Born and still living in Lakeland, Florida, Michael McArthur has been singing for as long as he can remember. “I was in chorus in elementary school and eventually developed an interest in the guitar because I wanted something other than the radio to sing to,” he says. “My grandfather bought me my first guitar, a made-in-Korea Fender acoustic. It didn't take long for me to learn of my love for songwriting.”
McArthur has logged a lot of road miles with his music and has traveled for pleasure quite a bit too. But he always comes back to Lakeland. “Traveling I get my ‘I wonder what life would be like there’ fix. I thought seriously about moving to various music towns in the past, but I always came back to the same thought: Lakeland has been good to me, and the people I love are here. Don't let anyone tell you that you have to move to make it. Be where you want to be.”
Lakeland, is, afterall, where much of McArthur’s family and most of his longtime friends still live. It’s where he worked for years in the family-owned bistro he launched at age 21 with his brother. The bistro’s still going strong, Lakeland’s still home, and McArthur’s still pursuing his first love: music.
Songwriting has always been a form of therapy for him. His 2019 album Ever Green, Ever Rain, recorded with Grammy-winning producer Ryan Freeland and inspired by the artist’s long period of isolation and self-repair, was released to critical acclaim. In 2020, he came out with two EPs, Oh, Sedona and How to Fall in Love, which featured new tracks as well as acoustic renditions of favorites from Ever Green, Ever Rain.
We talked with McArthur about music and got his recommendations for a Feel Good Playlist.
Cowboys & Indians: What did you grow up listening to and who are your influences?
Michael McArthur: It was a mixed bag and still is. Early on, Boyz II Men and Stevie Wonder taught me to sing. I had the II album and burned a hole in it listening on my Discman. A whole lot of ’90s R&B, rap, and rock. My mom is Puerto Rican, so Gloria Estefan, Julio Iglesias, and Jose Feliciano were mainstays. The first song I learned to play on guitar was “Ain’t No Sunshine” by Bill Withers. He’s a hero. So are James Taylor, Tom Waits, Bruce Springsteen, Leonard Cohen, Nina Simone, John Prine, and Prince.
I’d make the argument that as artists, we're inspired and/or influenced by everything we listen to whether we intend it to be that way or not. If you put garlic in the soup, you'’re gonna taste garlic. So, for me, it’s Bill Withers, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen, and John Prine.
C&I: What have been some career high points?
McArthur: There have been no big breaks for me, and I’m OK with that. Over the last 10 years, my career as an artist has been a slow and steady train making its way across the country. And every year, something significant enough happens to keep the thing rolling.
C&I: How do you label or describe your music?
McArthur: Labels are like boxes. You fill them up, stick them in the attic, and forget they’re there. The great thing about art is, you get to experience it first, then decide whether you like it or not. I’m more interested in conveying a feeling and a message than a type of music. If one of my songs makes you smile or cry or call someone you love, then it’s working. That’s the type of music I make.
C&I: Tell us about the new music. Why did you decide to split these songs up into two EPs rather than an album?
McArthur: The EPs are really two new songs with some bonus tracks attached. So instead of releasing the songs as individual singles, I decided to do a little extra work in order to tell a more complete story.
C&I: What was the recording process like? Who did you work with?
McArthur: All of the songs on these EPs were engineered, recorded, performed, and mixed by me. Kim Rosen (Knack Mastering) mastered them. The recording process was simple in that these are all one-take performances.
Recording took place in isolation from April 14 to 16. Since each song is essentially a live solo performance, I did several takes of each one and picked favorites while mixing. Recording alone isn’t my favorite thing, but it is something I’ve done from the beginning and have been conditioned for [incomplete]
C&I: What’s your process like?
McArthur: My process changes from day to day and song to song. You can’t fish the same hole forever, and since songs and ideas are elusive, the most effective way to come across them is to show up and work. I try and write something every day. I’m not always successful, and it’s not always good, but one day an idea will show up and the only explanation I’ll have as to how I found it will be that I was around when it arrived. Sometimes it starts with the guitar, sometimes a title, and other times a line or two.
C&I: Something people might be surprised to learn about you?
McArthur: I don't enjoy watermelon. It's not a flavor thing, but a texture thing.
C&I: How have you kept the music going while sheltering?
McArthur: Releasing these EPs is one thing. I’ve also been writing every day. Poetry and songs. At some point soon, I’ll start thinking about the next full-length album. There’s always something I can be doing.
C&I: What should we do when we’re in your hometown of Lakeland, Florida?
McArthur: First on your list should be to visit Born & Bread Bakehouse — best croissants, pastries, and sourdough bread you’ll have this side of San Francisco. Also, pick up a bag of Patriot Coffee. It’s roasted in Lakeland. Then, if you’re interested in Florida wildlife — alligators and all — visit Circle B Bar Reserve.
C&I: What’s next for you?
McArthur: I’m not sure what’s next, but I’m doing my best to be present and to make each day something special, and that’s all any of us can do right now.
Michael McArthur’s Feel Good Playlist
“Don’t Leave Me Lonely” — Mark Ronson (feat. Yebba)
“It Feels So Good” — Sonique
“You Can Call Me Al” — Paul Simon
“May Your Kindness Remain” — Courtney Marie Andrews
“What a Diff’rence a Day Made” — Dinah Washington
“I Need a Teacher” — Hiss Golden Messenger
“My Love” — Lionel Richie
“Hold On” — Tom Waits
“This Life” — Vampire Weekend