Indianola is a small town in the Mississippi Delta, about an hour and a half from where Owen Beverly grew up. It’s also the name of his new solo project, which began to take shape last spring. “There are a lot of really famous Delta blues musicians that are from there,” explains the one-time Charlestonian. “I used to play there when I was 16 and on tour, so the name was representative of certain things to me from that era in my life.”
After releasing three solo records over the course of about a decade, plus a couple of discs in 2012 and 2013 with his band French Camp, Beverly decided the time was right for a little rebranding and a new collection of original material. The as-yet-untitled new record is totally unlike his last Owen Beverly release, Amager, in that it’s louder, less personal, and full of everything from rock ‘n’ roll punch to doo-wop hooks. “In whatever you do, you’re always trying to expand whatever your limitations are, always working on thoughts like, ‘I don’t think my lyrics are deep enough,'” Beverly says. “But over time, in theory, you get better and better and better at finding whatever your strong suits are, and I think with this project we were really able to capitalize on some potential that had been ignored in previous records — and that being the angst and the rock ‘n’ roll vibe. I haven’t put out a record that focused on that in a long time.”
While no one who listened to Amager could have seen this shift coming, in hindsight it’s not so surprising — most notably with titles like “Memphis” and “The Delta,” in which Beverly gets nostalgic for his homeland. And with INDIANOLA, he packs in a good mix of the Mississippi blues, like in the rockabilly number “Love to Go,” which Beverly describes as a song that pulls strongly from Buddy Holly, a Buddy Holly-influenced Bruce Springsteen, the Ramones, and Sun Records-era blues. In a way, returning to the blues took Beverly himself by surprise.
After leaving Mississippi for college and expanding his musical horizons, the blues became something Beverly shied away from as much as possible throughout his professional career. But when it came time to create a new record last year, the blues crept back into his songwriting like a long-lost friend. “It’s just like one of those life moments when you see the story arch of a 20-year time period, which is something that starts to happen when you’re in your 30s,” says the 33-year-old singer. “And it was poignant to me and interesting and exciting in that I ultimately came back to this simpler, more stripped-down approach to songwriting after having done everything else. I felt like I was coming full circle a little bit.”
INDIANOLA’s songs were also shaped by Beverly’s studio sidekicks. Michael Trent (Shovels & Rope), Jack Burg (Punks&Snakes), and Andy Dixon (producer at Ramshackle Studios) played and sang on the record. Benji Lee also played drums on a track (“House is Haunted”), while Dixon mixed and engineered and Trent produced the collection. “I knew I was going into the studio with Michael, and usually I know who I’m going into the studio to produce with around the time of where there’s still writing to be done. And that will color the decision-making process a little bit, because I have an idea of what that person’s musical sensibilities are.”
As a result, Beverly and company create moments on the album like “Tired of Being Told.” The ballad’s Roy Orbison-like melody gives in to a chorus that climbs and explodes with a rock ‘n’ roll fervor — an arrangement Beverly says was all Trent’s idea. Then there’s “Broke Up,” a rhythm-and-blues-charged song that, during Beverly’s recent tour with Slow Runner and Jump, Little Children, had the audience completely engrossed. But when he first brought the song to the table, it wasn’t exactly his favorite.
“I really thought that it was sort of a failure amongst some of the other ideas, but Michael heard a really raw recording of it and insisted that we do it,” Beverly says. “So you hit little moments where trust is important, and I trusted that Michael saw something about it that I didn’t see. Even though it has a slow, retro-soul type of vibe to it, we recorded it, and it got really loud and had a lot of energy.”
On the record and when tested out live, “Broke Up” took on a life of its own. “What was a slow, Motown-esque, mildly depressing breakup song, which wasn’t necessarily something I wanted on the record anyway, ended up as a carnal force,” Beverly says. “And that’s the importance of that producer-artist relationship, you know? You’ve got to be there for each other to pick up on things or you’ll miss things. You’ll miss good ideas, your potential, unless you have somebody else that can pick up where you maybe are leaving something out.”
Beverly also stresses the importance of getting the personalities right in the studio. “Some will stymie whatever you offer kinetically to a creative situation, so you just can’t shine,” he says. “It’s a lot of intricacies to get two people who can really work well with each other, but me and Michael have that for sure. We’re very similar in a lot of the ways in which we approach music.”
As for Beverly’s approach to INDIANOLA, another aspect, other than its swaggering rock ‘n’ roll, that separates the project from his last release is the time he took to craft it. Amager was recorded in a month, whereas Beverly’s new album was written and recorded from the spring until September of last year in-between other ventures, like performing with Danish singer Oh Land and acting in a movie filmed in Denmark. Beverly’s 2015 also saw the reunion of Inlaws, the Americana project made up of himself and Mechanical River’s Joel T. Hamilton. Inlaws will also release an album sometime this year.
For now, the focus is on INDIANOLA, which will release its debut album in the coming weeks or months, depending on how Beverly decides to release it. In the meantime, he’s prepping for more stripped-down Music Hall shows with Shovels & Rope. Those performances will require the tricky task of toning it down a notch. “We have to find a way to do a show that has all the things about a full-band show that people seem to like,” Beverly says. “It’s gonna be a challenge, because a lot of that is very bombast and very alive, so when you go stripped-down, you have an acoustic guitar and you have to figure out how you can do the equivalent of that in that type of setting. You don’t have to run around the stage, throw guitars, spit and scream, but you have to find what will still move people like that.”
UPDATE: In this piece, we originally referenced Beverly’s last album Exit Wound, when in fact he changed the name after this 2014 article was written to Amager. We apologize for the mistake.