First Published August 2020
THE CHANGING OF LIFE AND CHANGING OF HEARTS
The first thoughts that come to mind when you think of someone, or when you hear their name mentioned, will more often than not tell you everything you need to know about them. For me, as far as MO PITNEY is concerned, it can all be summed up in one simple word: country. Country, of course, was Mo’s debut single back in December of 2014, and it was, in essence although not intentional, Mo’s declaration of who he was. It was a country song, no ifs, buts, or maybes about it. In how it sounded musically, in its lyrical content and theme, and in the brilliant, easy confidence of Mo’s vocal delivery.
The album that followed in October of 2016 Behind This Guitar – which had been preceded by the follow-up single Boy And A Girl Thing – proved that Country was no one-off. While some traditionalist fans were intent on handing Illinois man the title of the saviour of country music, and with good reason in fairness, this wasn’t a quest Pitney himself had any interest in, remarking in a Rolling Stone interview with Stephen L. Betts at the time (in reference to those fans), “Don’t put that on me! I just want to make music. I’m honoured that people see me as that, but I’m not doing this as a way to be different.”
And he wasn’t doing it to be different. But make no mistake about it, by doing it, it certainly made Mo different. Country as a song, and Behind This Guitar as an album, simply reflected Mo as he is: country. As a singer, as a songwriter, and as a man. For Mo, his faith and his family are at the heart of everything he does. And his songs, as all great country songs do, tell stories. Great stories.
It’s been a while in coming along, but Mo’s second album, AIN’T LOOKIN’ BACK, is finally on the way, dropping on August 14th. I’ve been lucky enough to have heard the whole collection already, and that privilege has only served to reinforce the fact that whenever I think of Mo, or hear his name mentioned anywhere, the first thought that still comes to mind is simply this…country. And speaking of privileges, it was mine to speak to Mo for a second time very recently. And Mo the man is still every bit as country as Mo the singer and the songwriter is. And thank God for that.
When we spoke, Mo, his wife Emily, and their daughter Evelyne, were patiently awaiting the arrival of someone very special… the latest addition to the Pitney household. So I began our chat by asking Mo how everyone was feeling…
“We’re feeling really good! Slightly confused. We’ve had three nights where we were ready to head to the hospital due to contractions but they end up being kind of intermittent. But last night she had the strongest contraction yet, she definitely thought that it was labour starting. But because of Covid, we’re trying to wait to go to the hospital as long as we can. So after we waited for three hours and were pretty much sure we were gonna head to the hospital, the contractions just started to slow down, which is the third time that’s happened. So we’re excited. Baby’s head is down, best we know. She’s in the chute, ready to come on to meet her parents and her sister! It’s just taking a little bit of time. But we still have two days until her actual due-date, so it’s not that we’re overdue.”
Mo always came across – and indeed, since becoming a parent, comes across – as someone who was destined to take to fatherhood with the greatest of ease. I wondered how much had being a dad changed him, in terms of being a man in general, but also as far as his songwriting goes?
“Oh yeah, I mean it affects life completely. You can almost look at life, and look at people, in some way or another looking for their father. I’ve seen my relationship to God change and grow, my understanding of him change and grow, from being a father. Because you’re looking at your children and you love them so much. It changes your perspective on life, on what is good and things like that. So then it has an immediate effect on writing because if you’re trying to write from an honest place, the changing of life and the changing of hearts leads to the changing of songs. I mean, I think there’s some people that look at songwriting as kind of some programme that they kinda get right in order to get somebody to like their song and make a bunch of money. But I don’t look at writing that way. I look at it as an honest reflection of where I’m at in life. So definitely, being a father, just because life changes, that changes the way that I write songs. And I think it’s changed it for the better. At least I hope so anyway. I like the songs better. I guess other people will have to decide if they like them better! [laughs].”
