About a year or so ago, I wound up at Empire Dine & Dance seeing some local bands and was having a fantastic time, as I tend to do when I’m out seeing and hearing live music. A singer-songwriter named Max Garcia Conover took the stage, and this was welcome news as his name was familiar to me, though I had never seen him live before. I stood there transfixed by the level of songwriting I was hearing. It made me think of Bob Dylan, which may seem like an over-the-top compliment, but I’m sticking with it.
Back in the newsroom, I remembered that, in 2012, I interviewed Conover about his “Birches Lo” EP and learned that he grew up on the western tip of New York, came to Maine for college, left for a while, then came back and has been here ever since. He’s also spent time living in Puerto Rico, Spain and Taiwan. As a child, Conover was exposed to artists like Paul Simon, Ry Cooder and James Taylor, thanks to his music-loving father.
So, here we are five years later and about three weeks ago, for the first time in person, I was introduced to Conover by a mutual friend at a Port City Music Hall show. I may have awkwardly hugged him after gushing about how talented I think he is. That’s when he told me he had a gig coming up at One Longfellow Square opening for the band Driftwood.
Conover started playing guitar when his dad bought him one in high school. “I couldn’t play a full song until years later and then only very poorly. Strumming didn’t make sense to me. I found my footing once I learned about open tuning and finger-picking,” he said.
He released his debut EP in 2011, followed by “Birches Lo” in 2012, then the full length albums “Burrow” in 2013 and “Ellery” in 2014. Last year, he started releasing individual songs via Patreon, a paid subscription online content host, used by several musicians as a way of funding their work and getting it out in the world. Conover’s been prolific to say the very least. “I’ve made 56 weekly songs through Patreon, which took about two years,” he explained to me, adding that he’s planning on keeping the project going for as long as he can. “It’s a body of work I’m proud of. For me, the weekly format allows for songs that are more specific and political and personal.”
One of the rewards for supporting Conover on Patreon is that every 10 weeks he makes a new volume of songs with a lyric book that he sends to his listeners. “Those volumes have felt more immediate and vital to me than any of the EPs or LPs I’ve made, although I’m far from giving up on those formats.”
So I took a dive, via YouTube, into some of the songs Conover has released since starting up with Patreon and, for real, was blown away by the same caliber of songwriting that had leveled me that night at Empire. The first one is called “My Neighbor Joe,” and in the clip I watched, Conover explained that it’s about a neighbor he had growing up who was not a good person and about some very unjust things that happened during this time. The song was, in some way, his attempt at getting justice. “My dog died in 2005, she was holding my heart, I was holding her hide in the rain/My neighbor Joe shot my dog and he said ‘I killed her cause you called the cops on me’/When I die my only ghost is for you, Joe/Otherwise I’m staying gone when I go.”
But the story doesn’t end there, it turns out Joe had a daughter, and she and the song’s narrator had a connection. Conover, at times, spits the words out like bullets. His voice is clear and fierce, as is his acoustic guitar, accompanied by percussion played with his foot. The song almost comes to a complete stop before reigniting and ending in a flurry of strumming.
Here’s “My Neighbor Joe”
“As Much a Rising Sun as a Setting One (Part 2)” was the next song I zoomed in on, and again, the songwriting stopped me in my tracks. “In New Sweden there’s a man I know, and he makes money working for rich folks, and he says the sun only shines on them,” sings Conover, in a song that starts off slowly, then erupts like lighter fluid was poured on it. The song weaves in and out of lines from the Loggins & Messina tune “Danny’s Song,” trading off lines from that with his own ones. By the end of the song, the 32-year-old New Sweden man is dead and the singer “won’t wait for the sun anymore.” Powerful stuff indeed.
Here’s “As Much a Rising Sun as a Setting One (Part 2)”
One more song, and this one brought tears to my eyes, is “Funeral Guests.” I’ll start by telling you what Conover told me about its inspiration. He was on a long road trip on his way to a music festival in Wisconsin and listened to the audio version of the novel “A Little Life” by Hanya Yanagihara.
“I was so into it. I’d be pumping gas in rural Ontario with tears streaming down my face,” he said. The song is loosely based from the perspective of one of the characters in the novel — mostly, Conover said, as a way to spend more time with him. “When he died his mother called to talk about his funeral guests/She said she wanted to get to know me, to understand what I was to him/I said, I don’t know myself, but I think he did/Holy father save your sermon, I can’t sit through anymore of this/Just burn his body/I don’t care what his mother says/’Cause I don’t know myself, but I think he did/And I don’t love myself, but I think he did.” Even typing these words is brutal, let alone listening to the heart-rending song.
Take a listen to “Funeral Guests”
Conover told me that his influences are the solitary works of Mary Oliver, Leonard Cohen, Iron & Wine, Ani DiFranco and Josh Ritter. “They were giants to me early on, and they still are, but inspiration is relentless. I just finished ‘Plainsong’ by Ken Haruf, and already I can see his aesthetic finding its way into songs.”
As for his songwriting process, Conover said he writes every day and is always working on a few songs at a time. “I start with the guitar part and chord progression, then I chant a nonsense melody over the top, working the guitar and vocal to the point where they start to settle into each other.” Even the description of his songwriting sounds poetic.
“Lyrics are the most challenging and interesting part of songwriting for me, and that’s where I spent most of my time,” he said. “The music has its own linguistic momentum, and when I write lyrics, I’m trying to harness that momentum to say something useful and true.”
Although Conover says he gets it wrong most of the time and it requires a lot of starting over, his end results are damn near perfect. Hear for yourself on Friday night.
8 p.m. Friday. One Longfellow Square, 181 State St., $12 in advance, $15 day of show. onelongfellowsquare.com