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Interview: Mo Pitney talks new album, UK fans and songwriting

The country singer-songwriter’s sophomore LP Ain’t Lookin’ Back is out on 14th August.

Mo Pitney
Credit: Mo Pitney

When Mo Pitney first burst onto the country scene in 2016 with his debut album Behind This Guitar, he instantly won over audiences with his traditional sound, distinctive voice and impressive songwriting.

The album went top 10 and Mo has since spent time working on new music and honing his craft on the road, including a performance at the C2C Roadshow back in March 2018. Now he’s preparing to release his brand new album, Ain’t Lookin’ Back, which is due out on Curb Records next month.

I recently caught up with Mo to talk about the new record, how he’s been keeping busy during lockdown, his experiences of performing in the UK (and plans to come back), and how his approach to songwriting has changed over the years.

The last time we spoke was in 2018 just before you came to the UK for C2C. What have you been up to since then?

[laughs] Well, I made an album, I made a baby [laughs] and we’re waiting on the little one to get here any day. Actually we thought we were gonna have to cancel all the interviews because Emily [Mo’s wife] was having quite a few contractions last night but it ended up the baby didn’t show up. But I also built a house since we last talked. I bought some property in Tennessee and my wife and I with the help of some friends built our first house. So there’s been a lot going on since the last time we talked, by the grace of God [laughs].

Your new album comes out next month – can you tell us more about that?

Yeah. So it’s called Ain’t Lookin’ Back, and Ain’t Lookin’ Back is a song that finds itself somewhere in the middle of the album. I think the overarching view of the album is there’s some fun songs throughout the whole album but there’s also things that are serious. You know, the song Ain’t Lookin’ Back is a song about my journey in letting go of my past through finding forgiveness and being able to look forward to a brighter future, which is the centrepiece of the album.

The first part, the first song on the album is called Music Man, about me falling in love with music at an early age, and fighting to not make music for the wrong reasons, for money or fame, but just because I believe that art needs to be made and I believe I was born to make it. And then we make a little bit of that music and all the way out to the end which is more of a Christian world view song called Jonas that is kind of poignant and causes us to think about life and truth and things like that. So yeah, I’m really excited about the album and I couldn’t be more proud of what the producer Jim ‘Moose’ Brown helped us achieve.

You’ve mentioned elsewhere that you overwrote for this album. Was it quite a difficult process to narrow down which songs to include?

Yeah, yeah it was. In one sense it seemed overwhelming at the beginning. But interestingly enough, they kind of just surfaced. So we recorded 23 songs, and ironically we brought in 35 charts and we had three days of recording. We brought in 35 songs and ended up recording 23. Our guiding light was, ‘what do we feel like doing? What do we feel like doing right now? What are our moods?’. And we would just reach for a song that made the most sense in whatever mood we were in and we would record it, just to try to get the most life out of each track.

And so after we recorded the 23 it felt like right off the bat we were able to cut off seven that just weren’t shimmering as much as the others, so we focused our attention on the others. And then after we completed say 16 or 17 that we knew that we loved, we listened to all of those and tried to, in the same way that a sculptor cuts away everything that’s not supposed to be there, everything that’s not an elephant if he’s sculpting an elephant, we’d cut away everything that wasn’t supposed to be there and then rearranged the songs in an order that made most sense.

One thing that’s stood out about the songs you’ve released from the album so far is there’s quite a retro, classic country feel. Was that something you consciously wanted to do with this album? Or did it evolve that way as you were making it?

So I think I understand the question – you’re saying that there are some influences that shone through like classic country, songwriter, triple A radio, whatever you wanna call it, you can kind of see all of them. So I didn’t have any… our guiding light was ‘what sounds like Mo?’ And sometimes I just kinda hate saying that because I don’t like the world that’s all about me, but I gotta make a record and talk about myself at some point. We wanted it to just feel like the way I sit down and play music. And so Moose kind of gave me the outside perspective of what he thought was me. So he would help me one way or the other, and then obviously I have my own internal compass that I was following as well.

