Why Germany is a good place to play music and the benefits of making an album during a pandemic.
Regular readers of Americana UK will know that periodically we feature americana artists from Europe to bring variety to our coverage and extended a friendly hand across the channel. This time the band in question is Berlin-based The Mighty Oaks who comprise American Ian Hooper, Italian Claudio Donzelli and Brit Craig Saunders, who bring an indie flavour to their largely acoustic folk and americana mix. The band first tasted commercial success in 2014 when their first record ‘Howl’ made the German charts as well as those of several other European countries. They have maintained their early success in Germany and their new record ‘Mexico’ added to their German chart successes. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with the members of the Mighty Oaks to discuss the writing and recording during COVID lockdown of ‘Mexico’, the benefits of playing acoustic music, why they think they managed to achieve European success, the doubled-edged benefits and pitfalls of music streaming and their hopes to bring ‘Mexico’ to the UK and America.
How are you? I hope you and your family and friends are all OK and coping with the challenges of coronavirus?
Claudio Donzelli (CD): Yes, thanks for asking. Luckily, we’ve only been affected indirectly by the pandemic.
How did you guys meet and why did you base yourselves in Berlin rather than the USA, the UK or Italy?
CD: We all met in Hamburg actually, at a little singer-songwriter event called Melodica Festival. We were all individual singer-songwriters back then and on the bill at that festival. At that time we were all in Germany for different reasons and we all wanted to stick to Germany for a while, so as we crossed our paths it became natural to stay. Craig and Ian were living in Hamburg and I was visiting all the way from Italy but I had already planned to move to Berlin. It was never in the cards to move to any of our original countries and to be honest, it felt really good to perform in front of a German audience. The audience is generous and usually gives you a chance, no matter whether you’re famous or unknown. That’s extremely encouraging when you’re starting a new musical project. Second, there’s a well-structured and healthy music industry ecosystem here in Germany and it feels good to be part of it.
Why do you think you have been able to achieve the level of European success you have?
Craig Saunders (CS): We are a very international band and from the beginning, it was always our goal to play as much internationally as we could. As for the success we’ve had in Europe? The timing of when we released our first album and having a song that was played all over the radio in the beginning definitely played a big part in it. We feel fortunate that we’ve been able to keep the momentum going, and are still able to tour Europe wide when we go out on the road.
How and why did you decide to call your band the Mighty Oaks?
CD: It was during the early days of Ian and me, when we still had jobs during the day and were recording music in the evenings and weekends. Ian and I were sitting each one in their office and secretly spending way too much time brainstorming about the music via Google Chats. We wanted to upload our first demos to SoundCloud and for that, we needed a name, a band name! After throwing a few other ideas like “Bonfire” and “Great Blue Heron” I stumbled upon the proverb “Mighty Oaks from little acorns grow”. We both felt that it was a good omen for the future of our project as we were starting from a couple of songs recorded in a living room hoping that they could reach the world, so we settled on “Mighty Oaks”.
What impact did lockdown have on the recording and release of ‘Mexico’?
CS: It made it possible! This album is a direct result of the lockdown(s). It afforded us the time to really work on new music without any of the usual interruptions, and outside distractions. We had time to really explore the sound we wanted the album to have, and as such, we were able to complete it in a much shorter time than our previous follow-up albums.
‘Mexico’ is an interesting album title. What made you pick that as the title?
CD: First of all, it was one of the strongest songs and with a title that more than others was summarizing the spirit of the time we are going through. Second, it’s not a typical title for a Mighty Oaks song and we hope it would stimulate some sort of curiosity around the album. Third, when you listen to the song and more so when you watch its music video, you realise that there’s a deeper meaning to the song than the mere escapism the title suggests. It felt like a good way to introduce the listener to the album.
How and when were the songs on ‘Mexico’ written and is it a themed album or simply a collection of songs?
CS: Almost all the songs for Mexico came together during the first lockdown. We’d just finished our European tour for ‘All Things Go‘, and then everything shut down. During that time Ian set up his home studio and started writing again. We suddenly had all this time, which we’d never had since before we started the band, and we made use of that to get together and start working on new music. There was no time pressure or expectations from anyone. The result of that turned into Mexico, a collection of songs whose themes deal with the happiness, desperation, darkness and light that we’ve all been experiencing this past year or more.
How easy was it to choose the songs that finally made it on to ‘Mexico’?
CD: It’s never easy to choose songs as we always end up with way too many candidates for an album [laughs] but it also became clear somehow that these 12 were forming a coherent bunch that would represent a complete spectrum of emotions that accompanied us through the pandemic last year.
Which other musicians played on the album?