I reassured Mo that loads of people love his songs! Proof of that being the fact that his songs were the main reason we were chatting, with his new album, Ain’t Lookin’ Back, due out just a few weeks later. I told Mo that I loved how the very first line he sings on the whole album is, “I didn’t come here to be famous”, and how I felt that there was no way that was a coincidence! So I asked Mo to tell me about deciding to open the album with the track that line is from, A Music Man, featuring Jamey Johnson…
“This whole world seems like it’s trying to sell you something. You can’t turn on your TV, or you can’t drive down the road, or be on Facebook, without an ad that says, ‘Click Me’, or ‘Buy Me.’ And some of those things are being driven by lies and only a desire to be rich and famous. So I’ll do whatever it takes to get you to buy what I have to sell. And then I believe that there’s some people, artists, or table-makers, or app-makers, [for] as long as they can remember, they were created in a way that they were passionate for a thing. And they would do anything to be able to do that the rest of their life, whether they made money at it or not. Of course all of us have got to make enough to survive. But I put myself in that second camp. As long as I can remember, I’ve had the guitar in my hands. Back to fatherhood, my dad played guitar and I wanted to impress him. So it’s just my life. And me moving to Nashville was the desire to see the ability to do that the rest of my life. And I started the record with that song in the hopes that people would recognise that I’m not trying to sell you something for any other reason but that I love to do this. This is my passion. And if you want to come along and join in on my passion with me, there just so happens to be twelve songs after this one that you could check out [laughs]. My desire to start with that song came from [thinking] hopefully maybe peoples’ shields would come down, and hopefully see me as a person who’s not trying to sell them something for the sake of selling them something, but that I love to do this and maybe you’ll love what I do as well.”
I think the last track on any album is certainly just as important as the first. And Mo has chosen to close out Ain’t Lookin’ Back with the very powerful song of faith, Jonas. Knowing how important Mo’s faith is to him, I guessed that the placing of this song in the sequencing was no mistake either…
“Well I want all of my work on Earth to have eternal significance. So if it be God’s will that this record does even better than the first, and it gets in the hands of a lot of people, I want truth to be sensed throughout the whole thing. And there’s a certain type of truth that cuts like a sword. It’s either true, and you build everything off of it, or it’s not true and you can completely disregard it. And I think it’s based around the resurrection of Jesus. If his body actually got up and walked out of that tomb, then what he said has eternal significance. And I think anyone that looks at history with an unbiased view cannot deny the historical accounts that can be seen after his crucifixion. So I wanted to be able to record a song written by Tom Douglas that poignantly made the heart face that. He’s either a liar, and when he was here he was a lunatic. Or, if he rose from the dead, he’s probably who he said he was. And he said he was king of kings, and lord of lords. So I just wanted that anybody who might fall in love with the art, they might see the bedrock on which all of my art is pressing down on, and leave ’em with that. So that’s why it was important to me.”
Two things I love when it comes to songwriting are song titles, and the little stories behind the songs that tell how they came to be in the first place. So that was the direction I wanted to take Mo in for a moment. Firstly, as regards titles, he has a few on this new album that would have made great titles for the whole collection – Right Now With You, the aforementioned A Music Man, and Old Stuff Better – for example. So what was it, I wondered, that made Ain’t Lookin’ Back appeal to him so much that it won the honour of being the album’s title-track?
“It felt like…ya know, we’re all on this journey, and we all do things that we regret, ok? And in order to find freedom in our future, we have to find some abiding way to let go of our past. I think all of us are on a continuum of that. Some people are so welded to their past, they find the future to look impossible. And I’ve definitely been there. I’ve been there to the point of suicidal thoughts. And I think that’s where that comes from, an inability to let go of the past. So I wanted to show that in this album, that things can get that dark. But that song is kinda connected to the entire story of the album, of redemption. This ability to find an abiding letting go of the past, that, I would say, redemption or forgiveness, a setting free…in order to look forward to a bright and hopeful future. Which would be connected to the first song, and it would also be connected to the second song, and that’s why I kinda wanted to put that song – Ain’t Looking Back – somewhere in the middle. It’s kinda the turning point in the record. And I also view world history that same way. Somewhere in the middle, this redemption happened to the world, and was able to give the world something to look forward to if they would just believe. I wanted that to be the underlying theme of the record, and a view into my life. And then it just so happened to make sense to make it the title track of the album.”
Everytime I have the pleasure of talking to Mo, or hear him in another interview, I’m hard-pressed to think of anyone who is more like the ‘dude-next-door’, or down the road. His music is instantly recognisable as country, and he remains so down to Earth, despite being one of the biggest names in country music. The man is literally building his own house with his own hands in Nashville! Why, or how, does Mo think he’s been able to remain so unaffected by everything that usually tends to go along with the ‘fame’ side of the music business?
