The Lost Lakes musician discusses his solo debut, his cancer diagnosis, and the importance of perception.
Header Image: The center strip of the album art for Paul Mitch’s “Echoes & Shadows” is repeated three times. The art features two distinct halves. On the right side, the background is a light beige and boasts a series of faint, occasionally intersecting rings. The rings are adorned by sporadic dots, evoking map markers. On the left side of the cover is half of Mitch’s face, looking directly at the camera, in faded black & white, against a black background. Around Mitch’s face, the dots continue populating sketched out lines, as if notating important destinations. The dot furthest to the right is black, all the other dots are either beige or white. On the left side, “Paul Mitch” is written in small black font, around Mitch’s eye level. On the right, “Echoes & Shadows” is written in a slightly smaller size, positioned lower in the framing. In text form, all of the title is beige, save for the white ampersand.
In 2020, multi-instrumentalist Paul Mitch set to work on what would be his first solo record. In August, 2021 Mitch was diagnosed with lymphoma. By that time, all of the songs had been written and were headed to the mixing stage. After taking a beat to reflect, the songwriter dug into the material with a renewed sense of purpose and determination. Music became a grounding force. A good deal of Mitch’s energy became dedicated to completing the record. While Mitch experienced an internal transformation of the meaning of the work, the resulting album, Echoes & Shadows, remains tethered to his lived experience.
Echoes & Shadows, released last Friday, is a well-worn, contemplative piece of Americana, not too far removed from what Mitch had been making as a member of the Madison-based band Lost Lakes. From opener “Weather Vanes” on through closing track “Driving Through,” Mitch’s lyrics paint a narrative tied to turbulence. On the Weakerthans-esque “Not The Fool,” that turbulence appears as a plea for sustenance and stability (“On we go, more for tomorrow / Fill me up, I seem to be getting low”). Dusty, noir-ish highlight “Hands Up” illustrates a sense of impending doom with acute clarity, pendulum-swinging from self-flagellation to an inevitable defeatism with conviction, heightened by the hook of “Throwing my hands up now.”
While Mitch does the heavy lifting on Echoes & Shadows, the record benefits from some reinforcements. Charlie Koltak and Mitch’s Lost Lakes bandmate Mike Horick handle the record’s drum and percussion responsibilities, while Brooks Milgate lends organ playing and Elephant Revival‘s Charlie Rose contributes pedal steel. Mitch tapped Hayward Williams, another strong Americana artist, to co-produce. Together, Mitch and his collaborators cultivate a naturalistic, acoustic-led sound that’s both familiar and winsome. On its own, the sound would be strong enough to act as an engaging instrumental piece. Paired with Mitch’s narrative sensibilities, Echoes & Shadows becomes something far more immersive.
Many paths present themselves across Echoes & Shadows, finding Mitch exploring life’s micro and macro questions while clinging to one persistent certainty: the journey’s always going to be important. Whether those questions are ever answered is irrelevant in the face of accumulated experience. We’re shaped by our surroundings more often than we shape them—striving to recognize those patterns and corral them into paths of instructive personal growth is the best any of us can do.
In mid-January, Mitch spoke with Tone Madison about his creative process, Echoes & Shadows, the diagnosis, perception, Lost Lakes, and what comes next.
Tone Madison: How long was the writing process for Echoes & Shadows?
Paul Mitch: A better part of a year and a half. There’s one song on it that I wrote a decade ago but everything else has been in the last two years. Mostly pandemic written.
Tone Madison: Which song was the one from a decade ago and has it changed?
Paul Mitch: “Driving Through.” I wrote it for a songwriting competition, Music Sports, on Triple M radio station. The song remains almost unchanged. It was a song challenge, so we picked a couple of words out of a hat and had to have the words in the song somewhere. One of the words was “computer” and that word has been removed. There was a little line about “the voice in my dashboard” or something like that, about a GPS, and that was the computer, but otherwise the whole song has remained entirely as it was written.
Tone Madison: How long did the production aspect of the record take?
Paul Mitch: I started recording demos for this, bits of pieces of it kind of fell together, in January of 2021. My main concern about it was that it didn’t feel like my songs all fit on the same record. That’s where I reached out to [Echoes & Shadows co-producer] Hayward Williams [to ask] “What do you do in this situation? Do you make a rock record? Do you make a folk record?” He [advised] “Make an acoustic demo of every song you want to put on the record and we’ll see if that all feels like it can gel together or if you feel like you’ve got multiple records happening here.” Starting with those demos, over the course of those 8 months or so, I recorded everything for all 11 songs on the record.
