When I heard his music – a blend of pop, rock, and a little country – I immediately noticed his smooth vocals and a storytelling approach to lyrics. I wanted to know what inspired the songs. Then Mike invited me to a show in Chicago to “talk tunes and travel” and it didn’t take long before I was hooked on what he calls “travelpop.”
Read on to find out more about Mike’s album “Nashville Nights,” memories from the road, and how to download his music for free.
What came first for you – music or travel? And at what point did these two converge?
Both were there early on for me! Along with the ubiquitous road trips in the US, some of my earliest memories are of travels to visit my mother’s side of the family in Ireland. My mom always had Irish music playing whenever we cleaned the house, and she always tuned the radio to the Oldies station when we were in the car. I absorbed quite the eclectic mix of styles as a kid.
Travel and music didn’t fully converge until college, when I studied for a semester in Paris. I brought an old Gibson guitar with me that was always beckoning from the corner of my chambre de bonne in the 15th [district]. I spent a lot of days before/after/instead of class sitting beside the Seine, cutting my teeth on songwriting and taking in Paris.
How has travel influenced your songwriting?
Travel is the single biggest influence in my songwriting. SO much so that I’ve named what I do “travelpop.”
I love to write about places, and the people I meet while I travel to/visit those places. I think context is fascinating, so I like to try and make it easy for the listener to close their eyes and imagine they’re in a country, a city, a room. The more I travel, the more sights, sounds, smells, and stories I add to my palette to put into a song.
Tell us about travel experiences behind the songs on your album Nashville Nights.
Nashville Nights is a collection of 5 songs that were written in very different places. They all have fun back stories behind them, but a couple of my favorites are for This Just In and Cigarette.
I was living/performing on a cruise ship when I wrote This Just In. If you’ve been on a ship before and turned on the tv in your room, you’ve probably noticed that most of the channels are on prerecorded loops. While that works for a 1 or 2 week cruise, it gets a little tiresome if you’re living on a ship for 6 months at a time — for example if you found yourself watching the Channing Tatum dance classic Step Up approximately 17 times (I really started to develop a deep affinity for the character of Nora).
There are only two live streaming channels: ESPN, which is great, and CNN, which I can say after watching a LOT of for 6 months straight is one of the worst channels on television. The level to which CNN is devoted to entertain its viewers rather than inform them gets me pretty frustrated pretty quickly. Watching it one day in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, I reached a boiling point, grabbed my guitar, and found a quiet corner backstage in the ship’s auditorium. This Just In is what came out.
I wrote Cigarette about a flight delay I experienced at O’Hare Airport in Chicago. I had multiple hours to kill, so I found a seat at the Chicago Cubs Bar. A charming lady sat down next to me. We hit it off quickly and dove into that feeling, talking for hours and knowing full well we most likely wouldn’t see each other again. That situation struck me as particularly beautiful, because it helps illustrate how it doesn’t matter whether we know somebody for 20 minutes or 20 years; we can really connect with each other under almost any circumstances if we’re open to it. I had to write a song about it.
You sing, “I drove a thousand miles alone to Nashville, and God it feels like home.” What appealed to you about the city?
I came to Nashville because I wanted to be surrounded by a lot of musicians and writers who are really, really good. Nashville is pretty much Mecca for songwriters around the world, and while it’s true that country music has been a big part of Nashville, these days songwriting of all genres is flourishing and celebrated here. Though there’s pressure to write commercially-viable “hits” in Nashville, there’s a stronger respect for tight, carefully-composed songs with meaningfully vivid lyrics, regardless of whether they’re all aimed for radio play…exactly what I like to write.
I found the people to be very warm and inclusive, and coming from Chicago, the fact that it might not snow all winter wasn’t the worst selling point, haha.
It really felt like it was exactly the right place for me at the time. It was a great feeling.
What are some of your favorite hangouts in Nashville?
For music, my favorite venue is the legendary Bluebird Cafe. The best songwriters in the world play there every night. There isn’t a bad show.
