Now/It's: An Interview with Paul McDonald

As most people in Nashville have come to experience, you'll cross paths with many a person, with many a guarantee to "get coffee," "get drinks," or "hang out," and then never do, or simply never cross paths again. But every once in a while, a serendipitous moment will allow some to cross paths yet again. Such was the case with Paul McDonald. We had crossed paths once before, through mutual acquaintances, but had little interaction since, up until earlier this Spring, when we met up to talk about McDonald's upcoming LP, Modern Hearts, which drops this Friday, June 1st. Upon first listen, the word that comes to mind when describing the album is "infectious." Seriously, over the past three years, McDonald and his crew have cooked up some serious grooves on Modern Hearts. Upon further examination (multiple listens), however, the album reveals an emotionally depthful McDonald, that despite the irresistible grooviness of the album, creates a stoic buoyancy, primarily through his unique songwriting prowess. It's one of those rare records featuring visceral cuts that simultaneously divulge the depth and breadth of McDonald and somehow double as good ole fashioned radio bangers. That's all a testament to McDonald, who put in the work over the past three years, and as you'll learn, endured a true gauntlet of experience, or as he describes them, "ebbs and flows" to bring Modern Hearts into the world.

Now/It's met with Paul McDonald at Dose Coffee & Tea on the West End neighborhood of Nashville.

Paul - What up, dude?

N/I - How’s it going?

Paul - Same old shit man. Finding my way. All good things with this album. What’s new with you, man?

N/I - About the same, except with media stuff, I guess [laughs].

Paul - Cool dude. This seems like a cool thing that you’re doing, this blog. How long have you been doing that?

N/I - This particular site? Not even a year yet. I’ve been fortunate to do some work with larger publications and all that, but then I figured I’d do my own thing and hopefully have a little more freedom that way.

Paul - Absolutely. And it’s your own thing. If you’re not working, it’s on you.

N/I - Exactly. I like that.

Paul - Me too.

N/I - I figure that’s pretty similar, in a way, to what you do - you have to get up, get out, do whatever.

Paul - We’re both running small businesses [laughs].

N/I - At the end of the day, that’s what it is. Some people wouldn’t necessarily want to admit that, but ostensibly, that’s what it is.

Paul - For sure man.

N/I - So your name actually popped up in one of the earlier interviews on the site, believe it or not. Lydia Luce

Paul - Oh yeah, she’s cool, man. I met her through my old business manager, and she was trying to meet some cool new people in town, and I asked her “Who do you want to do a record with? I know all these people,” and teamed her up with a handful of people and I think she just finished up a cool record with the same guy I did mine with.

N/I - I saw that. Jordan?

Paul - Jordan Lehning, yeah. I haven’t heard any of hers yet, but Jordan told me that it’s super cool. A whole lot of badass string arrangements and stuff.

N/I - I’ve heard bits and pieces, and I’m sure it’ll be phenomenal.

Paul - That’s super dope. She’s so chill and fun. A lot of energy.

N/I - I guess we can just start right there…. How did you wind up working with Jordan?

Paul - When I first moved back into town, I started doing a lot of research with a lot of my buddies, asking them who they made records with and I stumbled upon a killer producer in town by the name of Eric Masse about possibly doing a record with him, and he was working on the Miranda Lambert stuff at the time, and there were a lot of other pieces that he was working with at the time - Jordan was one - another dude named Skyler. There’s a whole lot of people in that camp. Another one of my buddies - Kree Harrison - she had just cut a record with Jordan, and she said he was brilliant and all that. So I met up with him because Eric was so busy with Miranda, it made more sense to work with Jordan. So we got together, did a lot of pre-production with the tunes, went up to Asheville, North Carolina, and cut it at Echo Mountain, which is kind of a magic studio.

N/I - Is that where Avett Brothers have recorded some stuff?

Paul - That’s right, the Avett Brothers have been up there. Band of Horses. It’s an old church, kind of a magical energy. I brought up a handful of powerhouse musician player friends, we went up there for a week, camped out. It was cool.

N/I - Solid. How many people were up there during the recording process?

Paul - Let’s see… There was Jordan, Conrad was the engineer, Kris Donegan on guitar, Tom Lombardo on guitar, Ian Fitchuk on drums, Dave Cohen on keys. I guess that’s about it. There were seven or eight of us.

N/I - That’s a solid crew.

Paul - It was a crew, man.

N/I - So what was that process like? Knocking parts out the whole time? Piecing it along?

