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Those who’ve followed Shawn McDonald’s celebrated career in any capacity already know he’s consistently one to defy artistic conventions and push himself well beyond the boundaries of comfort zones. In fact, when we last heard from the critically revered singer/songwriter, he was forsaking the traditional greatest hits compilation route to cap off his first ten years of expression, and instead, turned in a batch of past re-imaginings and future foreshadowings on 2013’s The Analog Sessions. Considering the Eugene, Oregon native and longtime Columbus, Ohio resident has always marched to his own creative drum, it’s all the more fitting his first entirely new studio offering in three years is a bold reinvention, though never at the expense of the vulnerable, heartfelt lyrical sentiments that have always made McDonald one of the most authentically relatable artists of his generation.
“When I was making this record, I took a really different approach compared to all my past projects,” confirms the troubadour of his new Sparrow Records release Brave. “I’ve been a singer/songwriter for close to 16 years now and have seen so many elements progress within my music. I may have started with just an acoustic guitar and some simple stories, but I’ve since sought to create art with meaning, messages, thought and depth. For me, this record feels like the deepest I’ve ever dived in that direction, all while adding considerably to my sound, which is why I called the record Brave. In saying that, I don’t want those who’ve been following my music since the beginning to get concerned because I feel like I’m making art with the same intentions, but there is definitely an increasingly noticeable electronic element on top of the acoustic foundation.”
He may have redefined his approach to making music, but McDonald is still instantly connective throughout Brave. The album features the fingerprints of tastemaking producers Chris Stevens (TobyMac, Carrie Underwood, Colton Dixon), Jamie Kenney (Marc Broussard, Erin McCarley) and David Garcia (Group 1 Crew, Britt Nicole). Aside from gratifying the listener with his well-known guitar stylings, he’s also sure to appeal to fans of modern rockers like OneRepublic, Imagine Dragons, Lorde and Lana Del Rey.
“I grew up on singer/songwriter music like Cat Stevens, Simon & Garfunkel and old school folk music, but over the years, I’ve definitely expanded my repertoire,” he explains. “As an artist, I always like to listen to everything out there so I can be aware and always stretch myself. I wouldn’t say I’m just listening to electronic dance music or rock or any genre in particular these days, but I have been listening to a lot more upbeat music as of late, which goes hand in hand with my season of life. I’ve gone through so many years of battling demons, self-discovery, finding myself and coming out stronger in my faith, which has brought me to this season of joyous excitement and energy.”
One immediately apparent example of this perspective shift comes ever so appropriately on the bursting lead off track “We Are Brave.” Besides being the ambitious album’s first single, it also serves as a textbook summary to McDonald’s explosive evolution, loaded with magnetic hooks it can practically be memorized in a single sitting.
“If I’m honest with myself, this is by far the closest thing I’ve ever come to making pop music, although I’m sometimes fearful to even say that word,” he lets out with a laugh. “I don’t know what it is in artist culture, but pop doesn’t always have the greatest reputation, but the reality is, that’s what this is. I love music with a contagious melody, strong songwriting and a timeless appeal. In the past, I’ve probably been too melancholy to fully do the pop thing, but I promise it’s still full of depth and heart instead of being fluffy.”
He continues, “In the past, I’ve always been a very timid soul and have often been afraid of being judged, which has probably caused me to miss out of a lot of things in life. As I was remembering that phase of my life and feelings about not feeling like I fit in, I realized there are probably a lot of people out there who feel the exact same thing. We all feel inadequate at times and that’s where the whole concept came into play. The song and album as a whole is about putting down our insecurities, fears, and how we think people are going to respond to us in favor of simply being brave.”
Another undeniable anchor to the listening experience is the rippling “End Of The Day,” which features yet another fresh coat of musical paint over one of the tunesmith’s signature, thought-provoking messages. “What do I want my legacy to be?” he muses. “What is it I’m after in this life? At the ‘End Of The Day,’ I don’t want my life to be just an existence, but I want to live life purposefully and leave a fingerprint that matters.”
With the electro-glow of “I Can’t Imagine,” McDonald takes a heavy turn towards a sweet and sentimental love song. Written as a Christmas present to a very special lady in his life that struck a chord with so many of their friends, it was simply a no-brainer to include on Brave. He also speaks of love in the spiritual sense throughout the contemplative ballad “Compass,” which encourages listeners to always be intentional and caring in their relationships with people in both the personal and professional aspects of their lives. There’s also plenty of hope throughout the inspirational anthem “Firefly,” during which McDonald pulls no punches, acknowledging his previous storms while promising a silver lining to those currently struggling.
“My goal is to never isolate anyone, but simply to meet people wherever they are at,” sums up McDonald of his latest collection. “In the way I speak and in the content of my songs, I just want to show people a glimpse of the journey I’m on, complete with all of its imperfections and the wisdom I’ve learned along the way. I don’t want to be looked at as someone on the edge because I’m just trying to speak in a language that will reach the culture we live in. I’m just trying to be positive and say things that are hopefully going to help people in their life, instead of just adding more to the negative drone that’s out there. I don’t feel like I have any agenda other than to make meaningful music that comes passionately from my heart, and in the case of Brave, I just hope people will take the time to listen, let it soak in and that hopefully it will inspire them in some way as we all continue to seek and grow.”