Lucas Powell deeply digs into buried experiences and emotions of the past.
The metro Detroit indie folk singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist delicately exhumes old selves and uncovers entombed painful memories on his cerebral, haunting debut album, Michigan, which dropped in August.
“One of my favorite songwriters as a kid was Jon Foreman because I grew up religious and liked Switchfoot. He once said songwriting is like archaeology for him. He just digs inside and finds something. I saw that in an interview a couple of years ago and realized that’s my songwriting process,” Powell said.
“If I can’t write something, then I know that it’s because I need to meditate and get it out of me. Michigan is very embodying of a young, coming-of-age kid trying to get it all out. I could just see me trying to find the right words to say, and I love it for that reason.”
On Michigan, Powell slowly unearths fragile thoughts about spirituality, growth, self-worth and loss throughout his 12-track personal excavation. Filled with vivid religious imagery and layers of swelling cinematic soundscapes, the album thoughtfully chronicles his cathartic journey toward inner enlightenment and existential freedom.
“I’m exploring those themes to use that language as my own narrative. Artists use Christianity or religion as a way to talk about themselves or question it. It’s a mix of sometimes I’m addressing it, and sometimes I’m just using the language that I have,” Powell said.
Beneath Michigan’s Surface
Powell uncovers his first Michigan memory on “Tell Your Stories,” a comforting, concise instrumental filled with beaming, hopeful guitars and expansive, divine synths. It serves as a safe sonic space to share troubled feelings with an open-minded audience alongside an intriguing quote from Walker Percy.
“I want this to be the table that I’m setting, and I’m trying to find a place for everyone at that table. You’re welcome to come tell your stories alongside mine, and that’s why that song is at the front,” Powell said.
Once inside Powell’s archaeological dig, listeners revisit raw, agonizing memories from a past friendship on “Firmament.” Churning acoustic strums, confident synths, introspective banjo, courageous piano, moody bass, vibrant electric guitars, crashing cymbals and thumping drums encourage Powell to confront his longtime pain and find overdue closure.
He reveals, “Your friendship is like a Trojan horse/Deceitful in size of force/I thought you were somebody safe/Who knew the things you’d try to take.”
“I had an experience in my life that I knew I needed to write about. It’s what I needed to do to heal. There was a person in my life who never liked me because they thought I looked like their father. That person never gave me a chance, and they did something hurtful to me,” Powell said.
“I’m most proud of the ‘Trojan horse’ line. It just puts the words together for me – the deceitfulness and the amount of pain that a person could cause. That’s what I was trying to write the whole time.”
After “Firmament,” Powell shares another honest lesson from his youth on “Lemon Ice-Cream,” which eloquently addresses the demise of a relationship and the distorted self-perception that accompanies it.
Jubilant acoustic strums, pulsating drums, smooth bass, whirring synths, vivid electric guitars and intergalactic organ bring a sweet, atmospheric flavor to a sour situation.
He boldly sings, “Take a glimpse and tell me what you see/Are these memories of you or God ‘fixing’ me?/‘Cause the memories will still remain/Even if we heal the wounds and cleanse the stains.”
“It turned into a song about trying to say that I’m not a bad person. Listening to that now, I know that I felt like I was, and I was trying to convince myself more than anyone else,” Powell said.
“It’s the oldest song by far on the record, and ‘Colors’ was written with it. They were going to be one song. Eventually, I wrote ‘Marigold,’ and it’s also in the same key. For the longest time, I thought they would be the first three songs on the record, but they didn’t feel right.”
Powell continues to tackle additional past Michigan experiences, including navigating the challenging emotional current on “The Chippewa River.”
Earnest acoustic strums, celestial piano, majestic banjo, soft bass, uplifting electric guitars, spirited drums and shimmering cymbals provide a calming sense of relief for the future.
He reflects, “I was not in tune with the trail ahead of us/I was not immune to the seasonal metamorphosis/I swore I saw your face in the fog/I swore I heard you try to talk.”
“Up north is such a spiritual place for me, and I go there anytime I’m going through anything. That’s part of the reason why the album was going to be named Michigan. I got to a point where I was no longer creating, and I was just trying to finish it,” Powell said.
“It felt like something I had to get out more and more. Coming home (from up north), there was this moment where I felt something, and it felt mystical again. It was the first time I had felt like that in a long time.”
For Powell, Michigan represents an evolving body of highly personal stories and reflections that date back to age 17. Over the next seven years, he assembled an emotive, intimate collection of songs that captured him at different points in time.
“A lot of the songs are honestly old, and there’s not much that was written in the last two years. ‘The Chippewa River’ is the newest song by far, and ‘Firmament’ is pretty close to being a newer song. That’s part of the reason why those were the singles,” said Powell, who’s inspired by Lord Huron, Noah Gunderson, José González and Phoebe Bridgers.
“I started recording demos in my apartment slowly because I had Logic and then COVID happened. I had nothing to do but record, and I started out doing really basic demos. Then, I didn’t like the way things sounded, so I started layering things.”
Powell also played all the instruments on the album with the exception of drums, which were done by Fundamental Sound Co.’s Taylor Greenshields. He recorded Michigan at several remote locations and sent the album to Eureka Records’ Dan Zasadny to mix and master it.
“I wanted someone who could wade into the album and take it with the seriousness and love that I had for it. It’s definitely dynamic music, and it was a mix of insecurity and the kind of music that I liked,” said Powell with a laugh.
Before and After Michigan
Powell developed a love of music while growing up in Eaton Rapids. He started pounding on his family’s piano as a child and took piano lessons from age five to 18. In middle school, Powell taught himself guitar and added songwriting to his growing musical repertoire.
By high school, he played in bands, performed at local coffee shops and listened to Radical Face, Sufjan Stevens and The Paper Kites. After graduation, Powell attended Spring Arbor University and studied theology while continuing to write and record songs.
“There were a lot of really talented people at Spring Arbor, but I was pretty quiet about music. Then, I got involved in a songwriting community and picked up a guitar. People said, ‘You’re really good,’ and that encouraged me to build up,” he said.
Today, Powell’s focused on building up his discography with another release. He’s writing and recording a follow-up album to Michigan and playing a growing roster of live shows with Josh Sheehan (guitar), Jacob Saltary (keys) and Konstatin Polyakov (drums). Powell’s next performance will take place Dec. 4 at The Blind Pig with Jackamo and Jackie Palmer.
“The stuff coming on the next record will sound a lot different. It’s going to be a lot more dynamic-driven, and it’s going to sound more like a Phoebe Bridgers record than a Sufjan Stevens record. But I don’t mind that, it’s an evolution in sound,” he said.