Interview: Arlo McKinley on how personal upheaval shaped his new album

Like everyone else, Arlo McKinley’s plans were dealt an unexpected and painful blow by the onset of the global pandemic.

With an album (2020’s ‘Die Midwestern’) just released, the accompanying tour to promote the record was cancelled, whilst at the same time Arlo was also sadly dealing with personal loss. “It was a messy time”, he explains to Paul Gibson from his home in Cincinnati. “A bunch of madness, really! It just felt like the world was being taken over by my personal life. I felt like I had to get these things out of me”. The songs that came as a result of this catharsis were the catalyst for Arlo’s new release ‘This Mess We’re In’, the title a stark confirmation of the tumult he found himself surrounded by. “I write my records in little chapters, I’ll go away and live for a few months and then come back and pick the good, the bad, and the mostly ugly stories to write about. Once I had a couple of new songs together I knew that I was writing a record, and I knew what the central theme was going to be”. With the Ohio sun beating down, Arlo expands on the recording of the new album, choosing a nom de guerre, and a decisive meeting with a legendary singer-songwriter.

Arlo, you’ve been on this path as a singer-songwriter for some time now. When did you start writing and playing?

I started around 2005 with my friend Jeremy Pinnell, he’s one of my best friends and an awesome, awesome singer-songwriter. We had a duo but I was more of a harmony singer then. I didn’t really start writing seriously until around 2011, and that led to my first album ‘Arlo McKinley & The Lonesome Sound’ being released in 2014. I got lucky in that I went right into opening for some good artists, people like Jason Isbell and Justin Townes Earle. Things took on a life of their own pretty quickly, which I wasn’t expecting.

What did you grow up listening to?

My father had a great traditional bluegrass and classic country record collection, and my two older brothers were into punk and hardcore. When they were out I’d listen to their stuff and then when they’d come home they’d kick me out of their room and I’d go and listen to my dad’s records. I also sang in a baptist church so music was really the only constant thing in my life. I’ve never been too much into genres; as much as I love old country music I tried to get away from that sound a little bit on ‘This Mess We’re In’, but that influence is always there for sure.

Your songs are credited to ‘Timothy Carr’, is that your birth name?

Yes, when I started playing around Cincinnati I wanted a name so people wouldn’t know that it was me, and not have any preconceived notions about anything. I wanted people to hear what I was doing and make up their own minds. The name ‘Arlo McKinley’ comes from my two grandfathers. Arlo was my mum’s dad’s name, and McKinley was my dad’s dad. They both passed years ago and I wanted to pay tribute to them.

The much revered John Prine played a crucial role in your career. How did meeting him and ultimately signing with his record label Oh Boy come about?

Oh, it’s one of the wildest stories of my life! Jody, who runs Oh Boy is the son of Fiona, who was married to John, and he invited me to play at Americana Fest in Nashville in 2018. John had just released his album ‘The Tree of Forgiveness’ and Oh Boy had a pop-up bar at the festival. I played one of the nights and Jody and I became friends. We started talking about maybe doing something and then one night I was playing in Nashville at the High Watt and I knew Jody was coming with Fiona. I was talking with them before the show and I didn’t realise John was there too. Jody introduced me to John and he shook my hand and said he was a fan of my stuff and was looking forward to seeing me play. I never got to know him well but it said a lot about the kind of guy that he was, that he was willing to come out in Nashville on a Thursday night, knowing he’d probably get hounded but he wanted to see me play and move forward with signing me to Oh Boy. I signed the deal on my birthday, October 23rd 2019.

Oh Boy seems to be a label that really takes care of their artists, they want to curate something special.

Yeah, there’s a real family feel. They really let the artists be themselves and put out the records they want to make, and support them. It’s a good fit for me and I can’t imagine being anywhere else. 

The new album ‘This Mess We’re In’ is out now, following up on ‘Die Midwestern’. Tell me how the new record came together.

It was produced by Matt Ross-Spang (Emily Barker, Margo Price, Charlie Crockett). I worked with him on ‘Die Midwestern’ too. We recorded it at Sam Phillips Recording Service in Memphis. Matt gets what I’m trying to do; he likes to just capture a band as if they’re playing in their rehearsal space, but with great mics. He gets the best out of me. We recorded everything live, including lead vocals, with very few overdubs. 

Recording at a studio as legendary as Sam Phillips must have been a great experience.

Oh yes, it’s so cool, it’s like a time capsule. You can really feel a vibe, like something’s going on in there. We recorded to tape as well, on some of the songs. 

I see you’re the proud owner of a beautiful vintage Gibson J45 guitar.

Yes, I also have a Gibson LG1. Both of them belonged to my father. When I was a teenager I got into a bit of trouble at school and had to spend some time at home. My father said if I was going to be at home all this time I may as well learn something. When he saw that I was serious about playing he passed the guitars down to me. They’re super beat up but they’ve never sounded better.

You’re on tour in the US at the moment and you were over in Europe on the Oh Boy package tour earlier this summer. Any plans to come back to these shores? 

It’s looking like we’ll be back over in January 2023. I’m writing as well, as always, and I’m sure one of the songs that I’ll write will let me know which direction I’m going in. I’m probably halfway finished writing the next album without even knowing it yet.

Just to finish up, what are you listening to at the moment?

I’ve been listening to the new Band of Horses record (‘Things Are Great’), and I’m going back and listening to a lot of Nick Cave. I’m diving in and getting to know his work, I didn’t realise how much stuff he’s done. I like finding an artist that has a lot of music to explore.

Arlo McKinley’s ‘This Mess We’re In’ is out now on Oh Boy Records.


About Paul Gibson 18 Articles
I'm a singer-songwriter based in Warwickshire, influenced by Americana, country and folk. I gig regularly around the area and when not making music I'm listening to or writing about it.
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