Steve Moakler’s Learning to ‘Make a Little Room’ for What’s Important With Personal New Album
Steve Moakler drew more deeply than ever before on his personal life to create the songs for his new album, Make a Little Room, and the result is the best-crafted, most fully realized project of his solo career to date.
The singer-songwriter first carved out success as a songwriter in Nashville before gaining traction as an artist. He co-wrote Dierks Bentley's 2015 single "Riser," and Reba McEntire, Joe Nichols, Ashley Monroe and Kellie Pickler are among the other artists who've cut his songs.
Moakler's seventh solo album, Make a Little Room, is set for release on Friday (Aug. 12). Finding time for the most important things in life is a narrative thread that runs throughout the project, and that was very much the dominant theme of a recent interview when Taste of Country caught up Moakler, who spent much of his pandemic downtime writing his way through his own anxiety and finding gratitude for the life he has with his wife and kids.
Make a Little Room is currently available for pre-add and pre-save across a wide variety of digital music providers.
Taste of Country: How did Make a Little Room come about? It was inspired during the pandemic, or by the pandemic?
Steve Moakler: I would say that it really started to kind of take shape in the middle of the pandemic. I'm always writing, and I don't really know, usually, there's kind of a few key songs that let me know, 'Hey, I think it's time to make a record, there's a theme coming together.'
So the title track, "Make a Little Room," was actually written, I think four years ago, so even before my last record, but it didn't really fit and represent that batch of songs. But then, in the middle of the pandemic, I feel like my life and perspective kind of caught up to that song, and a couple of other songs seemed to kind of fit under that umbrella and show me that was kind of what was stirring in my heart. So, I started writing more on purpose. And in that, I wrote and recorded the songs during the pandemic.
At least you got some use out of that time. A lot of artists were sort of at loose ends during a lot of that time.
Yeah, it was a really productive time for writing and just reflecting. I think it was a chance ... I can't speak for everybody, but I think a lot of people had an experience like me, where it's just, it's kind of a chance to take inventory and go, when everything kind of slowed down, 'What do I want to pick back up? How do I want to do things different? And what do I want my life to look like, what have I been missing?' This is about reclaiming the things that are important to you.
The title song is the opening track. "Numbered" is a really cool song to end on. Looking ahead to live shows, is that a song that you would close the live show with?
We're just literally starting to put together the show, and I know the songs I'm gonna play, but I don't have the setlist together, but there's a good chance that we will do that.
There's a song on the album titled "Pack It Up," what's the story behind that?
So that's a neat story. Again, a very pandemic story. I write songs for a company called Creative Nation that I love, and Luke Laird, who's one of the owners of the company, sent a text out to the writers on the roster. This was before really Zoom, we all started Zoom writing kind of very early on, but he just kind of challenged everybody to write a song by themselves, and to turn it in on the group thread. And I'm so blown away by the people that are on that roster; you know, Lori McKenna and Barry Dean, just to name a couple. I have so much respect. So it was a really cool challenge. And my family and I, one of the things that really kind of marked this season for me was, we moved from the city to outside of the city limits, and we were getting ready to have our second kid. And we moved two days before the lockdown.
So we're a couple of weeks into the pandemic, I'm sitting in this house with all these boxes to unpack and I wasn't ready to really write about the state of the world. I just thought I'd start with the state of my life and our house, right. I wrote a song about ... it's really about movement. It's just about making that move and moving forward. And it was all inspired by a text thread with my publishing company. It's one of the couple songs that I wrote by myself, and it's always really special for me to have a couple of those on there. Because when I started to write songs, it was always by myself. And now those tend to be the more personal songs for me. They're more like diary entries.
"Start a Band" is another standout track on the album.
Thank you! You've picked some really cool ones to highlight. I think, for me, the title came from the thought of, now that I have kids, being in music, people say, "Oh, do you hope they'll get into music like you?" And I noticed, my first my knee jerk reaction is, "No!" [Laughs]. Because it's such a ... you know, it's an amazing adventure. I love it. I don't know what else I would ever do. But I also know, it's just a hard path. It's filled with heartbreak, so I wouldn't wish that on my kids. But then I thought about it a little longer. And I said, "Man, but at the same time, wow, what a fun ride it's been," you know, and it's really shaped who I am. And I'm proud of that and proud of the things I've been through, and I have so many amazing memories, so the idea to "Start a Band" was just kind of going, "Hey, I'd recommend it at the end of the day, as hard as it is. I'd say it's a worthwhile road to go down."
