An Interview With The Nashville-Based PAUL MCDONALD On His Debut Solo Album ‘Modern Hearts’ And More!
Posted On 21 May 2018
Nashville’s critically acclaimed singer-songwriter, Paul McDonald released his debut solo album, Modern Hearts on May 11th. This 14-track body of work represents a full-spectrum of emotions, from soulful and sorrowful tracks, to invigorating new-life anthems, to meditative mid-tempo numbers.
Three years ago, after a highly publicized divorce and the break-up of his former band, Paul left his life in LA in search of familiarity and solace. The Alabama-born artist found himself in East Nashville, feeling like a stranger in a region he once called home. That all changed when he picked up his guitar and began the process of what would become Modern Hearts.
Paul story’s is the triumphant Modern Hearts, an album bursting with anthemic hooks, majestically textured alt-rock, tinges of Southern soul, literate introspection, and profound redemption. Previously, Paul’s broadly resonant musicality garnered him international acclaim and coverage from the likes of Rolling Stone, Billboard, MTV, etc., and enabled him to share the stage with a diverse array of classic and current icons. Select performance highlights include sharing the stage with artists such as Stevie Wonder, John Mayer, Crosby, Stills, & Nash, Zac Brown, Father John Misty, Emmylou Harris, and appearing at festivals such as Bonnaroo, SXSW, and Hangout Festival and performing on nationally televised shows like “Good Morning America” , “NBC’s Parenthood”, and “The Tonight Show.”
Modern Hearts was produced by Jordan Lehning (Caitlin Rose, Rodney Crowell, Andrew Combs), and features an all star cast of studio musicians whose resumes include Cage The Elephant, James Bay, Shawn Mendes, Maren Morris, Nikki Lane, Kacey Musgraves, and Buddy Miller, among others. The album was tracked with ace musicians playing in real time with sympathetic band interplay at the vibey Echo Mountain Studios in Asheville, NC (Band Of Horses, Avett Brothers). Additional recording took place at Sound Emporium Studios (Jason Isbell, Alabama Shakes) in Nashville, TN.
Learn more about Paul McDonald in the following All Access interview:
Thanks for your time! So where does this interview find you?
This morning I’m in between breakfast in my east Nashville condo and heading off to the studio to get in one last writing session before I hit the road.
What’s on tap for the rest of your day?
Right now, it’s looking like a whole lot of packing for about a month of travel. Tomorrow I fly out for a show in the Dominican Republic and then off to LA after that for a whole week of shows/writing/press….
Overall, how do you think 2017 was for you and your career?
2017 was great. It was a solid behind the scenes year. I played a handful of cool shows but I spent most of 2017 writing for the next record, creating content, and building out the team of people around my new music.
What is one big goal you have for 2018?
Goals…. Make more music, write more, and I really want to be on the road a ton. It’s been a few years since I’ve spent the majority of the year on tour. I think I’m ready to hit it hard and meet as many people as possible on this next run. Another big goal is overseas touring. I’d love for some of that to start happening.
Growing up, did you ever think that this would be the kind of life that you would?
No, not at all. I never looked at music or any creative endeavor as a “career”. Music almost fell into place. I started writing songs and playing music around 16 to express myself or for fun and when I got to college I started a band with one of my buddies. That band turned into an immediate money maker. We had no clue that you could make money and financially survive doing something that you love, so I quit school and hit the road with the band. I kind of planned on going back to school at some point when music ended…but here I am over a decade later still making music. I’ve been pretty lucky, but I guess I’m pretty much stuck doing it at this point. haha.
Can you recall your earliest musical memory?
I remember when I was 4 or 5 in a cabin in North Carolina listening and singing the words along to Eric Clapton’s “Layla” and James Taylor’s “Copperline” with my little sister. My parents have always had exceptional musical taste. That’s why I make the music I make. I was inspired by the soundtrack of my childhood.
How do you think that your hometown has influenced the kind of artist that you are today and the kind of music that you make?
I think wherever you live influences your music to some degree, but it’s mainly the people you surround yourself with. I’m constantly influenced by all my friends here in Nashville.
How did living in Nashville affect your new music?
I had to step out and do the LA thing and work with a bunch of other people outside of my box to understand that I wanted to come back to Nashville and make a record. You’ve gotta know what you don’t want before you know what you want. I’m super grateful for my experiences a few years back in LA and getting to work with all kinds of supremely talented people, but I wanted to make an album for myself this time around. Out there everyone seemed to be getting caught up in the idea of the outcome instead of the idea of the actual creative process. Once people start talking about “hits” and “smashes” I feel like the magic starts to leave the room. I just wanted to make an album with my friends this time around. Not try and overthink it.
Let’s talk about your newest single “Modern Hearts” How do you think it prepares listeners for the rest of your debut album, “Modern Hearts”?
