Indianapolis musician casts off genre trappings and embraces the freedom of songwriting

Years ago, when Indianapolis songwriter and guitarist Joshua Powell was trying to come up with a name for his band, he landed on “the Great Train Robbery” as a way to avoid selling T-shirts emblazoned with only his birth name, and also to signal the type of music the band played.

“I wanted you to hear the name and know we were a folk band,” Powell said recently by phone. “But it's not a folk band anymore.”

Powell's 2015 album, Alyosha, marked a turning point for the band. “That record was our first attempt at kicking against the tropes and saying, ‘What do we mean when we say folk music?'” he said. “We were trying to liberate some of those trappings or expectations and saying, ‘You don't have to have a banjo on this song. A synthesizer will actually sound a lot cooler.'”

Powell grew up on the southeast coast of Florida in “pretty much the most religious household you could conjure,” he said. “My dad is a pastor, and not only was the pastor of the church where I went as a child, but also founded the Christian school inside the church I attended through high school. I was literally raised in a church building.”

That upbringing informs Powell's songwriting, which is rife with biblical allusions and allegory. “The Christ narrative is important to me, and even though my personal theology is pretty far from whatever the mainline Christian fold is understood as, you can't grow up in that fold and then not have some sort of umbrella always hanging over you,” he said. “Growing up and actualizing myself through education and art and politics, I'm now looking back and saying, ‘What do I believe now, and is belief important in this sector or not?' It's been an interesting trajectory between intellectual pursuit, spiritual growth and making records, because each [album] is sort of a time capsule.”

Powell also devours literature, and pieces of those books often make their way into his music. “When I encounter a story, whether it's in a short story or a sermon or a fable or whatever, I think, ‘Oh, that could be a cool adaptation.' And when I'm adapting, I don't want to just retell the story. I want to use that story as an allegory to ruminate on something political or spiritual.”

One such example is Alyosha track “Birth Control,” which, on its surface, tells the Old Testament story of Isaac's near-sacrifice on top of a mountain at the hands of his father, Abraham. “The song is steeped in metaphor and reverb, but the song is meant to be a rumination on contraceptives,” he said. “I wrote that song inspired by Hobby Lobby in the news. … I always tend to think my work is going to be more controversial or confrontational than it actually is, because I'm writing this politically charged or spiritually subversive stuff, and then I realize, oh, people don't necessarily get that.”

Still, Powell concedes that an artist's intent is only one small piece of the creative pie, and he embraces a David Lynch-ian model that revels in the audience's ability to import its own, separate meaning onto a work. In fact, Powell wrote Alyosha song “Petrichor” as a tone poem consisting of a mish-mash of words that sounded nice when juxtaposed (“Auras in your orangeade/Secondhand weathervane”).

“Words are so arbitrary, and so is beauty, so can these words that don't necessarily make sense together make you feel something? That's the challenge of writing that song,” he said.

Powell plans to explore that side of his songwriting even more on the next record, which he said is 90 percent complete. The new album will also jettison the “Great Train Robbery” for Powell's own name. “I think with each record,” he said, “as you follow the trajectory, you'll be able to realize the freedom we're pressing into, and giving ourselves the permission to make sounds we want to hear regardless of expectation.”