When Mac Powell first arrived on the Christian music scene, fronting Third Day in the early '90s, some record company executives incorrectly labeled the band's music "alternative rock." This was not alternative rock. Powell grew up in Clanton, Alabama on a steady diet of The Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd, as well as other classic rock and classic country influences, and Third Day's music consistently reflected these strong Southern rock inspirations.
It wasn't these Southern rock-isms alone that set this band apart, although that certainly helped. So much of Christian rock music has roots in the South, with the Bible Belt of Nashville acting as its unofficial capitol, yet a big portion of what emitted from Music City was bland and whitewashed, as though the industry was purposely attempting to deny its very roots. No, what made Third Day distinct and special was (and still is) Powell's mighty singing voice.
Powell's singing is not so easy to describe, suffice it to say you always know it when you hear it. It's thick, powerful, undeniably Southern and simply beautiful. He can belt like a rock star, but also tamp it down for a tender worship song.
Now, Powell has entered the country music realm by releasing his self-titled debut country album. The saying, "a rose by any other name is still a rose" holds true in this instance. Granted, Stratocasters are turned down while the pedal steel is moved to the front of the mix in most cases, but that Powell voice – that signature calling card of his – remains unique as a snowflake.
As for the songs, Mac took a different approach in writing them, and although the genre has changed, the heartfelt sentiments are still there. Mac took us through some of the songs old and new, and explained which track on the new album was inspired by reaction to a Third Day classic.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): Well, let's just get right started, if we could.
Powell: I'm sorry, Dan, where are you? Where am I calling to?
Songfacts: I'm in beautiful Culver City, California, the home of Jeopardy!
Powell: Nice. Culver City, awesome. A show that I will never be on.
Songfacts: Nor will I.
Powell: I do love it, though. But I will never be smart enough to be on there.
Songfacts: Well, you're smart enough to make a really fine country album.
Songfacts: So I wanted to start by talking about that. The song that really stuck out - and it might even be the single - is "Mississippi." Now, did you work on writing that song?
Powell: I did, yeah. It just kind of popped in my head. I was actually driving down to the studio. I recorded about an hour south of Atlanta, about an hour and a half south of where I live. Ideas just kind of popped in my head, and I thought, okay, this is too easy. This has got to be somebody else's song, because it just seems like a song someone would have written before. So I scoured the Internet and I asked as many people as I could, and nobody had heard the song. I was very fortunate to come up with the idea.
Songfacts: It just rolls off the tongue so well, just the way we count things out, you know, the one Mississippi, two Mississippi.
Powell: Yeah. Right.
Songfacts: And I'm with you, I'm surprised that it was never used before.
Powell: And there are a couple of things about the song. That is something that I did as a kid. When you're playing games to go hide and seek, or when you're rushing the quarterback on flag football, we'd always go, "One, Mississippi, two, Mississippi." So it was one of those things that I thought, Do people even still know what this means when I do this? Especially at the end, I didn't know if it was just a southern thing, how you learn how to spell Mississippi is to say M I crooked letter crooked letter I crooked letter crooked letter I hump back hump back I. But I just thought, okay, is this a southern thing? Is this a little kid thing and people don't know or what? So I was a little scared. But most people know what I'm talking about.
Songfacts: Yeah. I think it's a great song and I hope it catches on, because it really is a catchy song.
Powell: Thank you so much. It's a lot of people's favorite from the record.
Songfacts: But the interesting thing for me is that having listened to Third Day music over the years it's not really that much of a stretch, is it?
So yeah, it's a great opportunity for me as a songwriter, as a musician, as an artist and performer to be able to dive into this different world and use these different colors on the palette.
Songfacts: Do you feel uncomfortable writing more romantic songs in the Third Day context?
Powell: Yeah, I think so. I was doing an interview earlier, and there are some songs that I think that I wrote that are not necessarily biographical. There's a song called "Trying to Get Over You." Well, I've never in my life had a woman leave me. I say that because I got married at an early age, not because I'm a great man, but because I've been married for 16 years and right out of college. And that's not necessarily a song that I'm writing from first person, this is what happened to me. It's just a story that I wrote.
And so I probably couldn't do that within the Christian music genre. I suppose there are songs that people can write and talk about how their faith gets them through that or whatever. But for me, I wouldn't have felt comfortable just writing it for Third Day. So doing this country record has given me an opportunity to use a lot of different stories and storytelling and songwriting techniques that I couldn't have done with Third Day.
Songfacts: Tell me about the song "Julia Anne." Is that about somebody that you know?
Powell: Yeah. Actually, several songs from the record are, even though I just talked about that one that's not biographical, there are several songs from the album that are kind of pseudo autobiographical. "Julia Anne" is definitely one of those. I tried to write it in a clever way. When you're hearing the song, it's about a man lamenting someone who's left him. But then at the end of the song you realize it's not that the woman left, it's that she passed away.
I guess I don't like telling stories sometimes because I don't want to ruin someone's perception of the song, but I actually wrote that song about my grandmother. And so I took this love that I have for my grandmother and kind of made that into a love song story between two people and shaped it in a different way.
Songfacts: Were you really close to your grandmother?
Powell: I was, yeah. I grew up with her and was very close to her. Her name was Anne Julia, so I just kind of switched it around to Julia Anne.
Songfacts: There's some fun stuff on this album. I think "June Bug" sounds like a fun song to sing. How was the experience of recording this? Did you have a lot of fun in the studio?
Powell: I did have a lot of fun. And I tell you what, it was very easy to make. It seemed like it just kind of flowed from us. In the studio, not counting actually singing the record, but just as far as laying down the initial tracks and being there for that, it took about three or four days. We did a lot in a short amount of time and one of those was just because we were busy enough as it is with our day jobs. But yeah, it just seemed effortless. Just seemed like everything flowed in the right away.
