If Hunter MacDermut has to be put under a microscope, he'd rather it be beneath warm stage lights, not the bright fluorescence of this frighteningly clean kitchen. MacDermut doesn't like to talk about the solo acoustic music he makes as The Tourist. He just likes to play it.
"Classical thinkers analyze everything. I'm more of a romantic thinker," he says, his right hand spread over a tattered copy of Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The other hand nervously massages the back of his neck. "I've never had any interest in studying music because I think I enjoy it too much, frankly. I'm musically competent to the degree where I know when and where I can break the rules. Those gray areas are where the mystery lies."
Indeed, MacDermut, 21, is largely self-taught. As a Greensboro high school student influenced by piano-fronted bands like Ben Folds Five, he wrote his first songs with his mother's ivories and his father's drums. Any formal training he has is on those instruments. He played percussion in his high school band and attempted jazz piano lessons for about a year.
But he felt stifled by the methodology of academic music. "I started learning where chords resolve and how things are organized. When I found myself doing that, it just felt too convenient," remembers MacDermut, who moved to Cary in 2003 after his parents divorced. "I didn't want to do that because that's what you typically hear." He quit lessons. Since then, he's learned to play a half-dozen other instruments, from the clarinet to the banjo, even though he mostly writes with guitar now.
And, while MacDermut's odd chord skips and note slides aren't those of your typical guy with guitar, he says he's just out to explore the "unspectacular feelings" as a songwriter—that is, lyrics and music about life, held together by immediacy and a palpable sense of sadness. "Life is great, but society ain't always kind," he says on "Indian Giver," a cut from an early demo. "How can I get by just being a nice guy—they finish last."
But MacDermut is that nice guy: Onstage, he seems content to stand in his own shoes. He asks the audience to come closer. He asks for their names. He remembers them. That affability and that self-effacing, smart sincerity make MacDermut so compelling. Most men wince at the idea of being called "sensitive." This intimacy takes guts.
"Hunter transcends the 'sensitive male songwriter' cliché because of his strength," says Charles Latham, who MacDermut now gigs with regularly. MacDermut only gigged at local open mic nights until he met Latham and a host of other Triangle lyrical heavyweights while organzing an Elliott Smith tribute last year. "He is open, but not necessarily vulnerable, and he does not affect shyness like so many other singer-songwriters do," Latham continues. "He connects with you without having to resort to making you feel sorry for or concerned about him."
Still, MacDermut is a bit weary of the acoustic singer-songwriter stigma, and he's been busy forming a trio with keyboardist/bassist Thomas Baucom and drummer Josh Phillips. He says he's ready to be noticed, make a little more noise, and—who knows?—maybe even rock a little under the microscope: "I just hope that we can present the songs in a way that pleases the ear and makes people want to dance," he says, pausing before conceding, "or at least sway." —Ruth Eckles
The Tourist will release his first LP, Not Now, Not Ever, on Firefly Music with a CD release party at Bickett Gallery Saturday, April 7, at 8:30 pm. For the first time, The Tourist will perform as a trio. Charles Latham will open. .