Singer, songwriter, author and podcaster Mike Donehey is stepping into the solo spotlight this year after two decades as a founding member and front man for the iconic CCM band Tenth Avenue North, which announced a surprise farewell in 2020 just ahead of COVID-19 being declared a global pandemic. Donehey, with the backing of an incredible amount of support from listeners, made his solo debut recently with two independently-released EPs out now, Work of Art and A Father And Two Sons, and a full-length major-label album set to release later this year. In this TCB Exclusive, Donehey speaks openly about the band’s decision to part ways, the personal events inspiring his new solo music and what he has learned about himself in the process.
In February 2020, Tenth Avenue North made a surprise farewell announcement after 20 years together. Looking back on things, do you feel that it was a good time to make the announcement? Knowing what you do now about the past year, do you still think it was the best move for the band?
When you get enough distance from your own life, you are always going to see, with an elegance, purpose and reason in it. But you’ll always have lingering questions of ‘did we do that perfectly or did God just redeem my mistake?’ I’m positive that even if I make wrong choices, God is intent on redeeming me, which is really great news. I don’t know if it was perfect timing, but I do see some really beautiful things in it. The band actually decided to quit before the pandemic happened; the pandemic didn’t force us into quitting. So the only sadness is that we didn’t get to do a farewell tour, it was canceled as we started. So it felt a bit unfinished and unsettled, which is why we circled the horses and are going to do two farewell shows in Orlando. We’ve got all our original band members together to do it, but I would say it was sad the band deciding to not do it anymore. I actually did a whole podcast on this called ‘A Wedding and a Funeral’. It was terribly sad and I had to mourn the end of something I had been doing for twenty years, but there is also this gift of new life and new breath where I can make whatever kind of music I dreamed of making. I don’t have to please a label or make sure everyone in the band is on board. There is a freedom in it too. I would say the first month of the pandemic I was really depressed. I built this treehouse for my girls in the backyard because looking back, I needed to feel like I was constructing something, because it felt like everything in my life had fallen apart all at once. Sitting in my backyard building this treehouse, I just mourned the end of everything and the unfinishedness of having the farewell tour ripped out from underneath me. But then I started writing songs as a form of self therapy, because I did wonder if I should even keep making music. I wrote more songs this past year than I’ve ever written in a year. I can’t promise that they’re any good, but I found that I am going to need to keep writing songs for my own sanity. Songs for me are like lifeboats, life jackets.
Looking back at the 15 original music projects released and countless live music events attended, what do you think you take away most from those two decades as Tenth Avenue North? How does that influence you now as a solo artist?
For me, it’s easier to write the songs because I don’t have to consider four other people’s perspectives. I can write from my own experience. For instance, I can write a long song to my wife, which obviously feels a little weird if you are to put it on a band record. So there is a freedom in writing whatever I’m thinking about that day.
Your debut solo single “Better,” featuring your wife Kelly, really strikes at the heart of listeners. This feels like a song inspired by heart wrenching and challenging moments that a lot of people can probably relate to. What can you share about the story behind “Better?”
For the people that have heard, they love hearing that my wife had a boyfriend or someone tell her she was no good at singing when she was fourteen, so she just stopped singing in front of people. I hear her singing, and I would try to get her to sing background vocals on a demo I was doing, and she wouldn’t. I guess the pandemic just got to her brain, and she was feeling a little crazy. I was playing the song for my manager because we wanted to put something out that encapsulated 2020 as a year for me, and for other people. So we felt that song worked perfectly, and at the time, my wife didn’t sing on it. And he was listening back, and he came back with the idea to have her sing on it to sonically make the statement that we both agree, in line with the lyrics. I said it was a great idea but had no thoughts that she would agree. So I asked her and about fell out of my chair when she said ‘sure, why not.’ I think it was because the idea didn’t come from me, but it’s been fun! I signed a record deal with FairTrade, but I’ve just been releasing some music independently first. I’ve been in the record label situation and there is just timing involved. You can only give each single so much attention. After you release a record, you have to wait another two years to release another record. So before I started officially as a solo artist, I want to get out some music independently because I don’t want to have to wait two years to release some of this stuff. The label was cool with that, so that’s what I’ve been doing.
