Inside the Songcraft of Michael McArthur’s Intimate Acoustic EPs

So far this year, coronavirus has deprived us of many luxuries we are accustomed to having easy access to. For music fans, there is little debate over which specific activity is missed the most: concerts. Whether it’s seeing a legacy act in a packed-out amphitheatre or watching a local bar band tear it up at your neighborhood beer joint, the absence of those in-person moments has made the ups and downs of a rough year all the more hard to swallow.

In spite of the challenges facing performers during the pandemic, Florida folk singer Michael McArthur hasn’t allowed the current circumstances to stop him from trying to tap into the magic of live music. As livestreams have become the widely accepted way for many singer-songwriters to connect with their audiences online, McArthur has gone a step further in bringing his fans a taste of what they might get from the Lakeland native if they were to see him on tour.

This summer, McArthur is releasing two self-recorded EPs comprised of acoustic interpretations of songs from his excellent 2019 album Ever Green, Ever Rain. The first of the pair, Oh, Sedona, arrived in early July, while the second, How to Fall in Love, is due out this Friday. On the surface, it’s not hard to see why some artists are releasing batches of old demos and new mini-albums during this strange downtime. With promotions like Bandcamp Fridays and the inability to catch a live show, it makes sense for musicians to try and keep creating and connecting with their fans through unconventional releases.

For McArthur, the two EPs are more than simply something to hold folks over until his next big move. When asked what inspired the idea of releasing a stripped-back collection of songs featuring only his voice, guitar and an occasional harp, his reasoning was clear. “If I put out a new record, I have to be convinced not to also do an acoustic version just because I enjoy it so much,” he says. “There’s something about the uncovering of a song that affects you in a different way.”

He is indeed true to his word. As an artist and performer, the live acoustic realm is a setting in which McArthur thrives. Where Ever Green, Ever Rain supplied a rich and ethereal folky sound, the renditions on Oh, Sedona and How to Fall in Love offer a more intimate and vulnerable experience. The minimal nature of the recordings spotlights McArthur’s subtle and rhythmic playing style, along with a tender and warm vocal that in its bare presentation is nothing short of spine-tingling.

The highlights on Oh, Sedona include a crystalline cover of Prince’s “Purple Rain” and an uplifting tribute to a departed grandmother on the title track. The material on How to Fall in Love is similarly vivid and affecting. The gentle atmosphere of “Warmer Months” and “A Conversation Before Bed” provide a fragile contrast to the original versions, while the autobiographical lullabies “How to Fall in Love” and “Rest’s Unknown” amplify the sentimental quality of McArthur’s songwriting. In their raw form, the songs on each EP hold up as unique and evocative performances that showcase McArthur openly and in the flesh.

Editor Roberto Johnson caught up with Michael to talk about his new EPs, his entrepreneurial background, solitude as a component of creativity and more. Check out their full conversation below.

What have the past few months looked like for you, considering the virus and the release of these two EPs?

Michael: Basically, I’ve been home since March. At first it was a slow adjustment. I think it probably was for a lot of people. I wasn’t very creative in the beginning ’cause we were just figuring things out and seeing what exactly all of this meant and how we were supposed to go forward to survive. Then I started thinking about well, what can I do? How can I still be creative during this time? I was like, okay, I’ll make these EPs to stay engaged with people. Then I started writing again, which was nice. There probably won’t be touring for at least a year, so I’m just going to try to put out as much music as I can because what else am I going to do?

How did the initial idea to release a set of EPs in a stripped-back style first come about?

Michael: I’ve always been a big fan of acoustic recordings, especially ones that are done live, so it’s something that’s always in the back of my mind. If I put out a new record, I have to be convinced not to also do an acoustic version just because I enjoy it so much. For the most part, when I tour, I play solo and travel alone, write the songs alone and they all typically start on guitar. It just made sense to record these songs in the same way that I was performing them last year. There’s something about the uncovering of a song that affects you in a different way.

Many of the songs included on the EPs were originally written for and shared on an album you released last year. What was your writing process like going into that record?

Michael: Most of the songs were written at home. I basically treat it like a job. My daily schedule gets pretty normal. I wake up everyday around 6:30, have breakfast and start working. I finish up anywhere between 4 and 5. During that time specifically, I was writing every single day. That was my goal. I was playing shows every now and then, but I was really focused on writing. I wrote 40 or 50 songs and put them all in a binder and took that with me to Los Angeles to start recording.

That album was a long time in the making. You also released it on your own record label. What made you want to tackle that on your own terms?

