Storytellers

Joshua Powell brings lit-inspired folk to Trolley Stop

By Tim Anderl

Photo: Joshua Powell & The Great Train Robbery will perform Friday, Jan. 22 at Trolley Stop

Indianapolis, Indiana, folk collective Joshua Powell & The Great Train Robbery recently delivered Alyosha, a psychedelically tinged, avant-folk record based on a character from Russian novelist Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov.” The literature obsessed band is set to perform the songs during a January run that brings them to Dayton twice in a month. Dayton City Paper recently caught up with Powell to discuss performing at his eighth-grade dance, being a little pretentious and his fondness for brunch.
When did you first realize that you had an aptitude for music?

Joshua Powell: Momma started me in piano lessons at age 4 but it didn’t really take. Then I picked up a bass in middle school to start a punk band and more or less determined then that I wanted to do that forever. I have probably 100 horrifyingly bad demos I made in my bedroom in high school on a freeware program with a $100 acoustic guitar.

I remember playing a handful of punk songs at my own eighth grade dance and feeling like I was on top of the world. All my friends in those various punk and emo and hardcore lineups always loved playing, but I always thought, “This is the one, this band is real, we’re going to make it.” The collaborators, bandmates, friends and fans who have supported me in the last four years have been the ones to help me realize that the spark I felt at that dance in Vero Beach’s Old Courthouse could actually become a career.

What prompted you to move from Florida to the Midwest?

JP: I went up to Anderson, Indiana, for college and spent the first two years wishing I was still at the beach. But the Midwest, and especially Indiana, worked its way into my heart. There’s a spirit here in people; a sort of hard-working, hopeful ethos that says, “We believe in this land and this culture and we’ll do whatever it takes to realize that potential.”

I got to have a conversation recently with Scott Russell Sanders, a brilliant writer and conservationist, who told me, “It takes a special kind of person to realize the beauty of a place like this.” Places, like people, can become celebrities. Look at California. What’s to love there is so obvious. But Indiana is subtle in its charm, and it creates a sense of ownership, of belonging. It feels like what I imagine being adopted must feel like.

Has the Indiana independent music community embraced your band?

JP: Absolutely. Indy is at a key point in its coming of age. The people who are here right now have the unique opportunity to build this scene into what they want it to be and we’re thankful to get to be a part of that. There are so many talented bands, artists, entrepreneurs and thinkers here, and they’ve treated us like their own and we’re very grateful.

For the uninitiated, how would you describe your sound?

JP: Psychedelic indie folk. A postmodern Neil Young. Hyper-literate, mid-Americana with plate reverb and a chorus pedal. If Henry David Thoreau’s ghost made love to Feist on a Navajo blanket by the White River on the night of the first frost. Pretentious. Kidding. Kind of …

What are the predominant sounds and creative ideas that have helped shape the evolution of your craft?

JP: The writings of Dostoevsky, Bradbury, Tolstoy, Ginsberg, Franzen, Slater, Miller, Berry and countless others. The lyrics are central to our music and I’m largely informed by the giants that have so much more wisdom and skill than me. I take a lot from the Bible, that’s a touchstone both literarily and spiritually for me.

I grew up on the Beatles and James Taylor, then got sucked into Neil Young, and eventually got into Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes, Sufjan Stevens and David Bazan. Recently our sound has been extrapolated on because I got really interested in dream pop and chillwave. The philosophies of transcendentalism, Christian mysticism, minimalism, zen and pacifism are all synthesized in my writing.

And the rise and fall of “folk” in mainstream culture has coincided with our evolution as a band. We put out Man is Born for Trouble when Mumford and Lumineers were kings. When that faded with the genericana trend, I knew we weren’t done with folk. But we also recognized it needed to evolve. That’s what we’ve been trying to pioneer the last two years.

What is your latest release what catalysts inspired the record?

JP: We released Alyosha in October. Sonically, it was a statement that “folk” is an ethos and not a constraint. Thematically, it was a rumination on the cognitive dissonance of wanting to be a certain type of man and not feeling like I’ve lived up to that ideal. It was spiritually informed by reading The Brothers Karamazov and seeing Alyosha as a type of Christ figure, but identifying with his degenerate and cynical brothers. So people think it sounds like a wintry album. Some reviewers called it “bleak and beautiful,” which I really appreciate. That seems to reflect life to me. And life and art are supposed to reflect each other, right?

Joshua Powell & The Great Train Robbery will perform Friday, Jan. 22 at at Trolley Stop, 530 E. Fifth St. Show starts at 9:30 p.m. For more information, please visit joshuapowellmusic.com.

 

Tim Anderl is the web editor and a contributing writer at Ghettoblaster Magazine and maintains his own music blog at youindie.com. Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Anderl at TimAnderl@DaytonCityPaper.com.

 

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