Since debuting with Die Midwestern in 2020, Arlo McKinley has quickly become one of the more exciting voices on the fringes of country music. The Cincinnati native was the final artist John Prine signed to his Oh Boy Records label before his passing in 2020, about as powerful a co-sign as a singer-songwriter could get. Die Midwestern introduced McKinley as an artist capable of not only Prine-approved songwriting but crafting a singular country sound that is as informed by the late icon as it is punk acts like Black Flag and Social Distortion, something McKinley takes even further on his newly released sophomore album, This Mess We’re In.
Produced by Matt Ross-Spang (Margo Price, Jason Isbell) and recorded at the legendary Sam Phillips Recording Studio in Memphis, This Mess We’re In finds McKinley expanding upon the sound he created on Die Midwestern, fleshing out songs with strings, keys and orchestral flourishes. Thematically, the LP grapples with grief, depression and the messiness of human relationships, topics that should especially resonate with listeners after the turmoil of the last two and a half years.
Below, VMP catches up with McKinley about how melodies come to him, spending time at Sam Phillips and what it means to be part of John Prine’s musical legacy.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
VMP: You’ve had to wait a bit to get this album out. How are you feeling, now that you’re just a week away from listeners hearing the full project?
Arlo McKinley: I’ve been holding on to it for almost exactly a year. [July 15] is right around the time that we wrapped up recording on it. I’ve been living with it for a while and actually had to stop listening to it for a bit because I was like, “I’m gonna hear this a lot.” I’m excited. I’m excited for it to finally, finally make its way into the world. I’m super proud of this record.
When did you first begin writing songs for the record? There is a strong thematic link between many of them — was there a song or idea that helped establish those connections?
Shortly after Die Midwestern came out [in 2020], I was sitting around writing stuff, just kind of messing around with ideas. “Stealing Dark from the Night Sky” came first. Then “Rushintherug,” when I wrote that was when, I think, I realized I was writing a record. That was the moment, even though I’d written some of the other ones in between those two. I was thinking all the songs sort of connected, in a way. I knew pretty quickly because I’m always writing, in a way. Some ideas stick; some don’t. But it’s never worked out like this, where all the songs I was writing seemed to be a little bit of a story. They’re all kind of connected with each other, which I think came from looking back on the whole COVID experience and the heavy lockdown and all of that.
Those connection points you found, did you consciously work toward expanding those? Or was it more of a natural byproduct of what was on your mind while writing?
I think it happened organically, really. Some of the songs on there — like “Bag of Pills” on Die Midwestern was over 15 years old — I went back for, because I have a list of songs that I’ve written that’s probably 40-something songs that I’ll try to revisit somewhat consciously. I think, more on going back to the old songs, that was finding songs that would fit kind of the sound and narrative of the entire thing. But writing, I think they were just kind of organically connecting with each other. The songs “Stealing Dark [from the Night Sky]” and “Rushintherug” and “To Die For,” and stuff like that, are all new, and then I went back and cleared up “Back Home” and “Dancing Days,” which are older songs that kind of seemed to work with the album.
“Rushintherug” is one of my favorite tracks. I was really taken with its melody. That’s something that stuck out across the whole record — you use melody in such an emotive way. How does melody writing factor into your songwriting process?
It’s a very big factor. That’s usually how I’ll end up writing. I’ve never been someone that can just sit down and say, “I’m going to write a song today.” That process never really worked. I try not to force anything, and most of the stuff that I write will be off of a melody or something that I came up with in my head, while I’m driving or just sitting around. That’s what happened with the chorus of that song, so that’s where that song started. I heard the melody of that chorus in my head and then was like, “Oh, actually that’s kind of catchy. So, I’ll write a song around this.” It’s important to me to write catchy stuff. And melody, that’s what I get the most out of music, pretty melodies and stuff like that. With this record overall, I think that song set the tone for how it would sound: string-heavy, with a lot of keys and organs. I just wanted to make a pretty album.
Your lyrics, too, are so image-rich. Like on “Back Home,” the line, “This city is a symphony that never seems to be in key,” is so specific and evocative. How did you hone such a vivid songwriting voice?
That’s still a mystery to me. I don’t know where it comes from. I really didn’t start songwriting until my late 20s, early 30s. I’ll be 43 this year. I was always a singer, just singing harmonies in bands and stuff like that. And I really don’t know where the writing stuff kind of came from. I just write about myself and my life and situations that I go through. That line is just sort of, “I don’t know, everything around me is moving, but nothing seems to be in place.” When I think about it now, I think it’s strange that I sit and do this stuff. It wasn’t always there. And it was something that took me a long time to get confident about.
The title track stuck out to me, too, both for your vocals and for its message, which seems to be one people will resonate with after making it through the last two years. What made that song in particular feel representative of the whole album?