Paul - It was awesome, because I’ve worked with a lot of different people over the years. There are all sort of different environments, some people track in a room, some do separate. But I wanted to do something that involved everyone. These brilliant musicians were all part of the record in their own right. Conrad’s engineered and produced a bunch of awesome records. Ian just did the Kacey Musgraves record as a producer. All these guys are their own individual things. They could have all produced the record. And [when] you have all those guys in there, it allowed me to lay back and go “Just do you man.”

N/I - Just do your thing.

Paul - Right. Like, “I ain’t gotta tell you all nothing. You guys are all so good at your own things.” So it allowed me to bring in these songs in their stripped down, bare bones version, and then it was “Let’s make something that we’re all proud of at the end of this.” And that creative freedom and no pressure factor - there was no label hounding on us. It was me doing the whole project, so we just made something cool, then came home. Everybody was like “That was an inspiring week,” and that’s how I wanted it to be.

N/I - So was that something you hadn’t done a whole lot of? As far as being able to sit back and let things come as they do?

Paul - Well, I was still heavily involved. I actually had made records like that in the past, because I had been in bands for years, so it was more of me knowing my thing, knowing my lane, and then most of the time, when you get the band, you show them the parts and what not. But this time, instead of me dictating for someone to play one particular part - I’m not a shredder guitar player, but my buddy Kris Donegan is. So you go “Cool man, I trust you,” and if the take wasn’t there, the producer would say something, or someone will say it, because the level of talent and ear in the room, as well as the comfort with each other just lifted everybody’s game to another level. We were all having fun, man.

N/I - So did you knock out all thirteen of the songs there? Or bits and pieces?

Paul - I actually think we tracked maybe fourteen songs up there during that week, which was cool. But when I came back, it felt like there were some missing pieces in there, so I wrote a song after the sessions, and we went back in Sound Emporium and tracked maybe four more songs, and I wound up putting one of those on the record. So it was kind of like one last piece of it that I was missing.

N/I - And which one was that?

Paul - It’s a song called “Call On Me.” That one’s out. It’s been out, but it’s the newest one, and it was the first one to come out.

N/I - So what goes behind that planning? Or the reasoning?

Paul - It was just the freshest and newest. And at the time, the team of people around me were like “This one feels like the first one that should go out.” It’s best the radio and all that stuff, so I was like “Cool. Toss it on out.” But I’m excited to get the whole record out, because it kind of captures the time when I first moved back into town from LA.

N/I - So what happens now between this time and when it’s finally out? Because it’s out June 1st, correct?

Paul - It is.

N/I - And you’ve already put out three singles?

Paul - Three singles. So the next thing is putting out another song, called “Wild Card.” And I think there’s going to be a video that comes with that, and then the next one is going to be called “Modern Hearts,” which is the title of the record. Then we’ll sprinkle out some videos for some other songs.

N/I - Right on. So you came back into town 2011, right?

Paul - Well let’s see here… I moved up here 2010, 2011 from….

N/I - Alabama?

Paul - From Alabama, right. Right after college. We had a band that was kind of touring the Southeast. Doing that college scene kind of heavy. That circuit.

N/I - Right. Like NACA? Is that what its called?

Paul - Yeah, except, we never did that official level stuff. We did frat parties and stuff like that. It was us, Moon Taxi… Who else was in that crew? A band called the Dirty Guv’nahs…..

N/I - Okay. I remember them….

Paul - That band The Revivalists. We were the handful of bands that were original artists who could do club gigs, but also paid bills through these private frat parties.

N/I - Sure. Fraternity philanthropy chairs have literal thousands of dollars they have to get rid of.


Paul - Dude. Dude. It’s mega-dough, dude. So that was a clutch thing that allowed us to go out on the road and pay for the records, pay for the band, the trailer, and all the stuff. So that kept us afloat, and we did that…. God, we were probably playing 200 shows a year for the first six or seven years in that band. Then I moved out West…. I did American Idol. Did that show for about a year, because we had a big tour at the end of it. But after that show, I got married to an actress out there, we started a band together, that band was pretty cool. Mostly tv and film vibes, we did a handful of late night shows. We broke up, the band broke up, and then I moved back into town.

N/I - Sure. We don’t have to suss out something that’s been covered probably more than it should.

Paul - Ah man, it’s old news.

N/I - So in talked to a handful of people who have spent time in both LA and Nashville, there are almost always differences and similarities of note. What would you consider to be the primary differences between the two artistic communities?

