Bill MacKay
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Bill MacKay

Chicago, Illinois, United States | SELF

Chicago, Illinois, United States | SELF
Band Alternative Folk


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"A New Leaf: MacKay Explores with the Requinto"

It’s an unlikely juxtaposition—the Spanish requinto, guitar and improv—but this colorful combination will be the highlight of Bill MacKay’s set this weekend at Heaven Gallery. Hailing from Pittsburgh, MacKay, 41, traveled extensively before planting his feet in Chicago in the summer of 1998. During one of his excursions to Mexico, MacKay met fellow folk artist Ramon Gutierrez Hernandez and it was then that MacKay fell upon the requinto: a smaller version of the modern guitar with a slightly higher-pitched tone. Hernandez, a member of the group Son de Madera, handcrafted MacKay’s requinto. “It’s just a resonant and radiant instrument that I fell in love with,” MacKay says, and now he is bringing it to life on stage, fusing it with his seasoned guitar skills. “The requinto adds a different texture, different color to the sound.”

MacKay describes his music as: “aiming for melodic songwriting, a wide take on things that have folk culture and music as a kind of root, and that cinematic notion of improvising, a voyage. It’s sort of like being an orthodox surrealist.” His ability to give songs a recognizable twist is something MacKay has been perfecting for a number of years. He started playing music at just 9 years old in a household where his dad and brother played the trumpet and his mother played the piano. He grew up listening to The Beatles, Chopin, Jimi Hendrix and Laura Nyro and now, as an adult artist, still credits those early groups as his inspiration.
MacKay and Tyler Beach—both of the group Leafbird—have been making melodies together for the past three years. Together, their sounds incorporate a blending of genres not often heard on Chicago stages. From blues and folk to jazz and rockabilly, MacKay and Beach thrive on mingling various sounds. And now with the addition of the requinto, both artists look forward to the fresh harmonies to be played.

Leafbird, an off-shoot of the band Fingers and Toes, was formed in 2007. The group has a fresh and airy sound with raspy voices that sing out relatable lyrics. Perfectly crafted instrumentals fill the background with a soft hum. But MacKay and Beach have taken their Leafbird skills to the next level, creating their own duo of harmonious textures weaved together into an awe-inspiring instrumental sound.

One of the special features MacKay and Beach have enveloped into their concerts is improvisation. Both artists enjoy interacting with the audience, making them a part of the entertainment. Rather than just standing on stage playing for someone, they’d rather be playing with them. To cure this, MacKay and Beach stopped pre-planning their entire concerts. “We like to improvise on different musical themes, like different genres, throughout our shows,” MacKay says. Based upon the audience’s reactions and possible requests, the two men get creative while under the lights. This is one of the keys to MacKay’s success: he never dwells on what might not be working on stage, but rather spins the music the opposite way, creating a wave of sounds that ring throughout the venue.

This creative ability to re-shape a concert during the live performance is difficult to maneuver. It takes careful consideration of one’s musical talents, but also sharp listening. MacKay and Beach concentrate on not only themselves onstage, but rather how those beyond the lights are interacting with them. Adding a component of improv to a concert oftentimes makes for an incredible show; however, it can also become a jumbled mess of chords and sounds not flattering to the ear. Yet not for MacKay and Beach. They have been adding this element of musical surprise to their concerts from the very beginning and it has proven to be a great addition to their shows.

“There’s going to be a lot of audience interaction,” says MacKay of this show, so be ready to meet the requinto and mingle with the artists.
- New City

"For the Love of Music"

Roosevelt graduate student Bill MacKay believes that the best music should be honest and flow naturally.

“I always want things to retain their purity, the emotion, mood or picture.” MacKay said. “Things that are built into it, as well as being solid in the melody, in the shape of it.”

MacKay is getting his Master of Arts in Spanish. MacKay has done some undergrad work at the Berklee College of Music, Portland State University and then finished up his undergraduate studies at Roosevelt.

But on the side MacKay is also an inspiring musician who has played in several bands in the Chicagoland area.

