It has been a little over two years since we last spoke with Joshua Powell. We were fortunate enough to catch up with the Indiana-based singer/songwriter and band leader and chatted with him about his upcoming release, Alyosha, along with the rigors of being on the road constantly and much more!
So here is how our little chat went.
Lemonade Magazine: Thanks again for joining us and taking the time to chat with us. So it has been a couple years since the last album, Man Is Born For Trouble. Tell us a little bit about your upcoming album, Alyosha, and what inspired it?
Joshua Powell: I left for central Indiana in 2013 for a straight year and a half of touring, and The Brothers Karamazov was one of the first books I read on that trip. The character Alyosha struck me so deeply–this totally selfless, pure, childlike mystic–and resonated a lot with my sense of cognitive dissonance about my personal history with faith and doubt. Dostoevsky doesn’t get any other explicit homage on the record, but that’s the spiritual theme of the record. Sort of trying to reclaim old innocence–being disappointed in yourself for not being who you think you should have been.
LM: The massive tonal change from your rustic folk sounds on your previous releases to the new psychedelic folk-rock is quite the feat. What gave you the freedom and idea to go this route?
JP: We did not set out and say, “Alright, let’s make this psychedelic and whirly.” Really, it was just Jonathan [Class](the producer), Jacob [Powell] (my brother/the drummer), and me playing in the studio. Folk exploded onto the radio a few years back and so I’d say, “I front a folk band,” and people would say, “Oh, like, The Lumineers?” It was so frustrating. So here, we thought, why is “folk” not allowed to have fat synthesizers? We just subconsciously decided to rewrite our genre tag with broader parameters.
We were recording “The Farmer and the Viper,” which had a train beat in the chorus, and Jacob said, “What if I just played this super stiff half time groove?” It had so much space in it and it was totally ridiculous at first. But then I played the sort of traditional folk acoustic guitar over it and the synthesis blew our minds. I remember Jacob saying, “I feel like you’re just being weird to be weird,” and I said, “That’s exactly what I’m doing.” That song is also where we told an incredibly talented jazz saxophonist to stop playing well and just make his horn sound like it was having a seizure. That’s how the song ends. A little nod to the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.”
LM: That is so cool. I love when things just happen. That is the pinnacle of creativity. You seem to always find a story for your lyrics. It makes each track real and personal. How do you choose the subject and inspiration?
JP: I listen to a lot of NPR–a lot of stories come from that, directly or indirectly. I also try to read a book a week, and when you have an intake like that, you’re putting a lot in the craw–it’s not so hard to dig up writing subject matter. I’m 24, so there’s only so much life experience about which I can write. You have to mine other people’s stories and retell them.
I also keep a note on my phone where I write down every word or phrase I hear that catches my attention. Then when I have an idea for a theme, I scroll back through that looking for puzzle pieces that fit. I’m a big subscriber to Elizabeth Gilbert’s writing theories too though, which are a little more mystical. She talks about the idea that “genius” isn’t something you are, but something you can stumble upon, borrow. Like the muses are out there and sometimes one floats over your head and if you’re paying attention, you can grab it and channel it. A lot of my best work comes out in impulsive purge-like sessions. “Farmer,” “Birth Control,” and “Decalogue” all got completely written in under an hour and never really changed. It’s harder to take credit for those.
LM: It is always interesting to see how inspiration manifests itself. How was the process of making Alyosha different than the previous albums and EPs?
JP: It was my first time in an actual studio. All our other records were made in 1. the bassist’s parents’ basement, 2. a crappy college house, 3. my old bedroom at my parents’ house, and 4. a different crappy college house. The same guy who has made all our records bought a studio in downtown Anderson and it’s beautiful. It was awesome to have a place dedicated to creative work without roommates tromping in and out, or navigating spiders and puddles in cellars outfitted as tracking rooms.
It was also my first time recording all the electric guitars. I’ve always been insecure about my ability to craft tones or write parts, because I consider myself primarily a songwriter, but playing with pedals and different guitars and all that was a blast.
