Mike Powell is modest, soft-spoken and inquisitive, to the point where I feel I’m being interviewed rather than him. He’s fit, but doesn’t have the build you might expect from a former professional lacrosse player. Rather, he’s lean and outdoorsy, dressed in cool browns to complement bright blue eyes. And though he’s been missing from the music scene for a year and a half, the oddest part of it is that Powell says he was never in the scene in the first place.
“I didn’t have a local regular gig or anything,” the singer, songwriter and guitarist explains. “I was more focused on the songwriting aspect and I still don’t really consider myself a musician. I was just in love with the idea of using music as a vehicle to travel, and that’s basically what I was doing.”
For three years, Powell traveled from California to Amsterdam, spreading his poignant lyrics and careful guitar work. He also wrote about 150 songs in that period.
Powell may play some of these tunes during the next edition of the Words and Music Songwriter Showcase; the music series, hosted by Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers, takes place Thursday, Oct. 24, 8 p.m., at Jazz Central, 441 E. Washington St. But more than likely, you’ll hear newer songs, a symptom of Powell’s inability to remain satisfied with the words he weaves into his tracks.
“As a songwriter, sometimes you’re not there anymore,” he explains of his state of mind before taking his hiatus. “You’re not in that space, so you can’t mentally get into singing about the things you’re saying. It felt like I had lost touch with the authenticity of the songs. I got a little discouraged with where I was going. I didn’t want to look at a guitar or play or anything. I wasn’t feeling inspired.”
Powell now has a regular Friday gig at King of Clubs, 420 S. Clinton St. He also has a promised spot among the many local musicians involved in the “Salt City Waltz,” the second re-creation of The Band’s The Last Waltz, set for Saturday, Nov. 30.
From 2000 to 2004 Powell attended Syracuse University, where he became a lacrosse star, leading to a pro lacrosse career in Boston in 2005. But as quickly as he moved to Beantown, he split for Denver, where he stayed for four years, living off an endorsement deal and writing songs that would come in handy once he headed back east. After putting out three albums and traveling for three years, Powell took some time off, bringing him to where he is now at the ripe age of 30.
Being an old soul in a young man’s body, Powell describes his songwriting style with precision and wit. “I’ve always tried to figure out a way mentally, how can you write a song that has the phrasing of Bob Dylan, a song where you’re talking about heavy stuff, but how can you sing it like Otis Redding? That’s the way I approach it. For me, it starts with the music, something on the guitar. My favorite part, and the whole reason I do it, is that hour that it comes together and you’re not writing it anymore. Someone else is. It just seems to unfold. And then it’s done. Play it live and that’s the second big buzz. And then it’s over. And then you gotta write another one.”
Powell has another potential project in the works, although his “contentment issues,” as he calls them, sometimes hinder the final product. Powell’s been known to record for six months, gathering some of the best musicians in town to complete the work, and then never turn out a disc. In another example, just before his hiatus Powell practiced with a band for three months—then played a single show before calling it quits.
“I have contentment issues,” he explains. “I wish I could settle down.”
Still, this restless soul has churned out some of the most intriguing songwriting in Syracuse, whether or not the songs have seen the light of day. Powell is just happy to be back at it, however, and involved with people he respects.
“I love Syracuse,” he says, “and I love the music community here. Everybody knocks it, but I’ve met some really great people through it. I feel like everybody roots for everybody. Not a cutthroat thing. Colin Aberdeen has been my best friend musically. He’s so thoughtful with kind of guiding me. As a player, he’s my favorite guy around, his voice, his style. Because I was so invested in traveling, now to focus on playing music around here. . . it feels good.”