[people who] are very smart, are very hardworking you know, they’re having a lot of trouble just going through the day-to-day existence of their lives, and that frustration is coming out in all these ways that we see in our politics,” he shares.
The current political climate has been calling for more conversations. A song on the album, Charleston, his reflections following the shooting of nine unarmed people at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, open the doors directly into a conversation about race. “Right after the Charleston shooting happened…I just wrote tons of verses; probably like six or seven verses,” he remembers. Writing the song took around nine months to complete, and Max had to change his perspective and approach. “I’m a white man, and any song like this coming from a white man is going to be interpreted in a certain way,” he confides. “It’s not appropriate for me to try and explain the black experience. But what I can do…is explain the white experience. And explain white supremacy, and where that comes from,” he says.
It was this revelation that helped the song fall into place. “I think it’s a hard topic to write about, and it is a topic white people need to write about. Black people can write about white supremacy, but it’s not going to have the same impact,” he says.
Max toured the album throughout the summer of 2016, and he performed to a broad cross-section of society. “[In] Oklahoma or Texas or Missouri, places that I’ve toured that are more conservative, people respond to my political songs much more positively than anything else I’ve written,” he explains. His music appears to serve as soapbox through which people’s frustrations can be expressed. “It’s not like only liberals are frustrated, or only conservatives are frustrated. Everyone is frustrated. And everyone feels like something needs to change or we need a system that better represents all of us.” We speak about another record on his album, American Dream Denied, and its universal appeal in presenting the current state of America. “The chorus is, ‘I’m an only child of American dreams denied.’ That could just as easily be a rural Trump voter as a 25-year-old barista working in Oakland.”
The challenge of writing political songs was something Max had to learn — it was a whole new way of writing music. “If you’re heart gets broken…you are the expert on your own experience, but if you’re writing about things that are everyone’s experience, and everyone’s history, then you really have to do your homework,” he shares.
Max does this through making people central to his music. The more we talk, the personal element of politics and music always seems to be front and center. We discuss another of the songs on the album, Joe Hill’s Dream, which was inspired by the Swedish songwriter and political activist, Joe Hill, who moved to America in the early 1900s.
“Studying Joe Hill gave me an answer to a lot of the questions I had. Like well, if the American Dream is dead and we want to do something about it, what do we even do?” he says. “Joe Hill helped me find this answer; it’s about building community and finding solidarity with each other, and especially with people that think differently from you.”
Joe Hill’s influence has manifested in a new approach to his live shows. “Part of it is that sense of community-building and feeling like we’re not just here to listen to this guy sing,” he says. “We’re here to find each other and think about what we can do to make our world a little better. And I feel like that’s something I’m still just starting to figure how to do.”
Towards the end of the interview, I ask him if he’ll write more political music in the future. He ponders the question before replying: “Before Trump was elected I wasn’t sure I wanted to do another political album. I was sensing people were getting tired of talking about politics so much before the election,” he says. “Now that Trump’s president, people are going to want these kinds of songs more than ever, and I’m gonna want these kinds of songs more than ever.”