Jonathan Frahm:You were with a multitude of bands in the past and have traversed a variety of different genres throughout your career in the process. You’ve encompassed songs with The Grand Magnolias, Hightide Blues and Nikki Reed, that some would classify as folk, folk rock, blues, and so forth. Now, you’ve added new elements such as synth into your new work like with “Bright Lights” and, needless to say, it’s pretty different in terms of what sounds you’ve worked with in the past. What inspired this brand new musical evolution for this solo project, in terms of sound and themes that are at play?
Paul McDonald:It just kinda comes with growth overtime. Most of the songs I write have that folk backbone that was a part of the Grand Magnolias band and also the stuff that I did with Nikki. I still write songs like that all the time, but I just wanted to experiment with things. It’s a transitional period in my life; I’ve just hit thirty, I’ve been working on music for a decade, and I’ve wanted to see where these new sounds lead. I started experimenting with some cool synth stuff and messing around over the past year. Out of the batch, these ones felt cool, you know? The stuff I did with Nikki was more vibey and chill, you know, with more of a coffee shop-type vibe. After that, I was ready to rock out again. I wanted to do these shows and break out the guitars and really rock again. I wanted to sound big and incorporate new sounds as a result of that.
JF:Underneath the new instrumental stylings represented in “Bright Lights,” there is a deep and emotive lyric that I believe can only be drawn into a melody by a songwriter with a real life story to tell. How do “Bright Lights” and the rest of the album refer back to your life, and how has writing this album been different as a result of the stories you wanted to tell?
PM:Every album that I’ve written in the past has always had stories about the personal stuff that I’ve been through. It’s easier for me to write that way because it comes out naturally. This past year, I’ve gone through a bunch of different things in life. Again, I hit thirty, I’ve been married and I just got divorced, and going through all of that there’s all sorts of emotional things that come along with them. Moving back to Nashville, restarting music again, and starting from scratch – that was really the idea behind doing this solo album. It’s like, “You know what? I’m kind of reinventing myself again.” That’s where my inspiration was.
JF:This is your first time really releasing a full album worth of music as a solo artist. How has the recording process differed for you as a solo artist as compared to your previous, collaborative projects?
PM:When you’re with a band, especially like Grand Magnolias and Hightide Blues, we were on the road doing like 200 shows a year, so there wasn’t much time to write. We would have fifteen songs at the end of the year and play that out on the road, evolving a sound by playing them. We’d say, “Hey, we wrote this song last night,” and the song would change as a result of playing it live. After that, we’d get together at the end of the year and track ten of those fifteen songs. This? This is a whole different way of writing, because it’s only me. I really like the collaborative process, but I’ve almost written a hundred songs this year because I’ve been doing this on my own, and they range from songs that have more of a pop feel like “Bright Lights” to some really light songs involving just me and a piano or a guitar. It’s been a challenge narrowing that many songs into ten and really capture the timeline of what I really want to say. Out of a hundred songs, there’s really a lot you have to say, and to sit down and pick just ten ones that fit … it’s a whole different process.
JF:Considering the “Bright Lights” music video, too, what was the development process like for its creation?
PM:The music video came about when one of my buddies, Sean Hagwell, who’s a photographer and a videographer who was out on the road with some pop artists like Justin Bieber and people like that, came to town. Since I moved back to Nashville, this has all been an indie project, but when he heard “Bright Lights,” he said, “Hey man, let’s do a video.” My budget wasn’t much, though, so we wanted to keep it simple, and he came up with the idea of it. We shot it in one day at a parking garage for the most part, and the bedroom scene was actually in the studio of my friend Mark, where we actually wrote and recorded the song. His studio is like his bedroom, so it’s kind of interesting that this video was shot in the same room that the song was recorded, but we wanted to be simple with it to get the emotion behind it.
JF:In a world where the Kickstarter doesn’t end up fully funded, have you been considering other avenues as a backup plan to help with releasing the album?
PM:Yeah. There’s always that thought in the back of my mind concerning if it doesn’t work out, but I try not to think about it. If it doesn’t work this way, then it’s gonna work some other way. That’s how I’ve been working with life in general, you know. If it’s not meant to work with Kickstarter, then—knock on wood—that someone will come across this music and help me fund it in a different way. As of now, though, all we can do is push, push, push on this campaign, and hopefully folks react to it. There will be an album made no matter. I’ll find a way to make it. There will be a record.
