Mike O’Hehir writes earthy, organic music, so it’s fitting that my recent phone interview with him took place from his car in his home state of Maine “outside a barn on a sheep farm,” he says, where he’s recording a follow-up to his debut CD, the self-titled Old Soul.
I met the 26-year-old O’Hehir last year after almost tripping over him in Williamsburg as he sat on the sidewalk playing an acoustic guitar while the members of Old Soul milled around their van. With permission, I shot about 30 photos of the compelling-looking group, tipped my hat and got halfway up the block before I turned around and saw O’Hehir running my way, an outstretched hand offering me Old Soul’s CD. The music took me to that aurally rainy, gorgeous landscape occupied by Nick Drake or Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ Raising Sand, minus the preciousness of so many of those type of acoustic efforts.
I arranged an interview with O’Hehir to coincide with the band’s upcoming appearances at Pete’s Candy Store in Brooklyn on March 22 and Rockwood Music Hall on March 23. Below is what the singer/guitarist to say about songwriting, life, God, the music business and more:
Did you always play this type of music, the softer kind that is sometimes difficult to put over in bars and places where music is much more loud and aggressive?
I actually lived in New York for a year and was playing heavier rock and roll and stuff with Dave [McCullough, bassist]. I was a completely different person then because it was a dark time in my life. I was in this negative space and smoking weed all the time in my apartment in Bushwick and was around all this rock and roll party lifestyle and models and the clubs and promoters and bullshit. Sorry to call it bullshit. I was very analytical and writing in my journal incessantly while playing music and putting up with this insanity all around. Everything that happened went into a journal, all the thoughts and feelings. I see now that I was just letting go.
When I moved back home to Maine I had an extremely heightened sense of awareness and had a spiritual awakening. I felt this energy from my core, which sounds pretty heavy and hard to put into words. But I got lot of my lyrics about love and life and the earth coming from that place of, I guess you’d call it light. I don’t know how else to describe it. And there was the nucleus of the new sound. I had a vision of our band and I had a vision of all these different instruments. I believe in manifesting your thoughts—and that’s exactly what’s happened.
Was it a big leap to go from what you were playing to now? Your vocals sound sometimes as though you’re dreaming, singing with your eyes closed.
I used to be hard. When I was in high school, I was in hardcore bands, as lead singer. I was just screaming. I went from that to really starting to sing a little bit and my taste always changed, but I let go of the harder stuff. I rarely listen to it now. My friend Dave—three of us, actually—moved to NY to do ‘70s and ‘80s rock and roll, kind of grungy. That just sort of fell apart right away, the guitar player wandered away with a chick from a reality show, and he’s still with her. Then Dave and I played in a couple of rock and roll bands and I felt a pull to be out of the city and be in nature. Went back to Maine with my dirty laundry.
It was all leading up to this, though. I have journals showing the path I was making with this transition. Then I just stopped writing because I reached the point of presence, just here, now, a wave that I rode for months, waking up with joy and bliss every day and seeing everything for the first time. It’s still continuing. And then your mind comes back in!
It seems like there’s a focus on the total sound rather than “this is my song, this is my voice, this is my guitar, and what’s behind me is the ‘back up.’”
I really like that you say that because there’s so much influence in the band, especially since we’re working with a lot of people. I’m writing a lot of the music and people bring their ideas to the table. As a group, we all like so many different types of music. Our drummer [Brendan Shea] listens to marching music, Dave is into ‘60s glam rock and garage rock, and I’m into that, too.
I’m hearing a lot of things as I’m working on a song, and when it’s time to record and arrange things, we create a group dynamic. There are more than one or two things happening and there are things in there that don’t give anything away at once. I really enjoy records like that, and I like to put out a record where you hear things for the fifth time that you didn’t hear at first. I like to connect things to that spiritual space, putting out those vibrations of love, as corny as that may sound, and whether or not people pick up on them consciously, it affects them positively. I think people are getting it whether they realize it or not. I’ve had people approach me after shows and say, “I’m not sure what you guys are doing but I feel it.” I like making people feel like they’re experiencing something, not just hearing it.
Do you bring up your spirituality with the band and sort of aim it in that direction, or do you pretty much keep it within?
I talk about it with the band; there’s a level of understanding and we have our own background and our take and I might seem a little far out to my friends, but we’re all pretty tuned in and that’s why it works. We’re all very different but there’s a common thread that ties us together. I see us as characters all on this big journey, riding things out together and there’s a lot to unfold between us. I try to encourage that, what we think about and what we put into this. We want to go to Europe, for example—want to make that happen, not just talk about it.
Have you ever heard of Fleet Foxes? Not that you sound exactly like them, but there’s a certain energy I get that’s reminiscent. They’re on Sub Pop. Maybe you guys could be on the same level.
You’re not the first guy to say that, and it’s funny you should mention Sub Pop. I’m not picky about labels and I don’t like to think about them, but the only label I really think [about] is Sub Pop. We have this new album coming out and this new material is more upbeat and catchy than the first record, a little less melancholy and a little more danceable. On the first record, I actually recorded most of the instruments—we didn’t have the ensemble that we have now. I recorded bass, banjo, percussion, a lot of stuff. Now we have a collective, and it’s a different sound that’s grown. The energy level is higher. We’re gonna be done tracking, mix hopefully in May, and have it out by summer. We threw the first record around on social media, and for the second album, we’d like to do a label.
What was the reaction locally to the first album?
We got really good feedback. We just need to play out a ton more. I have a really good feeling about it. I’ve had such a passion for doing this since I was pretty young and it’s just gotten stronger.
Is music your full-time endeavor?
I work from job to job in Maine. I live on the coast, woodworking and lobstering and landscaping, and I’m a live-in “manny” for rich kids in the summertime.
What does your mom think of your career choice?
Interesting you asked about my mother. We’re close and we’re also a lot alike. She says, “I just know it’s gonna take off,” and she’s extremely supportive.
How did you get into Rockwood for your upcoming show? They get a ton of submissions.
A few people came when we played at Pete’s Candy Store in Brooklyn and Pianos in Manhattan. A good friend of mine named Christopher Paul Stelling, an amazing songwriter, dug us, we hit it off, we did a show together in Maine and he gave me the email to the bookers at Rockwood. I shot them a date and they said yes. It’s our first time in there, and I’m hoping we’ll make an impression. It’ll be four or five of us. It’ll be a tight squeeze, but cool.
Old Soul will be playing at Pete’s Candy Store in Brooklyn on March 22 and Rockwood Music Hall on March 23. For more information, go to oldsoulmusic.net.