Young Indiana singer-songwriter Joshua Powell was the fourth generation from his family to attend Anderson University, and although he graduated from the Indiana Christian college, Powell was disillusioned with the church. Instead, he had fallen in love with the life of the wandering country-folk troubadour.
“My junior year of college rolled around, and I was looking at what my life was going to be,” says the 22-year-old Powell, who’s literally been on tour since his graduation in May. “I was offered a nice, safe job doing church music for a place in Michigan. They wanted to have me on salary and set me up, and that sounded like the easiest and most boring thing I could possibly do. So after reading a bunch of Kerouac and Henry Miller, I realized I was Spartan enough to take to the gypsy life and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since, and it’s been super fulfilling.”
Powell’s supporting his second release Man is Born to Trouble, which was released at the end of April. He has spent the last seven months crisscrossing the country playing gigs he booked. (He hasn’t even seen his parents since graduation.) Although he earned a degree in music business, and as much as he understands this is a business, Powell relishes the simple joys a life on the road affords him — in particular the connections that he makes along the way.
“I have a home in about 30 states now, people that we’ve connected with from ex-frat-boy bar owners in Flagstaff, Ariz., who took us hiking, to an awesome, fierce trio of lesbians up in Minnesota, where we crashed and ate cheese curds. Just the diversity we’ve experienced crossing America has been incredible.”
Powell began to depart from the so-called straight-and-narrow two years ago. He started questioning his religion, underwent a painful breakup, and was introduced to alcohol. In the latter, he took a bit too much solace. That time was the subject of Man is Born to Trouble, which was written over the course of six months and gets its name from a passage in the Book of Job.
“It was the darkest period of my life, but also looking out toward the end of everything I knew and the beginning of the rest of life and all the uncertainty that accompanies that,” he says. “That’s where the name of the record came from, because the majority of the songs are born from adversity.”
The songs bear witness to his trials but none more poignantly than the pretty duet, “Tiny Panic Attacks.” The autobiographical tune is tinged with a sense of fundamentalist betrayal reminiscent of another disaffected Christian, Pedro the Lion’s David Bazan. Over a forlorn banjo strum, Powell lets loose his lithe and airy but powerful tenor (reminiscent of the Decemberists’ Colin Meloy) with biting verse. The album also includes odes to inspirations like “Jack Kerouac,” “Walt Whitman,” and “Leo Tolstoy.” And Powell gets raw and bluesy on “Parable from Calcutta,” crafts a rolling-road country-rocker on the Neil Young-ish “Coyote King,” and imagines an Apocalypse-free world on “From Hell to Houston.”
While there is some of the meditative folk that was featured on Powell’s debut full-length, Traveler, the sound of the second album is grittier, bluesier, and more driving.
“When I wrote Man is Born to Trouble, not to be the ultimate cliché, but I discovered my artistic voice,” Powell says. And to illustrate that point, he’s not even selling his first disc on this leg of the tour. One particular point of embarrassment is the pretty classically inflected, cello-driven devotional “Cathedral.”
“I hate that song. I think it was a good song. I just wish I hadn’t put it on the record,” he says. “I’m interested in telling stories. I don’t want to be prescribing philosophy or theology to anyone and that one’s more missional than I intended.”
He adds, “That song belongs on Christian radio, and I don’t want to be anywhere near Christian radio.”
While Powell recognizes that Americana isn’t any less of a racket, he intends to stick around longer than the fair-weather fans of the Lumineers and Mumford and Sons.
“I’m not trying to write a song for everyone to sing ‘Hey Ho’ along to,” he says. “I’m trying to weave a narrative that talks about a great human context which relates to the reason folk started in the first place — telling the story of the people — and I don’t think that is going to go away.”