Getting on the Music Map
By Jim Beaugez | Photography courtesy of Best OK Designs and J.B. Lawrence
Southern indie rockers rediscover creativity and partner with top talent for their latest release.
Just when Jackson, Mississippi-based singer-songwriter Micah Smith thought things were all over for Empty Atlas, a new chapter unfolded for his indie-rock band.
On the eve of releasing their debut album, Hestia, in 2016, Empty Atlas decided its album-release show would be its last. But there was no drama to the decision. Front man and songwriter Micah Smith simply wanted to tour more often, while his bandmates had responsibilities that kept them close to home.
Smith didn’t realize that Brennan Michael White, the next lead guitar player for Empty Atlas, was at their farewell performance. Nor did he know that bassist Alex Ingram, who played in an early version of the band, would move back from Nashville at the same time. He surely didn’t realize drummer Robert Currie Hansford, whose band opened for Empty Atlas’s second-to-last show, would play a role.
“At the end of December 2016, we got that group together and really haven’t stopped playing since,” says Smith. “We’ve had a really good time getting to tour all through the Southeast and recording new music.”
Empty Atlas’s music centers on the storytelling of Smith, whose melodic instincts and emotional heft put him in the same category as songwriters like Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cuties and Matt Berninger of The National. His bandmates deliver the rhythmic muscle to carry the weight of the songs and the sonic inventiveness to illustrate the depth of his lyrics.
Smith calls the band’s latest release, Kairos [Carved in Stone Records], the “spiritual successor” to Hestia, which dealt with different notions of what home means to people. Also loosely conceptual in nature, Kairos deals with the search to rediscover creativity for the sake of creating. Both albums, although not autobiographical, follow seasons in Smith’s own life. Hestia arose from the existential question marks he encountered when he decided to get married and what it meant to create a home and a family.
“I started thinking of these questions about what home means to me and why it’s so important,” he says. “[But] for other people, it’s not the same situation. Some people view home as this thing to run away from, not run to.”
Four years later, Smith was rediscovering music as a means to create, rather than an end in itself. As the songs for Kairos took shape, he realized they also dealt with the personal reckonings that come from going all-in on one path.
“It’s really about the idea of finding joy in the act of creating and in the act of making these connections with people, and about what you’re willing to sacrifice in order to be happy,” he says.
The first single from Kairos, “Maximal,” wrestles those themes in the foreground, around the centerpiece line, “I never set the goal, so it’s always out of reach.” The main character casts aside relationships he’s built in order to commit to dream no matter the consequences, and having that blow up in his face.
“[Goal chasing] is kind of a losing game in itself, because as soon as you set one goal and hit it, your desire is to set a higher goal for the next thing,” he says. “And it doesn’t necessarily work that way.
“If all you care about is where you’re going to be in five years, then you’re going to spend five years trying to be somewhere and not actually be in places.”
To achieve the album’s punch and clarity, the band called upon the mixing skills of Tyler Spratt, who contributed to the Imagine Dragons album Origins, which hit No. 2 on the Billboard 200 albums chart, and worked with The Revivalists on their Platinum single “Wish I Knew You.”
Just as Empty Atlas was finishing the album, the North Carolina-based indie label Carved in Stone Records heard about the band and contacted them. Smith says the more they talked, the more it became clear how much they cared about the band’s music.
“We talked to a couple indie labels before about the potential of putting something out, but every time it just felt a lot like, ‘Well, what can you do for me?’” he says. “It just felt really crappy to get treated like a commodity before we ever signed anything.”
Smith admits that what record labels can offer today is vastly different from the days when labels controlled the distribution and promotion of music. In the streaming era, many talented musicians have become savvy marketers, as well.
“It’s just nice to have somebody else in your corner to help, and that is definitely what they were offering.”