At some point we’ve all been asked: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” For most of us, we had no idea what we wanted to do with our lives until we got to college or in our first job (or second, or third). But for Preston Lovinggood, making music has been something he has known he wanted to do for as long as he can remember.
I sat down with Preston in the middle of a noisy Starbucks to talk about his long-time career in the music business, and as I listened to him describe his childhood, it was quickly clear that music had an impact on him early in life. Preston describes memories of singing in a church congregation, movie soundtracks that stuck with him as a child, and the unique opportunities he had as a member of the Hoover Illustrious Players (HIP) children’s theatre. It wasn’t just the excitement of being in front of an audience that drew him to performing. Programs like HIP provided a way for Preston to build close friendships with people who loved what he loved. Those people became his community, a unique support system that encouraged him to pursue the thing he loved most. It’s a theme I notice often as I talk to Preston about his experience in the music business.
“I wrote my first song in 5th grade with some of my friends,” Preston explains. His first song, called “I Know,” (which Preston impressively still knows the melody and lyrics to) was written with childhood friend Chip Kilpatrick. Chip had a huge influence on Preston’s development as a songwriter and “a vision” for leading. When Preston talks about writing music during those years, Chip’s name comes up over and over. It’s obvious how integral Chip was in forming a structure for Preston’s passion. “He took me under his wing and helped fuel my creative energy.”
Preston actually met Chip, along with most of his future band members, at Shades Mountain Baptist Church. “This new middle school youth minister came on board [at Shades] and Chip was like, ‘We need to ask him if we can be the praise band.’ We went and asked him and ended up playing every Wednesday night and practicing all the time. It was my life. I wanted to feel like I was part of a community and I wanted to express something. And it was something that we were good at.”
I was surprised to find out that fashion in the 90s actually helped spark Preston’s interest in forming an official band with his friends. “It’s kind of funny, things like Converse One Stars, things that were worn or used to portray uniqueness. It was fun because it was different. That’s something that still drives me – I want to be different.”
Their middle school band, Skapes, featured ska punk music with Chip as the lead singer and drummer, Garrett Kelly on guitar (he also wrote much of their original music at that time) and Preston singing and playing bass. They practiced every Sunday night before church, after they’d finish the Taco Bell that Chip’s parents bought them for dinner. Preston talks about those times with such fondness, about “how freeing it was to be around people who got you.” He describes how they all went to a lot of punk shows together and “rode the wave of the Christian alternative sub-culture” in the 90s. “There was something so cool about kids meeting up and experiencing new music together,” he says.
Their first official performance as a band was at Chip’s girlfriend’s birthday party and featured songs they covered from another local band, Decay Debate Street. “That’s a huge, important part of playing music, learning the craft through another band. All [musicians] are influenced by each other,” Preston says. The band got to meet a ton of different people when they started booking their own gigs at churches and began touring. Preston explains how that time involved “learning stage presence, performance, how to play in front of a lot of people and how to have a lot of fun doing it.”
Friend and guitarist Matt Parsons asked to join the band in high school and they soon became Old American Dream, named after an old David Wilcox song. At that point, Matt started writing lyrics and would hand them over to Preston to come up with the melodies. “There was no song structure, we were all just yelling and doing whatever we wanted. It was wild,” Preston says with a smile.
After graduating high school and enduring a brief stint in college, Preston met guitarist Taylor Shaw while interning at a church and prepping to become a pastor (spoiler alert: Preston decided not to be a pastor). With the addition of Taylor and a few other members who later left to pursue other careers, the band renamed itself Run to the Hills. It was then that Preston decided he wanted to be the band’s lead singer and bring a “pop feel” to the music they were playing. “I had a vision,” he states matter-of-factly. Preston describes writing and playing with the band at that time as “really collaborative and extremely fun. We felt like we had something special, that people would really like.” The guys, now just Preston, Chip, Garrett, Matt and Taylor, decided to focus their efforts on one project, an album that they knew could end up being huge. And they were right. That group would go on to become the well-known indie rock band Wild Sweet Orange (named by Matt and inspired by the Starbucks tea flavor). Their music started getting played on local radio stations thanks in large part to Reg’s Coffeehouse, then stations in other states (KXP in Seattle), eventually leading to a manager and tours booked across the country after signing a major record deal and releasing their first (and only) album, We Have Cause to Be Uneasy, in 2008.
