Ross Newell is the lead singer for the The Mulligan Brothers from Mobile, AL. Their new album, Via Portland, was released on January 20 and the songs that Newell wrote are now being played on radio stations across the country and in the UK.
What does songwriting mean to you?
Everyone has something they are drawn to and where they spend their time. Mine is songwriting. In my early teens I started finding music that excited me in a different way other than the White Snake my brother brought home. Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits was it for me and I bought all of the albums those hits came from. I tuned in to people who were passionate about the songwriting–Jackson Browne, Counting Crows and The Band, it seemed like they cared about what they were doing and it wasn’t just about the groove.
An early song I listened to all of the time was Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” with the points he developed and the chorus that half made sense until you get to Well I’m tired of comin’ out on the losin’ end/So honey last night I met this guy and I’m/Gonna do a little favor for him. He is trying to make himself feel better for the things he is about to do. Springsteen poured all of this great detail in the song, but the climax was those lines and they gave me permission to make my own ending. That song is the biggest influence on me and for a while, every song was compared to that.
It takes time to write songs that challenge the listener and me. I don’t want to write songs that just lead to the next rhyme. I live with these songs every day and it is important for me to identify with the song every time. If I have to fake it while I write it, then I am going to have to fake it every night, and that just seems like a miserable existence to me.
There is still a sincerity and honesty when I dream the fiction songs up. Each character is real to me and they are faces in my head. They have to be honest and sincere from the ground up and I try to slow down and do it right the first time. People listen to the stories and are entertained by the connection and it is a magical phenomena. That takes the place of the pyrotechnics, lights, and other things that distract us from the song. Don’t get up there and deceive someone. Get up there and mean what you say.
There is a goody bag of feelings or experiences that I have plucked and thrown in to be pulled out in a more enlightened time when it can be used. I am writing more fiction because I am happy at home and not out until five in the morning any more.
What are the stories behind some of the songs on Via Portland?
“Calamine” came out more like a movie script that I had to keep cutting down. I love that song and getting to tell the story that is in my mind is a very real thing. All of the characters have real faces to me.
I wrote “Run on Ahead” based on conversations with my girlfriend, Carley. She is such and incredible human being who takes wonderful care of me and I don’t deserve her in the slightest. It’s not easy to love someone that does the job that I do. I am gone for long periods of time and she handles it so gracefully. Everything is done in a loving nature including making coffee and washing my snap shirts. It is the unselfishness of “Do what you need to do, I am right here.” I told the story from a female view, maybe for contrast. I write from my perspective a majority of the time. It was nice to write a song and not be from me.
Do you still get nervous before you play?
There are certain shows I get more nervous about even if it is only 15 people but they are listening to every word. I get nervous because we care and I get nervous about shows with high expectations like BayFest or a show that has been hyped because that increases the odds of letting someone down or changing someone’s opinion of me. However, no one has complained yet because I haven’t hit a note. I know I overanalyze things.
Where are your favorite places to play?
There is a vibe I love at places like the Bama Theater in Tuscaloosa where people want to listen and connect in as many ways as possible. The opposite is trying to force a show like that on people in a barroom with people who don’t want it. People show up and want to talk to each other instead of listening. It is hard to tell stories to people who aren’t listening because you are telling stories that are important to you and no one is listening. It gets awkward.
What have the new songs added to your shows?
The new songs have added a new margin for error, but in the best way. It feels a bit like bringing in 11 new band members with different moods and jobs but before long they will be dear old friends. Maybe it’s just enough discomfort to add some kind of energy. For the audience, I think it’s added a new mystery. They’re pretty silent and very much in listening mode during the new songs and singing and screaming along with the songs they know from the first album. The feedback after the shows has been great, but the feedback after they’ve had a few days to listen to the album seem much more enthusiastic.
It has been a big relief that people like the songs. No matter how much you try to stay true to yourself while writing songs, you still hope people like them. We’ve been home for several weeks, so we’ve only gotten to play them for our hometown so far. I’m very excited to take these new songs back on the road.
Cover photo by Michelle Stancil