Friday, June 03, 2011

Luke Mitchell: Cool as a Cucumber

CB/CH2 June 2011 issue
He saunters up the stairs, and casually swipes his sandy brown hair from his brow, just before it falls across his eyes. He gets a hug, a kiss, and a “good to see you sweetie” from every server at Sunrise CafĂ©.
He folds himself into a chair, and in true southern fashion orders some grits … and a breakfast burrito. He warns me that he just ran a few miles, so he’ll be “scarfing down the burrito.”

At breakfast, Luke Mitchell reveals that he has made an important decision. “I’m not going back to college. I’m going to see if I can make a career out of music. I’ve got to do it while I’m young.” So his formal education is on the back burner, for now. “I’ll go back … I know I have a lot to learn.”

The young Mitchell – just 20 - waxed poetic about the life of a musician. “I know what I do is not socially normal. I work odd hours, which tends to alienate me from others.” Alienate him from others, yet move him closer to his family. After all he says, “My family members are my biggest fans. They keep coming to my shows no matter how many times they have seen me perform.”

His friends are mostly musicians too – and also “socially abnormal” one would surmise. Mitchell has been making music with friends since his early teens. Mitchell and his buddy Kieran Daly launched “New Kids on the Rock” when they were little. But, that was just the beginning. With a sheepish grin Mitchell asked me if I’d heard of “Lambtron” (named for a Pokemon character), or “The Great Escape,” or “Luke Mitchell and the Footlongs”?

“No?” he chuckled, “What about the “Gnomes”? We were super-famous, we blew up.” I shook my head head no, again, and he said, “When did you move here? Ah, we must have been before your time.”

(Oh yes, he’s a comedian too.)

Mitchell and his mid-teen bandmates did strike gold with the Gnomes about five years ago. Mitchell eventually quit the band, but fondly remembers the “money rolling in” and hinted about his interest in a reunion tour -- The Gnomes, where are they now?

A Family Affair
“My mom used to date musicians,” he says with a smirk. “Growing up there was always music in the house.” Mitchell’s step-father and member of Hilton Head’s home-grown band the “Bonzo Brothers” gave him his first drum set. And his father and mother avidly support Mitchell’s dream-chasing. Mitchell recently moved back to the Island, and is back living with his Dad, who has graciously approved the garage renovation that has yielded a pseudo-recording studio.

The apples don’t fall far from the family tree. Mitchell’s sister Hannah is the lead singer of the “Steppin Stones.” A band of teens that’ve been playing their parent’s music at venues around the Lowcountry for the last few years. (This summer you can find them under the big oak at Harbourtown.)

Making Music
When asked about his first album, High Expectations, Mitchell says, “It’s archaic, I don’t even know who that person is anymore.” Since then, he’s grown and benefited from the tutelage of a cadre of music legends. Namely, Jim Scott, who has seven Grammy’s on his shelf for his work with Tom Petty, Wilco, Rolling Stones, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

As Mitchell was working on the songs for his second album, he got up the nerve to call Scott cold. He dropped the name of Jack Sherman, who played guitar on Mitchell’s first album and was a friend of Scott’s. Mitchell joked that he said, “Hello,” and then squeezed Sherman’s name into the conversation as quickly as he could, so Scott wouldn’t hang up. And it worked. Scott was willing to listen. So Mitchell sent him his stuff and then he waited. He waited an agonizing four months before he heard back. When he finally got the call, it was with a green light.

So, Mitchell jet-sets to Scott’s Los Angeles recording studio, which he likened to “heaven on earth for musicians,” and they record “Row Boat Row.” Titled as a tribute to growing up on Point Comfort Road, Mitchell says the album “just sounds like home.”

Appropriately, the official launch party for “Row Boat Row” is slated for June 25th at Remy’s, just down the road from “home.” And it’s no surprise that sister Hannah and the Steppin Stones will open for Mitchell.

More than music
After listening to a preview of “Row Boat Row” there is no doubt that Mitchell has the vocal chops to make it. Smooth and soulful, his voice is soothing, his lyrics have a rhythm and spirit to them that can easily overtake you. (And make you miss your turn on your way back from the Island to Bluffton. True story.)

But it’s about more than writing and singing songs for Mitchell. “These days you need to know all elements of the business if you want to make it a career,” he says. And he wants it. Bad. “My goal is to serve the music and let that lead me … I need to be technically good enough to do anything in this business.” Which is why in addition to songwriter and singer, Mitchell also hones his skills on the piano, rhythm guitar, drums, and in producer’s seat. “In this moment, I’ll do anything to make this a career.”

Even though he’s been at it for years, he still can’t eat a meal before a show. The nerves get to him – but, it isn’t a fear of messing up – everyone misses lyrics – it is the deep desire to put on a good show.
“The performance means nothing if you don’t connect with your audience,” he says. “The more ego you have, the worse you perform.”

This former Hilton Head High School “Student of the Year” is ambitious and anxious. He can’t sit still for 20 minutes. There is no such thing as down time, Mitchell says – “I get restless and feel like I should be working on music. Music is all I want. We can’t help what we do. Music calls to you. I can’t stop it. I guess I never really started it either. It just happened.”

Of Note: Luke told me that when he is being interviewed he always prepares for one question, that no one ever asks – If you were stranded on a desert island, what three CDs would you want with you?

So I asked.

Interestingly, he could only come up with two – “Wildflowers” by Tom Petty and “Lola Versus Powerman and the Money Go Round” by the Kinks. Not a surprise as both offer heavy influence on the musician Mitchell has become.

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