But no, I didn’t look at it like ‘I want the album to sound like this, or like that person’s album’ or whatever. It just… what came about was making music without boundaries. I’m gonna close my eyes and then right now I feel good about the music that we’re making and it’s probably coming from my heart. So that was literally the only guiding compass. There wasn’t any bar I set for myself prior to it other than be myself.

Were there any songs on the album that were particularly easy or particularly challenging to write?

Honestly I haven’t hardly ever had success with anything that didn’t come easy, as far as art goes. And normally looking back on the songs that were hard to write they never make the album. So I think everything on this album were songs that were written within two or three hours, with the exception of the six months of contemplating on the song before we went in and wrote it. Oftentimes I think about ideas a long time before I take a stab at ’em, and normally when I take a stab at ’em it’s just overflowing out of my heart.

In all honesty probably the most difficult songs for me to write are the lighthearted ones. But I’m very conscious that God made the sun and the moon, and the moon has more value because the sun shines just before it. So I want people to have more value in the deep songs because they know I’m a person that can be lighthearted and vice versa. The lighthearted songs don’t seem as trite because they know that the album has depth and soul. So I know that you kind of need the yin and yang in there but I think that the lighthearted stuff is more difficult for me to grasp.

It’s been four years since your last record. Do you feel your approach to your music has evolved since then?

Yeah, it’s evolved in that… I don’t know if evolved is the right word but I’ve shed layers. So other people can place an outer shell on what you do or what you love, and you can kind of go down that path and realise it’s a dead end road that’s not really who you are, and you’re chasing something that is not your own and therefore you don’t end up loving it in the long run. So I think the more I live, I think every good artist whether it’s Johnny Cash or Willie Nelson, you watch their life. When they were my age, their music seemed a little bit confused or disjointed. But the longer they go they refine their sound. So I look at that as not so much evolving as shedding layers of what is not true. And at the end of their life only the true things remain.

So I’m hoping my journey in life will be that, and it has to do with me studying my ancestors and where my bloodline came from, and the music that they love and their culture, and I started to realise that I’ve been handed something from my ancestors that I get very excited about. And I can tell where my musical loves come from and why I have fallen in love with certain artists throughout the years. So anyways, if you wanted to call that evolving, that’s what I believe has happened in my music journey.

We’ve touched on the last time you were in the UK back in 2018. Was there anything that surprised you about the audiences here?

Yeah, so I’ve been able to say on numerous occasions that the audience in the UK is the most attentive audience I’ve ever played in front of. And I think part of it comes from their love and respect for history in general, which makes them lovers of music history and where we come from, while they’re simultaneously very excited about what’s new and on the horizon. And that’s how I look at music. So whether it be the songs I’m playing or the stories I’m telling in between the songs, it seems to resonate much louder with the UK audience than the US which is kind of a newer land, you know. I mean I love the audience here as well but I can just tell there’s a little bit different resonation with the hearts when I’m playing in the UK. I always really appreciate that.

You’ve got a couple of collaborations on the new record. Who would be your dream person to collaborate with?

James Taylor. If I could pick one, it would be James Taylor.

How have you been keeping busy during quarantine? I know you’ve mentioned the house and the new baby, and you have your Mo Monday series on social media as well…

Yeah, so thankfully all of our video work for the album and for social media was complete – not the editing but the shooting portion was complete just prior to COVID starting. So I was incredibly blessed that the album was done and the video work was done, now we can sit back and send everything out while we’re sitting on our couches and let people see it. So that’s where the Mo Monday stuff was coming from. It’s a view of my life building the house, my childhood. I do a lot of performances and things like that every Monday.

But like you say my main job is construction work. It’s been a year and six months in building this house which is probably one of the best things that ever happened to me, doing stuff with my hands. It enhances the art that I make, so that was really helpful. And then just trying to be a dad, trying to be a husband with a strong back and do it on purpose. That has been a big part of my life, obviously.

And lastly – when we can travel safely again, have you got any plans to come back to the UK?

Oh of course. They’re more dreams of my heart, because I love being there and would do anything to come back. I’m trying to hope against hope with travel restrictions and all, but I really do hope that sooner than later we’ll be back there.

Mo Pitney’s new album, Ain’t Lookin’ Back, is out on 14th August on Curb Records.

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