Over the past few years, I’ve realized how important relationships and friendships really are. I wasn’t always aware of how much I needed certain people in my life until I was forced — until we were all forced — to go without being able to have these people in our lives on a daily basis, and to be alone for a bit. And I thought the title “This Mess We’re In” was just appropriate for the time. It’s more appropriate now than it was when I came up with it. The world’s in a weird spot.
Yeah, it seems to get more appropriate by the day, unfortunately.
That’s the thing, yeah. It’s unfortunate that there seem to be “sides” and stuff like that. I don’t know, it’s just crazy how people stay [away] from each other because of political beliefs or religious beliefs. And that’s one thing that music’s always done, for me at least, like playing shows or listening to music — it’s a break from all of that for a minute, at least I hope. That’s what I hope I offer.
I read a quote from you that said creating this album offered you “an internal compass” to navigate difficult losses you experienced. Can you say a little more about what that means for you?
It was right before Die Midwestern came out. One of my best friends passed away from a drug overdose and shortly after that my mother passed away. I think these songs were just what I went to, to try and get through a time that was already hard, dealing with when COVID first came and all of that craziness. Then having these two major losses come, for me it was hard to navigate through it any other way. It was almost like the movie Groundhog Day. Every day I’d wake up and it’s the same thing over and over, because we couldn’t go on tour, we couldn’t play shows, I couldn’t go to New England to see friends, couldn’t do anything like that. So, I think that’s where a lot of the songs come from. It really is. That’s how I got through it at the time and how I’m still getting through stuff that plays a major role in my life.
You got to record the album with Matt Ross-Spang at Sam Phillips Recording Studio in Memphis. What was that experience like?
It was amazing. Working with Matt, I don’t see myself really working with another producer anytime soon. He just seems to get what I’m trying to do without me having to say much. It was fun. It almost had a more laid-back feel [than Die Midwestern] for me to make. It was all of us just kind of figuring it out as we went along, because Matt only had some acoustic demos [of] songs that I’d sent him, and the band hadn’t heard them yet. It was fun to watch the songs come alive, to watch these guys and girls in the band hear them for the first time. Just me playing guitar and then seeing what we created out of it was a fun experience. And the studio is like a time capsule. They haven’t changed much at all. The third floor of that place still hasn’t been changed. It’s still Sam Phillips’ office. They haven’t changed the carpet. It’s a weird feeling, being in there and knowing that you’re standing where so many other great artists have been. You don’t want to leave Sam Phillips with a bad record.
You’re one of what seems to be a growing number of country artists who finds inspiration in genres like punk and metal. How do you see country intersecting with those genres?
I have two older brothers. So, growing up I was always listening to their records when they were home. And then when they’d get home and kick me out of their rooms, I’d go to my dad’s room and listen to his country stuff. I think I noticed early on that there’s not a huge difference [between the genres], at least with the formula of writing songs in a punk way, which is usually three chords, a little verse, chorus, verse, chorus. That’s how I still write songs. Hardly any of my songs have a bridge or anything like that. And they’re just to the point and straightforward. I taught myself how to play guitar listening to old Social Distortion, Back Flag and stuff like that. Those bands are doing the same thing [as country music], really, just doing it a lot faster and louder. I could easily turn the songs on this album into fast, loud songs, as well. They’re written in the same way.
Your fanbase seems especially devoted. What do you think it is about what you’re doing that connects with people on such a powerful level?
That is another thing that’s kind of a mystery to me. My guess would be that I’m just being honest and straightforward and maybe singing about stuff that a lot of people maybe don’t touch on, like addiction, mental health and depression. I’ve talked about this with other people, but I think I’m possibly showing people that, you know, you’re not as crazy as you may think you are. It’s a normal thing that this goes not talked about. Some of the emails and messages that we’ll get are just very heavy. I got a message from an Afghanistan veteran who told me that he did two tours over there. He said the only thing that would that would bring everyone peace and calm everyone down at the end of the night was listening to my record. I don’t know if I can get a bigger compliment than that.
You were the final artist John Prine signed to his label, Oh Boy Records, before he passed away in 2020. In a way, your career will always have a connection to his legacy. What does that mean to you?
I always want to make sure that I’m representing the Oh Boy label as well as it deserves to be represented. Just knowing that I will forever be the last person to sign is something that sits heavily on me, in a good way. To even end up on his radar at any time is amazing to me. I’ve said often that if this all ended tomorrow and it all went away — and I surely hope that it doesn’t — but if it if it did, that’s more of a success than anything I could have ever imagined I would end up seeing or receiving from songwriting.
Brittney McKenna is a writer living in Nashville. She contributes regularly to many outlets, including NPR Music, Apple Music and Nashville Scene.