Singer and songwriters are in no short supply, but truly achieving success as a solo performer is not easy. With poetic and forthright songwriting that manages to create a portrait of himself as an artist while also reaching listeners on a highly personal level, Colorado-based folk Americana singer-songwriter Mitchel Evan is on the verge of success.
Born and raised in Virginia, 22-year-old Evan has been playing music and writing songs since he was 13 when he started playing in a punk-rock band despite the hurdles along the way. Alongside struggling through his brief time in college, Evan dealt with addiction in his late teens, which uprooted him from Virginia and sent him somewhere new.
“I went to rehab in Virginia, so I wanted to get out of that environment and start somewhere new, so I came to Louisville, Colorado and lived in a sober living setting for awhile and just stuck around afterwards,” Evan said.
He has been in recovery for several years, but his experiences with addiction are still a common theme in his songwriting. The song “Hypocrisy Blues” off his former band’s first extended play “A Place of Love,” deals with these experiences in stark, poetic confession, with the help of soaring, low-down guitar leads and a graceful Hammond organ.
“I played the song [in Dallas], and it’s pretty blatant about that experience,” Evan said. “There was a guy in the crowd who was in recovery, and he sent me a nice message the day after saying the song helped him.”
Until recently, Evan sought out this personal expression and connection through his band Mitchel Evan and The Mangrove. During their time, they released two EPs: “A Place of Love” and “Higher Ground.” The band called it quits earlier this year, leaving Evan to pursue music on his own. He did not let the breakup stunt his creative output.
“The band’s split knocked me up a gear,” Evan said. “It was inspirational and motivating.”
He is still working on The Mangrove’s debut full-length “Back and Forth,” set to release later this year. A soulful blend of Americana, blues and rock ‘n’ roll, “Back and Forth” is a portrait of a band that is no longer, but still very much alive in influence, spirit and range.
“Musically, the album was a discovery process for me,” Evan said. “I was intentionally writing songs in different genres. While I was writing, I was trying to figure out if I could write a good country song, or a good funk tune. So at one point, I spent a week listening to James Brown. I think it’s amateur in that way though. It’s an artist who’s trying new things and can do them to a level that’s passable, but where is the artist? It was a journey of trying to figure out my voice—becoming realized—and I’m super young, so I think it’s supposed to happen this way.”
Instead of scrapping the band’s work, Evan wants the music to be recognized.
“I felt the need to spend the money to release an album by a band that doesn’t exist anymore,” Evan said. “It’s worth it to me to close the door behind this chapter and not let everything I did with the band be buried with this album. It needs to be heard.”
Evan’s transition into a full-time solo musician has been smooth, and he sees merit in the independence and self-motivation it takes, using it as a means to further his output and energy as an artist.
“I’ve realized since parting with the band that what I do is very personal to me,” Evan said. “I don’t necessarily need to share the experience with other people on stage for it to be meaningful, which is the opposite experience for a lot of people.”
This independence has found a home on his upcoming solo debut titled “It’s A Hell of a Drug, Nostalgia.” A stripped back, personal endeavor influenced by the likes of Ryan Adams, Jason Isbell and Damien Rice that takes the full-band arrangements of The Mangrove and tones them down to forthright simplicity. This will be Evan’s first official release as a solo artist.
“[The album] is a very different record than “Back and Forth,” and I think that it’s much more realized,” Evan said. “It’s honest, stripped back and it’s very focused on myself. It means a lot to me.”
A connection to the audience and the ability for listeners to relate to his songs is something Evan constantly seeks, as he sees it as one of the most important elements of success. He recently began hosting “Songwriters in the Round,” a regular, interactive show at the Dona Laurita Art Gallery in Louisville that spotlights multiple local songwriters and allows them to tell their stories and explain the inspiration behind their music.
“I think the idea is to dissolve the barrier between audience and performer,” Evan said. “I’d be open to audience members asking the audience questions about a certain line, what something means or where it came from. I wouldn’t feel like it’s invasive; I like being asked questions like that.”
Evan talks about his music with peaceful fervor, and it is clear that there are not any frills in his creative process or performance. At this point in time, it is just him, his stories and an acoustic guitar. In a similar vein to songwriters like Josh Ritter, Evan’s music is centered around his lyrics rather than instrumentation or a sense of bravado. He simply tells his stories, warts and all, with the hope that they will reach his listeners.
“There no gimmicks or frills to what I do,” Evan said. “It’s not centered around showmanship or trick. I’m not a guitar virtuoso, and I can’t do vocal acrobatics, but I have my words.”
Contrary to many musicians, Evan sees financial success as secondary, instead aspiring to make enough to sustain a living and a continued life in art.
“I would never compromise the integrity of my art for the sake of making money,” Evan said. “The goal is to connect with as many people as possible, not to make as much money as possible. That’s the only way it should be. There are people who deserve your money more than those who are in it for fame, girls or money, and that’s wrong—give your spot to someone who cares.”
Collegian reporter Brody Coronelli can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @brodycoronelli.