Paul - Man…. You know, it kind of goes in and out, like anything. It’s waves. When I first moved back into town, after LA the first time, I was kind of hanging in a camp with Kree [Harrison], Maren [Morris], Ruston [Kelly], a bunch of these kind of really cool songwriters who I had known and been reintroduced to coming back into town on the East Side. There are waves, ebbs and flows of things, and this was a whole new batch of people that I didn’t know when I was here before. And the LA scene, when I was out there, was more of a pop scene. Also, I got introduced immediately through American Idol stuff, so it wasn’t like the hip indie cats that were like “Yo, Paul, come hang.” That tossed me into a very pop world, which was brilliant, because I got to work with some world renowned, A-list producers who were cutting some of the biggest tunes that everybody knows, but that wasn’t quite where I fit artistically, a lot of times.

N/I - Well at that time, had you figured that out?

Paul - Of course. I was lucky to figure it out pretty early on. I ran that gauntlet and did the whole thing. And that’s kind of the idea behind this new record - you have to figure out who you’re not in order to figure out who you are. So I’ve stepped out of my boundaries in a lot of ways and worked with a whole lot of people and tried out all of the colors in the paintbox, and was like “Cool that’s for me, this isn’t for me.” And when I moved back, I was like “Man, I want to move right back into Five Points on the East Side and make a record with my friends, and do it the way that I’ve done it with a band in the past, and that was how we came out with this one. Did all that shit just to get back to right where I started.

N/I - Sure. I think a lot of people arrive at that realization later than they would like….

Paul - Sure. “Cool, I’ve got all this access to everything, let me try this!” And then you go, “Man, I kind of liked it more when I was just doing it with the buddies.”

N/I - Exactly.

Paul - Because it was sincere and honest in a “we’re not trying to make hits” sort of way. It was just about making music. And I feel like that’s when the magic happens. When you start talking about hits and money - I just read a Clive Davis interview, and he said “that’s when God leaves the room.” When you’re like “Let’s write a smash!” it should be “See ya, dude.”

N/I - You get four or five people on one song, things can sometimes get diluted.

Paul - And sometimes that stuff can turn into something, but most of the time, man.

N/I - That’s true. I don’t want it to seem like I’m bemoaning it.

Paul - And neither am I, but in my experience, “Let’s write a smash!” almost never works.

N/I - Right. And it’s definitely easier said than done, I’m sure. Or so I would assume.

Paul - Absolutely. I have no “smashes,” so I couldn’t tell you [laughs].

N/I - I understand, I mean, I’d love to write a best selling book, but just because I say I have a kickass idea doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to turn into a best selling book.

Paul - Totally, man. Everything has to strike at once for that kind of stuff. But I feel like it’s best to stay sincere and keep doing the shit you believe in, and at some point everything crosses up.

N/I - Sure. There’s a convergence, and when that point comes, you can choose the path from there.

Paul - For sure.

N/I - So exactly how long did it take you to come around and finish the writing process for Modern Hearts? Three, four years?

Paul - Probably three years. We recorded this album almost a year and a half ago. I’ve been sitting on it for a while….

N/I - Well what has that process been like? The waiting?

Paul - Man, it’s stressful. I wanted to put it out the day it was done.

N/I - That’s what I would figure.

Paul - It’s like “Cool! I’m done! I climbed the mountain!” And this was a big deal to me, because it was the first one I did on my own. I’ve sprinkled out songs and EPs and that kind of thing, just testing and understanding myself as a solo artist, so I wanted to put it out immediately. But then everyone else around you goes, “Hey man, there’s a plan. You got to do the plan.” Man, “the plan” is the most stressful part out of all of it.

N/I - Why is that?

Paul - Just because I’m not very good at that kind of stuff [laughs]. I’m better at making the music. But that stuff is also figuring out the right team of people to help out with it, and also that understood me. You kind of get to a point where you have to move on mentally, too. Like I’ve written a handful…. I’ve got hundreds of tunes ready for the next stuff. So it’s time to put it out and get over that chapter of life.

N/I - That makes sense.

Paul - I’m just excited to have it out and about. And to let people know what I’ve been up to the past couple of years.

N/I - Nothing wrong with that. So going back to the writing - you wrote them all?


