“It’s so easy to dig up the past, so hard to love where you’re at / and no amount of living changes that / until you love what little bit you have”, sings Michael Paul Lawson over the closing notes of Love Songs For Loners.
It’s a sentiment that runs all the way through the record, as he loosely bundles up a collection of drifters, eccentrics and misfits and lets their stories pour out through him. In turn, he pours the last 10 years of his own unfulfilling jobs, failed relationships and restless searches across the country into the characters.
Produced by Ken Coomer (Wilco, Will Hoge), with Laur Joamets on guitar and Billy Mercer on bass, they worked out of Coomer’s Cartoon Moon Recording Studio in East Nashville, and tracked the record in just over five days, capturing the live energy of the performances with a fiery passion that brings to mind contemporaries like Sturgill Simpson and Tyler Childers.
"When I started writing the songs for this record, I knew I wanted to make something reflecting the full-color palette of country music, from traditional to western swing to alt-country," the Austin, TX alt-country musician notes. "I wanted Love Songs For Loners to feel like the three places I’ve called home: New York, Virginia, and Texas."
From the woozy, soft, late-night picking of ‘I Know Where I’m Going Tonight’ and ‘The One Before The One’ to fist-pumping floor-shakers like ‘Lucille’ and ‘849’, Lawson’s creamy baritone is able to switch seamlessly between whisper-in-your-ear intimacy and a raucous bar room drawl.
With its focus on storytelling through characters, the songs on the follow up to Some Fights You’ll Never Win are truly reminiscent of the greats: Kris Kristofferson, Terry Allen, John Prine. Their influence is there in these songs, just as the short stories of Raymond Carver and the paintings of Edward Hopper seem to be; beautiful as they are in their simplicity. There is something about these songs that feels like sitting up at a bar or hiding under the bed in a motel room, quietly listening in on someone telling their life story; their triumphs and failures as fallouts from the American dream.
“Somewhere you’re reading bedtime stories softly to your kids / While I’m heating up my dinner in the microwave again”, he sings on ‘Lucille’; one of countless moments on the record where in the space of a couple of lines he tells the kind of story that a lesser songwriter would take 20 verses to tell - and still not as well.
Listening to these songs it’s almost like you’re not really listening at all. You're looking at the world through his eyes. You observe what he sees and how he sees it. These wonderful songs implant themselves so vividly in your mind - and the characters are so perfectly flawed and real - it’s as though Lawson has managed to capture all those subtle things in life that perfectly sum up what makes us human.
Love Songs For Loners is premiering in full on Holler below ahead of its release on Friday. Below, we asked Michael Paul Lawson to talk us through the songs on this remarkable new record.
“I like this place - spacious and quiet, but still busy enough to have its own energy. High-back, leather-upholstered booths line the perimeter, and stained glass lamps hang over the tables. There are a couple of pool tables in the middle of the room.
I was here last weekend and the weekend before that. I should find another place - I’m beginning to develop a reputation. The feel of black denim pressed against the pool table helps me pocket any concerns about taking the cue. Nothing else exists now. Hell, I like the anticipation, and maybe I like the reputation, too. I tried to hide it for a long time. That was a mistake. It comes out in dangerous ways when you do that. A little shame is a good thing, and I won’t let it wreck my world anymore, or so I tell myself. I don’t know.
Maybe tomorrow it will wreck my world - at least for a little while. It’s all inconsequential right now”.
“It had only been a few months since she had broken things off with me when she texted me a photo of the ring. Well, that ring didn’t stop her from still coming to see me - always urgently and at random hours of the night. Her being engaged never bothered me all that much, if I’m being honest. She once asked if I thought it was terrible what she was doing. She stopped calling after that.
I never knew him - the man she was engaged to - I just knew his name was Andrew. I did occasionally see him in passing. He was clean-cut, tall, wore tailored suits; always left the top two buttons of his shirt undone. He looked like a financier, or at least someone that aspired to be one.
A year or so went by, and then she walked back into my life out of the blue - still engaged but unhappy. Andrew wasn’t paying her enough attention, was always talking to other women online. She wanted me to distract her, and, for a time, I did. Then she was gone again.
