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Judge for Declan McGarry

Winnipeg, Canada
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Portrait of Declan McGarry
"For me, hope was never really a strategy," says the 25-year-old singer and songwriter Declan McGarry. "It was in my upbringing that sitting around hoping something would happen wasn't going to bring you anything. When I realized that, it changed my whole approach." For McGarry, that new approach meant leaving dreams of pop stardom laid stagnant in Los Angeles, Nashville and Memphis, and going back to his hometown of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, to embark on an ambitious business plan to build a music career from the ground up and on his own terms. His new self-titled record, to be released on his own LT Records in 2010, is only the first stage of that plan coming to fruition, but it's the culmination of 10 years of a love of songs and songwriting.

"When I heard a great song when I was young, I thought, 'I could do that,' but it took years before I could," says McGarry, who started playing the guitar and dabbling in songwriting at the age of 14, after years of piano classes. Growing up in Neil Young's hometown, though, is bound to have an affect on anyone in Winnipeg who picks up an acoustic guitar and takes a stab at songwriting. McGarry was no exception. Coming of age in the mid-90s meant the aspiring songwriter's first taste of the iconic and fiercely independent Young was 1993's Unplugged. From there, McGarry worked backwards, soaking up the beauty of Harvest Moon, Live Rust, Harvest and Decade.

"After Neil, it was Springsteen," says McGarry, who also sites artists ranging from John Denver to Nancy Griffith as early influences. "I've always been a song guy. If a song hit me, it didn't matter if was pop, rock, blues or country."

McGarry toyed with music in high school and even formed a band with his brother -- Less Traveled -- before attending the University of Winnipeg and securing a degree in English. Having fulfilled the obligations that the pragmatist in him demanded, McGarry moved to Toronto and started writing more seriously, sending demos to labels and producers in Los Angeles and making cold calls to whomever would take the time to talk to him. He caught the ear of a manager in Los Angeles, and although a year and a half commuting between the two cities yielded little in the way of tangible results, it led to an opportunity to record an EP at legendary Ardent Studios in Memphis with producer/engineer John Hampton.

"I wasn't quite mature enough in my writing to merit a record," says McGarry now of the experience. "I realized quickly that you need all those things in place: money, a team, a marketing plan. I came back home and hit a crossroads. It was either get a record deal or throw in the towel. But I also realized getting a record deal probably wasn't going to happen, especially not in the current economic climate."

Declan McGarry, singer-songwriter, added another hyphen to his description: businessman.

The city that birthed Neil Young loves to support its own, and soon McGarry found himself knocking on the doors not of record labels and producers, but of the Winnipeg investment community. He devised a business plan, complete with rates of return, and formed a company made up of private investors. He spent ten months raising money by talking to dozens of potential investors, many of whom knew nothing about the music industry. By mid-2009, he had reached his target investment goal, all of it in Canada, and 90% of it in Winnipeg.

"I'm fortunate that I came from a city like Winnipeg," says McGarry. "I don't think I could have done this in any other city. Winnipeggers really like to help their own out and see members of their community succeed beyond their city's limits.''

Armed with a source of funding and a renewed commitment to success on his own terms, McGarry set about building the team that would make his dream a reality. Through the power of the Internet, and a subsequent rigorous selection process McGarry met Nashville manager, producer and songwriter Nick Pellegrino (Walt Wilkins, Jason Meadows, Chely Wright). The two immediately clicked.

"He's like a film producer," says Pellegrino. "He's got a great story to tell, and rather than knock on the doors of the studios, he's gone and found someone to work on the script with him, to direct the film, market it and share it with the world."

It's an apt analogy, and not surprisingly, many of Declan's dealings are being documented, complete with several meetings where he gets turned down. Think of it as the behind-the-scenes documentary about the making of the film.

Pellegrino and McGarry quickly dug into McGarry's catalog, looking for the songs that would make up his first full-length release. The result is eleven carefully crafted slices of pop, rock and Americana, all written or co-written by McGarry, many with Pellegrino, and one (the hook-laden "Love Like Water") with celebrated songwriter and frequent Jon Bon Jovi collaborator Billy Falcon. Backing McGarry's mature-beyond-his-years and raggedly warm tenor is a cast of Nashville's finest, among them guitar player George Marinelli (Bonnie Raitt, Bruce Hornsby and the Range, James Taylor), drummer Vince Santoro (Shania Twain, Edgar Winter, Rodney Crowell, Emmylou Harris) keyboard player Dennis Wage (T.Graham Brown)and bass player Robbie Harrington (Dierks Bentley, Lowen & Navarro). Academy of Country Music Engineer of the Year recipient Steve Marcantonio worked the boards; Pellegrino produced.

McGarry's influences abound throughout the record. The freewheeling album opener "Summer Heat" recalls Tunnel of Love meets reconstituted E Street Band era Springsteen, while the optimistic and anthemic "Since We're All Here Tonight" nods to millennium-era Bon Jovi. The strings of "Let It Go" give it a cinematic appeal perfect for today's prime time dramas; "She Disappears," on the engine of a soft rolling train rhythm, hearkens back to the sincerity of the 70's finest singer-songwriters. "Summers of My Life," a holdover from McGarry's writing sessions in Los Angeles, is a contemporary breathe of fresh air that wouldn't be out of place on a play list that includes some of Keith Urban's finest windows-rolled-down driving songs.

On the bouncy and gorgeous "Everything," a mandolin provides the backdrop for McGarry to do a little accounting on the many merits of the object of his affection. It's the perfect counterpoint to the fragile object of "She Dissapears," making for a complete picture of the complex emotions that arise when love takes hold. "Seventeen" recalls the angst and possibility of the teenage years, and nods to Springsteen when the young narrator and lover are "washed in that sacred moonlight...baptized in the storm."

On "Angels on the Billboard," McGarry's independent spirit takes hold. A unique shot at the consumerism that surrounds us, McGarry "sees angels on the billboards/telling me what I need to save my life." But perhaps no song captures the weight of McGarry's spirit more than the self-penned "Headlights Glow." With the accompaniment of only an acoustic guitar, McGarry's narrator is alone on the highway, struggling with the decisions he's made in his life. "Just between you and me," sings McGarry, "sometimes I'm so scared of my dream."

"I've benefited from the good fortune of knowing what I want." says McGarry. "And when you want something, you'll do things you never thought you could do to attain it. I never dreamed four years ago that I'd be doing this, being both a businessman and pursuing my dream of being an artist."

What McGarry could never have dreamed up was how his journey from Winnipeg to Nashville would come full circle while recording his record at Blackbird Studios in Nashville. In an homage to his hometown, Pellegrino and McGarry decided the young artist should cover Young's tender ballad "Wrecking Ball," from 1989's Freedom. Nashville being Nashville, Freedom producer Niko Bolas was of course working next door. When he learned of McGarry's cover of "Wrecking Ball," he offered to wheel over the actual reverb used on the original record. It sounded so perfect on McGarry's voice, that it was used on several songs on the record. McGarry took it as a sign.

"It's a bit of a daunting experience to come to Nashville and be a songwriter," he says. "And while hope may not be a strategy, being hopeful and having faith in yourself and your abilities is an essential ingredient in any business plan. Especially when that plan involves the pursuit of a dream. Hopefully, that reverb was a sign I'm heading in the right direction."