That’s the overarching sentiment of Mike Grutka’s fifth album, February Sessions. “After my mom died [in 2004], the last two records have been more hopeful,” says Grutka. “She was really young when she died. And there’s something in me that’s like, ‘You’ve got to do this now. No one else is going to do it for you.’
That bit of self-realization has Grutka set to release his second album in less than a year. February Sessions comes quickly on the heels of last October’s Ria, and finds the Saratoga Springs, N.Y.-based performer broadcasting an inspirational message over a sound he calls “acoustic based funky modern roots rock-n-roll.” Well-established in his home region and having already scored airplay at more than 400 radio stations across the U.S. and Canada, Mike Grutka is sure to reach his widest audience yet with February Sessions.
Made as part of the RPM Challenge (an online event that asks artists to compose and record a full album during the shortest month of the year), February Sessions serves as a kind of complement to its predecessor in that the overall vibe is looser, more live than the painstakingly produced Ria—something not easily accomplished by one guy in a home studio. Figuring he would simply finish some of the many Ria leftovers, Grutka ended up writing nine entirely new songs for February Sessions, and completing two others. If a performance was good Grutka stuck with it, rather than obsess over every note; the few vocal parts he attempted to re-record were scratched in favor of original takes.
At the album’s emotional center are “She Said” and “Find Your Home,” two songs that find Grutka dealing with the loss of his mother in directly personal terms. This reflective tone serves as counterpoint to the rest of the disc: The hopeful energy that manifested itself in Ria’s generally upbeat tones thoroughly pervades February Sessions. From the Beach Boys harmonies of “La La Song” to the huge chorus hook of “How the Story Ends,” much of February Sessions maintains an easygoing, acoustic-flavored feel.
Ria (“air,” backwards) is what Grutka proudly calls his “big pop record.” With three albums already to his name, he’d already proven himself a talented writer and performer—this was his chance to introduce some new sounds into the mix and concentrate on shorter, more focused songs . (“I got way too in my own head about it,” he says of the three-years-in-the-making album. “It took forever to finish.”) Narrowed down from roughly 80, the 12 songs that made the cut find playful blasts of electronica swirling together with Grutka’s melodious, acoustic-based pop-rock. But Ria is undeniably a showcase for his voice: Many of the album’s songs are constructed around expansive, layered vocal arrangements, particularly the lush “Standing Beside Me,” the British Invasion head-bopper “Everything,” and the single “Denver (Spinning Around).” The latter’s chiming electric guitars and breezy flow recall vintage R.E.M., as does Grutka’s disarming tenor, oftentimes a dead ringer for Michael Stipe.
Grutka is currently planning a solo tour to support his two new releases, but intends to keep up the quickened recording pace—“I’ve decided to release albums on the Beatles’ schedule,” he half-jokes—because life, as we all know, is fragile. “People can never steal you from you.” As he sings in the closing lines of February Sessions highlight “Escape”: “It’s your heart/ It’s your life/ It’s your soul/ Sing it out now!”
Mike Grutka will sing his life for you if you care to listen. And when you hear his music, you’ll sing too.
How do you describe your music to people?
Acoustic based funky modern roots rock-n-roll.
REM meets DMB with a dash of Neil Young, Elvis Costello and Radiohead gumbo soup.
Alternative folk pop that walks the line between power guitar pop and lush dream-like passion driven song craft.
Tell me about how you originally got into your craft.
I was always involved in music from a young age. My parents would sit around for hours playing records and singing a long. I began playing violin in 3rd grade. Throughout school I added French Horn, bass and piano.
I got my first guitar in college. After playing for about a year I was hanging out with my younger brother in the back yard and was showing off. I told him I knew how to write a song. Came up with a verse and chorus on the spot. Finished it 3 years later! So it was kind of an accident because I wanted to be a know it all for my brother!!
About a year after that I got a regular Thursday night gig in the town I went to college in and started actually 'trying' to write songs. They were mostly horrible, but I got the bug. Now I can't go a day without some type of new song idea or fragment running through my head.
What is your favorite thing to do in the whole wide world?
Sleep. When I can't do that, probably my favorite thing to do is the actual making of a song. Not so much the initial 'here's the chords and melody' part, but the arrangement. Adding in the other instruments, harmonies etc. Playing with sounds. Hearing it go from this weird idea into a fully formed thing. It always amazes me that I have the ability to do it. I'm still not sure how 90% of my songs came about. There's a randomness to it that makes it feel accidental at times, even though I know what I'm doing. I think. haha!
Of course after that it's plugging my body into the computer to enter Pandora to infiltrate the Navi which I don't do nearly enough. Wait, that was a pretty movie with a bad script. Sorry.
What is your biggest challenge when it comes to running your business?
Getting gigs in new towns.
After that it's switching from the 'creative' side of things and putting on the 'business' hat. There are so many things I'm responsible for, especially being a solo artist. I handle all the PR, marketing, websites, booking, money, hiring band members, organizing tours etc. Some days just looking at the Twitter feed is enough to make me want to pack it in, but I just remember that 100% of the people who stop fail. Also, no one else is going to do this for me at this point, so I have to.
It was a particular challenge during my fall tour to keep up with all the business things while focusing on driving to the new town and doing a show. But it was also very rewarding.
When you were a kid, what did you think you were going to be when you grew up?
I told my Mom when I was 8 that I would be independently wealthy. So obviously I chose to become an independent musician. The wealthy part is coming. I can feel it!
In what way has your community impacted your development as a musician?
Where I live is a huge tourist town. Most places you can play want covers all night. When I first moved here it was great because that's pretty much all I could do. Being an original artist is not great for this area due to lack of venues to perform in. However, I have to thank the system here because I learned so so many songs over the years to fill out 4 hour sets and it really improved my guitar playing and singing as well as learning all the different styles. These crept into my songwriting.
Its also mainly a solo/duo kind of place which really re-inforced my love of acoustic playing and music. Caffe Lena is here and the folk scene is a strong influence. It made me focus on songs working with just me and a guitar which is a good thing in my opinion.
Also, there have been some great open mics over the years in my town and I got to meet many many very talented musicians at them, as well as jam together. I still love to go out every once in a while to meet up and hear what they are doing and just sit and play and sing. For such a small town there is an incredible ratio of great musicians here. Having a welcoming environment like that was huge when I first started. Now it's a great way to go out and test out new songs and get first hand feedback.
What other artists out there do you love?
I'm a huge REM fan. Radiohead, The Flaming Lips and The Beatles. Currently I love 'Boxer' by the National, the song 'Zebra' by Beach House. Loved 'Trouble' by Ray LaMontagne as well as his new song. The soundtrack to 'Once'. Sigur Ros particularly 'Hvarf-Heim'. Grace Potter and the Nocturnals live, not really on record. Lloyd Cole's album 'Don't Get Weird on Me Babe'. Band of Horses 'No One's Gonna Love You'.
What does your future hold?
World domination and a 5 night stand at Madison Square Garden of course! Seriously though, I just finished a tour that took me all the way down to Florida to play in front of 5,000 people opening for .38 Special. I hope to continue to build on that in the new year. I'd like to be able to take the band out on tour as well. I'm already writing new songs so an album is quite possible although I've released 2 in the space of 6 months. Maybe I'll just open for REM if they tour behind their new album next spring. Yeah. That one sounds good.