INTERVIEW: Virginia Americana Artist Mitchel Evan

With thought-provoking, reflective lyrics and infectious melodies, Virginia native, Mitchel Evan is known for the charisma and confidence he radiates in his live performances which captivate his audiences. Backed by his band Mitchel Evan and the Saboteurs, Evan is quickly making waves in the Americana genre and beyond – be sure to stream his single “Leeches” everywhere now, and check out the lyric video below.

  1. Can you tell us a bit about where you come from and how you got started?

Mitchel Evan: I grew up in the west end of Richmond, Virginia. I first started playing piano when I was around 8 years old and didn’t take to it right away. It wasn’t until I picked up the guitar at the age of 12 that I really became interested in playing music. I also grew up doing musical theatre and singing in school choirs.

  1. Who were your first and strongest musical influences that you can remember?

Mitchel Evan: I was obsessed with skateboarding as a kid, so naturally I got into punk music pretty early on. My first love of any band was Green Day – watching their live performances, the energy of the band and the crowd captivated me. But around the same time, I began to get interested in more acoustic singer-songwriters, especially Elliott Smith and Nick Drake, and then I found Glen Hansard through the movie Once, and it changed my life. The singular, formative, life-changing moment for me was when I went to see Glen Hansard perform at a theatre in Richmond. It was the first time I had ever seen a solo singer-songwriter perform. He opened the show by walking to the very edge of the front of the stage, unplugged, un-mic’d, totally acoustic, and belted a stunning rendition of his cult favorite song “Say It To Me Now”. You could hear a pin drop in the room. It was as if the entire crowd held their breath from start to finish of the opening song. I was entirely enthralled, captivated, entranced by his ability to manipulate and hold the attention of a room full of two thousand people with merely a voice and a guitar. That was the moment – the moment I realized what I wanted to do with my life – and I’ve been chasing that ever since.

  1. Who are among your favorite contemporaries right now?

Mitchel Evan: Jason Isbell, Damien Jurado, Mick Flannery, Jaid Bird, Lankum, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Conor Oberst, Adrienne Lenker and Big Thief, Jonathan Wilson, Jeff Tweedy, Hiss Golden Messenger, Dawes, Anna Tivel, Daniel Romano, Nathaniel Rateliff, Richard Swift

  1. What do you feel are the key elements in your music that should resonate with listeners?

Mitchel Evan: The most important value or ethic to me when it comes to my music is honesty and vulnerability… I think the word authentic is overused, but I aim to write songs and tell stories that resonate with people – to do my best to articulate my experience with highly specific details that make it unique.

  1. For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and music maker, and the transition towards your own style?

Mitchel Evan: We all have to start from somewhere and no artist creates in a vacuum, void of inspiration. Every creative has to start by emulating their heroes to some degree. It has been said, “Good artists borrow. Great artists steal”. I don’t claim to have stolen anything, but I do know that the first several years of my writing was an exploration of trying to recreate the sounds and feelings of the music that I loved. I was taking notes and studying my favorite songs – taking them apart and putting them part together. One can learn so much by deconstructing a great song. I wrote and released an album called “Back & Forth” with my old band, Mitchel Evan & The Mangrove; that album was more or less a study and exploration of American roots genres: Blues, Country, Folk, Funk, Rock, etc. I learned a lot during that period. I learned my strengths and weaknesses. The following record, my first official album, Nostalgia, was closer to finding my own voice. I feel like I have finally achieved my own original style and voice in my upcoming self-titled album, “Mitchel Evan”. But, with that being said, my voice and style is ever-changing, always evolving, as it should be. Ultimately, it is not something to achieve, but something to continue to explore.

  1. What’s your view on the role and function of music as political, cultural, spiritual, and/or social vehicles – and do you try and affront any of these themes in your work, or are you purely interested in music as an expression of technical artistry, personal narrative and entertainment?

Mitchel Evan: An entire book could be written on this subject. Music serves so many functions, both practical and personal. For me, writing is not just my work and craft, but it is a means of working through my emotions, feelings and a way to make sense of my life and its happenings. The process of writing is extremely personal and even private for me. There are countless songs, poems and ideas that will never be made public because they were made exclusively to navigate my internal landscape. Music is a cultural and social adhesive – it binds us together; it connects people and unites us in an increasingly divided world. It is also an ancient form of storytelling, and affects us in a way that purely words cannot. Music works where language alone fails. And lastly, music is a deeply spiritual force, a portal for connection to something higher. Before I sit down to write or perform, I pray for communion with the muse, because I believe there is something greater at work when a chord is struck and a note is sung. Music is the voice of God, the universe, etc. – whatever you choose to call it – and we, as musicians and as artists, are the channel through which it manifests.

