Mike Donehey is a songwriter, performing artist, author, podcaster, and most importantly husband and father, but for Mike, learning to embrace the unexpected has been the very thing that continually brings forth encouraging and soul-healing music. When the world was impacted by the pandemic, Donehey, like so many others, found himself struggling. Tenth Avenue North, the band that he founded and led for so many years, was amicably disbanding and planning their farewell tour when everything stopped. As months passed, he realized he needed to mourn these drastic life changes as well as the unknown. The more he began to open up and let himself feel sadness and the sting of the pain, “the more joy came flooding in on the other side,” he explains. As an album that shares songs full of encouragement, radical vulnerability, mourning, honesty, acceptance and acknowledgment, Donehey tackles it all on his new record, Flourish (Fair Trade Services), out now. In this TCB Exclusive, Mike explains how penning the title track unlocked a huge collection of new songs and how the Flourish cover art beautifully depicts the message for the collection.
Can you talk about the title Flourish and the meaning behind the cover art?
‘Flourish’ started with the song “Flourish”. Middle of the pandemic, I was angry, bitter, and sulking. My band’s farewell tour got canceled. I didn’t know at all what my future was going to look like. I didn’t know if I should keep the band going and hire a bunch of new guys or if I should start a solo career, or if I should give up music altogether. But I couldn’t not write songs because I needed songs more than ever. As David says in Psalm 49:4, I write songs to unriddle myself. So I started to try to unriddle all that I was feeling, and the first song I wrote was one called “Flourish.” It was a fist to the air – not in defiance but in agreement with God that even though all my circumstances looked completely out of control, I believed that I could still flourish inside, even if I wasn’t flourishing outside. And that began the process that unlocked an avalanche of songs. I ended up writing 100 songs over the next year. And the cover art is trying to depict exactly that. There is a song titled “Standing At The Edge Of My World” and “Follow You Into The Fire”. In “Abundance” even when songs feel scarce, you can still live in abundance. The cover is all the different elements – desert, storm, flood, fire. And this belief that there is a little flower in the guy’s heart. I can flourish in the midst of anything.
So if “Flourish” was the first song written for the album, which track was the last one written that completed the project?
I’m going through all the songs in my head. The last song that made the record was a song called “From The Start.” I felt like I needed one more, up-tempo, concert kind of song.
You wrote all of these songs during the pandemic. Looking back at them now, but seeing them in the lens of the current state of the world, which lyric do you think the world most needs to hear, that perhaps hits a little different than when it was written?
The song that hits me harder than I thought it would is a song I wrote with my sister called “Unity Hymn.” I thought that we had seen the peak of disunity at the election last year. And it just feels like it has gotten more intense depending on how you view certain things. So I just love singing the song “Unity Hymn” because it’s always going to be a necessary thing to sing.
After reviewing the feedback from listeners since the release of Flourish, is there a song that seems to be more impactful to listeners than you expected, or perhaps impactful in a different way?
There is a song called “Breathe In Breathe Out”. Certain songs, you write them and they feel really personal, and you don’t know if other people are going to get it. I had written another song “Kind To Myself” that my label really liked, and at the very last second, I felt that I was to put on “Breathe In Breathe Out” instead. It’s more of a personal prayer and there isn’t anything else like it on the record. From the people who follow me on social media, that is by far the song that people are writing to me about. It was a big surprise, and I just didn’t expect it.
Can you share how this project was different for you in creating – you wrote during a pandemic and funded yourself through listeners?
So what I just don’t think people realize is that we signed our first record deal (as Tenth Avenue North) basically before YouTube existed. And so our label did awesome getting us in front of people and on radio, but the deal didn’t make much money off the recordings of our music. So I did Kickstarter to fund the recording, so I could enter a much different type of deal structure. I could eventually take time off because my recordings are helping to pay the bills. So I did the Kickstarter really second-guessing myself. Fans fully supported my Kickstarter in 12 hours and then almost tripled what I had asked for. I’m a guy that always wrestles with the idea that my best is behind me. I’ll never stop – I’m wired in a way that I’m never going to retire in the traditional sense. I want to burn out bright and going until the last day. But I was really questioning if I was to continue with music. So when the Kickstarter got funded it was such a wind in my sails. That these people care. I don’t have to make a record for everyone, but for these people. So I started recording and writing and it was a lonelier process than being in a band. Every guitar part and piano part and lyric is a committee. So being a solo artist and making this record was a little bit lonelier but I wouldn’t say it was a whole lot easier. When me and a producer were working and decided we liked an idea, we could do it. So I would say from a personal point of view, it feels more like what I want it to sound like than even some of the band records would. Because you had to sign off on it with so many people that you had to make sacrifices, so this record is cool because it’s what I want it to sound like.
You’ve released a handful of lyric videos, and also music videos for “Glory I Couldn’t See” and “All Together.” What do you most remember about creating these video pieces?
“Glory I Couldn’t See” was pretty easy. That song is my pandemic song and my anthem that ‘let’s not go back to the way things were. Let’s learn from this disruption as a gift and not keep missing these magical moments that disguise themselves as mundane. Let’s keep looking for the glory in our everyday lives.” The music video was simple – I just wanted to show everyone how we went through the pandemic in our own background. I have a friend that the kids are comfortable with, and she was the director of the music video, so hopefully it just came across very natural.
The music video for “All Together” was a joint effort with a director named Sean Hagwell. We did one continuous shot through a space. And we set up a 12 step group – an addictions group – that are all confessing and I walk through the middle of. I really love how that music video came out – I think it’s one of my favorite music videos I’ve ever made.
How will you define success for this collection and beginning your journey as a solo artist?
Two ways. Emotionally, success for me is when I get a text from a friend. I got one the other day from a director. Whenever I get an unsolicited comment, particularly when it’s someone I know, and they say that the music is speaking to them. That is always – they took the time to listen and it meant something to them. On a practical standpoint, the pandemic really taught me the value of what could happen if through my art I was able to take time off. So practically if the music generated enough income so that I could take time off the road, that would feel like a huge win for me.
Where are you drawing inspiration from for yourself, either musically or spiritually?
I’m always reading Scripture. I’m always reading books. I’m always watching movies. And I’m always listening to music. So I’m trying to draw inspiration from my own life. So all of those things. We are limited. I love how people say they want to put out something outside of the box. But we are a box. I can’t write something from a Polynesian girl’s perspective in the Pacific Islands – that’s not me. It’s not part of my story. I can watch documentaries about it and try to understand what it’s like. So I’m always trying to expand my own box, so that I have a more broad and beautiful perspective about things.
What are you most expectant for in the remainder of 2021?
Just starting to see what this solo career looks like. I’m excited to see where this music goes and where I get to sepak to people. The music goes out in the jungle and you actually don’t know which way it is going to go. It acts as a scout and starts hacking the path – the groups of people you are going to play to and people you are going to get to speak to. So I’m excited to see where in the jungle this music is going to go and where I get to follow it.