So it was almost over with before it started, because it was so short. All the overdubs and all that stuff took more than three or four days, but just the initial tracks, that's all it took. It was surreal how it went by so quickly.
Songfacts: But that must give you the confidence that it was meant to be, if it was that easy.
Powell: You can look at it either way. You can go, okay, did we not spend enough time on it, or was it just that easy because that's the way it was supposed to be? And that's the way that I lean. But it just felt right. And the other thing was that recording it - and nothing against the guys in Third Day, but with Third Day, I'm just one of four voices in decisions to be made. And with this, me and the producer worked on the songs, said this is the way it should be, let's record it and move on.
I suppose there are times when it's best to have some more voices in there to kind of throw in ideas. But with just me and the producer, Jason [Hoard], doing the initial construction of the songs, it wasn't slowed down by other people's comments and thoughts. We just did what we felt was right.
Songfacts: How was songwriting different on this project then, say, doing a typical Third Day album?
Powell: I write most of the songs for Third Day. Not all of them, but most of them. And I'll kind of present the song halfway done. I'll have a chorus done or a chorus and a first verse. Because I don't want to spend the hours completing a song if the other guys don't like it. Normally, I'll just have the initial idea of the song and present it to them and then we work together to develop it. With this, it was that same process, but I co-wrote with two other guys for the majority of the record. There were fewer voices speaking into the way I should go. Now, sometimes it's good to have those voices, but in this situation I wouldn't say it was good or bad, it was just quicker.
Songfacts: I wanted to get some of your thoughts on a few Third Day songs, if you don't mind.
Songfacts: This is for Songfacts, and I don't know if you've seen our site, but it really has to do with particular songs, people always want to know what they're about and if there is a story behind them. So I wanted to just throw a few of the song titles at you and maybe you could just give me just a few thoughts about how those songs came about. One of them is a song that we sing at our church sometimes at the invitation, which is "Cry Out to Jesus," and do you recall writing that song?
Songfacts: That must have a great impact on people, just the simple way that you put it, it's not a complicated reaction.
Powell: Yeah, it's not going to be complicated if it comes from me. [Laughs] But yeah, it's one of the biggest Third Day songs we ever recorded. It's interesting that you bring that up, too. Not to sound like a commercial, but a story of someone hearing that song on the radio and them changing their lives, a story that I heard about that became an idea for another song that's our new single. It's called "I Need a Miracle" on the new record that's coming out. So it's interesting how one song, a situation can affect the writing of a song and how that song can affect someone else in a situation, and then that story can affect another song. And it kind of goes round and comes back again.
Songfacts: So "I Need a Miracle" came from a story that you heard about somebody reacting to "Cry Out to Jesus."
Songfacts: How cool is that?
Songfacts: That's really interesting.
Powell: Yeah, it is. My publicist just gave me a little nod, so we've got a couple of minutes left. Sorry.
Songfacts: Well, I'll just get a few more comments from you and I'll let you move on. I was listening to the song "Tunnel," and I never noticed, but there was almost like some electronic music influence on that.
Powell: Yeah. That was a song that musically we just had a different approach. When I presented the song to the guys, it was just me and an acoustic guitar. So sometimes the way that the songs end up are what I hear in my head and sometimes they're way different. The guys from the band really brought about a great musical idea and tone to the song. I never really expected much from that song, even though I loved it, I thought, okay, this is a very up tempo kind of rock song. It's got a great message, but I don't know if people will actually get to the message because of the music. It has very much surprised me through the years how so many people's lives have been encouraged by that message of hope in "Tunnel."
Songfacts: Let me ask you about one more song, and then I think I can let you go.
Songfacts: I love your singing of "God of Wonders." Do you recall when you first heard that song? Because a friend of mine, Steve Hindalong, co-wrote that song.
Powell: Yeah, he did. With Marc Byrd.
Songfacts: What was your reaction when you heard it? Did you hear it as being a wonderful song?
Powell: You know what's funny is I'm a big The Choir fan, which was Steve's band, they're from California. And I don't want to say I grew up with them, but I listened to them in my college years. They were the first alternative rock Christian band I'd ever heard. And so when I got a call from Steve to be part of this record, I couldn't say no, because I love Steve and his music and his songs. I'd written a song I did for the record City on a Hill: Songs of Worship and Praise, and he said, "I like it, but I really would love to hear you sing on this song," and he sent me "God of Wonders." I thought, Well, that's all right. (Laughs) I thought, This song is just okay. I dig it all right. It's a good song.
I had no idea how great a song it was. And that goes to show, you just never know. And now of course, with 20/20 hindsight, I see the beauty in the song, but at the time I didn't realize it. So I basically was told by my manager, Hey, when you go in to sing the song for Third Day that you write, they're going to want you to sing this other song, don't do it. Because we don't need your voice on more songs. I said, Okay. So I went in and we were in the studio. They came to Atlanta, we recorded. And Steve said, "Hey, before you leave, can I get you to sing a verse on this song?" And I said, "Sure." Because I could not say no to Steve. And it ended up being a good thing for everybody.
Songfacts: That's really cool. They're some of my favorite people, so to hear you say such kind words about Steve and The Choir that does my heart good. Because I grew up with them here in Southern California, they were a local band. So I got to see them every month.
Powell: That's cool. I love Steve, I love Derri, they're both great.
Songfacts: Well, we're on the same page there. So I think that's a good way to wind things up. Mac, it's been just a real treat to talk to you, and all the best on this new album. I hope it does well.
Powell: I really appreciate that. It was good talking with you. Thank you.
October 2, 2012
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