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Gavin Mee kept travelling and gigging and loving right up to the end, even as his heart was failing him.
Son of a Garda superintendent and a nurse, Mee grew up in what his friends describe as comfortable stability, nothing foreshadowing the globetrotting musical career to come.
He collected Star Wars figurines as a child, passed his Leaving Cert with flying colours, and did business and legal studies at University College Dublin. Soon he was working in a bank – but that wouldn’t last long.
A self-taught guitar player, Mee recorded his debut album, Breech Birth, in his spare time, honing his craft as a musician, liberated from spreadsheets and euro signs.
Then one day in 2006, Dublin, the bank and comfort itself just became too claustrophobic for him. So he picked up his guitar and left Ireland for everywhere.
From there on out, Mee, whose music is a whimsical rainbow of wanderlust, toured around Europe performing at clubs, festivals and theatres.
“He just loved getting away and seeing the world,” says his sister Julie Mee. She describes her brother’s taste in music as different from his coevals growing up.
“His music heroes intimidated me,” she says. “I would hear Joni Mitchel’s music coming out of his bedroom. I wouldn’t even know more than half the people he was listening to.”
Paul Meade, the musician’s cousin, thinks the moment Mee shed the banker persona and surrendered his heart to the road, there was no going back.
“He would come back and forth to Ireland, but mostly he was touring around Europe just kind of learning his craft, learning what it is like to be, as he called himself, a live animal,” he says.
Meade spent childhood Christmases with Mee and his “mischievous smile”. He constantly craved the warmth that meeting new people often ignites, Meade says.
“He met a lot of people that he would stay with them for sometimes,” he says. “He would always put on a smile and show up.”
Lake Montgomery, a Scotland-based African-American musician, became Mee’s best friend, soulmate, and musical comrade.
Montgomery, who is from Paris, Texas met Mee in Amsterdam. He was wandering around on another musical excursion.
It was in early 2007 in Amsterdam. “When I’m new to a place I like to go to an open-mic night to introduce myself to the music community,” Lake says. “I remember that he became very excited, and he just kept saying to me, ‘Girl, you got soul.’”
When Mee took to stage, his music and “rolling fingers on the guitar” blew her mind. Their friendship grew from a fascination with each other’s music and spontaneous love. Their relationship, Montgomery says, transcended the physical, which often leads to breakups.
They would be up late at night, talking. “With a glass of wine just talking deep things. He told me how he had to break away and how he feared disappointing his family,” she says.
Some of his wanderlust came from his upbringing, she says. Dublin, Dún Laoghaire and middle-class suburbia. Son of a police chief and a nurse. Traditional Catholic. “I think in the comfort that it all brought he found a yearning to explore,” she says.
“And I would be quite open to him about my lovers, about being a black musician, and he was so into receiving that information, he was so interested in my life, and I was in his,” she says.
Mee then travelled stateside and the duo embarked on a five-week tour around America.
Between Dublin and the World
A Youtube video from 2009 shows Mee back in Ireland, on Dublin’s BalconyTV, singing a song called “Cheekbones”. His face bright red, the singer has the expression of a man who is about to burst into laughter while being introduced.
Meade says the musician was a witty examiner of life. “This is a song about going in search of a New Year’s kiss,” Mee says, with a wink.
“I remember walking up to him at a party once, and I grabbed him from behind and held him and put my cheek to his cheeks, and I said ‘I love you so much, we’re gonna be in this together for a long time.’ He said ‘I love you, too.’ and he received it so well, like a little baby,” Montgomery says, laughing sombrely.
In 2014, he was in Dublin again, working on a new album called MeeMantras, a music work fulsomely emblematic of the eccentricities and inerrancy of a nomad’s life.
Duncan Maitland, MeeMantras producer, describes his music as “quirky and unique”.
“He really added his own aesthetics to things, artistically. I would say his music was as if he found his own pot of soil and he grew his own flowers,” Maitland says. “I don’t think anybody else really sounds like him, he was an artist, a journeyman, and a troubadour in its classic sense.”
Life with Dessert
MeeMantras is a nomad’s ode to a land that doesn’t exist, and a tribute to real ones until the day Neverland is discovered.
The song “Andanças” is about a Portuguese dance festival of the same name to which Mee was invited while touring Europe. The dancers of “Andanças” and the mountains of Castelo de Vide, the town hosting the festival, kept him there for a year.
“Never end dance, never end dance, if you ever end, just come and take me home,” Mee sings, in “Andanças”.
His songwriting was different, says Maitland. “There was this Woody Allen sort of a naughty humour to it, which was so uniquely him.”
In MeeMantras, he pays tribute to almost dying in a bike crash in Amsterdam in a song called “Penny Farthing”.
After finishing MeeMantras, the musician enrolled at Dublin’s Tivoli Institute, pursuing a master’s in psychotherapy, hoping to heal others. The institute has said it will award him with a posthumous degree.
Maitland says the singer had a therapist’s understanding aura. They were recording MeeMantras at a dark time for him and his partner. “We just had a boy with special needs, so we were constantly in and out of hospital,” he says.
Some just disappeared from their lives. But not Mee. He “would come along, and he would just normalise everything. I mean, he was so consistent that he was almost a dreamy character.”
He had a love of food and a gusto for sweets. “He always had a little dessert after his meal. I think he took life with a bit of dessert as well.”
Mee’s illness, his sister says, was related to his heart. “He had a congenital heart defect, and he had to have surgery to replace a valve,” she says.
Equipped with a valve since 2012, his heart seemed to rebel against the faux artery. It got infected earlier this year, family think, but are still uncertain of exactly what happened.
Before he was hospitalised in August, Mee hopped on a bus to Edinburgh to see Montgomery.
He came up from a festival, says Montgomery. It was wet and he wasn’t well-equipped and was sick. “But he insisted that it was just a cold. He was shivering all the time,” she says.
She told him to go to a doctor, and took him to the bus, and hugged him. She gave him a bottle of water and a newspaper. “That was the last time I saw him alive,” she says.
Meade says his cousin was convinced he would soon be better. But on 17 September, he woke up in Beacon Hospital, had breakfast, and suddenly died. He was 42.