Can we discuss your musical background, Max. What was the first album you ever bought?
The first album that was ever bought for me was Harvest by Neil Young, but I think the first album I ever bought with my own money was In Rainbows by Radiohead. I got my first record player when I was 15 or 16, and I think that was about the time it came out.
Are you from a musical family?
Yeah, I mean nobody in my family is musical – nobody plays any instruments or anything – but music was a big part of life. My parents were always playing all kinds of stuff, like Prince, Al Green, Bonnie Raitt, Talking Heads, Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan... There was just music in my life, ever since I was a kid, and albums were important to my parents and they shared that with me. So it’s always been ingrained in me to be a music fan, at least.
How did you gravitate towards making music yourself?
I took piano lessons as a young kid, but I’m not very good at reading music and it was always challenging for me, and I didn’t really enjoy it. So I did that reluctantly for a few years, until I was eight or nine, and then I was 12 or 13 I started taking different kinds of lessons. I was playing in a jazz combo, and learning by ear and reading lead sheets, and for whatever reason that clicked more and I was able to do that a little bit better. And that really sparked my interest in playing music. From then on I just played as often as I could, played in bands, and eventually started writing my own songs and fell back on the piano as a vehicle for that.
Who were the artists that made you want to take up music professionally?
Neil Young was a big one. I got a record of his when I was at an impressionable age. It just spoke to me in a different way to how other music had. I guess [it was] the rawness of the recordings, the realness, the vulnerability of his voice and the shakiness of it all, but also the general vibe on the record. It had these country elements and these more rootsy elements, but it was orchestrated and it seemed like it was coming straight from the heart, in a way that maybe other music I’d been exposed to wasn’t – you know, like pop music on the radio that I’d listened to passively. It was just like, “Wow this is really, really special. I’d like to try writing songs because it seems cool.”
You went to college to study music, right?
I did. I went to college three times actually. I’m kinda bad at college. I went to Berkley – a music college in Boston – for a year, and then I left because I didn’t really feel like I fit in. It was very cut-throat and competitive; it was a challenging atmosphere for me to be myself in. And I was missing a girl and I was homesick. Also, in that year I had some small interest with some management companies and record labels in London, so I was spending time in London, demoing stuff out and taking meetings. But I wasn’t ready to go for it; I was naive and I don’t think my songs were ready.
But after that first year of Berkley, I realised that I didn’t know if it was for me so went home to Des Moines to focus on writing songs, and to see if I could use these connections I’d made in London to nudge my way into the music industry. So I went to school near Des Moines, taking liberal arts classes, trying to figure out a major. But then after that year I went back to Berkley and managed to get my scholarship back, thankfully. And that semester I ended up signing a publishing deal and booked a tour, and I’ve enjoyed music full-time ever since.
For the benefit of anyone who’s yet to hear your debut, can you sum up what they can expect?
Well, it’s all songs I’ve written over the last few years, and it was recorded partially at a studio in New York called Electric Lady. It was started there, and the building blocks were laid down for what I wanted to do with the record, and then I finished it at my friend’s house in North Carolina. But I really wanted to incorporate a lot of these gospel and soul elements that I’m so interested in. Because up until this point, I never really had a budget or the resources to really make what I was hearing in my head come alive, in terms of production and the kind of players that I was able to get on the record. With the album, we had a little bit of budget.
So I think the songs aren’t necessarily all soul songs, or country songs really either. I think of them as more pop songs, but they’re influenced by country music because I’m a big fan of it, as well as soul music and gospel music. I didn’t want it to sound like the singer-songwriter record – not in a good or bad way – I just wanted it to be a bit more musical than that. Because those are the kind of records that I love: the lost soul records from the 60s and 70s. So I really wanted it to have that groove and soul.
You mentioned you recorded at the legendary Electric Lady studios?
Yeah, I mean it was crazy. I never in my wildest dreams would have imagined I would book a session there. It was a whole different experience for me. I’m so used to recording at home, because that’s how I’ve done everything else up until this point. But just the history of it, and being in there and feeling – not to be cheesy – the presence of all the records that have been made in there. It was a really cool few days.