Though the honky tonks can be a good time, they’re not my favorite bars. My favorites are the Flying Saucer on 10th Ave and Fleet Street Pub, an English pub in Printer’s Alley. Both are close to downtown, but far enough away from the touristy craziness that can be a bit much on Broadway.
For food, I love me some Prince’s Hot Chicken in East Nashville. I can’t get enough Smiling Elephant for Thai food, and I’ll never turn down a family-style southern meal at Monell’s.
But my single favorite place in Nashville is actually Percy Warner Park. I like trail running a lot, and the trails at Percy Warner are beautifully peaceful and really fun. Plus the hills will kick your butt.
You spent six months in Paris and visit often. Can you share favorite memories from there?
If I’m not careful, I can talk about Paris til I lose my voice, haha. It’s one of my very favorite cities that I’ve ever experienced.
It’s not one of the sexiest things to say, but one of my favorite things about Paris is the Metro. It’s so easy to get anywhere in the city quickly! So much better than 99% of the cities I’ve seen.
When I lived in Paris, I loved going to the Louvre on the free nights they’d have each month. I’d get there around 5pm and wander around for hours without aim, taking in the art and people alike. As it got dark and the lights came on outside, I’d sit by a window and imagine the way life used to be when French royalty resided there. One of my favorite things in the Louvre is a sculpture by Antonio Canova entitled Psyché ranimée par le baiser de l’Amour. I remember standing still and looking at it for quite a long time the first time I saw it.
One visit a few years ago, I met my best friend Chris in Paris for only 3 days. I’ve got some great memories from that short amount of time. Walking the midnight streets of Montmartre with a huge Heineken in hand, catching up over the old cobblestones. That trip was also the first time I headed down to walk through the catacombs under the city…spooky, but amazing.
I could go on forever, but suffice it to say that I’ll revisit Paris any and every time I can.
As you mentioned, you also played on a cruise ship. What was the experience like?
I really enjoy cruise ship life! The way I see it, when I’m on a ship, almost magically my front door opens to a different amazing place every day. Singing for lots of people almost every night, and every day either exploring new cities with lovely people or working on a new song with an ocean as my backdrop. Not a terrible rut to get into.
What do you like about solo acoustic performances vs. being on stage with a band?
I do love playing both types of shows, but there is something super-intimate and special about a solo acoustic performance in a smaller room. I love connecting with the crowd, looking them in the eyes and telling them a story about the song I’m about to play. Whenever I listen to songs, I love knowing where they were written and the circumstances that brought the songwriter to spend time working on that idea. When I get to take the time to flesh that out for the listeners, I think it helps them internalize everything in a way that makes sense for them. It’s more personal, as opposed to looking out at a sea of faces and flashing lights, which is super fun and energetic, but loses some of the intimacy.
I couldn’t be more excited to start this tour! Mid-October I’m headed to Rome to jump on another cruise ship to perform, write some songs, and explore. I’ll be headed to Italy, Greece and a few of its islands, and Turkey over a 3-week period. In early November I cross the Atlantic, stopping in the Canary Islands and Bermuda, en route to 3 months bouncing around the Caribbean. Some familiar spots, and some brand new ones for me. I expect that I’ll love everywhere I go, but right now I’m most excited for Athens & Santorini in Greece, the Canary Islands, and San Juan in Puerto Rico. I get back to the US in late February.
At this point in my career, doing some of my traveling while performing on a ship helps me save money to pump back into recording my next album!
What can we expect to hear on the album?
Half death-metal, half late-16th century religious dirges.
I kid. I’ve already got a couple songs I know I’ll take to the studio, and I’ll be writing the rest of the album while I’m out traveling. I’ve got a few tunes I’m working on now that I’m really excited about, but I know that once the beautiful cities and interesting people start dancing around in front of me, I’ll be reaching for my guitar.
Photos courtesy of Mike Mentz