Mac Powell Is Doing It His Way With Sophomore Album, ‘Southpaw’
Mac Powell is a big star in Christian music circles, but he's taking the hard road as a country solo artist.
The Alabama native has fronted Christian rockers Third Day for three decades, winning four Grammy awards and amassing a huge international audience. And while Powell is still fully committed to the group, he stepped outside of those confines in 2012 for a country solo album that displayed his penchant for more traditional Southern sounds.
He has recently followed up with 'Southpaw,' his sophomore country solo album. Powell isn't just dipping his toe into commercial country-pop -- he's gone all-in with a rootsy album that displays a stronger dedication to the roots of the genre than the majority of what you'll hear on country radio today, featuring contributions from Travis Tritt, Darius Rucker and Kristian Bush from Sugarland.
Taste of Country caught up with Powell to discuss 'Southpaw,' the differences between country and Christian music and more.
What inspired you to do a solo record? Do you wait until you have enough material gathered together, or is it dictated by the time you have available and then you have to get things together in that time frame?
That's a great question, actually. I think it's a little bit of both. It probably leans more toward -- because I'm so busy with Third Day -- it really leans toward okay, this is the amount of time that we have off. This is the season.
I do have ideas -- and I do this with the majority of my writing -- if I get an idea, I usually don't finish it right away. I'm kind of a study-the-night-before-for-the-test person. I've got probably 200 small ideas on my phone, and when it comes time for that season, then I kinda go, 'Okay, in a couple of weeks I'm gonna need some songs.' That's when I sit down and kinda go through everything, start listening and see what stands out, and start developing those songs then. But with making the country records and doing the tours that I've done, it usually is, 'Okay, here's the time that I have off -- let's go for it and hope for the best during that season.'
How is the new album different from your first country release -- did you go in with a different mindset, a different set of goals?
Yeah, absolutely. Sophomore releases are so hard, because you know, when you first record, these are songs that you've lived with for a long time and developed over a number of years -- usually that's how it is, anyway -- and I'd say half of the first record was like that for me, and the other half was things that I came up to Nashville and wrote with a couple of people.
With this record I was much more focused on trying to make ... the live show is such a huge part of it for me, that when I went and toured for the first album, there were a lot of mid-tempo and slower songs, and I thought, 'Man, I really want the next record to have much more energy, to be something that live, I can keep people's attention.' So that's what we focused on for this new record, making things musically a bit different from the first one. Little things here and there, whether it be a drum loop or a part that just keeps people's attention throughout the song. And a little more energy, a little more uptempo.
Being in a band is great in the sense that there are others voices that speak into what you're doing, and being in a band is bad because there's other voices that speak into what you're doing.
It's a very organic-sounding record. Was it a really live organic tracking process?
I had my core guys that I work with live, and I really felt like I wanted for them to be a big part of this record. So we basically went into the Third Day studio and just worked for three or four days, developing some song ideas as a band, and then we took those ideas to Jason Hoard -- he's my producer and kind of my right hand man on the live stuff, one of my closest friends in the world. We give him those demo ideas from the studio, and he sees what he can keep, and what he needs to add to it.
He basically finishes the rest of it out, and gets a couple of other side guys, whether it be a banjo guy or whatever, to come in and finish it out. And then he'll send me the tracks, and we'll talk about them, and I'll say, 'Hey, change this, or fix that.' Then I sing all of the vocals at my house. So it's combining two or three different styles of recording, where we've got at the beginning, everyone's there together as a band, and then he and I as individuals work on the songs separately, and yet together -- if that makes any sense.
I'm glad he has that trust in me as a producer, but I have to have that trust myself as a singer and kind of do it the way I want to.
How is your work process different as a solo artist, as opposed to a member of a group?
I think for me, there's good and bad in this. Being in a band is great in the sense that there are others voices that speak into what you're doing, and being in a band is bad because there's other voices that speak into what you're doing [Laughs.] It's both. Third Day definitely makes a lot of my songs better, and I think sometimes it takes some of the songs away from what I originally saw, good or bad.
With this, not only in being a solo artist but also not being on a label and being an independent artist, there's so much freedom in it, and if there are things that aren't good or things that are mistakes, that's on me. That's my fault, but at least it's the vision that I foresaw completely. It's a lot of fun, but it's a little scary, too [laughs], to be honest.
Is the writing process different in terms of the kind of subject matter you can consider?
Oh yeah, absolutely. Doing Christian music, it's such a serious subject, and so there's so many songs that are serious. And it's hopeful, and it's encouraging, but what's so much fun about country music is being free to write these stories, to be just kind of able to make up stories.
There's a song on the record I wrote with Travis Tritt and Jason, my producer, called '90 to Nothing,' and it's just basically a girl broke my heart, and she's coming back to town so I'm leaving kind of story. Well, that's not really something that's true in my life, but I get to kind of play this character, It's like writing for a movie or TV show. I get to play this character and totally make up this story, and that's fun. And it's not that it's not done in Christian music, but it's not done as much. In country music, that's kind of what it is.
When you write these kinds of songs, do you still have to keep it in your mind that you can't go too far outside of what fans expect, because you still don't want to alienate the existing fan base?
