Flying Solo with Paul McDonald

By Annette Dawm, WorkStory Ambassador

Paul McDonald describes himself as a “singer, songwriter, poet, musician, and artist”. He was also a contestant in Season 10 of American Idol. Since then, Paul has been very busy. After being in several bands, he decided to go out on his own and create a solo album with the help of his fans on KickStarter (KS). His 6 song EP called Slow Rising is now available online.  “I wrote and recorded these songs in the summer of 2014 so I’m ready to get them out. I’ve already written 2 new albums since then” he laughed. “I’m planning on releasing this batch of songs in two different packages – the first one being a 2 song EP called Once You Were Mine that I released in early December – but for the Kickstarter crew, they get the original 9 songs that I recorded in the summer of 2014 when the goal was set to release a full length album.” 

Paul says that he “kind of fell into music”. Originally from Huntsville, Alabama, he attended Auburn University with a very different career in mind: “My major was Biomedical Sciences. The plan was to be a pediatric dentist but music kind of took over without warning. I always wrote songs and played guitar and piano as a hobby and one night somebody heard me playing at a house party and asked if I wanted to perform at a bar in town. She said she’d pay me whatever I made at the door and let me drink for free. I couldn’t believe it! So I invited all my buddies out to the bar and we sold it out and made the bar the most money they had ever made. From that day on, it was over. I was hooked.  I started a band and continued to tour around the country for a few years. In 2010, I auditioned for Idol on a whim and that took me out to LA for a few years. I got to experience some pretty interesting things on that run. While in LA, I ended up falling for a girl [actress, Nikki Reed] and started a band with her. We put out a few records and then split. Since then I moved back to Nashville and have been working on a solo project. I’ve been playing music and touring for almost 10 years now so sometimes I have to pinch myself. I can’t believe I’ve been able to do what I love for this long.  I keep waiting for the day I wake up and they kick me off the stage.”

Reflecting on his musical career, Paul realized that he has had lots of memorable moments with some of the biggest names in entertainment: “That’s the beautiful thing about what I do. I thank God every day for giving me the gift of music and allowing me to travel around the world and meet so many phenomenal people. Some days I really have to step back and take it all in.  Just recently I was asked to perform at the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame Inductions alongside Tim McGraw, Emmylou Harris, and a bunch of other really talented folks. I remember sharing a dressing room backstage with Emmylou and thinking, ‘how in the world did I get here?’ That was a pretty fun one.”

When the American Idol alumni was asked if he was sad to see the long-running series go, he replied, “I think Idol made an amazing run. How many other shows can say they dominated TV and pop culture for almost 15 years? But, all good things have to come to an end. I’m just thankful that I got to be a small part of the show. What a unique and cool experience. Getting to work with such gifted people that are producing a show on that level was such an invaluable learning experience. Looking back on it, I still can’t believe some of the things that happened on that show. I mean, I got to sing with Stevie Wonder, perform in front of Muhammad Ali, and since have become friends with some of my favorite musical heroes. The whole thing was, and still is a trip!” 

“….Before I did Idol I had actually had nothing but bad feelings towards the whole thing – it actually grossed me out a little bit – but the truth is, if you know who you and you’re confident in yourself as an artist and a person before the show, then you can use it to your advantage. You come out on the other side as the same person with a little more experience and a wider audience of people listening to your music.  The folks that end up being stars after Idol would've been stars anyway. If you look at Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, etc. they are stars. They work harder than anyone, can sing their butts off, and the songs are great. That sounds like a winning combo to me. (I love those girls by the way.) The truth is once Idol or any of those shows are over – the magical fairy dust settles and it goes right back to you picking up your guitar or sitting in front of the piano trying to write the best songs and make the best music you can make. If the music is good post reality show stardom, then people listen and if it’s not, then nobody cares, even if you were the winner. You can put all the money in the world into something that’s not good and people won’t care.”

As with anything good there is also the bad, but it’s what you make of it that counts. Paul has faced many adversities over the years and rather than give up, he chose to grow and learn from each situation. Regarding his solo project, the biggest obstacles were the “labels and managers and everyone” trying to pull him in different directions, while trying to create the music that he wanted to, not knowing in the end what kind of music that would be.  “Making the music is always the most fun and the easiest part for me, but I was flying solo for the first time in almost 8 years (musically & business-wise) so I had to figure out exactly who I was as an artist and the kind of music I wanted to make. I also had to go through a string of managers, PR folks, label showcases, attorneys, etc. and get the short end of the stick to understand that there actually is a business to the music I was creating. I had to learn some lessons the hard way. I missed out on those lessons earlier on in my career because people were always running it for me—but flying solo has been one of the best things I’ve ever done. I’ve grown more than ever over the past two years as an artist, businessman, and an overall human being.”

“The challenge was finding a common ground musically with my collaborators (especially because I didn’t really know what kind of music I wanted to make yet) and also financially—just paying for it”, McDonald continued. “The project ended up costing way more than originally planned and a very solid chunk of the KS money was immediately taken up from my old manager and the KS fees, so I had to book a bunch of shows and do some solid touring to finish paying for the songs along with the art and videos to give it a proper release. It’s all been a very large learning experience to say the least” he laughed.

Paul’s advice for those with similar struggles? “Don’t give up. That’s a lesson in all aspects of life. Hard work actually pays off. If you put in the hours, things will eventually change for the better. I can’t count the times I’ve been turned down by labels or folks have said my music isn’t in the box for radio, etc. It happens every day. You just have to believe in yourself and what you’re doing. Be confident in yourself and if you’re proud of what you’re doing they’ll come to you. Set goals and don’t stop until you get there. If you believe it, it will happen. I promise.”

Initially, Paul was hesitant to fund the album via online donations as he was uncomfortable asking for help. However, he was overwhelmed by the support he received. “In all honesty, I’ve always wanted to try a solo record, but I never was interested in getting funding from something like a Kickstarter or a Pledge Music [campaign] … but after my last band broke up, I was in a pretty dark place and a few people stumbled into my life and really pushed me to do the campaign. I did need help whether I knew it or not. Making music costs a solid chunk of change and the financial help with the KS supporters was more than I could ask for…but more than financial help, it was a personal confidence boost and a reminder that so many people love and support me as a person and the music and art that I’m making.” Paul wanted to thank everyone who has supported his journey so far and hopes to see them “out on the road”.

“Sure, I’ll probably always have American Idol associated with my name, but it’s not a bad thing. It’s actually a great thing,” said Paul McDonald. “Idol was just a small chapter of my life, just like me being a pre-med student at Auburn or a flying monkey in the Wizard of Oz in the high school play, or whatever other crazy roles I’ve played over the past 30 years of my life. I’m not trying to be a superstar. I’ve tasted that world and it’s not all rainbows and butterflies.  I’m just trying to stay true to myself and write the best music I can write in this exact moment in time and hopefully inspire some people along the way.”