‘It sets you on a bit of a ride’: David Newbould Talks ‘Power Up!’

David Newbould’s career is a testament to resiliency. As with any troubadour worth the distinction, the Toronto-born singer-songwriter is well-traveled, calling both New York City and Austin home before putting down roots in Nashville where he now lives with his wife and son. Since 2007, he’s released four studio albums, including 2019’s much-celebrated Sin & Redemption which set the stage for his latest release Power Up!, a loud blast of a record that deserves its exclamation mark.

If Power Up! sounds cozy and fuzzed out, give thanks to Newbould and producer Scot Sax’s basement studio setup, complete with budget transistor amps and safety measures, most notably a sheet of plexiglass that allowed for COVID-free dual-vocal performances. They are unapologetic in their love of ’70s rock and roll, a fervor that manifests itself through the in-the-red boogie of the title cut, the FM-approved chorus of “Peeler Park” and the fierce Crazy Horse jam of “The Last Letter”. Power Up! is a pandemic record, committed in isolation, the future unclear, but one that doesn’t resort to overwrought pensiveness or self-seriousness. One imagines David Wooderson at the Moon Tower, raising a beer with one hand, cranking Power UP! on the car stereo with the other, telling us, “You just gotta keep livin, man. L-I-V-I-N.”

CF- To be honest with you, the first thing that drew me to your record is the cover. Do you mind giving us the story behind the art?

DN- I just had this silly idea of having some kind of illustration of a TV floating around in space, wanting to plug itself in somewhere. I just wanted to do something sort of fun and a little quirky for the cover. There’s a guy here in Nashville, a friend of mine named Dean Tomasek who is an excellent graphic artist, so I reached out to him about it. We just talked about it. The whole record to me feels like a weird moment in time because it came out of a globally weird moment in time, so the idea of floating around in space, trying to figure out where to plug in was an idea I liked. Then he put me on it, and I liked it, so we just tweaked it a little bit. It was basically this weird alienation thing and this weird moment kind of getting plugged back into the world.

I’ve read that you drew a lot of inspiration from ’70s-era records. What’s the enduring allure of these albums or the sound?

This will probably a two-part answer. One, it’s the music that appealed to me when I was in high school that I found on classic rock radio stations in my most formative years. It was the music that spoke to me the most. There’s always an element of that– the music that hits you at a certain time is something you always want to strive towards, I suppose.

But also I think that era was the time when they finally figured out all that you could do, the magnitude of what you could accomplish in a recording studio. It seemed like a lot of my favorite records that came out of there were very creative in terms of what they decided to do, like using a keyboard in a weird way that it’s not supposed to be used or just trying to put a microphone in a weird place, or just random things like Bowie was always great at, just trying to push the limits of things. This was before it got to where you really could just do absolutely anything, digitally or whatever.

We had limitations when we made this record because of COVID. We were working on two sides of a pane of glass that we made a wall out of. We couldn’t really spend all day there, every day, so we had to make quick decisions. If we wanted to sing backups together on songs, we had to stick a mic at the halfway point and yell really loud and try to get it and then use some cool compressors and stuff like that. So essentially, we were pushing the boundaries, trying to take a song and work with what you have and try to push a little further and then make a decision to move on.

What was it like trying to maintain a creative mindset when you’re performing and recording under duress? There wasn’t exactly a gun to your heads, but at the same time, you didn’t know how safe y’all really were…

It was weird where time was sort of cryogenically frozen or something like Han Solo (laughs)! When we started, I didn’t know that I was going to put this record out. I had these songs that kind of came together over the beginning of the period of COVID, and I wanted to do something with them. I demoed them all at home, just acoustically. But I wasn’t sure how I was going to make a record.

