Austin Plaine knows something about the difficulties and disappointments of love. In “Something More,” the first song on his latest album, he sings “Oh my love, I lost you again/ We were jumping in the river/ but I never learned to swim.”
Three years ago, Plaine took a different type of leap of faith and moved to Nashville to pursue music full time. The town has been good to the singer, songwriter and guitarist. He’s honed his writing chops in the city’s thriving Americana and indie music scene and is busy co-writing with other writers around town.
“Nashville is the music capital right now,” he observes, calling from his home in Music City. “It’s the perfect place to better yourself. I consider it the most inspiring town. But it’s also the most demoralizing, too, because you realize how good everyone is. But that pushes you further.”
The proof is in his new album “Stratford” (Blaster Records). Plaine’s sophomore release is filled with melodic folk-rock songs with sensitively rendered lyrics. It’s a sound that recalls “The Pretender”-era Jackson Browne and a bit of Bob Dylan a la “Blood on the Tracks.” His dusty voice has a wistful streak and confessional tone that pulls the listener close.
Recorded in a friend’s Brooklyn apartment, “Stratford” is suffused with warmth and immediacy. Plaine recorded with a full backing band and reached out to a few collaborators along the way. He co-wrote the percolating rocker “What Kind of Fool” with Sixpence None the Richer’s Leigh Nash. Alt-pop musician Soren Bryce lends sweet and trilling vocals to the chorus of “Lucky Ones,” a rootsy, upbeat rocker about undying love.
“I’ve never had these emotions personally, but I’ve seen them,” he says about “Lucky Ones.” Still he sings hopefully, “I’m gonna bet it all on you/ It don’t matter if we win or lose … / Hey, we’re the lucky ones.” The song was written as his older sister Olivia was about to be married. “I took a lot of inspiration from my sister and her then-fiance — how much in love they were.”
Plaine will be backed by a full band on his current tour. He’ll also perform a few songs solo with just acoustic guitar and harmonica, including the searing “If Tomorrow Never Comes.” The tune focuses on the struggle to maintain mind and soul in modern life. Plaine sings: “I wake up every morning and I see the reddest sun/ they’re sending bombs and shooting guns in a war that isn’t won/ and through the lies I do disguise my heart inside my lungs/ I live life today as if tomorrow never comes.”
Plaine was born in North Dakota and grew up in Minnesota. He listened to his dad’s music, which included Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison and Neil Young.
At 13, he picked up an acoustic guitar, taught himself to play and soon began taking a stab at his own songs. “I think the moment I learned three chords, I was trying to write my own music,” he recalls. He wrote his tunes in the solitude of his bedroom and didn’t show them to anyone but his parents.
Along the way he discovered the music of Bob Dylan. The experience was a revelation. “My life changed the moment I heard his early records.”
During the summer, Plaine was an outdoors kid who spent his time water-skiing, swimming and fishing. But above all, hockey was his passion, the driving force of his life. A talented player with career ambitions, he played on his high school team. He was set to play in college but was sidelined with a shoulder injury and forced to hang up his skates.
With his dreams of a future in hockey gone, he redirected his energy into music and academic studies. He attended the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, where he majored in communications with an eye toward law school. In his senior year in 2015, he recorded his self-titled debut.
Plaine almost didn’t write his signature song “Never Come Back Again.”
“I was supposed to be studying for a sociology exam, but instead I took the time to write that song and demo it,” he says. “When I asked about taking the test later, my professor said, ‘You can take it tomorrow if you drop a letter grade.’”
An emotional folk-rock anthem about launching out into the world, the song pulses with yearning. Plaine sings, “I wanna feel the waves crushin’ down on heartache/ I wanna find the key to the sky.”
“I wrote it at a time when I was longing for something different,” he recalls. “I grew up in the Midwest and never really traveled as a kid. I was finishing college and had a huge surge of wanderlust.”
The song touched a nerve with listeners and became his breakout single. “It was worth the D-minus,” he says with a laugh.
“Never Come Back Again” now has more than 10 million streams on Spotify. The tune has racked up over 1.8 million views on the IndieAir channel on YouTube.
“By far that’s the one song that’s been noticed by the most people,” he says. “I vividly remember writing it, being very excited and feeling I was on to something. I owe a lot to that song.”
Plaine took a pass on law school, loaded up his van and headed south, determined to make a career in music. Today, he’s grateful he took the chance and doesn’t regret his lost hockey career.
“It’s a beautiful thing to write a song,” he says, “I think it’s magic every time one is finished. It’s way more gratifying to make art than skate around on an ice rink these days.”
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