READ PART 1 (Worship Musician, August 2017)
Over the past decade MGC has grown from being one of the most recognized worship guitarists on the planet to one of the most successful producers in Praise and Worship. While he’s experienced tremendous success it did not come without hard work
[WM] What advice do you have for the young guitar players and producers out there who have been inspired by you?
[MGC] I read an article when I was about 14 years old. I was really into Queen back then, and I still am. Brian May said that he practiced six hours a day, so I would come home from school and practice until 9 or 10 o’clock at night. I went through the Van Halen phase, and Nuno Bettencourt was another guitar player that I really got into. I was a really fast guitar player at one point. Once I hit fifteen, I started to realize that Radiohead or Oasis weren’t necessarily technically gifted, they just had more emotional songs. It kind of shifted my guitar playing. I started thinking that if Foo Fighters called me tomorrow and needed me to play, if I couldn’t do it then, I should never expect myself to be a professional guitar player. It’s either now, or never. That was my thought process that made me think that I should go to L.A. and try and do it professionally.
[WM] I’ve heard a lot of Hollywood success stories, but they tend not to start with, “I’m a guitarist from a big church in Australia and I’m here to have a studio career!” How did it all come together?
[MGC] A band called Paper Radio asked if I would play guitar for them. They said that they were going to move to England, so I was excited about that because I was going to be a professional guitar player in England. When we got there, they all got regular jobs, and because I’m Dyslexic I couldn’t get a job. So I took the return ticket that they paid for back to L.A. and stayed on a friend’s couch. One of my best friends was playing guitar in Steriogram, and their singer was giving Dan McCarroll (head of EMI publishing at the time) a haircut. He asked me, “What do you want to do?” and I said, “I just wanna play guitar, tour, and record.” I had a DVD with me, because that’s what you had at the time, and he watched a couple of things that I had done, and he told me that he could put me in a band tomorrow if that was what I wanted. I said, “Yeah! That would be awesome!” From that point on, life in L.A. was way easier than England or Sydney.
Dan was Butch Walker’s publisher, but I didn’t meet Butch until a couple of months after that. I played in a band called Limousine, who had the singer from the band Delta Spirit, and Eddie Fisher, who is now the drummer with OneRepublic. The band didn’t last very long, but we met Butch, who wanted to produce the album. When the band broke up I reached out to Butch and asked him to let me know about any work that he might know about. He called me back and told me that he was going to be supporting Avril Lavigne in Japan and asked if I wanted to play guitar for him. It was awesome, I didn’t have to try out or anything. I got the gig, went to rehearsal, and Butch took my passport and got me a Visa to go to Japan for a month – it was so much fun. Butch is such a great guitar player too, he’s incredible.
[WM] When did you get start going to Hillsong?
[MGC] I grew up in a Christian household. My parents got divorced when I was eleven, and I started going to Hillsong then. My mom had met Brian Houston, Joel’s father, so I got pretty connected. I was playing in the youth ministry by the time I was twelve. I feel like Christianity has always been a part of my life, and I’ve had so many friends come and go who have walked with Jesus and then fallen away. But for some reason, it just feels quite natural to me. Like, I’ve never felt angry at God for things happening, or not happening; and I’ve had a lot of ups and downs in my life. A lot of my friends have been derailed by either being successful, or not being successful. Ironically, that’s one of the big things I’ve noticed with my friends. It derails them and they get upset with God if they’re not successful, or they get upset because they’ve become so successful that it all gets in the way and derails their relationship with God as well. I feel like I’ve seen both sides of that now.
[WM] What are some of the ways having dyslexia has impacted your life?
[MGC] It still affects me now If I’m paying for something. I love being able to use credit cards because I don’t have to tell people that I can’t count properly. I had a lot of problems growing up in school because I would ask questions and people would make fun of me. Even now, I still sometimes have to write a 2 to remember that if it starts on the left, it’s a two, and if it starts on the right, it’s a five. I know that sounds silly, but people with Dyslexia understand what I mean. I took some tests when I was sixteen where they told me that I had it really bad, and if I wanted to leave school I could. They couldn’t support my type of Dyslexia at the school, and all I had to do was to get all of my teachers to sign a piece of paper. So, I walked around school, and the one guy I couldn’t get until the end of the day was Mr. Mortimer, my music teacher. When I finally pinned him down I told him that I just needed him to sign the paper and I would be done, he would never see me again. He said, “What are you going to do with your life?” And I said, “I’m going to make music, play guitar, and tour the world.” And he said, “If it was that easy, then I’d be doing it. There’s a reason why I’m a teacher. It’s a miserable life. You don’t want to be doing it.” I said, “I’m not good at anything else. I don’t know what else I can do.” So, he said, “I’m going to sign this, but I think you’re making a huge mistake. I would want you to stay in school and just try and figure it out.” I told him, “I can’t understand anything that’s going on, except for music. I can hear something and play it straight away, but apart from that I don’t have any other talents.” So, he signed the paper, and I never went back. Some of the Hillsong Young and Free guys went to the same school, and they told me that Mr. Mortimer is quite proud that I made something of my life.