Michael: I have experience owning and managing a business. When I was 19, my brother and I opened up a coffee house here in our downtown. I left a few years after we opened to pursue music. So business is something I’ve always been interested in and I’ve always kind of done things my own way. I’m not afraid to take a risk. Being an artist, I think now, more than ever, is the time to carve out your own niche and little corner of the industry as opposed to waiting around for some label to swoop in and pick you up. In my early years, I thought that was the way it worked, that you got discovered. As time goes on you realize that’s not how it happens. The only way that it works is to do it yourself. I spent several months on a business plan. It had been something I was thinking about for a long time. A lot of people have their own record labels. We don’t have an office or anything like that, but in time there will be.

Looking back on your restaurant experience, was it difficult to leave it behind when you did or did you feel strongly about pursuing your music career at that point in time?

Michael: It was really tough. I still remember walking around the downtown area with my brother when I broke the news to him. My brother and I have always been best friends. We grew up really close and that was tough, but the business is still open and it’s become sort of a staple in our community. My brother’s done a great job with it. I’ve always loved music. I’ve been singing since I was a kid and have been writing songs since I was in high school. It wasn’t something I knew I was gonna pursue, mostly because I come from a place of terrible stage fright. The thought of having to perform for people was devastating to me, so I was perfectly fine just writing songs for me and playing my guitar. So I started the restaurant with my brother – it was sort of my way out of having to do music for a living. Then, you give it enough time and you mature and you start to realize that if you love something enough, you might as well give it a shot while you can.

How has your approach to songcraft and performing evolved as you’ve developed as a songwriter?

Michael: It has evolved a great deal. The longer I’ve done this, the more important lyrical content has become for me. When I first started writing, you’re trying to write a song that sounds cool. Something that you like to listen to and you think other people will like to listen to. You think about hooks and tempos, stuff like that. I don’t think about that so much anymore. I can’t connect to a song that I’ve written unless I believe 100% in the lyrics. I will work on a line until it makes me feel something. When it does, I know that it’s real, that it’s coming from a real place. That’s what gets me excited.

Between recording with a full band and recording on your own, is there one method you prefer over the other? Does that sentiment change if you’re performing live for an audience as opposed to playing with other people in the studio?

Michael: I always prefer making music with other people. Writing alone is enjoyable to me, but when it comes to making or performing music, there’s nothing like doing it with other people. There’s just such a powerful synergy that happens when you get all these talented people in a room and you’re all working towards the same goal. That’s what it’s all about. It’s like getting together with your family for a holiday. It’s just such a human thing.

What role does solitude play in your songcraft? Do you view it a necessary component of your process or just a byproduct of your occupation?

Michael: It’s important for me just because I’m not trying to be clever. If I was to write with somebody else, my brain would focus on how to come up with something clever. When I’m by myself, I’m thinking of how I can come up with something honest. That’s the big difference. I just prefer songs that feel like a person moved in and there’s no one else that could have written it because it’s rooted so deeply in their personal experience. It’s funny, ’cause sometimes I’ll be in the room writing and I’ll spend two days literally just sitting there not writing anything. It’s just a matter of thinking, what is this song about? What’s important to say and how do I get the message across?

Oh, Sedona features a lovely rendition of “Purple Rain.” What inspired you to take on such an iconic song?

Michael: I’m a fan of Prince. He’s one of my heroes. I don’t do a lot of covers – I actually don’t know a lot of covers. Anytime I do one, it’s a song that I love, first and foremost. Then it has to be a song I could do completely different from the original. I’m not Prince. I can’t sing like him, I can’t play like him, so what can I do with this? This sounds like me. Hopefully that resonates with people. Some of my favorite covers are like that. Have you heard James Blake’s version of “A Case of You”? You listen to his version and it’s just like, holy crap. It’s so different and it’s amazing because of that.

The material on these projects is subtle and straightforward, yet extremely evocative. What does simplicity mean to you as a songwriter and performer?

Michael: From a storytelling standpoint, songs already have to be very simple, because you’ve got only got so much space. So you have to do a lot with less in terms of getting the point across. With the acoustic recordings, I know not everybody’s going to be into it. Depending on what mood you’re in, you still need spectacle. You need the bells and whistles that come with modern recording. For me, it’s like listening to your grandfather tell a story from back when he was a kid. There’s just so much raw honesty in that. It endears you and you connect to it because as human beings, we’re all flawed and we all make mistakes. That was sort of the point of making these EPs. Not all the notes were perfect. I guff a couple of chords on the guitar and that’s just the way it goes. That’s why people love live music so much. You get something you can’t get on a recorded track. I was trying to incorporate some of that same mentality.

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Photo credit: Michael Flores. Follow Michael McArthur on Instagram to keep up with his latest music and news. Listen to ‘How to Fall in Love,’ ahead of its Friday release, below.

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