When I got with Scot [Sax], we did one song, and it was so much fun and so interesting that we decided to keep working, but I still didn’t know if I was going to put it out. It was kind of freeing because we didn’t really know where it was going. We were sort of freed a little bit by the limitations because there’s only so much you could do. But it was always a little nerve-racking too because his wife is a cardiologist, and she was working all the time, so we had to be extra careful that nothing was getting passed around. It felt like in a weird way, it stretched out over a lot of time, but the sessions often felt kind of rushed, briskly paced, because we had to pick the kids up in the afternoon. We really only have time for one or two vocal takes, and then that was it. We had to move on. It was invigorating, I really liked it…I wouldn’t do it again exactly like that, but when I look back, it was pretty cool.

Was that the most freedom that you’ve given yourself in the studio?

Yeah, definitely, definitely, because there were just two of us. Scott’s a very expansive thinker when it comes to making records, so it pushed me to think more freely, and again because I didn’t really know where it was going in terms of putting it out.

Back to your passion for the ’70s sound– did you have any favorite records in mind when you were thinking about the kind of sound or production you were shooting for?

No. I’ve done that in the past sometimes on records, and as soon as you start doing that, it just feels weird, like, “You prepared that, right?” Everybody knows how to make records, and you can naturally see where it’s going based on the songs and the instruments and how everyone’s playing. You’re always talking with the people you’re making records with about records you love– “Oh, that reminds me of this record!” Scot and I are friends, and we’ve talked about music a ton, so we’re both coming from the same places. He would play something, and I would say, “Man, that is so cool. It really makes me think of this,” and he would say, ‘Yeah, no one puts bass on records like that these days.” But I guess there might have been one or two songs where we said it seems to be heading in a certain direction. One or two songs really felt like Bob Dylan’s Desire, which we both love.

Your songs also blow past the 4-minute mark, another hallmark of that classic rock era, where the typical 3-minute song wasn’t as much of a priority. Are you ever concerned they’re too long for radio play?

I don’t really think too much about the song lengths. I am aware that a lot of them are longer than your average radio song, but I also feel like, “What is average radio these days, anyway?” So much of it is playlists and podcasts. Yeah, there is Clear Channel radio… A couple of times we’ve made single edits of songs, but it’s just not my thing.

And again, it goes back to the records I love. The songs were all longer than 3 minutes. I mean, I love a short song, too, but I’m used to records with about five songs on each side, and each song’s about 4-and-a-half minutes, and the same with Scot. He loves The Beatles most of all the bands. They didn’t seem to care about any of that.

The album begins with the title track, which is a furious garage stomper. It’s also an outlier, as the rest of the album is less frenzied. What’s the story behind that song?

Yeah, that was actually the first song that we did together. I came over one day off with our kids–we have kids about the same age, so they were on a playdate– then we were hanging out downstairs with his bass. And he said, “Yeah, we took our TV into this place yesterday to try to get it fixed. and the guy said, ‘Man, it won’t power up! It won’t power up!’ So we should write a song about that.” We just sat there for a few minutes and each came up with a couple of verses and we came up with the riff. Then he got behind the drums and turned on a couple of mics. I plugged in a guitar, and we just kind of jammed on it for a little while and tried to come up with what would feel like a signature riff. We just had fun! Then we edited it together, and then he took it and kept editing it. About a week or so later, it came out the way it is, and I thought, “Wow! I never would have come up with something like this on my own, that’s for sure, so I should probably make this whole record here with him.”

We were going to have that as a song by the two of us, maybe put it out digitally. But once we started making my record, he suggested that I could sing his verse too and put it on my record. I thought that was a cool idea because it’s so different. I thought we’d make it the last song, like this quirky finish, and would name a record after it. That was the plan all the way through. We finished all the songs. we mixed it; we mastered it, and we were going through the running order, and at the 11th hour, I said, “I feel like this song really needs to be first,” so we put it at the beginning. It grabs you in; it’s short and different. I like records like that, where the first song isn’t emblematic of the whole album. It sets you on a bit of a ride.