I don't hear from her anymore. All I know is that she didn’t get married to Andrew. She just up and left him and moved to South Beach. She’s an influencer now - you can email her agent if you want her to post pictures wearing your clothes. She’s in love again, with someone new, and wants everyone to know it. I still think about her from time to time. But mostly, I think about Andrew. I imagine him fighting like hell to try and win her back".
"Everything would be a hell of a lot different if things had worked out, right? Of course, there’s no way to ever really know. But in those little moments where your life isn’t feeling exactly as you expected, Lucille is always right there. She puts her cigarette out on your skin, leaving you with that burning, un-extinguishable question."
“We never could figure out what to do with anything good. Woodstock was the best thing that ever happened to us, and look how that turned out in the end. That same summer of ‘99, we got an Applebee’s and a Best Buy. We didn’t know that that was as good as it would get.
When you live here, you get used to people leaving. You can’t fault them for it. The job market is limited, and it snows more than almost anywhere else in the country. If you’re lucky, they come back for the holidays, and you get to pick them up from the airport. And December on the Tug Hill Plateau means there’s a high likelihood of driving through a squall - a pure whiteout. The snow doesn’t stop anybody. You just plow through it and hope you find a salt truck to ride behind on the interstate until your exit. It’s the one thing every upstate New Yorker has in common. The snow is the great uniter”.
“In some ways, everything I have ever done in my life has been an attempt to capture your attention - to captivate your mind the way that you have captivated mine. In that regard, I suppose you might consider me a failure. But then again, I don’t suspect that you are considering me at all. None of this is to say that I haven’t grown. I have counted the rings and contemplated what each one means.
I have this recurring dream where I see a maple alone in a field, its leaves green and full. It is far off in the distance, and I am moving towards it in a singularly determined way. I am hurrying, almost panicked. The leaves begin to change - red, orange, yellow, and finally brown. One gently falls, then another, and another. Something isn’t right. I try to run towards the tree but don’t have the strength. I look down, and my hands are withered and bony; my legs are weak. I am old.
I think there’s more to it, but that’s all I ever remember when I wake up”.
“Why do you keep falling in love with people who live 1,200 miles away from you? I’ll tell you why. You don’t know what love is. That’s why. You think you know what it is and what it feels like, but you don’t. You only feel the way you do because you know you can’t really have it. That’s why it never works out with that person you’ve convinced yourself would change everything… if only they lived closer.
And deep down, you know that the second you had it all, unconditionally and without question, it would lose every ounce of meaning it ever had to you. That’s why you keep falling in love with people who live 1,200 miles away. It’s either that or you’re poly and haven’t worked up the courage to admit it to yourself yet”.
“When stories started coming out about the effectiveness of social distancing, I thought, there’s no fucking way that’s going to fly - not in this country. I grossly underestimated how much it wasn’t going to fly. The right blamed the left, the left blamed the right, the socialists blamed the capitalists, and the capitalists blamed the government, the socialists and the Marxists alike.
Overnight, spray-painted messages showed up on walls all over the city. Then came the protests, followed by riots. Everyone tried to tell you what to think and how to feel about it. We all did our best to assign meaning to the absurdity while we waited for our numbers to be called. Then again, maybe our numbers had already been called, and we just hadn’t realized it”.
"It’s comical how strong your convictions are at 18. You count down the days until you can leave as if it’s a prison sentence. It doesn’t even matter where you’ll go, and you’ll go anywhere where no one knows your name. And then that day comes, and you pull onto the highway, and everything feels right and good. A good shock to the senses will make you feel like you’ve finally got everything worked out. That shock will sustain you for a couple of years.
But once the newness and novelty wear off, that same old feeling starts to settle back in. Time to up the voltage. And each subsequent shakeup seemingly brings you closer to figuring it all out—until it feels like it's pulling you further away from whatever you were looking for in the first place. But you never really knew exactly what that was, did you?”
Love Songs For Loners is released on October 7th