“I probably would point back to the song that we just mentioned. I put it on this record because I went to this…well God, I believe…had to take me to this place of recognising that I am made of dust. If you look at our science, we are made of dust. That was true when he made us. Out of the dust of the earth he made us that way. And if we recognise that we are created beings, and we are not creators, you have to then follow that anything we have has been given to us. We have nothing of our own. The breath that goes into our lungs that allows me to get a big enough breath to sing the next word, is a gift. And if a person, by the grace of God, can look at all of life as a gift rather than his due…that I worked hard, and now I’m at this place so you should worship me…! [laughs]. I feel like the first part of my life I was living by that compass. And I think that’s the very thing that led me into the dust, into the really dark night of the soul, because I was following that compass. And I would say the only way that I’ve been able to remain even relatively level-grounded, is he had to take me to that place and show me that all of life is a gift. And is as much as I believe that, I taste humility. I mean, just like anybody else, we all still have that pride that wells up in our heart that we’re trying to supress, because that pride robs us of everything beautiful. I’d like to see rid of it as often as I can.”
Over here in Ireland, while many people will know Mo as an artist, they may not be aware of how much his family is actually involved in his career. From his brother Blake being his road-manager, his dad Danny driving the tour bus and running front-of-house, and his sister Holly also being in the band. I asked Mo to tell me about the importance of the roles everybody plays in the whole ‘Mo Pitney’ operation.
“My brother, he’s the tour manager, so he’s calling ahead making sure that all of the shows are lined up and we have everything we need as far as speakers, and food, and timeline. He’s also taking care of the bus and making sure that the bus him and I own together is up and running, and ready to go, that we have drivers ready. Or, he’ll book our flights to fly to Ireland [laughs]. Literally, the show cannot go on without my brother! My sister plays tambourine, guitar, and sings harmony beautifully. She also sings lead when I need the audience to see someone other than myself [laughs]. She should be her own artist. I think she’s seen some of the hoops I’ve needed to jump through in life, and how the business can threaten your love for music, and I think she’s afraid of ever falling out of love with music. So she’s kinda standing back from the artist thing. She also takes some of the responsibility off of Blake. Then my dad drives the bus, and runs front-of-house. He’s an incredible musician. Guitar player, steel guitar player, banjo player. So everything I know about music, I’ve learned in some way, shape or form through him. I trust him. My wife comes along too, and sometimes she’ll help just anywhere she can. She comes up and sings often. She’ll do merch, she’ll do whatever, just pick up slack wherever it’s needed. We’re kind of a unit in helping one another, and we’re very thankful for one another out on the road.”
Mo mentioned about his sister being afraid that the business side of the music industry might make her fall out of love with music itself. Was that perhaps something that had happened with himself, with that dark night of the soul he had mentioned?
“Yes. Yeah. If your guiding light is success and money, it threatens the purity of art. So our fear of failure, our fear of not having daily bread, essentially robs us of the things that we love. And we start polluting everything we do, and doing it for the wrong reasons. So we’ll tamper, and we’ll disconnect from our hearts, in order to make music just to ring the bell and make the money. When you’re just starting off, you feel really guilty from the people around you if their compass is that. They’ll make you feel guilty for wanting to follow your heart. It’s not just in the music industry that you feel that. You can feel that anywhere. It’s like you have to compromise beauty in order to be successful. Which is not true. It’s actually a lie. So as I fought through that, I did fall out of love with music. Because I didn’t feel like anyone around me in my camp at the time saw the beautiful things that I did about music. They were trying to take those things away from me. So yeah, it was a battle. A battle with myself. I believed those lies for a while, and maybe made decisions that weren’t helpful to the music as well. And that leaves you with a bad taste in your mouth as well. It wasn’t the full part of the dark night of the soul, but it definitely had a part to play in it.”
Epilogue: The Pitney household welcomed AUDRA ELAINE PITNEY to the world on July 14th, weighing in at 7.5lbs. Mom and baby are both happy and healthy and doing well. OTRT sends our best wishes to the whole family; Mo, Emily, Evelyne, and Audra!
~ AIN’T LOOKIN’ BACK, the brand new album from MO PITNEY, will be available on all platforms from August 14th. Available to pre-order now.