It’s a tiny, Thursday-night crowd largely made up of bar-crawlers in search of beer nuts and brews instead of the two Brits on stage singing about old flames and sweethearts. In fact, the audience is so small that Lee MacDougall, a 26-year-old singer-songwriter from London, is able to have one-on-one conversations with a group of girls standing by the stage.
It’s all so intimate that one almost forgets that this is all taking place at Wicker Park’s Double Door nightclub at 9 p.m. on a weeknight. MacDougall is very personable, introducing himself to each member of the audience, asking their names and bantering jovially with all of them.
“Everything’s been great so far,” he said. “The reaction’s been really good. Everyone is so friendly, positive and enthusiastic about the music.”
MacDougall, who is in the middle of his first North American tour, which included stops at NYC’s historic Bitter End club and Austin’s South by Southwest festival, has found this to be the case almost everywhere the band goes.
“We got a bunch of requests to come here,” he said. “Basically [America] is where my music’s kind of taken off. It’s because of the Internet and a word-of-mouth sort of thing.”
His fan base isn’t just limited to the United States, though. MacDougall has a relatively large online presence, with a frequently updated Twitter, Myspace and Facebook, as well as a blog chronicling his tour.
“I tweet quite a lot,” he said. “I don’t really understand it though, but people talk to me on it. I’ve also been uploading a diary. It’s about things like us getting lost, brushes with the law, barroom brawls, stuff like that. We’re just like a bunch of kids on a school trip without any parents or teachers.”
Others, like online radio host Courtney Marsh, got into MacDougall’s music through more traditional means, like word-of-mouth.
“A lot of my friends were into his music,” Marsh said. “And after I heard his music I fell in love. I downloaded the EP that night and listened to it all during work.”
As for his live performance, it’s made even better by his heartfelt genuineness. His voice is sweet and a welcome break from the growls and grunts of the typical sad-balladeer-with-a-guitar act. He’s also talented in the sense that his songs are so distractingly catchy and melodic on the surface that one needs to listen hard to see that the subject matter itself is much darker and gloomier.
This is evident as lyrical subtlety isn’t exactly MacDougall’s strong suit, and he’s the first to admit that he “finds it hard to write abstractly.” His lyricism is reminiscent of bands like Jack’s Mannequin and The Kooks, dripping with all the unresolved angst he’s been harboring since that first adolescent heartbreak. So quite predictably, most of his songwriting is simple and focused on the topic of girls and breakups.
“It all happened. It’s all real,” MacDougall said. “Because whenever I’m miserable, I write songs. Generally when I’m happy I go out.”
And while his lyrics are not exactly eye-opening allegories of how awful having your heart broken can be, one can’t deny that they’re genuine.
“The songs are all quite happy-sounding, but they’re melancholy songs,” he said. “They’re very ‘forgive me, Father.’ I guess I’m a melancholic.”
This is interesting since MacDougall cites everyone from British 60s pop acts like The Kinks and The Beatles to grunge-rockers Nirvana as musical influences. “I thought Kurt Cobain was the coolest guy ever,” MacDougall said. “For Christmas one year, my mum got me a guitar and I was like ‘I’ll be him, I’ll be Kurt Cobain.’”
Unlike karate, soccer, and the other phases he went through in his youth, music stuck. MacDougall’s been playing since he was 13 years old, and one can tell from his innate ability to compose catchy tunes.
He is most successful with his folk-inspired songs, like “Star Hotel,” which has a hint of sarcasm that’s glossed over by a sweet, sway-worthy melody, and fan favorite “Falling In Love For The Last Time,” which he wrote for his friend Robert Pattinson of Twilight fame.
As for the future, MacDougall’s tour is almost over, but he’s already planning on returning this summer to play some more shows. Though the show at the Double Door was, according to him, “the smallest crowd of the tour so far,” MacDougall didn’t let that stop him from impressing the audience that was there.
“I loved the show,” fan Tara Buckingham-White said. “Even though it was small, I thought they nailed their performance.”