I did the acoustic demos for everything and then I sent them to [Charlie Koltak and Mike Horick to track] drums. So I had drums and acoustic demos for everything, then I did bass alongside that [before] sending it out to the organ player. I started playing everything else on top of that, taking acoustic guitars out when I didn’t want them. Re-doing all the vocals. Once it felt like I had everything I wanted on the record, then I started mixing. Mixing took me about a month. I had it mastered by a guy down in Nashville at True East Mastering.
Tone Madison: A lot of the lyrics within the record center on the concept of motion. Arriving, leaving, being on a journey, are all mentioned, with references to roads, runways, and paths scattered throughout. Was that intentionally built in as a thematic hook or was it something that subconsciously manifested?
Paul Mitch: It definitely manifested subconsciously. It’s funny, I’ve never actually thought about that being a thematic element of my own record. I would say a lot of my life… My wife travels a fair amount for work. When I think about things I have control over in my life, a lot of it revolves around motions between where I am now and where I’d like to be going. So it doesn’t surprise me that that’s what I write about, but it wasn’t on purpose.
Tone Madison: You recently were on the receiving end of a tough diagnosis. Did that impact your perspective or shift the stakes of this record or life in general?
Paul Mitch: Absolutely. In August, I was diagnosed with lymphoma. I remember on the day I was diagnosed, I hadn’t started mixing the record yet. But it felt like it was something… As I faced this giant unknown, that I didn’t know how long I was going to be around. I wanted to make sure that I finish this, first and foremost. This is my first solo project that I’ve ever done. I’ve been doing music for 20 years and never put out a solo record. All of the sudden, it felt like there was a purpose behind it. The meanings of those songs changed for me, in a lot of ways.
When you look at what you have done and what you haven’t done in your life and what you’d still like to do… If somebody told you tomorrow that you only have x number of days left, you know? It became something I needed to do. When there was this giant thing hanging over me that I had no control over, I needed to put my focus into something that I did. That’s what this record became for me. The thing that got all of my hot attention when it wasn’t healthy for me to put that into something I couldn’t do anything about.
Tone Madison: Several of the songs across the record refer to a seemingly malleable “you.” Some lyricists will use “you” as a device to address themselves. Were there any instances of that here or is the “you” that appears more universal or defined?
Paul Mitch: I don’t think that I use “you” as a me very often. When I write, I start from the inside and look out. I don’t necessarily put on the hat of someone else. I think I change who I am in those cases. I do feel like my perspective in a lot of ways is malleable. There’s a bit of a thematic element in the record that was documenting my journey. I stopped drinking four years ago and a lot of the material in there sort of deals with how I have changed and how I continue to try to evolve and progress as a person. That “you” in a lot of the cases is an inside-out reflection.
Tone Madison: With the way everything’s shifted, traditional means of promotional rollout have been adjusted for everyone. Do you have any plans to do anything for the release, whether that be a virtual show or anything else?
Paul Mitch: It’s been hard to think about how to do that. Shifting with everybody and music and what it is and also my health. I was putting this record a week after what I hope is a screen that tells me I’m cancer-free. That was going to be my celebration, my jumping-off point. I haven’t thought about doing a virtual release, necessarily. It does make sense to do some kind of internet show. I started a YouTube channel that I’ve been putting some performances on. Since I’m not going to be playing shows leading up to it, maybe I’ll do some kind of virtual live event in that way.
Tone Madison: Has Lost Lakes been staying active throughout all of these processes? Beyond that, have you made any efforts to extend your solo work beyond the release of the record or are you giving yourself some time off on that front?
Paul Mitch: Lost Lakes has been working on a record for pretty much the entirety of the pandemic. We have the raw tracks together. Corey [Mathew Hart] and I haven’t been able to get together in the way that we would like to, to put it together. It’s slowly progressing. We don’t have a release date for it yet. I would venture to say that it would be late ’22 that we could get it out.
In relation to the [solo work], I wanted to get this material out. I started writing some new material already also. I feel like I’m going to make another record after this. I think it’s part of that evolution of what I want to be as an artist. In that I need to have the full say. I think I’m going to do it a little bit differently. There are some things I wanted to approach in a certain way with this record that I think I’ll be able to leave by the wayside for the next one.
Tone Madison: Was there anything that we didn’t talk about today that you wanted to get across in one way or another?
Paul Mitch: My main goal right now, the reason why it took me as long as it did to get a solo record together was that I always felt like it needed to be a certain thing, or it needed to be perfect, or people are going to care about one way or another. But I’ve gotten to the point where if I don’t put it out for me, then I’m never going to put it out. And if nobody listens to it, that’s going to be what it is. But no one will listen to anything you don’t put out. It’s like the saying, “you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” I just wanted to get this out. I hope it means something to some people, and if it doesn’t it certainly means a lot to me.