And then I took the title to Neil Mason, who is obviously in an awesome rock band, the Cadillac Three, so I think it was really cool to write that with him, a band guy. And another neat thing about it is, I actually wrote it the day before my best friend got married, and he was the drummer in my high school band. And I was also working on the best man speech. So there are a lot of layers to that song for me.
"Better Days" could be a really important song for some people, particularly in this moment. Tell me how that one came to be.
As I said, "Pack It Up" was the very, very personal kind of microscopic look at my life in the pandemic. "Better Days" was a little further into it, when I was able to kind of look at it a little more broadly. It was really just the peak of challenging times, you know; it was in the middle of the racial injustice and feeling the divide in our country and feeling, at the same time, the weight of this pandemic. There wasn't even a light at the end of the tunnel yet. And I was just, it was all so heavy for me. I was internalizing a lot of that pain and questioning, just feeling down.
I think Neil Medley was the one that had that title, and we wrote it with Marcus Hummon. And it was just one of those things where I think we were all just, it was kind of our way of processing the weight of the world in that moment, and also trying to keep our heads up and really, really believe that we're gonna get through it and we have better days around the corner. Really simple song, a really simple title. But that was kind of all we had to cling to in that moment. It was very, very therapeutic to write.
It's a good reminder for people because, honestly, the world isn't really that bad right now, and it's always gone through its changes. But what is different is that the focus is on every negative thing. That tends to pull the spotlight, and people are doom-scrolling through their phones.
That's right, yeah. And I was in that, man. I was getting a little doomsday, a little buried in all that. And I was like, "No, we can't ... this isn't the way forward." [Laughs].
"You Being You," what inspired that song?
That's another one of the songs I wrote by myself. I wrote that one a couple of weeks after my first son, Jack, was born. And yeah, that was one of those middle of the night ... you're up in the middle of the night anyway with a newborn [laughs]. I've got this rolling through my head, picked up my guitar and kind of whispered into my phone in the stairwell between his room and ours, and it was just my feelings toward my kids, and I waited until this record. Now we have a second son, and I feel the exact same way. It's just a father's love and stuff that I just want them to know forever. However long I'm around, I hope they can always have that song. This is how my dad feels about me, this is what he believes. And I hope it's something that just gives them strength, encouragement and comfort.
"Numbered" rounds out the album. That's a really, really reflective song. What inspired it?
It was a particularly long day. I was putting my kid to bed, and I just found myself rushing, just trying to check the box and get him in bed. I think every parent can relate to that. I'm guilty of that often, but I was just kind of struck by this realization that man, wow, this feels like this is just my life now, but this is actually good. This is fleeting, so fast. I'm only gonna get to do this so many times. And I think I wrote down the title, "Numbered." These days are numbered, and I've got to really just show up for these and not rush through them. And so I wrote that title down, and it was one of the first Zoom writes that I did. It was with Andy Skib and Jacob Davis.
Andy ended up producing this whole album. So, this song, in a lot of ways, it's a really special song. We're all about the same age, you know, young dads. So, we all connected on that thought, and then it ended up leading to a really special partnership with Andy, and we made this whole album together.
How did you go about making the album? Is this live band tracks? Or is this tracking a bit at a time?
We kind of did it a bit at a time. What Andy and I said was, the album's called Make a Little Room. And it's really about space and margin. So our goal was to kind of get away with as little as we could, not just filling it all up with stuff and sound, but building it piece by piece and everything we put in there, we wanted it to be necessary.
It was a little bit of a departure from the way I made my last few albums, which was live band in the room, everybody plays at once, which I think is really cool. But we did want to kind of strip it back and approach it differently this time and kind of be more intentional.
What are your hopes for this record, both commercially and personally?
I have a really hard time with commercial hopes. Obviously, I hope our audience loves it, I hope it's incredibly resonant with the people that come to listen to my records to get fed and to feel connected. And so far, it seems to be doing that, which I love. Obviously, I hope it grows our audience too, and a lot of people can discover me through this record. But really, my hopes in making it are just that it gives people permission to just carve out more margin in their lives and to identify what they want their life and time to be filled with and to go get it. Just to feel less alone in their thoughts and in that tension of the world clamoring for your attention and calling you toward the rat race and your own desire just to find some find some solace, and hold on to the people you love.