Last, I guess, it’s the first time I put everything on a record conscious of the fact that my parents weren’t necessarily going to love it. There are some themes and a choice word or two that might make your typical church folks squirm a little bit. I didn’t do that to be abrasive or rebellious; it was just an exercise in liberation. It was uncomfortable, but ultimately freeing to shake off that yoke. I thought, “You know, David Bazan and Sufjan Stevens could never have written “Foregone Conclusions” or “I Want to Be Well” if they were worried about what their moms would say.” And I adore my mom. But I wanted to write my own “Conclusions.”
LM: You have been relentlessly touring and doing shows recently (over 400 shows in more than 40 different states!) How does that rigorous type of schedule affect the band and your relationships?
JP: It’s hard, man. Everyone else has other bands and projects and jobs, and this is my main thing. We don’t make enough money yet, by a long shot, for it to be everyone’s sole output. So the band is an unfortunate kind of revolving door. I’m working on building a new lineup right now, because a lot of great friends have come and given me a lot of support, but most people don’t love the road like I do. There’s a lot of sleeping on floors, eating Taco Bell and driving 10 hour shifts with a broken passenger seat window. My brother, Jacob, isn’t currently playing with me, but he did spend almost three years as my right-hand man. And Adam Shuntich has been with me since May on guitar, and that dude is a road dog.
Outside the band, it’s a mixed bag. I get to see my friends who have emigrated across the country post-school whenever I’m out their way. I don’t see enough of my Indiana friends, because I’m working so hard on booking and PR when I’m home. I’ve been single for about a year and a half, because it’s crazy to try to carry a band and be a consistent, supportive partner at the same time. Running a band is basically being the sole proprietor of a small business and the work never ends. Even on a purposeful off-day, you’re always thinking, “I could be booking out four months right now,” or, “I’m sure I can find other blogs to pitch.” I fantasize about a summer vacation where I could wait tables or something and just bankroll money and not think about the future of the band. But I can’t sacrifice the momentum.
LM: Being an independent artist and self-employed is not an easy life, but it can be rewarding! You also recently recorded at Daytrotter, what was that experience like?
JP: The Daytrotter folks are amazing. What they do is such a labor of love. We got to do our second session with them in a different studio space than we’d visited before, and it was so analog, there was no computer or DAW to be seen. You just feel like you’re doing something historic when you’re in there. Thinking, man, I wonder if Justin Vernon used this mic when he was here? And all at the same time, loving how humble and unassuming it is. So many amazing artists have gone to this funky little building in an out-of-the-way Illinois town.
Oh, and then the car broke down in Davenport and we slept in the back parking lot of an abandoned bowling alley. That’s where I woke up on my birthday.
LM: That is one heck of a birthday present! What other types of venues and shows do you most enjoying playing?
JP: We’ve been super blessed this year with some amazing festival gigs: namely Lincoln Calling in Nebraska and Starry Night in West Lafayette, IN. Your ability to build equity is just exponentially multiplied in that kind of setting. We dig playing in the middle west and Great Plains a lot. So many big touring bands skip over Indiana or Kansas or non-Chicago Illinois, so when people in those areas see a halfway decent band, they become loyal really quickly.
LM: What are your plans for touring and promoting Alyosha?
JP: We just signed with Castle Peak Music out of LA, which will hopefully help us get some Alyosha tracks licensed for TV and film. I just did a one-off in Indy where I performed the record from top to bottom with commentary on each song. We’re getting vinyl for the first time ever and doing a special show to release that here at home. We have Midwestern tour dates every weekend for the rest of the year, and bigger tour in the works for January. And it’s our first time actively pursuing press for a record. So hopefully the digital world will work in our favor this year.
LM: What is the most interesting question you have been asked during an interview?
JP: Any time and interviewer has listened to my music extensively enough to ask my a question about a specific lyrics, it shakes me up a bit. I don’t usually have to explain my thought process on such a minute level. Sometimes that makes me realize something about my own work. Sometimes it makes me feel dumb for not knowing or remembering where the line originated. But it’s always interesting.
LM: Thank you so much for taking the time, Joshua! It was an absolutely pleasure!