Banner image: Photograph by Steve Behr

I meet 62-year-old singer-songwriter Graham McGregor-Smith at the PizzaExpress Jazz Club on a drizzly Wednesday. It’s a timeless-looking venue with low ceilings, red leather booths along the back wall, and round tables huddled around a stage.

Graham looks right at home here; Sinatra-esque in a fedora and blazer, it’s difficult to imagine he’s been anything other than a musician. But, in reality, this is a new chapter for the father-of-two – who decided to pursue his lifelong dream at 58.

On the walls around us are photographs of past performances. Since it opened in 1976, the PizzaExpress Jazz Club has hosted a variety of top names – including Amy Winehouse, Norah Jones, and Sting. And on March 12th, Graham will join this esteemed lineup when he plays here to mark the release of his debut album, Road to Anywhere.

Keen to know more, I sat down with Graham to speak about his journey so far.

“Music is your first love, so why don’t you pursue it?”

Music is your first love, so why don’t you pursue it
Photograph by Steve Behr

As Graham tells me, music was his ‘first love’. But as a young boy growing up in semi-rural Worcestershire, he never saw it as a realistic career option.

“Music was everything to me. I wasn’t interested in anything else,” he says. “But the role models I had were basically my singing and piano teachers – and they didn’t inspire me. I looked at the pop stars on the telly, and they just seemed like people from another planet: superbeings I could never hope to emulate.”

So, despite his enthusiasm, Graham chose a more ‘conventional’ route: studying for an economics degree at Manchester University before heading into a career in finance. But that isn’t to say that music fell out of his life entirely. Graham says he would often escape during his lunch hours to take singing lessons at The Royal Academy of Music.

Then, in 2006, Graham stepped back from work to become a stay-at-home dad and found himself getting involved in the local opera scene. Alongside parenting duties, he’d regularly perform near his Ascot home and even ran an opera group.

But Graham’s children eventually went to university, and he became somewhat burnt out with opera. He says, “Increasingly, I was thinking, ‘Ok, well, what am I going to do with the rest of my life?’ And then I remembered: come on, Graham, music is your first love, so why don’t you pursue it?”

“I think back to 15-year-old me; it would have blown his mind to see me here having put an album together”

I think back to 15-year-old me; it would have blown his mind to see me here having put an album together
Photograph by Steve Behr

With newfound purpose, Graham dusted off his bass guitar and joined a couple of rehearsal bands. But the real turning point came in 2019 when he was riding his bike through the park and bumped into his old neighbour, fellow songwriter Gareth.

Graham says, “I’d wanted to write songs back when I was 15, but I didn’t realise there was a whole craft to it. I thought that unless a song came out of you fully formed, you couldn’t write – so I didn’t pursue it at the time. But Gareth had been doing it for 40 years and showed me how.

“He took some of my scrappy lyrics and turned them into a magnificent song. And he showed me […] that you start with the germ of an idea, and then you craft it. That was a bit of a revelation for me, I’m embarrassed to say. But bumping into Gareth meant that once I’d seen the way, I was all set – so I’ve been writing ever since.”

However, despite the introduction to songwriting, Graham’s learning journey was far from over. During the pandemic, he signed up for three six-week online songwriting courses with ICMP (a music university and performance school in London), which helped him add a few more songs to his repertoire.

Next, he turned to The Songwriting Academy, an organisation that trains budding songwriters and connects them with industry professionals. “[They have] a bunch of amazing mentors who guide you through a year of making connections and writing songs,” Graham says.

At the end of the year, Graham found himself with even more original tunes in his back pocket. So, he decided to fulfil a boyhood dream and create his own album. Over the coming months, he travelled to composer-producer Julian Hinton’s studio (a contact from The Songwriting Academy) to record the tracks before sending them off to be mixed and mastered.

“[The music] has been ready since July 2023,” Graham tells us. “Since then, I’ve been designing the artwork and putting in orders for vinyl and CDs. I think back to 15-year-old me; it would have blown his mind to see me here having put an album together.”

“I think my generation is [...] changing expectations for what people in their 50s, 60s, 70s and up are doing”

I think my generation is [...] changing expectations for what people in their 50s, 60s, 70s and up are doing

Photograph by Kevin Hicks

Describing his music, Graham tells me that listeners can expect “life-affirming songs in a range of styles, from swinging jazz to bossa nova to classic pop.

“One of the prime motivations [for creating the album] was that I would love it if one of my songs was still being sung by somebody in 70 years’ time,” he says. “So, it felt important to write classic material that could stand the test of time.”

With this in mind, Graham looked to standards from the Great American Songbook for inspiration, as well as Dorothy Parker Noël Coward, the music from the films of Fred Astaire, and some of his favourite lyricists from the ‘80s. But that isn’t to say that Road to Anywhere isn’t tackling contemporary themes. For example, ‘I Could Have Cried Over You’, the seventh track on the album, explores such topics as masculinity and the waning of friendships between older men.

Graham explains, “Men of my age, we don’t [tend to] talk about our relationships with our friends. We kind of bumble along together, hang out in pubs, and tell tall stories. We don’t really talk about our emotions. [But] we’ve all suffered loss, we’ve all had times where things haven’t been so good.”

But, ultimately, Graham is using his music to celebrate life as a mature person – and it’s this experience that’s helped him in his music career so far.

“I definitely think I’m in a better position now to pursue it than in my 20s and 30s because I didn’t have the confidence then – I didn’t have the life experience. I think there are other hurdles that you have to get over, being my age and starting out. But I think my generation is at the vanguard of changing expectations for what people in their 50s, 60s, 70s and up are doing.”

“Ultimately, if I keep going, that’s success enough”

Ultimately, if I keep going, that’s success enough
Photograph by Steve Behr

As Graham tells us, the most rewarding part of the journey has undoubtedly been performing live.

“Singing my material with the most amazing band in fantastic venues and, most importantly, having an audience appreciating what you’re doing – it’s just a joy; a total joy. I absolutely love it.”

Graham’s ultimate goal is to tour the UK, US, and Europe each year. But, with that said, he’s finding just as much reward and satisfaction in what he’s doing right now.

“I think, ultimately, if I keep going, that’s success enough […] At the age of 85, if I’m still waking up and thinking, ‘Right, what am I going to do today?’ – and it’s something to do with my music career, that would be proper success.”

And for those looking to follow in his footsteps and pursue a passion in later life, Graham has this to say…

“Just do it. Find a way. Because we only have one life […] In my 50s, I thought I was indestructible. But things changed when I had my 60th birthday […] Suddenly, I had to consider the fact that I was 60 – so all those things I haven’t done, I better make sure I do them. And so I think the time is now.

“I’m just having the time of my life, basically. Having done all the finance and the different task of bringing up the kids, now being able to focus entirely on what has always been my passion has been great.”

If you’re interested in buying Graham McGregor-Smith’s debut album, Road to Anywhere, you can find out more on his Bandcamp page using the button below. You can also check him out on Spotify or Apple Music.

Have you pursued a passion in later life? Or has Graham’s story inspired you to do so? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.