Ian Hooper (IH): We had a few additional musicians for this album. Our drummer, who’s been part of our live band for several years Joda Foerster. Philipp Thimm played cello, Martin Wenk played trumpets. We had a guy called Sönke Torpus who played the pedal steel guitar on By Your Side, and our producer Nikolai Potthoff is also there on various tracks adding various little guitar parts, some additional beats, synths, and sounds.
What plans have you in place to support the launch of ‘Mexico’ and for the remainder of 2021
CD: I wish I could already announce a tour for 2021 but due to the current situation worldwide we’ll have to wait until next year. We just announced a European tour for the spring of 2022. This year we’ll hopefully get to play a few open-air shows in the summer.
Why is your music primarily acoustic and what are the strengths and limitations of that approach?
CS: We all love acoustic music. When we met we were playing shows as singer-songwriters, so it felt natural to continue that style when we began working together. For me, acoustic music can be so minimal, but yet feel so complete. With one guitar you can say so much, and its strength for us is that I think it’s something we do really well. I think the only limitations it has comes from outside influences. Once people get to know you for writing in a certain style, or a certain way, they tend to label you and have expectations of how they think you should sound, and that can sometimes feel a bit restricting.
As a label what are Sony Music like to record for and what made you sign with them?
IH: After talking to a couple of labels we decided to create our own label and choose Sony Music as a distribution. The deal felt right and the people were excited to work with us. In the end, it’s mostly about the people involved. If the team is right, everything is easier.
How did you use the down-time lockdown gave you?
CS: Ian built a studio in his basement, and we recorded our best album ever! Oh and I became a teacher for my kids!
Who are your go-to influences and why are they important to you?
CD: Inspiration comes from all corners, the main ingredient is your own life. It’s important to collect as many life memories as well as music before you start making an album. In musical terms, it’s really hard to say. We referenced other music during production a couple of times, but this album felt more like it was happening without paying too much attention to the music out there.
Music streaming is a hot topic, particularly regarding artist royalties, however, streaming and social media helped Mighty Oaks’ initial success. What is your view on the controversial practice of streaming?
CS: Actually in Germany streaming really only picked up after the release of our first album, many people were still into buying CDs back then! I’m definitely not opposed to the idea of streaming, it’s a great way of getting your music out there, and for a live band like us it can be a great promotional tool. If people that stream your music, then end up coming to your show, because of what they’ve heard, then it’s a benefit for us. That said there is also an understandable discord for artists. The payout from most streaming sites is laughable and totally non-sustainable for the majority of artists. Record labels are also part of that problem in the cut they take before it reaches the artists. We would never be able to survive if we had to live off of streaming alone. Spotify became very powerful in the last few years and is at a point now where they feel like they can dictate to artists how and when they should be releasing music, and that I find very worrying.
There is a lot of interesting roots type music coming out of the old Eastern European countries. Do you have a fanbase there and what do you think of those particular music scenes?
CD: I know former East European countries are going through an interesting cultural phase, and we’ve always been warmly received in countries like Poland, Czech Republic and Serbia. Unfortunately, we haven’t been there much, it would be really nice to go in the future!
How are you positioned in America and have you any intention of trying to break that market when restrictions allow?
IH: We’ve toured America a few times, and have always had a great time there. It’s a huge market, for sure, but when you’re not present there all the time it’s hard to keep the momentum going. Since our first time touring there the work visas for the guys have become increasingly more expensive and increasingly more difficult to get, which also doesn’t help. I don’t know about breaking it, but we’d certainly like to get back there to tour again someday.
Has Brexit affected your relationship with the UK given the new restrictions on all touring musicians under the agreement?
CS: Yeah, unfortunately at the moment it’s a big open question. The direct effect at the moment is that right now we have no UK dates planned for our next tour, which really saddens me. We’ve always had great shows in the UK, and for me particularly it means a lot to be able to play in my home country. I’m hopeful that the EU and Britain are able to sort out an artist type visa that covers all of mainland Europe, then we can continue touring like we used to, the UK included.
At AUK we like to share music with our readers. Who are your current top three artists/albums or tracks on your personal playlist?
CD: Personally, I’ve been tripping with the album ‘Earth’ by EOB (Ed O’Brien of Radiohead). It’s been the record that “saved me” last year during the pandemic with its incredible energy, depth and multitude of styles. Other than that, I’m a big fan of Bibio and all his experimental albums between tape loops and vintage guitar riffs. And finally the album ‘The Cold Still’ by The Boxer Rebellion: an album that’s gone under the radar but I think it’s so beautiful. All British artists!
Finally, is there anything you want to say to AUK readers?
CS: We hope that when pandemics and Brexit regulations have all been wiped out that we’ll get the chance to come back to the UK to play the songs from our new album. In the meantime, we hope you take the time to listen to it, learn it, and share it with the ones you love!
The Mighty Oaks’ ‘Mexico’ is out now on Sony Music/Howl Records