There are benefits of having dyslexia, like some of my favorite riffs that I’ve ever made. I’ve usually heard it in my head and figured out how to play it, rather than just noodling and trying to find something. It’s been a challenge, but I feel like it’s made me stronger with music. I can pretty much play anything, and I can hear a song and tell you whether it’s going to be loved by everyone or not loved by anyone. So, I guess I’m grateful for it.
[WM] So… did you know “Oceans” was going to be such a massive hit when you started working on it?
[MGC] Joel was in New York and I was back in Sydney when I was working on the album. I had hired the keyboard player and the strings players to work on “Oceans”. I talked to Joel via FaceTime and told him that I was going in to record some stuff for it, and he told me that he didn’t have a single lyric for that song, so not to worry about that one. I told him that it was my favorite song that didn’t have lyrics yet. So, I just recorded all of it anyway. Then, when we were finishing off some drum parts at Electric Lady studios in New York, I pulled up “Oceans” and said to Joel, “Just listen to this now. I’ve worked really hard on this and I think it’s going to be amazing.” And the cello started at the beginning, and then the piano… and then the terrible scratch vocals that Matt Crocker had sung, and Joel said, “You’re right, it’s beautiful. It’s going to be awesome.” And then two massive things happened for “Oceans” to be what it is now. One, is that Taya Smith sang it, and did an amazing job. And two, Joel found a way to write lyrics with a very personal point of view that really resonated with a lot of people. And I was just happy to play a part in facilitating something like that, because I think it’s so awesome. Without the lyrics and Taya’s vocals, it would have been a pretty rough demo! The only lyrics that stayed, is the part with “I am Yours, and You are mine,” which is just an off the cuff thing that Matt was singing in the demo. Other than that, some of the early lyrics were just unlistenable. As a producer, you’re supposed to look past that and know that the artist is going to deliver something that’s worth listening to. In this case, it was very special.
[WM] One of my favorite things about “Wonder” is how you used Taya’s voice like ‘salt and pepper’ all over the record. I grew up listening to all of the Beatles records, and when I heard the disc I thought, “Wow! He’s using her like an instrument. On one part she’s doubling Joel’s vocals, and then she’s on her own.” I loved the way you went back and forth with the male and female parts, rather than just having one person singing the entire song. What’s it like to work with somebody who has that kind of musical quality?
[MGC] What I’ll do in the studio is that I record anyone doing anything, which is way more work than you’ll ever hear, because, obviously, not everything makes it. Then, I’ll usually have an agenda. I’ll say, “I really want Taya to sing the first verse of this, and then in the second verse I want Jad to sing, and then Joel on the bridge.” I’ll actually have everyone backed up and ready to go in case we end up switching it in the mix, and a lot of times we do end up switching. Like on the song “Splinters and Stones”, Joel just hated his voice on the last chorus for some strange reason. And he said, “I just wish Taya was singing it.” And I said, “She is singing it. I’ve just got it muted, but I’ll unmute it and we’ll be good to go.” And that’s the way I’ve been operating for the past few years now.
With the Beatles, one thing I will say is, for example, I don’t like Ringo’s voice, but when you hear them all singing together, it just works. John Lennon has a really sharp, nasally voice. And Paul has a really silky voice, and when you hear it all together it makes something really awesome to listen to. I’ve tried to use that same dynamic with the United guys, because everyone has such a different voice. When you put two people together who sound really different, it creates something totally different. It’s been a lot of fun, but it’s a lot of work. You end up having to do a lot of backups. Like if Jad’s vocal doesn’t come out very well, then I’ve got Matt. And it it’s not going to be Matt, then I’ve got Joel. There’s a lot of guys that can sing really well, but you’ve got to have a focus and a concept of what the song should be or you’ll end up doing more work than you need to.