Paul - I did write all the songs, but a lot of the songs were also co-written. And the reason for that being - I’ve never really done that before, man. With bands in the past, I always wrote the songs with other guys, girls in the bands, and in all honesty, after going through a divorce in LA and moving back to Nashville, I needed to make friends. I was like “set me up with as many sessions as possible.” I hit up a lot of my old buddies, so I wrote with some of the biggest country songwriters, pop writers, all the way to my next door neighbor who didn’t even have a PRO set up, like “BMI? ASCAP? What is that?” and I was just like “Dude, who cares, let’s write a song.” That was all mostly just to get this stuff out. Figuring it out and finding the right people you want to work with is important - in songwriting and in life - so I experimented and tried writing with a whole lot of folks. I found a lot of amazing people. It’s like dating. You find you date a handful of people, and a lot of them didn’t work out….

N/I - But there are aspects that reveal more things to you….

Paul - And you always learn something from it, and I feel like I’ve done so many where I’ve gotten myself to find people I really enjoy writing with. And then from there, you kind of narrow it down and write more with those guys. I also just needed to write better songs. I was like twenty-nine at the time, wondering “Why hasn’t it happened yet, man? Maybe my songs aren’t that good? Maybe I should focus on that.” So I dove into songwriting real heavy in the past few years.

N/I - Do you glean from or pay homage to any particular songwriters? Like your “go tos?”

Paul - Of course. I grew up listening to Crosby, Stills & Nash, Joni Mitchell, that whole era - James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Dylan, and then currently, cats like Ryan Adams, Jason Isbell. I love “songwriters,” and my music does tend to live more in the pop world, meaning hooks and this and that, but Bowie and The Beatles were pop acts too, man.

N/I - That they were.

Paul - But I love lyrics and stories and words, man. So those were the cats I go to.

N/I - Was there anything in particular that you found yourself returning to, when you were writing? Thematic elements that continued to appear?

Paul - In that period of time, I was listening to a lot of sad music, because I was sad. I was listening to David Ramirez….

N/I - [Laughing] So truly sad….

Paul - [Laughing] Oh yeah. Noah Gundersen….

N/I - Still sad….

Paul - I was like “God! These guys. It’s so sad, and it hits me so hard!” I was listening to a lot of sad music, but it’s also really brilliant. Those guys are brilliant songwriters. So I was listening to a lot of that stuff, but then it started moving the happier I got. And I think that was why we went back around and recut that last song, because I said I wrote hundreds of tunes, but they were all fucking sad songs, dude. I was like, “I can’t just put out an epically sad record, because I’m happy now.” Or happier. So I had to let folks know that I was okay, at least for my own personal sanity. So we slapped one happy jam on the end there.

N/I - That’s always good. And then it opens the door for….

Paul - For the next chapter. Exactly. Absolutely.

N/I - That’s good. So you were saying when you hit twenty-nine or thirty, you hit that…. I don’t want to say “existential crisis….”

Paul - Well I told myself “I’m going to do music until I’m thirty, and if I don’t make before I’m thirty, fuck it, I’m going to do something else.”

N/I - So when did you decided that? Sometimes the earlier you decide the more exasperation it causes.

Paul - Well that’s just it - it was one of those made up things. Then I got to thirty, and I was like “Man, should I give this up?” and then people were like “Dude, you have made it. To an extent. You’re doing it for a living.” The term “made it” means something different to everyone. Success is all relative. So I was kind of going like “Shit, maybe you’re right. Alright, cool. I’ll make another record.” So now I’m like “I’m going to give myself til thirty-five and then I’ll probably end up….” well knock on wood, the plan is to wake up when you’re sixty, seventy-five, or older and go “Shit man, I’m still doing it.” And that’s success. You get to do what you want to do your whole life and I highly doubt that I’ll be the next Justin Bieber….

N/I - Slightly different trajectory….

Paul - True. But maybe I’ll have a career where I can keep making records. And if this one doesn’t blow up or whatever, maybe the next one will, or maybe it won’t. I’m going to keep making music.

N/I - Well it’s like you’ve been saying, there are all sorts of different - I’ll just call them blueprints for lack of a better term - but everyone’s journey is different. Like Nick Cave, he’s been around forever, and has seen all sorts of ups and downs to the point that he’s a legend to some and unknown to others. But all the while he’s steadily built an impressive body of work.

Paul - And that’s kind of how it works. If you stay sincere and true to your art, people aren’t going to hit immediately, but they’ll gravitate at some point or another to the point of which someone goes “Shit, this dude or this lady has got a huge body of work,” and then maybe you’re Chris Stapleton - he’s been doing that shit forever, and of course he’s great.

N/I - Like you said, you don’t necessarily going in saying “I’m going to write a smash….”
Paul - Yeah… But if you write hundreds of songs a year, you’re going to catch something that might be considered a smash, or at least some great songs.