  1. Do you ever write a song with current musical trends, formulas or listener satisfaction in mind, or do you simply focus on your own personal vision and trust people will empathize with your sound and message?

Mitchel Evan: When I sit down to write, there is no agenda or intention of trying to create something that sounds or looks like any particular thing. I am not thinking of the future audience or how it will perform on the radio and I do not concern myself with the outcome. I focus on serving the song. I’m never thinking about whether or not the chorus is catchy enough or if the song is short enough or gets to the chorus quick enough. Formulas can be useful as exercises for writing, but creating is like life itself – I am only in control of myself and my actions – I try not to concern myself with the outcome or worry about how it will be perceived.

  1. Could you describe your creative processes? How do you start, and go about shaping ideas into a completed song? Do you usually start with a beat, a melody, or a narrative in your head?

Mitchel Evan: It has been said that “Amateurs sit around waiting for the muse, while the rest of us just show up to work”, and I try to live by that idea. Songs are ethereal, mysterious things and I hope they remain that way for me as long as I live. They come to me in many different forms and by different means. Often it starts with a lyrical line, which is usually coupled with a melody and I work from there. Sometimes I start with a musical phrase, riff or chord progression on the guitar, piano or banjo. Rarely do I write lyrics separately and later apply them to music. Typically, the music and words are connected from the beginning. Some songs write themselves in 15 minutes or half an hour while others develop over weeks, months or even years. They come and take many different shapes, and I like it that way.

  1. What would you consider the most difficult thing you’ve had to endure in your career or life so far?

Mitchel Evan: The most difficult thing about making a life in music is simply the daily battle of insecurity vs confidence and discouragement vs enthusiasm. Somedays I feel like I can take over the world, like anything is possible – I feel blessed to be an artist and certain about my abilities as a writer and performer. The most difficult I have had to face in my life is the loss of loved ones, several of them, and my ongoing battle with addiction and recovery.

  1. On the contrary, what would you consider a successful, proud or significant point in your career so far?

Mitchel Evan: I have had many proud moments, successful shows, reached many milestones and accomplished a lot throughout my career as a musician. But all titles and accolades are superfluous. I am not in this game for clout or fame or recognition. The proudest moment for me as an artist, the absolute pinnacle of the entire experience of this journey, is the fulfillment of having just finished writing a song that I know is good. That feeling of pride and sense of accomplishment is second to none for me. The only thing that rivals that, perhaps, is when I’ve just finished a record and I get to go for a long country drive and listen to it from start to finish. That makes it all worth it – every hour, every cent, every ounce of labor put in.

  1. If someone has never heard your music, which 5 keywords would you personally use to describe what you and your music is all about?

Mitchel Evan: No Bullshit Modern American Roots

  1. With social media having a heavy impact on our lives and the music business in general, how do you handle criticism, haters and/or naysayers in general? Is it something you pay attention to, or simply ignore?

Mitchel Evan: I guess I am lucky that I haven’t experienced much pushback or negative criticism on social media. I do my best to remain neutral and promote positivity and stay focused on the music when it comes to social media. There will always be people who don’t like or aren’t into what you do, but we don’t make my art or my music for everyone. In fact, I don’t make it for anyone. I write my songs for myself and I make them public with the hope that they will have a positive impact on the world and change peoples lives for the better, or at least challenge them to think about things differently, or to relate to the subject matter in my songs and to know that they are not alone. There’s not a whole lot about that to hate on, and maybe that’s why I haven’t experienced much in the way of haters.

  1. Which aspects of being an independent artist excites you most and which aspects discourages you most?

Mitchel Evan: The world and industry of music is changing rapidly all the time. We are entering a new age where mainstream major labels hold much less power than they once did. This is the era of the independent artist and there are so many positives to that. It excites me that, as an independent artist, I can release as much music as I can create and on my terms. I get to decide when something is released and how it is made available. I am literally in control of every aspect of my career and that is invigorating and empowering but it is also daunting. The downside and discouragement comes from the fact that everyone else is in the same boat and the streaming platforms are saturated with independent artists. By being an independent artist it also means I don’t receive outside funding or financial support, and that is the hardest thing about being an indie artist – but it comes with the ultimate freedom, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything. Now is the best time to be an independent artist in the history of the music industry.

