Joshua Powell is a singer/songwriter from south Florida.
After touring across the US with his folk band Joshua Powell & the Great Train Robbery, the Indianapolis-based artist is now releasing a new record entitled “PSYCHO/TROPIC”. Including the songs the songs “Econoline” and “Arrowheads or Worse”, the record was produced by Jonathan Class with the help of longtime collaborators, guitarist Adam Shuntich and drummer Jacob Powell.
“Psychotropic” means “affecting mental perception.” So we have a psychedelic-influenced sound on the record and you get that connotation. But I’m also a writer less of feelings and more of ideas: some of our music is hippie propaganda at its flowery heart. And the layers are built into this record for you to have conversations with it,” explains Powell.
“PSYCHO/TROPIC” is now available.
Introduce yourself - What's your story?
Some highlights: born and bred in south Florida without knowing I was a spiritual midwesterner. I chased the pseudo-academics of industrialized music up into post-industrial Indiana where I committed myself to a swarthy collection of gurus (see: Allen Ginsberg, Neil Young, Richard Bach) and narrowly avoided a commitment to vocational ministry. Spent several years fraying my nerves across the country, keeping on reading and drinking too much PBR, playing a well-worn collection of folk songs out of a minivan with friends who gave me a lot of grace. The transience started to toll my chakras something fierce, so I returned to Indiana and built a nest. My friends and I spun a little hippie grotto out of an old house in a deep urban pocket, adopted a tiny old lady cat, got a lot healthier than we used to be, and cut the first record I ever put out under my own naked name. That pretty well brings us to today.
Could you tell us a little bit about your childhood? What were you passionate about?
I’ve always been pretty single-minded. I mostly cared about Star Wars and Star Wars alone until 8th grade, when I started the first of half a dozen scrappy pop punk bands I’d captain through my youth. Once I accidentally ordered a bunch of guitars on eBay for not knowing how the site worked, I found my new flame in tablature and Vans shoes or whatever. That and reading. Always loved to read.
When did you realize music had a special place in your life?
Want a funny list? Here are the names of the bands I played with in school: Not All There, Insomnia, Three Star Riot, Exit 142, Burn Tapedeck Burn, Bravery in Colour, and Blindfold the Leaves. I told my friends in the very first one that this was going to be our lives and that we were going all the way with it. The names and sounds have changed, but my dream has been of the same fierce singularity since I was a boy with a handful of power chords and blue dye in his hair.
What did you grow up listening to?
Dad curated a healthy blend of James Taylor, The Beatles, Earth Wind & Fire, Steely Dan, and smooth jazz. Momma liked the old country songs she grew up on. And of course we were in church, so my brother and I learned to harmonize in the pews. Then in high school, my friends and I would Limewire the Blink 182 discography, dabble with Zeppelin and Sabbath, screw around on the local alt radio station and go to Saosin shows. My tastes went from the ebullient to the eyeliner to the heavier eyeliner with screaming vox, because that’s what kids did in Florida.
When did you start getting involved in the music industry? What lessons did you learn since then?
I actually have a Bachelor’s in Music Business, which I often caution people against for the sheer practicality. The music biz in the least static of any of them--you can’t write a textbook about it because by the time it goes to print, it’ll all be out of date. So I was gearing up my industry launch for four years of book learnin’, but then I spent my last semester booking three months’ worth of shows to the west coast and back. While I was on that tour, I spent enough time in coffeeshops to book the next three months to the other side. And so on. There was about a month in between school and mega-tour-wormhole where I lazily managed a frozen yogurt store.
You’ve just released your new album called "PSYCHO/TROPIC". What's the story behind it?
It was two years of un-yoking, synthesized. Ever since finding my intrapersonal equilibrium in a new home-concept, I’ve been playing with neuroplasticity and getting transformed by mind rewiring! I know that sounds spacey, but it’s been a very purposeful academic process of dismantling my existential principles to re-assess all my preconceptions. A daily divorce from the cosmic narratives I’ve built up around the delicate psyche. Listen, here’s a stupid example. If you’d asked me two years ago what kind of music I liked, I’d immediately answer “folk and indie rock.” That’s what I listened to. I was “that kind of guy,” x type of person, and it was comforting to think that I knew myself. The last thing in the world I would have done in my music listening habits would have been to queue up a deep cut playlist of dub reggae. But guess what? I love reggae now. I figured, if there’s some art that I don’t like, it’s probably my fault. I hadn’t learned yet how to listen to stoner doom metal on stoner doom metal’s terms. So take that principle and multiply it by a million and explode it in every direction. All my attitudes got cracked open and I put out these infinite invisible tendrils into the universe to take every sound, every person, every idea on its own terms. In the studio that meant a totalitarian unshackling. Whatever I wanted to try, we tried. We pushed songs past their normal boundaries, warped sounds beyond recognition--we played. While I was in the new joyful space of exploratory spiritual reclamation, I wanted to distill the whole of my personage in the little time capsule: the beautiful parts, the hideous ones, the embarrassing ones. It was the first major piece of art I ever made where I was truly, honestly, wonderfully, making exactly what I wanted to make without hiding any part of me or worrying about anybody else’s opinion.
Could you describe us the songwriting/production process for this album?
I scrimped and saved and prepped to take a few months off before we went into the studio. Every day I would approach the table spread with guitars, synths, drum machines, notebooks, coffee. My cat Tiki sat next to me to watch. I start with poems and then harvest the best bits from those to make my initial drafts. There’s a blurry middle part that no one quite knows how to talk about where the some old magic manifests and the song becomes the song. But then I took the skeletons to the studio with Adam Shuntich (guitar), Jonathan Class (producer, keys, bass), and Jacob Powell (brother drummer) who are my oldest and most trusted collaborators. We’d set up all the pedals and toys in a seance circle, step out onto the fire escape to look at the clouds and get our minds right, and then come back in and just paint until we found the right colors. We were like a committee dressing up the emperor, taking a folk song motif and composing the orchestral psychedelic extrapolation of every dynamic.
