Musician, poet, actor and teacher Ray McNiece will perform Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. as part of the Acoustic Showcase series in the Front Room Coffeehouse on the fourth floor of Baker Center.
McNiece spoke on the phone with The Post to answer a few questions about his background, his career and what his creative process is like.
The Post: I’m going to get started with a few basic questions. What genre of music do you play?
McNiece: Well, I’m actually a folk guitarist, Americana. But I’m mostly a performance poet.
P: Do you write all your own music?
McNiece: Yeah, I write everything.
P: Do you mostly do poetry or is it just music?
McNiece: I do a little bit of both. I’ll maybe do three or four songs, and then I’ll do some poems, and sometimes I’ll mix poems and songs together so kind of a mash-up.
P: Where are you from?
McNiece: Cleveland. I’ll say this — my roots, my father was born in Coolville, which you might be familiar with. It’s right down near seven by the river. And I experienced this as a boy right down near Barlow, which is near Marietta, so I’m of Appalachian background. Let’s put it that way. My one side of the family is Appalachian. My father was an Irish-Appalachian, and my mother’s family … (is) Slovenian.
P: Did you grow up surrounded by musically inclined people?
McNiece: Yeah. … When I was a kid, we would sit around in the parlor, or you could call it a living room. … They’d sit around, and they would talk and tell stories and recite poems. So it was this great Appalachian oral tradition where people just sat around and talked. Imagine that. I grew up on that Carter family hillbilly gospel kind of stuff.
P: How did you realize music was what you wanted to do?
McNiece: I went to OU, and I was a med student, and I had a freshman English teacher who pulled me aside one day and said, “You’re a really good writer, have you thought about being a writer?” And I said, “That’s what I wanna do.” My family, because I come from a working class family, they wanted me to be a doctor because we don’t have any professionals in my family history. So, at any rate, he recommended me to the Honors Tutorial College, and I went into the honors college for pre-med osteopathic medical school, and I started writing then, and I realized that I wasn’t gonna make millions being a poet, so I started performing the stuff. That took me to the folk music scene in Austin right after college, so I cut my teeth performing then. I’ve learned enough guitar to sing and doing the poetry as well.
P: Who are your favorite musicians?
McNiece: Like I said, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell. Then my favorite poets were Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes. So people that you know. People that I like, or people that are more on the popular side, not esoteric poets. They’re people that are acceptable and are really understandable because when you’re trying to make a living as a performer, which I’ve been doing for 30-something years, you have to really do stuff that people are going to connect to. A lot of academic poetry is too dense and too obtuse for you to get.
P: You mentioned that you act. What else do you do outside of that, and music and poetry, in your free time?
McNiece: Well, I teach too. I teach at a Montessori school. I’m the creative writing artist in residence, and I teach at John Carroll University, and I’m a professor there. I do the performance, and the writings, and the acting and what not, and when I’m not doing that, I’m kind of an amateur naturalist and so I spend a lot of time in the woods. … I’m not from a rich background or anything, but I’m a really good amateur golfer. … I took it up because of (my dad). … And actually one of the reasons I went to OU is a partial golf scholarship. Anything I can hit with a stick, I’m good.
P: Talk to me about the creative process of writing a song.
McNiece: It starts to me really as a little musical phrase in my head. I’m always listening to music and language. I’ve got literally thousands of these pocket notebooks. It’s a craft. It’s more like carpentry, you’re putting things together. Like a chair. And it’s easier because after you make a thousand chairs you, know how to make them. But it still involves a lot of trial and error. As Thomas Edison said, creativity is 10 percent inspiration, 90 percent perspiration. Unless you’re Mozart or something, like you’re genius. But how many of those are around?
P: Thank you so much for giving us the chance to talk. What should listeners take away from your work?
It’s an honest attempt at the truth from my perspective and kind of social progress oriented. … I think to take away that they would be moved, because really what songs do is they make us laugh, and they make us cry, and they ultimately they make us more human or put us in touch with what it is to be a human. And everything that involves the good, the bad and the ugly. So hopefully, we all learn a bit every time. I know we learn things about life or learn things about love or humanity or whatever, and that’s the takeaway is to help each other ultimately. And if you have empathy and compassion, that really helps with a lot of this. I write a lot about working people because that’s kind of what is my background. I’m writing a lot about outliers of people that are outside of mainstream society maybe because I’ve always been outside of mainstream society.