Ali McGuirk almost timidly takes the stage, as if she’s a little shy or unsure of her place, glancing around at her fellow musicians. But when she opens her mouth, people stop and take notice, captivated by her swooping, honeyed voice, which sometimes brings Norah Jones or Susan Tedeschi to mind.
“I wish I were a rhythm-section musician, where you can just listen and be in the zone,” the singer/guitarist says. “The music is what we’re here for, not necessarily me as an individual. I have a hard time pushing myself into that Ali-ego world.”
In her own quiet way, the Concord native has steadily pushed forward on her chosen path. McGuirk began singing in a cafe a decade ago as a music minor at UMass Amherst (her major was social thought and political economy). Then she spent almost four years traveling in Central America and doing gigs in Mexico, Greece and Hong Kong before resettling in Boston a few years ago.
This summer, she’s been warming up new songs—and a new electric guitar—as she records her full-length debut, set to include material from a well-received EP out last fall as well as a song posted to Bandcamp on Inauguration Day, titled “What Have We Done?”
The song harks back to her UMass major, reflecting on race, class and gender. “I hope to write more songs like that, where I can express a political sentiment in a somewhat unpolitical way,” says McGuirk, who’s donating half of the track’s Bandcamp proceeds to Showing Up for Racial Justice. “That’s my white-guilt song,” she says. “It’s not black people’s responsibility to explain racism to white people anymore.”
Like most of her album due this fall, “What Have We Done?” features McGuirk’s core band of bassist/singer Cilla Bonnie, drummer Brandon Mayes and soul-jazz veteran Jeffrey Lockhart, whose liquid guitar notes leave a sonic signature. She might also include horns, which trumpeter Alex Lee-Clark arranged for a song on her EP and a recent Lizard Lounge tribute to the late jazz singer Abbey Lincoln, who joins Aretha Franklin and Sheila Jordan in McGuirk’s pantheon of influences.
“Like being inward with my stage presence, I’m kind of inward with my career,” McGuirk says. “I want the peak of my career to be when I’m 40, because I like building on it and want to keep playing with better musicians.”