“Modern Hearts” kind of decided to be the title track off the album all on it’s own. This was a song that I wrote in 2014 and almost threw it away. I was writing so much at that time that it was really hard to know the difference between a “good song” and a “bad song”. I wrote this one with a buddy out in LA and I remember him calling me a few days later asking if I wanted it for my album. I said maybe, put you can pitch it to other artists if you want to. In my head, I had plenty of songs. A few months later, he called me up along with some major label folks and they told me Rihanna wanted to cut the song…. Long story short, she never cut the tune, but it allowed me to revisit it and get excited about it in another way. I figured if she was digging on it, it must have something that relates to people in a real way. I listened back in a new head-space and fell in love with the song all over again. It’s one of the slower songs on the record, but “ Modern Hearts” is a real snapshot from that time period in my life and can give you a look into my head-space while writing the entire record.
What was it like putting this collection together?
It took me forever. Because this was my first “solo” album, I wanted to make sure I had plenty of songs. With my previous bands, I would write 10-15 songs and cut all of them… and then put out the album. Pretty simple process. This album was almost like the “greatest hits” from a few albums that I wrote over the past 3 years. I knew I was starting over in a sense because it’s just me this time around and I wouldn’t have anyone else in the band to blame if the songs or production sucked. haha.
It’s hard to describe the process in picking the actual songs… they just kind of pick themselves. It’s the way they make me feel and tie themselves together. I talked through the songs with my producer and we decided that these were the batch to cut. There was a few others that we recorded after the fact (Call On Me) that ended up making the album, but it was 99 % songs we cut at Echo Mountain in the same time period. I’m really excited about the sequencing of this album this time around. It’s a good ride.
Did anything surprise you about the overall process?
Of course. I had never made a record like this before. In the past it was always me and the other band members making the decisions. This was a completely different process. Building the right team around the songs can make or break an album. Jordan Lehning (my producer) is brilliant and the musicians he brought on board were unbelievable. World class players and amazing human beings. I know we wanted a big studio out of town to get the guys away from any distractions. The goal was to create a cool hang and a loose vibe so the band would feel comfy enough to dive into a real creative freedom. I wanted it to really feel like we were a “band”. The goal was to create a piece of art where the sum of all the parts were way greater than any individual. I felt like we accomplished that goal. Everybody involved left their creative stamp on these songs and that’s what I wanted.
Were there any unexpected challenges?
Always…. Making a record is like doing construction on your house. It always takes double the time they tell you it’s going to take and it costs double what you wanted to spend…. But you gotta do what you gotta do to make it right and finish the project. I wasn’t going to stop until it was perfect in my own head. There was a lot of challenges to find the right pieces of the puzzle, but we took the time to really dial it in and get it right.
Do you recall what it was like when you heard the whole collection all the way through?
Yeah, I cried. I had worked for 3 years everyday trying to climb that mountain and make this album. For most of that time period, I was in such a dark head-space. I remember listening down with the guys in the studio and crying. It felt like I finally reached the end of the tunnel and turned the last page on that dark chapter.
You have shared the stage with so many incredible artists. Can you pick a couple that you learned the most from?
I have shared the stage with some amazing artists over the years, but it’s got to be the the guys from Hanson. They’re like brothers to me at this point. They took me under their wing & out on the road in 2013 and then brought me back on another US tour in 2015. It was before I even had a solo album out, but they decided to take a chance on me. It was my first long tour out with a really established band. I learned a lot about professionalism, hard work, and behind the scenes of running your own business. Those guys are doing it all indie and they make a great living, have amazing fans, and manage to balance a healthy family life as well. They treat their fans in a way that makes them feel like they’re all involved and are the most genuine and kind humans. It was really inspiring getting to spend so much time with them on those tours. They’ve always been super cool to me.
Do you have any upcoming live shows you would like to tell our readers about?
I’ve got a bunch of cool shows lined up for later this year and a long US tour in the works, but I can’t talk about it quite yet.. so I’ll tell you about a few dates I have coming up:
May 24 – Eddie’s Attic – Atlanta, GA
May 25 – Sidetracks – Huntsville, AL
June 2nd – Analog (Album Release Party) – Nashville, TN
We are living through a very trying and politically charged time right now so I am curious how you think being a musician gives you the most joy in life today?
I try to stay in my own bubble most of the time when it comes to that stuff. There’s so much noise out there. I obviously have my opinions on what’s going on, but I try and use my voice and my music to lift everyone up and bring people together. Positivity, equality, peace and love.
How do you think that music is going to reflect these challenging times?
Of course. Even if you’re trying to stay in your own bubble, It’s pretty hard to ignore what’s going on in the world right now. Artists don’t create society, they reflect it. There is so much exceptional art and music being created right now.
Who are some of your favorite artists or rather, what musicians have continued to inspire you and your music? What musicians would you absolutely still love to work with in the future?
That’s a good question. There’s a handful of artists that I’d love to work with, but as of recently I’m really loving that new Kacey Musgraves album. She’s pretty brilliant.
Inspiration and help and healing through tough times. Music is the best way I’ve found to express myself & I’ve gotta believe that if I’m being sincere with my art it will always find it’s home. I hope that these songs can connect with people that are going through similar life experiences that I went through when I wrote the songs. Love, heartbreak, struggle, and rebirth.
Would you like to share anything else with our readers about yourself or your music?
Thanks always for listening to the music and supporting what I do. I hope to see each and every one of you out on the road real soon.