They “got a taste” of fame, Preston says, when their song, “Land of No Return,” ended up being featured on the TV show Grey’s Anatomy. (Listen Here) They started playing well-known festivals and venues like Lollapaloosa, Seattle’s Chop Suey, West Hollywood’s Troubadour, and opened for bands like Counting Crows, Guster, Augustana, and Gringo Star. They even performed at the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York on the Late Show with David Letterman. (Watch Here) It’s an impressive list, which is why I was surprised to hear that Preston’s favorite show was actually near the end of their 70-day tour, at the Fillmore in San Francisco. “You look back over all those years and everything is a blur but that one moment when we opened up with ‘Aretha’s Gold.’” (Listen Here)
Of course, there was a down side to all the touring. “You get so sick of your songs when you’re on tour,” Preston explains. Touring can be hard on the body, constantly having to move around on stage while never getting a consistent sleep schedule. “You see the disadvantages of fast food,” Preston recalls. “One time we played in Wisconsin and decided to drive all the way to Birmingham afterwards, which was not safe. I drove the last 12 hours and I remember just inhaling Reese’s Cups while chugging Mountain Dew.” Luckily, they all survived the trip.
Preston thought he was ready to walk away from music after the band broke up in 2010. “I didn’t know how to exist without them. It was my identity.” Preston says it was a process “recovering from the excess of booze, and the certain lifestyle [associated with being a musician]. “I decided to stop drinking and got really in touch with myself in a really positive way after that. You go through phases of letting something go. [But music] doesn’t leave you, it was just a shedding of an old way of looking at it.”
After some time searching for the right fit for his next project, Preston signed with Communicating Vessels. “Jeffrey Cain and Darryl Thorpe (who engineered songs for Radiohead, Beck, among others) really believed in me.” Out of that collaboration came his first two solo albums, Sun Songs (2013) and Shadow Songs (2014). Both albums were produced by Taylor Hollingsworth and written with the help of band members Les Newbie and Jodi Nelson.
Although the experience of making those albums was very positive, Preston says he felt stuck in a sort of limbo for a few years after that. “I was making records but nothing was really happening so I got to a point where I said ‘I’m done.’ But I was just done with it being my identity. I wasn’t enslaved to the idea of becoming a big star. Then I realized, I really do just like making funny, weird songs. Three years ago I decided to do the crowd-funding [for a new album] and started writing with Sanders Bohlke and he introduced me to Brad Odom in Nashville and we started co-writing.”
Preston says he chose Nashville as the place to make his new record because there are “healthy, positive people with a good head on their shoulders,” not to mention Five Daughters Bakery, which powered many of his recording sessions with Juan Solorzano (producer) and Zachary Dyke (producer). “I do my best work when I’m collaborating. I really think my strengths are melody, songwriting and performing. But I need, very badly, for someone to help me structure the songs. My ego had been so tied up [in writing], that I finally started just letting go. The new record, Consequences, is the realization that I was putting too much pressure on myself. This album is more than what I wanted it to be. The new album brings me joy because it’s inspired and creative, [and] the recording process was so fun.”
I’m still not sure if it’s fair to ask a musician what his favorite songs on an album are, but I decided to ask Preston anyway. He thought for a second before answering “Cherry Blossom” and “Don’t You Forget Me,” to which he added “I really have a special place in my heart for that song. I don’t know why.” The full album is now out on Spotify, by the way, so you can listen here to decide which is your favorite (I’m partial to “Yellow Dog,” myself).
I was surprised when Preston added that he was already writing for another album with his new record label, Last Gang. “I like to get up early in the morning to write. Lately I’ve been writing songs from start to finish which I’ve never done before. I get up and exercise, pray and meditate before the sun is up and then start to write. I just love it.” So where does he get his inspiration for songwriting? “Someone can say something weird in a sentence or say a word that I like during the day, and it just sticks with me. Then I’ll pick up the guitar and pick some chords to use to make it feel right. Maybe I’ll try a whole other set of chords or rhythm until it feels right. Sometimes you just have ideas that come and you say ‘Man, this would be really cool.’”
I asked Preston what advice he’d give an artist trying to make it as a songwriter or performer. “It’s really important not to try and do it all on your own,” he started. “Be involved in a community and find any way to not become cynical or envious. You have to figure out who you are, what kind of musician you are. Don’t take yourself so seriously. Just keep doing the work.”
Pretty great advice from someone who’s already racked up plenty of life experience in the music business. Yes, the road for a musician isn’t easy. It’s full of starts and stops and bumps and bruises. But, as Preston so eloquently quoted Leonard Cohen to me before we packed up and left: “Ring the bell that still can ring, forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets through.”
Written by Nicole Patton
Feature image and interview excerpts by Sara Gilmore