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Rivers flow through Gavin M.’s music

Jeanie Stephens,

 Updated 8:19 am CDT, Sunday, September 1, 2019


ALTON — Many artists are inspired by the world around them.

This is the case with Gavin M., a St. Louis songwriter and musician who has expanded his world and musical style with two trips across the Atlantic Ocean and an album set for release this fall.

As part of Jacoby Arts Center’s “Songwriters in the Round” series, he will join musicians Eric Hensley and Stephanie Stewart at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 14 for an intimate evening of songs, stories and community.

“I love playing in Alton,” he said. “I love history, like I said, and I love that the city was founded in 1818, which was just 45 years after the nation was founded.

“I think we’re always in transitional places in our lives,” Gavin M. said. “I don’t think anyone is really not transitioning into a new chapter or a new adventure. Especially as artists or writers, we’re always seeking to be inspired and understand life a little bit more.”

During his first solo trip abroad in October, he visited Ireland, England, Germany and the Czech Republic — a 26-day pilgrimage to his ancestral and musical roots. Taking just his guitar and backpack, he visited Prague where his grandmother’s family once lived and numerous places in Great Britain and Ireland where many of his musical predecessors originated, including Oasis, Travis, The Beatles, Damien Rice, Glen Hansard, The Kinks, U2 and Chris Martin.

“I planned this trip because I had always wanted to go,” he said. “I never had the opportunity and I always had this feeling that my music would go over a little bit more there than in the states. The songs I write are very contemporary European, and what I mean by ‘contemporary’ is the past 60 years of Brit Pop and Irish and Scottish songwriters, where I really get my sound from.”

Born and raised in Belleville, he’s spent his life in the greater St. Louis area near the Mississippi River. The title of his upcoming album, “Goodbye Mississippi,” pays homage to his beginnings even as it suggests a parting on the way to more distant waters.

“That’s how we open the doors to where this record came from, the Mississippi River,” Gavin M. said. “Alton is on the Mississippi. St. Louis is on the Mississippi. It was me saying goodbye to my home.”

The album will feature 10 songs, one about St. Louis and another sharing the album’s title. Other tracks reference people and places from abroad and, more specifically, the rivers in those places. Gavin M. said that, whenever he visits other locales, he is drawn to rivers and his spiritual connection to them, as well as the role they play in people’s lives and artistic culture.

“I like seeing the rivers because there’s a story, from the art to the history of the city,” he said. “You cross the ocean and think you’re going to find yourself — which I think you do when you travel alone — but I also believe you always have whatever nugget or orb of energy or being that’s inside of you and it takes getting away from where you’re from to find it.

“I always find it in rivers,” he said. “They fascinate me.”

His song “Old & Young Soul Tonight” references the River Liffey in Dublin. Another song, “Mersey,” is inspired by the river of the same name in Liverpool. He said seeing similarities between the Mersey and the Mississippi made him realize the same rivers that spawned The Beatles in England and many of the great jazz and blues artists in the U.S. also enabled the transportation of music and vinyl records from one side of the Atlantic to the other, connecting them both geographically and artistically.

“It’s a love song of sorts,” he said, noting he’s been a Beatles fan since childhood. “There’s the river that keeps pumping commerce in and out, pumping music in and out. Our music goes to these rivers, to these oceans and to these other rivers. All of our blues records and jazz records were on boats from the states that got transferred over to the Mersey, which is where The Beatles got all of their influence, from Elvis to Little Richard.”

The technical and instrumental lineage of “Goodbye Mississippi” also has roots in Liverpool, due to a change in playing style Gavin M. made while there. He said he’d always used a guitar pick but was moved by two Scottish folk singers, Calum and Caitlin Gilligan, who played finger-picking style.

“I don’t even think I used a pick when I was playing with them,” he said. “I was really moved by the gentle nature of their singing and playing. When you see it live and hear them perform, it’s really emotional, it’s really tender and, initially, that’s what I wanted this album to be.”

That changed a bit once he reached the recording studio. His songs grew and took on a larger sound upon introducing them to Chris Moder, his producer in Chicago.

“I realized that I had more than that in me as far as what I needed to express,” he said. “I never knew what a producer did until I had one. They unlock you. They enable you.”

Gavin M. said the songs became an expansive and monumental opus, created with the help of Moder and sound engineer Brian Leech from multiple layers of different instruments. Stitched together with open source clips of famous speeches and other sound effects, the album combines both his passion for music and his passion for history.

“It’s an expression of myself through the lens of my influences and my deep passion for world history — or at least western culture history,” he said. “Each song is written in lineage to one another, and the whole sound of the album is, essentially, the finger picking style I got in Liverpool nurtured by these Chicago musicians.”

Gavin M. said the album is what he would call “American-Brit Pop,” utilizing instruments used by folk musicians and British rock bands.

“This record is an indie record, a pop record, a folk record,” he said. “It’s really all over the board.”

He plans to release a single from “Goodbye Mississippi” in about a month. When the album is released, it will be available in digital and vinyl formats. He said a vinyl record is both a collection of songs and a piece of art.

“This is the best work I’ve done in my life,” he said. “I’m investing a lot of money to get it pressed, and made and I wouldn’t be doing that if I didn’t believe in it. I definitely believe in the work.”

Gavin M. said he’s looking to relocate eventually to Scotland, England or Wales. “I have an intuitive feeling and deeply clear vision that that’s where my music will matter the most.”

He said his first trip to Europe marked the beginning of his new album. His recent return trip, he said, marked its completion — a spiritual realization of what he looks to manifest in his life.

“I knew I had to go there. I was being called there,” he said. “That’s why I’m going back, actually.”

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