MacKay’s musical journey started at a young age when his father first introduced him to the world of music.

“My fascination with music started at the age of 9 when my father started bringing me to orchestral and jazz concerts,” MacKay said. “There were lots of experiences that made music a mystery worth exploring and the discovery of all sorts of great rock and other bands created a new sort of direction for me.”

MacKay began his musical career by playing the guitar.

“I started on a little guitar from a local department store,” MacKay said. “I worked on my mom to get me lessons and then she relented after a few weeks of badgering.”

Along with playing guitar, MacKay also specializes in the requinto guitar, which is a Spanish guitar.

But playing guitar is just one of MacKay’s interest in music. He also considers himself a composer and songwriter.

“I strive to write the best material I can,” MacKay said. “I may work on a song for months, while another song may be done in an hour or less.”

MacKay said his musical tastes vary over time, but he always likes to try new genres.

“My current interests intersect a lot,” MacKay said. “I like experimental folk, exploratory rock and creative improvisation, always something with a melody.”

MacKay said he performing by himself and enjoys performing in bands as well.

“I play solo when I can, with my friend Tyler Beach as a guitar duo,” MacKay said. “I am also a member of his [Beach] band Leaf Bird and I have a group called Darts & Arrows.”

MacKay said Darts and Arrows are about to release their debut CD.

MacKay has gone to different schools throughout the country and has played many venues over the years as both a solo artist and in bands.

“I’ve played in all the cities I’ve lived and visited Pittsburgh, Boston, Denver, Portland and Chicago,” MacKay said. “Here in Chicago the type, size and style of place has varied, from coffeehouse to bars to performance lofts and even galleries.”

Having been a musician for so long, MacKay believes that no matter what, a musician needs to get their voice heard.

“An artist ought to do things to get their work heard and seen,” MacKay said. “To share it and see what sort of life it can have outside…I believe in the music and I want people to hear it.”

MacKay still loves playing music and does not know where this life will lead him. The destination is something that will occur along the way.

“The destination is still always the next song,” MacKay said. “Success is measurable in so many ways…most ideas star with somebody working in a room by themselves, if what you’re doing has meaning, then everything that comes afterward is an unexpected diamond.”

- The Torch (Roosevelt University)

"Broken Things | Swim to the River (CD Review)"

Whether your daily travels consist of trails through a sprawling metropolis or remote terrains, Swim To The River has the spirit of being on the "open range, with elements of rural and earthy soundscapes. These trails however, are denoted not only with the feel of the outback, but also folk, rock, free jazz, and accessible melodies performed by the Chicago-based group Broken Things.

Led by guitarist Bill MacKay, the group formerly known as Sounds of Now (Self Produced, 2005) continues to evolve. Whiles things seem more focused and lyrical there's also more of what keeps them interesting: the ability to not sound like a jazz group as they cultivate their own music. Seemingly drawing inspiration from influences ranging from pianist Alice Coltrane to rockers Led Zeppelin, they succeed in avoiding being defined by any particular genre.

There are good harmonies from the two front voices of MacKay and saxophonist Greg Ward, and taut support from drummer Tim Daisy and bassists Jason Ajemian and Todd Hill, who split bass duties on the six tracks. "Doll Mountain Rag has a familiar Midwestern flair, while the "Broken Things slowly emerges, informed of both roots and rock music as MacKay delivers a nice chorded solo.

From south of the border comes the "1919 Molasses Tragedy, an interesting tune with good interaction and rich instrument timbres. Next is a favorite called "Water's Edge, containing a darker theme, free solos, and an ending that literally slays—with an Ozzy Osborn/Metallica head-banging riff and Ward delivering another hot solo.

"Keep A Secret is an upbeat piece that takes off and soars, while "The Reservoir sinks to the bottom, then gets down and dirty with a nice blues groove. The road to success for many musicians is paved with good intentions (and not enough originality) and it's cool that Bill MacKay and Broken Things are following their own path.