The album was partially produced by Inflo, which seems quite an unusual pairing because he’s more well known for hip hop. What prompted you to work with him?
Yeah, it was interesting. My manager knew him and I wanted to reach out to him because I wanted to modernise what I was doing a bit; I needed another perspective. I wanted the drums and bass to sound a certain way, and I wanted it to be kind of hip-hop in a sense; not necessarily sampled, but I wanted to have a certain kind of low end that’s more popular in some of those recordings. So we booked the session in New York and fleshed out the songs, and he was just a really great producer. He has so much creative energy, like, take it or leave it, but he’ll always have an idea and you’ll never have a dull moment. Which can also be challenging, because I’ll go in the studio with what I think is a finished song and then he’ll be like, “Let’s tear this apart and go at it again.” (Laughs)
The soulfulness of the album extends to the lyrics too. Could tell us more about where you look to for inspiration?
Most of the songs are autobiographical, or at least have happened to people close to me. I certainly haven’t lived every song but I’ve either observed it or lived it. Sometimes I do feel like an observer, like I’m watching the world go by and I’m not really living in the moment, and I don’t know if that’s a songwriter thing or what. But yeah, I had all these things inside me that I needed to get off my chest, or that I needed to make sense of, and through writing lyrics I made sense of them in a way.
What sort of things did you want to get off your chest?
There’s a lot of regret in the record. I think that’s the main thing I wanted to process just because I guess – not necessarily from a career standpoint but from a personal standpoint – there were a lot of things I wish I would have done differently. A lot of decisions I wish I would have made, a lot of actions I wouldn’t have taken. So I think the record is about trying to process that and to reach a point of peace with yourself, in a sense. But at the same time I think the record’s also about constantly moving and travelling and observing and being detached from everything. So those are the two main themes that I wrote about: detachment and regret.
Is there anything you feel you’ve learned about yourself in the making of this album?
Yeah, absolutely. I think I learned about regret when making this album because before I sat down to write the lyrics, and get really introspective, I was running around a little bit like a chicken with my head cut off. And then I sat down and said, “I’m gonna take a look at the last two years of my life, maybe. And I’m gonna draw inspiration from that to write these lyrics.” And I think in doing that it turned out I had a lot of things I that I couldn’t wrap my head around, that were kind of overwhelming in terms of relationships with people and family and friends.
I think, first and foremost, [music is] fun. I like being around people and playing shows, and I like the culture around it. But the more and more I got into songwriting, I realised it holds a therapeutic role in my life. It’s definitely a release for me and a way to process my thoughts. In real life I’m kind-of a shy, introverted person, and I find it difficult to say the things I really mean to people – sometimes to a fault – and songwriting gives me a way to do that. Without it, I might go crazy a little bit. If I haven’t written a song for a while I can almost feel things building up in a way, and I feel a bit on-edge.
You’ve opened for Rufus Wainwright and Lana Del Rey previously. Is there anything you’ve learned from them?
Rufus is a really impeccable performer. It’s kind-of amazing to be honest, just how he performs the songs and how he can sing. He plays piano, so he had the same set up as me, but he captivated the audience and had them in the palm of his hand in a way that I didn’t. It’s not as simple as going up there and playing your songs, you have to put on a show, because people want to see a show and they want to be captivated. Seeing him do that was a real turning point for me in terms of how I thought of performing. He did it so effortlessly and I was captivated watching it every night.
And with Lana, the same exact thing applies to her but something different is the way she interacts with her fans. You know, she takes the last 30 or 45 minutes out of her set to go down amongst the audience and sign records and take selfies, and people hand her flowers and stuff. For an artist of her stature, she doesn’t have to do that really. But you can tell she is really grateful in a genuine way to all these people that have helped her have a career. So while they didn’t necessarily pass advice to me directly, just watching them do their thing I learned a lot.