When did you start working on this album? What was the first song you worked on, and what was the last song you worked on?
January 2017 was the beginning of the work as best I can tell, although the song “Ascension” was already a year old at that point. We had toured that song as a working country ballad, and it felt very out of place by the time we had made the rest of the record. So it remains a country dirge at its oxidized heart, but then we sauced it up with Blade Runner synths, the ghost of a pedal steel guitar, and the dryest splat drum samples you ever heard. Both “Econoline” and “Supercareful” were afterthoughts. I’d already sequenced the tracklisting the week before we went into the studio but figured I’d better keep writing up until the last minute in case I struck gold. I love those two because they’re the least traditionally poetic--I was truly just asking my inner light what else it wanted to write about. So we ended up with a reflection on my time in the hardcore scene of the 2000s, and an audio embrace M Ward type affair with fluttering angel flutes and lyrics about skateboarding and listening to old Kanye West records.
Who did you work with?
Jonathan Class produced and played on the record. We’ve been working together since day one of both of our careers. Jacob Powell and Adam Shuntich are my literal brothers and the record wouldn’t sound anything like it does without them. My dream illustrator, Maarten Donders (who has done shit for Sturgill and Godspeed) did our cover which: I still swoon.
What are the different topics you are talking about on this project?
I wrote a lot on this one about family. I write a lot all the time about God. There’s a story song on here, Bright deceiver, that imagines a post-apocalyptic tribe settling on the Pacific trash flat gyre and starting the world over. There’s politics, but I dress them up in a lot of poetry: Tomahawk is definitely a protest song. Chakra I wrote for my friend who went blind last year. There’s one about growing up in the South, returning to find it sicker than you remember, and trying to make peace with that. There’s a song I wrote after a trio of doomed Tinder dates. It’s all over the place. But that’s on purpose you know? Like, look at the cover.
Why did you name your album "PSYCHO/TROPIC"?
“Psychotropic” means “affecting mental perception.” So we have a psychedelic-influenced sound on the record and you get that connotation. But I’m also a writer less of feelings and more of ideas: some of our music is hippie propaganda at its flowery heart. And the layers are built into this record for you to have conversations with it. And maybe, just maybe, these songs will affect your perception. That’s the dream anyhow. I also liked that the tropical aspect of it felt like a nod to Neil Young’s “On the Beach” which is my favorite record. Then there’s the wordplay too: the idea that people from back home will hear this and think I’ve really lost it.
What was the hardest part about making this album? And what was the best part?
The hardest part is always turning the art into a product. We’ve all grown as musicians to the point where it’s really a pleasure to be in the studio, and Jon is a wizard who can make any sound I imagine, so I don’t remember the work as being particularly hard. But getting together packaging, design, UPCs and shrinkwrap, ordering, shipping, all that noise. We’re super DIY still and so I handle all that in its resplendent glamour. The best parts were painting together in the studio because it was a pure shot of creativity--improvised color flinging with some of my most sacred family. And doing the release show at home in Indianapolis--that night will not soon be forgotten.
What did you learn about yourself after finishing this album?
The relegation of ego in art! I was raised to believe that pride was harmful, and it certainly can be. But I’m so proud of myself for making this record. Part of why it’s good is because I’m good! And I can say that because I’ve learned to love myself. You have to love yourself before you love “your neighbor as yourself.” But another part of why it’s so good is that I put my ego aside at crucial times. I used to want to have as many credits in the jacket as I could, I guess to reinforce some insecurity, some shoddy idea of artistic ownership. But why would I drum when Jacob is infinitely a better drummer? It’s that hip hop approach to production, getting the best people in the room to do their thing. Then the thing we’re making becomes bigger than any one of us, and I can be proud of doing part of the excellent thing, instead of all of the mediocre thing.
What message do you want to convey through your art?
Love. Love that doesn’t qualify. That life is shit, but it’s also ecstasy, and it’s wild that we’re humans right now in space (what are the odds), and we can all be really beautiful and good together.
Who's helping you shape your artistry and sound?
My new bandmates, for one. Aside from the aforementioned gentlemen, I have Josh Townsend on bass, Colin Oakley on drums, and Ricky Olmos on keys. Those guys all have super different taste in music, and are incredibly proficient players themselves, so I’m learning from them everything from Anomalie to Gabor Szabo.
I’ve been super inspired by a lot of literature by women this year, especially Flannery O’Connor and Virginia Woolf. Been listening to a lot of Frank Ocean and Moonchild, so I feel like I’m getting more soulful. But I’ve also been listening to more metal (Iron Maiden) and doom (REZN) than usual, which manifests more in the visual brand of the band. I finally started dressing like the rock ‘n roller I always wanted to be and using those classic stormy nordic fonts for everything. The brand now isn’t “folk” or “indie rock,” it’s just the amalgamation of all the strange things I like.
What would be your definition of music?
A collection of intentional sounds, usually meant to convey or express emotion or idea between two or more humans. Clinical, I guess.
What are your goals for 2019?
Save money each month. Publish my non-musical writing regularly. Tour the hell out of this record. Write a follow-up record. Get Saint Francis preaching to the birds tattooed on my arm. Keep up my healthy rhythms and skateboard more.”P
In your opinion, what would make the world a better place?
The woodstockian dream of universal entheogenic communion. Uncoupling love from need. Acting exactly like Jesus acted. And always voting Democrat.
What's your purpose?
To glorify God and enjoy her forever.
Stream “PSYCHO/TROPIC” here.
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