  1. Is your backing band, the Saboteurs, a fixed set of musicians who always work with you and how long have you been working together?

Mitchel Evan: The Saboteurs is a fixed five-piece band composed of Blake Smoral on keys, auxiliary percussion and harmony vocals, Daniel Stein on drums, percussion, pedal steel and backing vocals, Spencer Conroy on violin, and Martinus Van Peppen on electric bass guitar in addition to myself as the sole songwriter, lead vocalist, acoustic and electric guitar, piano, banjo and harmony. We have been playing together as this outfit for 2 years now.

  1. Could you tell us something about the making of your latest project, “Leeches” and the message behind it?

Mitchel Evan: Leeches is a song I wrote about two years ago shortly after I moved back to Richmond from Colorado. I had a short romantic fling with someone and we spent a spontaneous night together at the river after I played a show downtown. The song, Leeches, is a fictional re-telling of that experience with a twist. It tells the story of two strangers who are drawn to one another and find momentary escape from their complicated lives in a spontaneous excursion down to the river. They become intoxicated by their mutual infatuation and chemical attraction to one another. They heed the calling of the river and share a night of passion, basking in the moonlight on the banks of the James.

  1. Apart from the abovementioned song, do you have a personal favorite track amongst your compositions that has a specific backstory and/or message and meaning that is very special to you?

Mitchel Evan: The song, Band-Aid, is a special song to me. At first glance it is about mourning the loss of a relationship, but also the physical death of a loved one. Even further, the song is about healing through community and friendship – it is about allowing yourself time to hurt, to grieve and time to heal. As expressed in the opening lyrics, “I just want to be alone so that I can feel my pain. They talk about being human, but everybody wants me to be okay”… and the later line, “You can’t put a band-aid on the wound I got last year” – these lyrics really just mean that sometimes it’s okay to not be okay and we should be afforded the space to heal thoroughly, without being expected to ‘man up’ or ‘get over it’. The song is about working through trauma and allowing yourself the space to do that and that one should never have to do it alone.

  1. Creative work in a studio environment, or interaction with a live audience? Which of these two options excite you most?

Mitchel Evan: Both of these aspects of my job and life are essential to what I do and they both serve totally different purposes. I feel so free and excited by the infinite possibilities of the recording studio, and yet the stakes are high because, after all, you are immortalizing a song, but that pressure is invigorating and inspiring to me. I love capturing a moment in time and exploring different sonic landscapes. It is a space where anything goes. Performing is an entirely different game. When I lace up my boots and put on my hat and tighten my bolo tie I become someone else, something else, and that in itself is liberating. Performing is pure expression. It is an opportunity to connect with these songs I love so dearly in real time and at the same time to connect with the audience – to make them feel alive and to convey the messages in the songs as best I can. As a sober person, it is rare that I am able to disassociate from being hyper aware and performing allows me to do that, so in a way it serves a real practical function for my mental health as well. What a gift.

  1. What’s your favorite motto, phrase or piece of advice, you try to live or inspire yourself by?

Mitchel Evan: 1. “Amateurs sit around waiting for the muse while the rest of us just show up to work.” 2. “We are only as sick as our secrets.” 3. “In every man, woman and child is the fundamental idea of God.” 4. “A feeling shared is a feeling lessened”. 5. “Life is a dream and we are the imagination of ourselves”.

  1. How essential do you think video is in relation to your music? Do you have a video you would suggest fans see, to get a better understanding of your craft?

Mitchel Evan: I have only recently begun to really delve into and explore my interest and ability in video and filmmaking. It is an artform I have a deep appreciation for and enjoy very much. I would highly recommend our fans check out the music video for Band-Aid, which features The Saboteurs. Also, the music video for Leeches is coming out very soon and I believe it to be our best video work by a long shot. It was my first time directing and writing a screenplay and I plan to do more work like this in the future. I anticipate that videos will become an integral and major part of the Mitchel Evan & The Saboteurs catalogue.

  1. What do you find most rewarding about what you do? And do you have a specific vision or goal set in your mind that you would like to achieve in the near future?

Mitchel Evan: The most rewarding part about what I do is writing. I am a writer, above all else. Writing songs is such a joyful expression of life that it is its own reward. My goal for the future is to remain prolific until the day I die and to build a body of work that will impress and astound even myself, to be enjoyed by.

“Leeches” Lyric Video:

Stream “Leeches”:

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