Let’s talk about the incredible Kickstarter campaign that you launched a little over a month ago. What started out with a goal of raising $40,000 saw over 1,5000 people contribute over $100,000. What was your reaction those first few days when you logged on and saw the overwhelming outpouring of support?
So we dropped the campaign because one thing I knew was that if I was going to work with a label, I needed a different deal than I had with Tenth Avenue North. When we signed our record deal with Tenth, Spotify didn’t exist. I don’t think YouTube existed. I didn’t even have an iPhone, so I would be hard-pressed to say anything bad about it, because they got our songs on the radio and we wouldn’t have had the career we did without them. But, the way the deal was structured, we didn’t make any money off of streaming. And as everything moved to principally streaming, especially as COVID shut down the world, I thought it would be nice to make money off the master, so I can have a way to make income when I’m not touring. So I was trying to come up with where I would get this money to record the songs I’ve written, and I have several Indie artist friends who kept telling me I had to do a Kickstarter. I was hesitant because I didn’t want it to feel like I was begging people for money, but they explained it was just like people are pre-buying your record and are helping you by becoming like part of your record label, which is just a fascinating way of looking at it. If you offer great stuff, almost like a merch store, people won’t feel like they are just giving money. I got a call from a friend of mine, a writer, at dinner time the day we started, asking if I had seen the Kickstarter. So I look at it and his family was waiting right before the goal, so they could give the money to put it over. And then as people continued to give, I decided as a big thank you to record two more EP’s of songs for people to get too. Because of that Kickstarter, I’m able to put out twice as much music this year as I thought I would, so I’m floored.
With two new EPs (Work Of Art and A Father And Two Sons) out now, and a full album on the docket for the fall, there must be a lot of new music in the works. Can you give us a behind the scenes look at how many songs you have written for your solo project to date and what your biggest inspirations have been?
I would say I have five songs almost totally recorded that just need to get mixed. I think we already know what song will be the single, and I think there about eight songs that we know are going to be on the record and we are sorting through about 100 songs to finish. And the classic thing when you work with any kind of label is that they want you to keep writing, so I just wrote a new song yesterday with my friend Micah [Tyler]. We wrote a banger yesterday, so maybe that will be the ninth song. I’m writing with Bart from MercyMe on Thursday, so it’s how records work with just seeing what other songs you can make before you close the door on decisions. Which is how our band wrote the song “Worn” and “I Have This Hope,” where we thought the record was done. I won’t tell you the name of the single, but it is definitely the conviction I’ve held not having my eyes opened to the places where God is in the mundane, in the every day, in the places I didn’t think he was. A huge theme of the record is me waking up to the realization that I don’t really trust God. In all reality, since I’ve been an adult, I’ve had a path. So yeah, I had to trust God that I would make the money, but I knew what I was doing. So when the band ended and then the world shut down, talk about finding out where your trust is. It’s interesting the word in Hebrew for’ faith’ translated is loosely to ‘find one trustworthy.’ So I can say God is good and for me, but do I actually find him trustworthy when it sure doesn’t look like things are going to work out? That is the crucial thing that we’re all struggling with. What’s interesting to me is that I don’t have a hard time finding God in the mountaintop or the valley, because you’re looking for Him. When you’re on the mountaintop, your eyes are open and everything is amazing. And when you’re in the valley, you’re really looking for God because you need help. It’s the every day in between where it’s tough to stay aware of the mystical, magical grace of God and His presence.
In addition to working on new music, you released your first book (Finding God’s Life For My Will) in 2019 and more recently launched your Chasing The Beauty podcast. What have you learned about yourself when branching out to these new opportunities?
That’s fascinating. I’m a glutton for information and perspective, so the book and the podcast are natural outlets for me. Some people think I’m doing so much, but I just need outlets because I love to learn. I would say, especially with the podcast, just relearning how to listen better. When having other guests on, I really don’t want to have a pre-determined end for how a conversation ought to go. I used to look for ways that I was right and everyone else was wrong, and now I’m much more interested in being surprised in the ways that I am wrong and need to change my perspective. I think the Proverbs say it over and over, “a wise man loves reproach and a foolish man hates it.”