N/I - Absolutely. There’s the “Rule of Ten Percent,” where you do a thousand things, ten of them might pay off in a slightly elevated manner.

Paul - So true. For sure. And if you keep working and doing it that, way…. That’s what I do, I try to write as much as possible. Because you never know when you’re going to catch something out of the sky. We’re just making stuff up. It’s like fishing.

N/I - You put it out to see if something bites, and if not, you cast back out again.

Paul - “Universe! Feed me something today!” And then it’s like whenever you make the record, the songs are like kids, and I’m just going “Please, one of you kids grow up to be a super popular, successful human being…” [laughs]

N/I - [Laughing] Like a varsity quarterback, student body president….

Paul - [Laughing] “All you kids, not very many people like you guys, just one of you has to be cool. So I can keep making more kids.”

N/I - Interesting end to the analogy - “Keep making more kids.” - but I think people will gather.

Paul - [Laughs] Hopefully so. Keep making more art.

N/I - That makes sense. You put your head down at a certain point and you keep trudging forward to a point like having your album come out in June, and then what do you do after that? I assume tour pretty heavily?

Paul - That’s the plan, man. I like to be out on the road as much as possible. That’s the idea. So I’m hoping that the more popular these “kids” are [laughs] the more I get to work. That’s the plan, to work as hard as possible. So hopefully people gravitate towards the record and I’d like to be on the road as often as possible, maybe do some UK stuff. But it’s up in the air, ultimately. It all depends on the success of the record.

N/I - Selfishly, I wanted to ask one last question - so in the press blast and the EPK and whatnot that your publicist sent me, it said you’ve shared the stage with Emmylou Harris, Father John Misty - who I’m a huge fan of….

Paul - I love Father John. I’ll tell you about that one. I’ve done all kinds of random shit over the years, but that reference in there was an interesting gig. It wasn’t like one of the ones where Paul and Father John are playing the Greek Theatre - this was at a very high profile casting director’s house party, and we both played at this event. And this was right before he had put out his first record, and man, I just remember, it was a whole lot of movies stars at this party - very pinkies up sort of thing - and dude, he walks in there with a slew of beautiful Topanga Canyon hippie girls, reeking of patchouli and weed, and it was just like “Who is this magical man!?” And they got up and crushed the party. He was no cares in the world about who was there, and I was like “Thank god this guy is here. I love this dude.” Those records, man, he’s another brilliant songwriter.

N/I - I agree. Like I said, I’m a huge Father John Misty Stan, so it’s all good to me whether it actually is or isn’t.

Paul - Ah, man, I’ve got one of his records on my wall at home.

N/I - Well what about Emmylou?

Paul - That one was from me getting invited to sing at the Songwriters Hall of Fame here in town. One of my buddies was inducted - Rosanne Cash got inducted, along with a handful of others - but the guy who invited me, Even Stevens, he’s great…. Well, got inducted so, obviously.

N/I - There’s some credence to that statement.

Paul - [Laughing] Pretty good. But he asked me to sing one of his big hit tunes. And that night, there was Emmylou, Tim McGraw, a bunch of established artists, and then my sorry ass [laughs]. But we shared a dressing room that night, and she was super sweet. Kind of one of those magical moments, because I’d always been a fan, and it was just like “Wow. It’s all happening.” One of those moments.  

N/I - Definitely so. Before we finish up, are there any other general thoughts you have about the record?

Paul - Man, that’s a good question. I think we covered most of the stuff. Ultimately, I’m just excited to get it out. It’s sincere. It’s real. It sounds like me. When I first finished it, because I climbed the mountain. Or like writing a book - you’re working on it for so long - and so I was like [joking] “If you don’t like this record, you don’t like me.” But I’ve kind of just let it be. I’m excited to let it go into the world. And when that happens, it’s not mine anymore. It’s like the songs are for everyone else. I’m ready to release them into the wild.

N/I - And hopefully your “kids” get adopted.

Paul - It’s cool man, because then everyone interprets everything their own way. It’s exciting to see where they go and where they land, or if they do nothing. But definitely a very interesting time in my life, and I’m glad that I caught it and did it the way that I did, because it’s a beautiful photograph of that chapter of my life after my divorce and moving into a new life of finding myself all over again. Jordan did a great job, all the musicians did an amazing job capturing that energy and turning it into something that I feel like is the best work that I’ve done up to this point - which I feel like you should say about every record - I think it’s pretty special. I wouldn’t release it if I didn’t [laughs].