A seemingly unknown singer, songwriter and guitarist sits in a quiet corner of a downtown Bangor coffee shop on a sunny September morning with a composition notebook, just as he does every morning.
Larry John McNally has filled more than 80 notebooks with his daily musings, lyric ideas and experiences, some of which may be woven into songs like those that made him famous.
Originally from Bangor, McNally returned to his hometown during the COVID-19 pandemic and is calling the Queen City home after a long career that spans a dozen solo albums. He also wrote songs that were recorded by artists like Bonnie Raitt, the Eagles, Chaka Khan and Rod Stewart and continues to write songs today.
In the decades since leaving Maine, McNally said he’s found the rugged yet kind people in Bangor haven’t changed, but the landscape of the city has shifted. While new businesses and developments are welcome advancements, chronic issues like rampant substance use and homelessness cast a shadow on the city.
McNally returned to Bangor for the first time in 2018 when he inherited his family’s home following the deaths of his parents. He spent the summers of 2018 and 2019 in Bangor between cross-country and international tours, then returned again in March of 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic was gaining speed while he was on tour in Europe.
“Everyone was scared and you couldn’t get into the airport without an American passport,” he said.
While he thought the quiet city in a rural region of Maine would be a good place to relax and isolate for a short time, Bangor soon became his oasis to return to between playing shows in some of the world’s most famous cities.
McNally began playing shows more regularly last year, and started by making appearances throughout Maine, including Bangor, Old Town, Belfast and Dover-Foxcroft. Next month, he’ll travel to Paris, Budapest, Vienna and Prague.
“I used to dream of faraway places, and now those places are an active part of my life,” he said. “I’ve always been extremely curious, and my curiosity has led me everywhere. I need 10 lifetimes to do the things I want to do.”
Regardless of where he goes, McNally said his favorite part about playing live is speaking to people in the audience after the show and hearing the stories they often share with him.
“I don’t care about the money, I just like playing live,” he said. “It’s an adrenaline rush.”
He enjoys being relatively anonymous in Bangor, where he can play in a small bar where no one glances in his direction, then play a sold out show in Paris where the audience knows the words to his songs.
Since returning to Bangor, McNally said the major difference between the Bangor of his childhood and the city today is the prevalence of illicit drugs and those struggling with substance use disorder, which has been an ongoing issue across the state.
He also noticed the number of people who are homeless in Bangor has increased significantly since his childhood, but the issue isn’t nearly as extreme as what he saw while living in Los Angeles.
McNally is buoyed, however, by recent redevelopment in downtown Bangor, public art and the number of independent stores and restaurants, which breathe new life into the city. He worries, however, that Bangor will “become the next Portland” if it continues to grow and becomes too expensive for its current residents to afford.
“People here are doing amazing things in the middle of nowhere,” he said.
McNally didn’t always love Bangor, however. In fact, as a child and young adult, McNally dreamed of escaping Maine to live in a big city and pursuing his passion for music and songwriting, which his practical, working-class family didn’t understand.
After graduating from Bangor High School, and earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Maine in Orono, he traveled to New Orleans — a place that created music that inspired him — and dropped a tape of his music off at a producer’s studio.
His music career began in 1981 when he released his debut album through Columbia Records.
While he doesn’t have a favorite song because “choosing a favorite song is like trying to choose a favorite child,” he said “Nobody’s Girl,” made famous by Bonnie Raitt in 1989, is perhaps his most widely known creation that has “taken on a life of its own.”
McNally said he writes songs about his own experiences, those of his family and friends, something he reads, or stories complete strangers share with him. Regardless of what inspired them, he said he aims for his songs to tell the truth about life with the hope that listeners are able to recognize themselves in his words and melodies.
“My job as a writer is to articulate feelings so others don’t feel so alone,” he said. “Art has a responsibility to inform you, not deceive you.”
“There has always been a rough edge to Bangor, but that’s not to say that there are coldhearted people,” he said. “I’m rediscovering Maine by living in it.”
McNally released his latest album, “Black Swan,” earlier this year, which contains several songs inspired by Bangor and the people he knew here. He created the album in the winter of 2021 to 2022 while he was living in Bangor.
For example, “Provide” is about his father’s hard work providing for his family despite not understanding McNally’s curious personality or his dreams of moving to a big city to pursue music.
“Hold On,” meanwhile, is about a childhood friend he remembered upon returning to his hometown.
McNally said he doesn’t plan on selling his family’s home, or leaving Maine for good, any time soon. He feels it is a perfect place to rest and write while still having an airport that can connect him with wherever he might want to go when he gets the urge to travel.
“I don’t want to be an expat,” he said. “This is one world, and Maine is part of it.”