What about the guitar tone your get for that song? It’s pretty vicious…

Before I even ever wrote songs, I was playing guitar, lead guitar, but whenever I’ve made records, I’ve usually done it with some version of a whole band, so the guitar duties usually have been shared, and if someone else puts a good part down, I’ll just stick with that because why mess with something that’s good? With this one, it was just me, so I thought, “I’m really going to go for it,” and Scot was really encouraging me, too. He just kept turning the amps up. Some of them, “Peeler Park,” for instance, is just this nice little solid-state amp, a Crate, maybe, just some cheap amp that he had laying around. We plugged it in, and it just sounded brutal, but I mean in the best ways. We turned it all the way up, put it on its back and hung a microphone from the ceiling, and went for it. And a lot of the guitar would be one take, just was totally feeling it, and it was great because it’s best not to overthink. Sometimes you can just overthink tone forever. Sometimes it’s good to just plug it in, turn it up and play, like a lot of my favorite records. I love Neil Young records, and he just goes for that in the studio, and Dylan records too.

Another song that resonates is “One Last Dance”, where you raise a glass to those who exist in the margins or on the sidelines. Do you feel a responsibility as an artist to call attention to these people’s stories?

Where I live in Nashville, I’m surrounded by people just like me. Everybody I know pretty much is an artist working on their career, and everyone’s at a different stage. Even quite successful people are still hustling to do this. I did want to tell their stories, speak for all the people that I’ve pretty much surrounded myself with my entire adult life. I had this realization that everybody is working for something, everybody’s working for their goals, and it never stops. It’s unglamorous, and you got to take a lot of small victories. Who knows where the resiliency comes from? It always feels like, “Well, I’m just going to put another foot in front of the other and just keep on going.” And I definitely was thinking this is the story I wanted to tell.

What about “Home Depot Glasses” and its talking blues delivery? Was that a nod to Woody Guthrie, Dylan or John Prine or even earlier performers?

We actually cut a different version of that song where I sang it. There’s actually a melody for the song, but I thought it wasn’t quite connecting with me the way I wanted. I thought it might be something as simple as maybe I just needed to raise the key or something. I sat on it for a while, kept doing the other songs, and then at a certain point I said we had to do something with this song; it’s not reaching me the same way. We decided to add kind of that bossa nova beat– it’s an old organ beat. Before, it was just bass, acoustic guitar, the weird kind of organ sound, and vocals. So we put the beat on it, and then I played over it. I did a number of takes, probably five or six takes, and each time I didn’t know what I was looking for, but I just wanted to be more intimate somehow. I started to speak some of the lines here and there, and then, by the final one, it’s the one that we kept, which is pretty much all talking. It felt intimate and personal. And then there’s a part where I say, “Thank you, John.” John Prine had just died; that wasn’t even there before. It just came out.

You also do Crystal Gayle’s “Ready For The Times To Get Better”. I haven’t thought of her in a while, so it was a nice surprise. What was your philosophy when you set out to record it?

I’ve never actually recorded a cover version of a song before for an album. I guess the best way I can put it is that when I started listening to it, I found a key and wrapped myself around it very easily. I was able to make it my own, make it work, so it felt my own thing really fast. That song just felt very poignant for where we were at– well, we’re still at– but I mean, God, it’s just dragging on and on and on! How much can a society take of this? We’re such social beings and we can’t be social, so I really felt the song. And I like that it’s short (laughs)! It’s one of the only short songs on the record. There’s a lot to be said for being able to say so much in such a few lines.

I think, for me, Power Up! ends with shades of hope with “Sunrise Surprise” and “Diggin’ In”, so perhaps you’re optimistic? Or do you still feel stuck in the trenches and singing to someone across from the plexiglass in the studio?

Well, yes to both. That’s always the balance, isn’t it? Some days one, some days, the other, but if you don’t find something to stake some hope and optimism down in, there’s not much point of being around and doing anything, is there? Those two songs, especially, are about reaching down for what you have, to help you get through whatever it is. I have a son and a wife, and I guess it’s about sometimes leaning on people to help get you through. I have to try to be optimistic. I think by nature, I’m quite a pessimist, but I’ll never allow it to fully take over because when that happens, game over, right?

Power Up! is available now on CD, LP, and through major digital platforms.

Charlie Farmer is a Georgia writer and professor who loves his wife, his daughters, his students, his cats, his books, his LPs, and everything else one should love in life.