JF:I mean this as a huge compliment, but you never seemed like the type that would try out for American Idol. I’m personally glad you did because it gave me the opportunity, as a kid, to show off your older music to my family once they got into you on the show, even though I perceive you as this sort of unapologetically real, grounded artist and a troubadour of musical independence in a world full of forced pop mentality. Now that the American Idol era has come and gone, can you look back in retrospect on the experience and reflect – well, in a sense – on the positives and the negatives that you’ve pulled out of the experience. And ultimately, how do you feel about the format of such reality shows as a whole?
PM:You know, that’s an interesting question because you’re absolutely right. I was totally against that show and the idea of that whole scene before I did it. I was all about putting in dues and touring hard, and when I tried out for the show, it was an interesting time. I was with the Grand Magnolias, and we’d just finished an album, and one of my bandmate’s girlfriend was on a show called So You Think You Could Dance which was produced by the same guy back in the day. She said, “Hey, Paul, you should do this American Idol thing and I was like ‘No way, I’m not gonna do that. Come on.’” Somehow, though, she ended up getting me on there and singing to the judges. It was against my gut doing it, and most of the time on the show it felt against who I was. At the same time, I had to step back and realize that I had to take it in for what it was, because out of that time, I not only learned so much about the music business getting to work with some major labels and the biggest producers in the business, but seeing how that big machine works as a whole firsthand. I also learned a lot about why I do music in the first place. That was a complete backwards thing for me, paying dues and doing 200 shows a year to immediately singing a Rod Stewart cover on TV and suddenly having everyone know who you are and you’re performing in front of 20,000 people a night at an arena. I was like, “This isn’t how it’s supposed to be,” but at the same time, I learned so much, you know? I learned how to perform on TV, in front of audiences in an arena, and looking back at it… I was upset about it for a while because I always kind of go, “Man, if I had just put out that Grand Magnolias record and gone with that, what could have happened?” A lot of my friends who were in bands at the time who were at the same level as us at a time were selling out theaters and touring the nation, and you go, “Man, if I had done that, we could’ve totally been doing that, too.” That was the path I chose, though, and I met my ex-wife through the deal and now I have these stories to tell for this record. It was all a learning experience, and now I look at American Idol as a blessing, because how many people get that kind of experience? They put you through the ringer and I learned who I was and the reason for doing music in the first place.
JF:It’s a double-edged blade for a lot of people, but I’m glad you were able to pull some good out of it. A lot of good.
PM:Well, you have to. My music is solid and it’s not like I’ve gotten worse since American Idol. You remember, like “Let It Roll” and the Hightide Blues stuff – I’m still writing like I’ve done in the past. Just because I did American Idol for a season of my life, it doesn’t mean I’m any less of an artist, it just means I can sing a Rod Stewart song or whatever the hell. [laughs] It just gave me a bigger perspective on things in the end, you know, so it is good to have in the end.
JF:What was it about being at that bar in Auburn and performing weekly shows that really drew you to the idea of singing and songwriting on a professional level in the first place? Do you still feel that way at times with your writing and performing now that it’s been a good, what, decade later?
PM:Totally. Live performance is one of my favorite things ever. That’s something that I love so much. The feeling you get when you’re up on stage and create something out of nothing…That’s the beauty of songwriting. You wake up and you have this idea and you pick up an instrument and by the end of the day you could have this amazing song, or a garbage song, but you’re still creating something out of nothing. That’s the beautiful thing about music – you can do that and perform it live. Those college days were really fun. They were really something. When I first went into the music business, it wasn’t because I had always wanted to be a musician. I did it for fun – I was raised in Alabama traditionally, being told to go get a job and get paid for it. I was told by a friend to play at a house party, and she said, “Hey, you want to play at a house party? There’ll be free booze and food and bucks. You gotta play for four hours. I was just like, “What? Free booze and food? Amazing!” So, I got some friends together and we played and got a few hundred bucks out of it. It was so much fun, and there were a bunch of cool folks there, and I was saying to myself, “You know what? That was the best thing I’d ever done in my life. That was the coolest.” At that point, I was like, “I can call it quits. We played a college bar and I don’t have to do it anymore!”…and then, we booked another gig. We got slammed out and got a whole ton of money and thought, “Hey, man, let’s keep doing this! This is like free money just for doing something we love.” Especially when we were in school, we were the coolest, you know? [laughs] Then we’d end up doing Bonnaroo, and it kept moving forward and forward and it never stopped. We got to a point where I said, “Okay, we got these gigs, and we got two courses left in school. What’s more important?” It came down to music and I dropped out of school with two classes left in school. I went with my gut and just moved forward with my music knowing that, if it failed, I could always just go back. It’s been ten years and I’ve been doing it full-time, so, you know, knock on wood.