Oh yeah. I wrote a song with Darius that I absolutely love, and there was another song that was my favorite song of the whole batch of songs that we came up with for the country record, and after listening and getting away from it and then looking back on it, I went, 'You know, there's really some things in there that aren't necessarily me, but I was just writing as a writer coming up with something, and it's something that I don't want people to think has really happened in my life, or something that I would really do.' So you have to kind of separate yourself.
In Christian music, you can't separate yourself from what you're saying. What you're saying has to be truth, and has to be real for you, and that's not necessarily true in country music. So I definitely have found some things where I think, 'Man, this is such a great idea -- I just can't sing it.' [Laughs.] I think that's a responsibility that I don't mind carrying. It's frustrating sometimes, but I get it.
In Christian music, you can't separate yourself from what you're saying. What you're saying has to be truth, and has to be real for you, and that's not necessarily true in country music.
You can't expect to go out and sing some hardcore drinking song and then come back to your fanbase with a new batch of Christian-based material.
Right, totally, and not only as a Christian artist, but as a father of five now ... there was another song that I wrote that I thought, 'Man, I love this song, but I don't want my 5-year-old singing these words in the backseat when they're listening to my record.' You know? So there's a little bit of that, as well.
Tell us about writing with Travis -- did you sit and write, or collaborate via email?
We met years ago, and for many, many years people have told me that we have similar voices and I sound a little bit like him, when I know that actually he's a much better singer than I am [Laughs.] He's amazing.
So we met for dinner. We live about 20 minutes apart -- I tell people there's something in the water, that's why we sound alike -- but we hit it off, and it was great for me to ask some questions, bounce some ideas off of him and hear some stories from him about his past and his history in country music. So we kept saying, 'Hey, we've got to write some time,' and finally when it was time for me to go into the studio, I just texted him -- I think it was only a day or two before -- and I said, 'Hey, I know you're super busy, but I'm gonna be in the studio if you want to drop by and say hey, or play or sing on the record, or write some music. We're gonna be here.'
So he actually came over two days in a row, and we sat down and developed a couple of ideas that I had, and they ended up making the record. And he actually ended up playing on the record, so it was a blast. Just to even hear him singing in the studio was amazing.
What about Darius Rucker? How did that come together, and what's he like to write with?
We met through that connector that's called Twitter. [Laughs.] I'm a fan of his, so as a fan, I can speak directly to him, and I think slowly through some other mutual fans that like my music, they said, 'You guys should get connected,' and I said, 'Well, I'm game.' And he said, 'I'm ready.' So we just started direct messaging each other on Twitter, and came up with a time, and I drove over to Charleston to his place.
It was very -- and I mean this in a good way -- it was very business-like. I got there, and he said, 'Hey, how ya doing, do you need some water? Alright, whatcha got? Let's get to work!" It wasn't until we were done that we got to share some stories and talk and get to know one another a little bit, but during that couple of hours, I showed him an idea and he was like, 'Great, let's get to work on that.'
We finished the song in an hour, and then he said, 'Well, what else you got?' And I showed him another idea, and he was like, 'Man, that's great too, let's work on that.' So in a good way, it was very business-like, because we knew we had to get to work. We didn't have time to shoot the bull. The reason we were there was to write together, and the other stuff would come later on. And it did.
Another name that jumps out of the credits is Kristian Bush.
I'm in Atlanta, and he's in Atlanta, too, so we run into each other every once in a while at a NARAS function or something. We just kept saying, 'Hey, let's hook up, let's write together,' as people do, so finally I was like, 'I'm going to work on my new record, and I'd love to get some help from you. You've written some big hits in country music, so I could use your advice and expertise in the field.'
I went over to his studio one day, and I had a song from the first record that I loved, and I just couldn't let go of it. I couldn't forget about the song. It wasn't quite finished enough to make the first record, but there was something about it -- I was like, 'Man, I'm not gonna put it out until it's right.' So I worked on it with a couple of other people, and nothing ever really happened, and when I showed it to him -- I showed him two or three ideas, and when we got to that one, he said, 'That's it, let's work on that.' So we worked on it a couple of hours, and it turned out to be one of my favorites on the record.
My band and I are literally in a van and trailer, driving five hours through the night, staying at a motel ... We have a great love for the music and getting it out to people.
What's your marketing plan for the record? With you being completely indie, is there any realistic shot at a run at radio, or are you relying purely on alternative marketing?
Great question. I think we're slowly trying to put that all together, everything happened so quickly. I don't know if there's any reality to push it at big country radio, but we've been slowly getting the music out to some secondary markets and smaller stations, and we've got some great feedback from them.
You know, for me it's great, because it's like starting over in a good way. I have this energy for it the way that I did with Third Day when we first started out, both from a promotional standpoint and from a touring standpoint. My band and I are literally in a van and trailer, driving five hours through the night, staying at a motel, getting up and driving a few more hours to do the show and playing sometimes for 50-100 people, and just building it up from the ground up, the way that I think it should be. We have a great love for the music and getting it out to people.
How big a window do you have to get everything done for this project before you have to move on to something else?
I have to move on pretty quickly. Third Day has a new record coming out in March. But even though that kinda slows things down for me, I kinda learned the lesson from the first record -- I had a season where I toured a little bit, and then that was the end of everything. I'm trying to do my best to work it out so I can do this whole thing scattered throughout the year, as opposed to waiting a year and a half to do a big chunk of things. So that's what I'm committed to, and that's what I hope happens. I'm really excited about the possibilities.
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