On Songwriting Inspiration With Manchester Orchestra’s Robert McDowell

Manchester Orchestra know their way around a good song or two. With a career extending to six studio records, the Atlanta indie group have long been creators of music that has been both emotional, impactful and classic when it comes to the development of the genre through the ‘00s.

Their latest album, The Million Masks of God, is another example of Manchester Orchestra’s brand of storytelling. Songwriters Andy Hull and Robert McDowell pour grief, release and love into these new songs, ultimately creating an album of healing as they (and the band) dealt with the loss of McDowell’s father to cancer.

Rich songwriting and storytelling is something both Hull and McDowell relish themselves as music fans and chatting with McDowell recently, we found out some of his past and current inspirations.

The one who set the blueprint…

Doug Marsh (Built To Spill)

He’s a great songwriter because while he’s able to craft these incredible lyrics and stories within the songs, they are also a band. Granted, they’ve been through so many different changes as a band, I think that what they do and what their sound is, is so specific to them.

We’ve accidentally ripped off a version of them and then had to realise that it never actually sounded like them because they are just Built To Spill.

They’re an incredible band, song-wise, because you know from the first intro from the song, that it’s Built To Spill, yet it’s continued to change over the past 20 years.

The one who’s an all timer…

Neil Young

When you look back on the history of modern music as we know it, [remaining individual] is what a Paul Simon or a Neil Young have done

All of those songwriters had spells where it may not have been commercially successful, but like…Neil Young in the ‘80s had fully committed to the version of Neil Young that he was. That is respectful, in my opinion. He was always authentically him. Even if he wasn’t his best version of himself, it was still amazing to hear. I think that that’s a great thing songwriters can do, if you follow a career of theirs, you get to have a glimpse into their life and their growing up as a songwriter.

I think we realised pretty early on – whether it was stupid or not – that we were going to choose to be us. Whether it hurt or helped our career. I look back on that decision and I’m kinda amazed that we did it, even though it was out of blind ignorance at the time! I think that blind ignorance is an important part of songwriting at times. You’re literally trying to tell a story, rather than replicate a story. If you don’t choose to believe in yourself at that moment, then it gets a bit watered down.

The one who’s setting a new standard…

Phoebe Bridgers

Someone like Phoebe Bridgers is doing an incredible job of…she is doing, in my opinion, a similar thing that an Elliot Smith would do. Taking something that feels simple, yet is complex, and putting it on a grand playing field. It’s going out to such a mass audience, it feels exciting to see what’s happening in her career.

The albums are amazing, but so many people are able to hear it now. For any band that really cares about the song, when another songwriter like that succeeds, it is just so exciting because it’s a push forward for all of us.

I think there have been a lot of good albums that haven’t seen the light of day because they were released in this pandemic, but it says so much about the album [Punisher] and about the songs that it has had the legs that it’s been able to have without any touring or live presence.

Manchester Orchestra’s sixth studio album, ‘The Million Masks Of God’, is out now.

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