JF:In terms of your greatest ups and downs in your career so far, how have they contributed to your overarching perception of who you are as an artist and a human being? In terms of the future, what are you hoping to accomplish?
PM:After a decade of doin’ it, you sit back and ask yourself, “What am I doing this for?” When I first started playing songs, it was for fun. Songs like “Let It Roll” were for fun, and we weren’t saying “Hey, this is going to be a hit,” we were playing it because it felt good. Then, going through the American Idol stuff, it was like, “This is an interesting way of music, also,” because it was more about the celebrity aspect of music and formulating hits and how you can be marketable. It actually burned me out. People asked me why I didn’t put a record out after American Idol and the truth is, man, that machine burned me out. It made me question who I was and made me question my artistic choices. I just wasn’t excited to play music anymore after that American Idol tour. I was like, “If this is what it is, I don’t want to do it anymore.” But then, doing this stuff with Nikki was really fun. Writing with someone you’re in love with and sharing your life with … Creating with someone like that is really special and that’s a big reason about why we’re still good buds, trying to do the music thing here and there. So, you sit back, and you ask yourself, “Why am I doing this?” I want to do this for my soul. I want to do this to feel good at night and feel proud about myself. If I don’t have hit records, it’s okay, because it’s not about that. If I can make a living making music that I can feel happy and proud of, then I can go to bed at night feeling good about myself.
JF:That’s how I perceive it, too. So long as you’re doing what you really want to do with your life and are reaping a somewhat stable life out of it, you’re already a success.
PM:And that’s okay, because with any kind of art, people are gonna like it and some people aren’t. I’ve learned to not try to please other people with my music anymore. It’s more about like, with “Bright Lights” and this new record, it’s different than what I’m used to, but it’s refreshing because I didn’t want to do another record like another Nikki record or Grand Magnolias record since I wasn’t in that headspace. I wanted to try something new, and I always want to experiment with songs. It’s the reason for this new approach on music. It’s not to formulate hits. I just want to try something new and make music that I like.
JF:If you have time for one last, silly question – I’d love to wrap things up in a fun, quirky kind of way.
PM:For sure, man.
JF:Okay. Think of any food, right off the top of your head. What first comes to mind?
PM:I’d probably go towards pizza, all the time.
JF:What kind of pizza?
PM:Oh gosh, you know, probably just a solid pepperoni pizza. I’m hangin’ out in East Nashville right in the heart of Five Points, and there’s this place called Five Points Pizza just down the street. I’m really cravin’ a slice right now. [laughs] I’ll probably walk down the street after this interview, man.
JF:Okay, so, if you were a pepperoni pizza, what would set you apart from all of the other pepperoni pizzas in the world?
PM:That’s a good question … That’s a good question. I don’t know the exact answer to that, but I do know that with any kind of art, like when someone asked me if I ever get upset when I’m compared to other artists like Mike from Passenger, or James Blunt, or Rod Stewart – the answer’s absolutely not. I'm flattered that you would compare me to established artists who are successful and who do these huge things. At the same time, though, I’m not those artists and I’m not trying to mimic what they do, or geeking out on their albums and going, “Man, I have to write a song just like this!” I’m trying to be unique to myself and if it happens to come across that I’m a pepperoni pizza, I hope that the pepperoni has its own flavor.
JF:A good flavor, right? [laughs]
PM:Yeah! A good flavor, but not the same flavor as every other pizza.
JF:Really, thanks a ton for this interview, man! Before we wrap things up, do you have any closing statements?
PM:Thanks for giving me a shout and thanks for listening to the music. It really makes me happy that you knew the background with the other bands and stuff because, obviously American Idol was the more mainstream thing that I’ve done, so people usually know me from that or from relationships. So it’s really cool man, that you know the old bands, because what I’d rather be known for is “Let It Roll,” Hightide Blues, and that kind of stuff... The music.
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