Almighty American tap into empathy via songwriting on 'Songs With Legs'

Almighty American

Almighty American John Haynes

Find a quiet spot, turn off all devices, let any outside noise, thought, or feelings fall away. Then listen to Almighty American’s new EP, Songs With Legs Vol. I.

The Minneapolis band’s new album contains four stripped-down songs that dig deep where emotions live. Songs With Legs Vol. I is sweet and unassuming without being bland. The EP manages to avoid clichés or dullness, yet engages the listener on a simpler, gentler level.

Ahead of the record-release show Friday at the Warming House, frontman Michael Gay talked with City Pages about storytelling and finding empathy through songwriting. 

City Pages: How well do you feel this album distilled your current sound and perspective?

Michael Gay: I've left plenty of songs behind as I've progressed as a songwriter, and the ones that are still around definitely speak to where I'm at, whether it was yesterday or five years ago. Lyrics are important to me and I wanted to have something that focused in on that specific aspect of these tunes.

Almighty American as a project is, first and foremost, about trying to write the best songs that I can and hoping they mean something to the listener. Our last release was a dressed-up, full band sound. The stripped-down format of this new EP makes it really easy for the listener to decide whether or not the songs are meaningful to them.

CP: How do you encompass love, making mistakes, learning how to be human -- things we all are trying to navigate -- and not make it sound trite when writing?

MG: That is one of the things I think about the most when I'm writing. I like telling stories in my songs. Some are my stories, and those feelings and emotions are easier to convey because I've actually experienced them. However, I more often find myself taking on the first-person role and writing songs about other people's stories. I've learned I like that process a lot more because have to wrap my head around scenarios that I sometimes have never experienced.

When I'm writing someone else's story, or a synthesis of a few stories, I want to be sure that I don't make light of the situation, whatever it may be. I've learned a lot about empathy through songwriting. I try to do the story justice and not always go for the easy rhyme. I would be really bummed if a friend who inspired a tune figured it out and felt like they were misrepresented or felt hurt by how I portrayed their story.

CP: Why only an EP at the moment? What else do you have in store?

MG: I decided to release this EP because Almighty American has a bit of a split personality. The last EP didn't really represent the lone singer-songwriter side of things. And while we try to get out and play as a band whenever possible, I end up performing solo fairly often using the moniker. This EP is basically solo version of the project which is how it began.

I like writing songs and I'm most proud when I get ones that can stand up on their own, without having to rely on a more elaborate arrangement. The EP title is a reference to that -- "songs with legs" that still stand up when they are played with just a guitar and a microphone.

As for the future, we're very close to finishing our first full-length release. We are working with our friend Danny O'Brien, who has been making some really great sounding records out of his Hot Dad Labs studio. Another buddy, Chris Furst, recently opened up a great space, Studio 65, where we recorded all the rhythm section stuff.

The full-length is a full band effort and the guys who play with me -- Andrew Schibilla, Beck Nebel, and Joel Bowers -- did a really amazing job. There are still some details to work out, but I can't wait for people to hear it -- it'll be out this summer, hopefully earlier than later.

CP: Tell me the story behind "I Didn't Know."

MG: That one came from me coming to grips with who I am, understanding my flaws, and trying to be better about not letting them run the show. We've all been there. I don't remember what the exact scenario was that lead to writing that tune, but I can guarantee it involved my tendency to put my foot in my mouth. It's like people say when they talk about addiction -- the first step is admitting you have a problem.

If you're in a relationship and things don't feel right or someone is hurt and you don't get it, that's probably a good indication that you're part of the problem. You'll never resolve issues if you don't start by apologizing. I'd been sitting on that line, "I'm not too proud to admit / When my achilles heel is flaring up again" and had the little guitar part already. It just kind of came together one day.

CP: Any other songs that you're proud of on the EP?

MG: Honestly, I'm proud of them all. These were all on the short list for the full-length we're working on. "The Only Eyes I Care About" is kind of cutesy and maybe a little on the nose, but I had a lot of fun writing it and that melody had been stuck in my head for a long time. That one is definitely about me, and changes I've noticed in myself because of my wife and my relationship.

"In the Quiet" came from a story about a conversation my dad had with my grandfather about wanting to walk out into the Ozark Mountains where they lived and just be in the quiet. I never met the guy because he died when my dad was a teenager, so I only have little stores to imagine what he was like. I made a demo on my phone and sent it to my dad and he basically said, "Grandpa would be proud of you for that," which carries some weight for me.

I wrote "Paper Chains" over five years ago, and that one is special to me because it is about the situation my wife and I were in the entire time we were engaged. She was working on an organic farm up North and had terrible cell reception and not great internet access, while I was living in Minneapolis. I like it because it has that specific meaning to me, but I also like that it is a song other people often tell me they can easily relate to, which is a special thing in it's own right.

CP: Why did you choose the Warming House for the album-release show? 

MG: I had heard about that place and it seemed really cool. I knew I wanted to play a solo show for the release and a smaller, hopefully quiet, more intimate setting seemed like the best fit. I'm happy I approached them because they've been a delight to work with and I'm really glad to have them be a part of the release.

Almighty American
With: Sam Cassidy
When: 7:30 p.m. Fri., Jan. 13
Where: The Warming House
Tickets: $10 adv, $12 door, more info here