"Guitarist Bill MacKay Finds His Sweet Spot"

Guitarist Bill MacKay, a Pittsburgh native who moved to Chicago in 1998, has stayed on the margins of the city's jazz and improvised-music scenes, despite playing with folks like Colorlist, Savoir Faire, and Jason Ajemian's Who Cares How Long You Sink—or maybe it'd be more fair to say that he's stayed on the margins of my awareness. MacKay's aesthetic is clearly indebted to the twangy pastoralism of Bill Frisell—a sound that, despite its popularity, lacks a deep connection to most improvised music being made in Chicago.

He's released a couple of solid records over the past six years or so, including 2007's Swim to the River, a nice jazz outing billed to Broken Things, aka MacKay, bassist Ajemian, drummer Tim Daisy, and alto saxophonist Greg Ward. Listening to those records I hear a musician working hard to define himself and create an original sound. Listening to the recent self-titled debut by his ensemble Darts & Arrows, which he started in 2006, I hear a musician who's succeeded in doing just that.

MacKay has always incorporated bits of rock and folk into his music, but whereas his past hybrids have come off slightly clunky, the new one is graceful and seamless. He takes plenty of solos, but his improvisations are thoughtfully woven into the rich arrangements, so that they're integral to the music's structural integrity. The record features Charles Rumback on drums, Matthew Golombisky on bass, and Ben Boye on keyboards (Ward contributes some beautiful clarinet on "Black Leaves"), and they work hard to create a detailed ensemble setting, shaping unobtrusive grooves and harmonic shapes with the same restraint the guitarist applies to his melodic extrapolations. It's difficult to say if what Darts & Arrows play is jazz or folk or rock, and the line between composed and improvised material is likewise fuzzy. Those are both good things in my book, but even better is the way the group's abundantly inventive music flows so naturally, with a delicate rhythmic touch.

Darts & Arrows perform Friday night at the Charleston with a modified lineup: frequent MacKay collaborator Kyle Hernandez will take over on bass and Quin Kirchner will play drums. Below you can hear a track from the new album.
- Chicago Reader


Darts & Arrows | Bill MacKay and Darts & Arrows (2010)
(all songs & guitar)

The Postman Delivers: A Chicago Musician's Tribute to John Prine, Vol. 1 (guitars on Illegal Smile)

Paul Justin Mooney | Because of a Woman (2010)
(guitars, bass, piano)

Colorlist | Photographs (2008) (guitar)

Broken Things | Swim to the River (2007) (all songs & guitar)

Who Cares How Long You Sink | Folk Forms...(2007) (guitar)

Colorlist | Lists (2007) (guitar)

Bud Melvin | Escape from Eden (2007) ('Soul in Violet'/MacKay)

Savoir Faire & ESP | Running out of Time (2005) (guitar)

Bill MacKay & Sounds of Now (2004) (all songs & guitar)



Bill MacKay is a solo artist and also leads the Chicago-based band Darts & Arrows.

Darts & Arrows grew out of guitarist-songwriter MacKay's embryonic vision for a folk group, playing their 1st gig at South Union Arts in Chicago in 2006. That vision quickly expanded and swelled as the band's surrealistic folk sense was shaded by experimental rock and free improvisation: The dark and woodsy acoustic early lineup and sound had gone to a more fiery electric.

So far the band has one independent album under its belt: Bill MacKay and Darts & Arrows (2010 Son of Fire recordings).

As a songwriter-composer, MacKay has found inspiration in the work of many writers: Sylvia Plath, Thomas Wolfe, Jack Kerouac, Ferdinand Celine and Kenneth Patchen among them.

MacKay formerly led the bands Sound of Now and Broken Things,
and has appeared on many other recordings as guitarist.
He writes, is a student of several Romance languages, and is currently enrolled in the graduate program at Roosevelt University.

'Instrumental pop music – if such a thing can exist – is rare to hear played live, and played well, rarer still, but MacKay’s compositions are much more nuanced than your typical jamband.'
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