performing songs that spoke to her onstage, but writing and curating original music took longer to perfect. However, with time, she formed her own practice. “I used to just kind of wait for lightning to strike and find moments of inspiration or moments of really high emotion where I just needed to get it out — and use songwriting as therapy or self-soothing,” said McGuirk.

She realized that to write consistently, she had to make her own inspiration by taking in as much art as possible and being intentional about documenting moments when ideas struck. That realization seemed to free her up. With a more steady creative practice came more material to experiment with.

Her jazz background is most evident in “Slow Burn.” But since then, she’s made multiple departures, pulling in different sonic influences. “I made a definite effort to try and branch out and try different genres,” she explained while discussing “Til It’s Gone,” her second and newest album. As McGuirk became more comfortable in her own practice, she and her band could lean into their natural tastes and musical impulses.

She recorded “Til It’s Gone,” released in 2022, all across the country. A nearly perfect genre mashup of jazz, blues and classic rock transpired. The songs on the album flow naturally, as they did while being written and performed. “It's really about the moment — it's not about being a perfectionist,” she said.

On “Til It’s Gone,” McGuirk is bluesier and louder; she was inspired by the Torch Singers, jazz divas who didn’t shy away from singing about pain and complicated issues. She wanted to write an album about heartbreak in a way that didn’t romanticize those feelings, and she succeeded. In the final track, “Milk,” she sings about longing for an organic kind of love with her signature blend of the serious and the playful.

Typically, people use milk and honey in songs as a way to describe the sweetness of love. McGuirk took it in a different direction. Over a surly, blues-inspired electric guitar riff, McGuirk sings, “If our love were milk / By now, it’d be sour/ Or it could be honey from the bluish wildflower/ Favored by the last bluebirds."

“I think the reason why I was not doing the sweet version of it came from where I was in terms of my ability to be optimistic at that point. I was feeling more apocalyptic, like, ‘Ah, the bees are dying, and so is our love.’” She does this throughout “Til It’s Gone,” marrying topics like love and heartbreak to broader social issues. It’s an incredibly sophisticated and considered method of songwriting.

Ali McGuirk (OJ Slaughter for WBUR)
Ali McGuirk (OJ Slaughter for WBUR)

Her musical influences span across genres and time periods, but perhaps the most interesting — and most revealing — of her writing style are her non-musical influences.

McGuirk’s face lights up when she talks about authors she loves: Sally Rooney, Yaa Gyasi and Ottessa Moshfegh. “I actually feel like Sally Rooney does what I really want to do, which is, she just says it in a way that hasn't been said,” she explained. “I think all three of those writers have that thing where it's not overly flowery or complicated.”

She’s well on her way, if not already arrived, to that point. McGuirk’s lyrics are straightforward, and often, only upon deeper listening is it clear that she’s making a different point than the words alone suggest. In the same way that Rooney finessed an unassuming novel about a complicated first love into a story about class divides and how they impact our lives, McGuirk combines stories of heartbreak with the destruction of the planet and societal discord.

“My goal with every record is to go a little bit deeper. And that's part of aging and growing as an artist and as a human,” she said. “That’s why I say I don't want to abandon politics by any means in my next record.”

McGuirk sees her music as a vessel for self-expression but, just as importantly, for ideas. She’s a deep thinker that doesn’t shy away from infusing her music with her thoughts. For that alone, she’s worth listening to. But it certainly doesn’t hurt that her songs are infectious, filled to the brim with groove and soul and that her voice melts over each track. A few weeks ago, while listening to McGuirk's song “Long Time,” I had the same reaction she had back in 1994 while recording her “Angel Sessions.” I sat listening in awe to the voice pouring through my headphones.

This segment aired on April 20, 2023.


Lauren Williams Arts Editor
Lauren Williams is an editor at WBUR.



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