Here's number three of our "CMB-ite Spotlight" blog interviews. We'll have a new one every week until Christmas, so be sure to check back each Wednesday to learn more about some fellow subscribers just like you!
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Without further adieu, meet singer/songwriter Elliott Powell....
CMB: How did you get started in music?
Elliott Powell: I was drawn to the guitar and songwriting in my early teens. I knew pretty early on in the journey of learning music that I wanted to write and perform music. So, I made it a goal to work towards being a professional musician. I did a lot of club work in Los Angeles as a solo artist during my early 20’s and then formed a band called “Joy the Bug”. We worked hard and were eventually signed to a distribution deal through Universal. Those were fun times!
CMB: Who would be your top three non-musical influences?
Elliott Powell: The first is Jesus Christ (although it would not surprise me if he were musical!). On a historical level, the sheer volume of art that’s been produced in honor of Christ is astounding. There is something massively influential there in the person of Christ that is hard to ignore. On a personal level, I believe he is who he claims to be, and that has direct implications for my life – including how I write music.
The second is a more of a group: I have a very supportive wife and family. I constantly draw on their encouragement, counsel and prayers. I’m blessed to have them.
Third, although I’ve never met him in-person, Christian Apologist, Ravi Zacharias is a father-in-the-faith figure to me. I’ve learned a great deal over the years from his teaching and it always nourishes and inspires me.
CMB: How about your top three musical ones?
Elliott Powell: I know that this answer is probably so common that it borders on cliché, but I cut my musical teeth on U2.
I met Bono once and told him that “Achtung Baby” changed my life. I know- I couldn’t just be a normal person and tell him that it changed my musical outlook; I had to tell him that it changed my life! But you know what? It did. And you know what Bono said to me? “I hope it changed it for the better!” How could it not? Charting U2’s songs and understanding the Edge’s guitar tones is like taking a master class for rock music. I’m about to release a new EP in December that reflects some of this education in tone and vocal phrasing. So U2 are a constant in my musical stream.
More recently I’ve been semi-obsessed with Justin Vernon’s songwriting (Bon Iver). I think that guy’s a genius. Musically, I think he’s in the same stratosphere as Brian Wilson.
CMB: What would be your general process for writing a song from start to finish?
Elliott Powell: Usually a phrase of melody comes to me first and I record it on my phone. I have all sorts of ideas on my phone. Then, I’ll take some time to filter through these sound files and see what’s sticking with me. I’ll work on a rhythm and progression next. The hardest part for me is the lyrics. Often times I’ll record myself playing a rough arrangement and I’ll sing/ babble through a melody of the song to try and catch different vowels and consonants. Sometimes you have surprise the song and force it to show itself to you. Listening back to the recording, I often will find words and sounds that work well together. If I can find a lyrical theme before all of this (such as a good working title), the song will come together fairly quickly. Then, I refine the arrangement and record.
The last step is probably most important if you’re looking to write a memorable song with a strong hook: I will let people who are musically distant from the song listen to it- and then I watch their body language, facial expressions. They will usually “tell” you unconsciously what’s connecting- or not- by their response. Then, I either go back and edit to make it stronger- or go all the way back to the drawing board!
CMB: Let’s talk about your EP, “Thorn and Thicket.” Where did it all start?
Elliott Powell: It started with an experience of surviving a major car crash virtually unscathed. I fell asleep at the wheel coming home from a church youth event and careened off into a wooded area (this was in Northern Virginia- lots of trees). I woke up as the car was going off the road and yelled out a prayer for God to deliver me. And God did just that. I have pictures on my website that show you how bad the wreck was. The title song from the EP, “Thorn and Thicket” is a reflection on that event and God’s ability and willingness to deliver us from perilous situations.
I also made a video for the song which, I think, is amazing. I can say that because I didn’t direct the video! Award winning documentarian and photographer, Amanda Danziger, directed it and she did an amazing job. I encourage everyone to take 4 minutes and watch it on Youtube!
There is another song on that EP called “Luminous” that’s being pushed for national radio play for this Christmas season.
CMB: As a self-produced artist, what recording software do you use? Can you tell us a little bit about your studio?
Elliott Powell: Sure. I have a pretty modest set-up as far as home studios go, but I have the essentials- a good microphone (AKG 414), a Pro Tools LE rig, and an Avalon Pre-Amp/Compressor- all of these run through a Mac.
In regards to production, the “Thorn and Thicket” EP was co-produced by Markus Huber and me. Markus is an extraordinary musician and a great guy. He’s wears a lot of musical hats: He’s a touring bassist for Natalie Grant, Johnny swim as well as Brad and Rebekah; He scores for films; and, he’s a got a terrific ear for producing. I can’t say enough good things about him. Also, George Alexander mixed the EP and he’s a phenomenal talent too. Both of those guys are in Nashville and I am in Texas, so we do some together across the miles.
Markus took the helm for my upcoming EP- and I think it sounds even better than this last one! I can’t wait for everyone to hear it. It’s an EP dedicated entirely to worship music.
CMB: What would be your biggest piece of advice to us as a believer when writing and creating original music?
Elliott Powell: Your artistic production and expression is an issue of stewardship, so do the best you can! In terms of method, I do better when I approach songwriting as a discipline. Don’t wait for inspiration because that’s only the spark that gets or keeps the work going. You must put in the time.
Don’t be afraid to let your brain hurt from the labor of lyric writing. Also, we musicians tend to get a little too precious about our songs. If the goal is to write music that other people want to listen to and enjoy, be sure to get feedback from other people as the song is taking shape. This has helped me tremendously in knowing when to pursue and good idea, abandon bad ideas, and also know when the song is really finished!
CMB: Can you tell us a little about your local church community where you worship? How does that fit into your ministry as a recording artist?
Elliott Powell: I’m at an interesting place in this regard. I recently left the Associate Pastor position at Brambleton Presbyterian Church in Brambleton, Virginia, because I was given an opportunity to start a new, itinerant ministry in which music plays a huge part. So, when I’m home, my family and I are splitting our time worshipping between two churches where we have longstanding relational connections.
CMB: Thanks again for sharing your music with your fellow CMB-ites. Where should people go to find out more about you online?
Elliott Powell: Thanks Nate- and thanks for all the great work on CMB. You can hear my music on most all online retailers, especially iTunes. Also, you can friend me on Facebook- Elliott Powell- and go to my website for upcoming events – http://www.epmusicministries.com.
You can get a free download of “Thorn and Thicket” on Noisetrade.