Larry John McNally returns to Cinema Bar after traveling a long and winding road

Larry John McNally harmonizes with singers Nichelle Monroe and Lucy Schwartz during a recent Cinema Bar performance Photo by David Schwartz

Larry John McNally harmonizes with singers Nichelle Monroe and Lucy Schwartz during a recent Cinema Bar performance
Photo by David Schwartz

By Bliss Bowen

Regulars at the Cinema are familiar with its eclectic musical offerings, but passersby who casually wander into the hole-in-the-wall bar rarely expect the kind of viscerally satisfying grooves, elegant melodies and intelligent, atmospheric lyrics that fill the room when Larry John McNally performs.

Eschewing flash for understated soul, McNally and his accompanists — bassist David Schwartz (composer for TV’s “Arrested Development,” “Deadwood” and “Northern Exposure”), drummer Michael Jerome (Better Than Ezra, Richard Thompson) and background singer Nichelle Monroe (Common, Talib Kweli, Bobby Womack) — aren’t your typical bar band.

McNally’s name may ring bells for fans who geek out on album credits; his songs have been recorded by Joe Cocker, the Eagles, Don Henley, Chaka Khan, Aaron Neville, Michael Ruff, Mavis Staples, Rod Stewart and Bonnie Raitt, who included McNally’s “Nobody’s Girl” on her Grammy-winning 1989 album “Nick of Time.”

When McNally sat down to write that, all he had was the title. The song it unearthed became a lifeline during a critical transition, and a relatable anthem for countless women.

“That line ‘She don’t need anybody to tell her she’s pretty/ She’s heard it every single day of her life’ — there’s some built-in contradiction in that subject matter that still seems to resonate,” he muses. “People want to be recognized, but they don’t want to be seen.”

Fascinated by language and genuinely curious about other people’s stories, McNally took several scenic detours on the way to Culver City. Inspired by Allen Toussaint, the Maine native followed his love of New Orleans music to Louisiana, where he soaked up funky sounds and ambiance in NOLA and Baton Rouge.

“The earthiness of Muscle Shoals and Memphis and New Orleans R&B really got to me,” he says. “I tried to combine that with a certain level of poetry.”

He relocated to Los Angeles after Chaka Khan recorded “Sleep on It”; doors of opportunity swung open, bringing publishing deals and solo records for Atlantic and Columbia. But by the mid-’80s, he’d hit an existential crossroads.

“I remember seeing a guy by the side of the road with a shovel,” he explains. “I said, ‘That’s what I need to do. I’m not gonna write any more music to try to please anybody and beg for advances.’ So I started doing construction. I liked it. I got up real early in the morning; that’s when I wrote ‘Nobody’s Girl.’ The people were nicer. They seemed to appreciate what I was doing. And you actually got paid. I can see now, looking back, metaphorically, it was a grounding experience that I needed.”

During that time he befriended Raitt; after she recorded “Nobody’s Girl,” money began rolling in, and McNally became his own publisher. He realized he could finally travel “to other music places like Nashville and London. Then I moved to New York around ’91 and started making independent albums the way that I wanted.”

Long since returned to LA (after 10 years in NYC) and a transformed industry, he interacts with US and European fans online and tracks which songs they listen to most through streaming services. But because songwriter royalty rates do not yet equitably reflect changes wrought by those technologies, the mailbox money (i.e., royalty checks) that’s enabled artists like McNally to build self-sustaining careers has dwindled. He doesn’t cast blame and doesn’t expect past practices to return, but he — like small business owners nationwide — worries about the future. And keeps writing: “The artist’s job in society is incredibly important.”

“There are many songwriters making a very good living today at their craft,” drummer Jerome observes. “Larry’s more of a living representation of songwriters who remember a time when many more records of diverse variety and genre actually sold to a broad listening audience. Today music is much more diverse and the audience even broader with technology, but it is virtually free and it has made the effort all the more challenging.”

“Nobody buys CDs anymore, and Spotify pays about 1/100th what you’d make off a CD,” McNally explains. “I get Spotify statements that are 15 pages of plays, different songs, but after 15 pages it’s like 15 cents. If Bonnie did another song of mine it would be welcome whether it sold or didn’t sell, but the amount of money it would make wouldn’t be enough to pay your phone bill for a year.”

McNally’s taken to giving out albums at gigs. At one recent Cinema show, grizzled barflies and beanie-capped millennials nodded their heads to his Chet Baker-style ballad “Everything I Do Comes Easy”; some swiveled across the linoleum floor to the rousing grooves of “Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love,” “Shelter” and “The Motown Song.” Several dropped crumpled bills into the tip jar, a deeply patina coffee can stationed by the cramped stage.

“The goal of writing is to illuminate the human condition, to try to get underneath that. … You’re standing up there onstage talking about life, and you can look into the eyes of people and they’re saying, ‘Yeah, I’ve been there too,’” he says. “That’s a pretty magical moment.”

Larry John McNally plays at 8:45 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 10, at Cinema Bar, 3697 Sepulveda Blvd., Culver City. No cover, but tip jar donations go directly to the artists.  Call (310) 390-1328 or visit larryjohnmcnally.com.