Austin MacRae’s ‘New Weather’ explores life as a stepdad
Ithaca singer-songwriter Austin MacRae will mark the release of his latest album, “New Weather,” with a show Friday night at Hopshire Farm and Brewery in Freeville.
Written between 2018 and 2021, the new album draws extensively on MacRae’s experiences as a stepfather to his two stepdaughters, who came into his life in 2006 when they were five and three years old.
“It’s by far the most personal songwriting that I've ever done,” MacRae said in a recent interview. “And it does feel different because it feels like I'm really putting my own life out there for people – and not just my life, but the lives of my stepdaughters. And then my wife is in a lot of the songs, and that's a whole different ballgame, too. So it’s a real step in a different direction for me, for sure.”
MacRae tracked “New Weather” over a few sessions in 2021 and 2022, working with producer and multi-instrumentalist John Sonntag at his Thunder Pumpkin Recording in New Jersey. They were joined by several guests, including Ithaca singer-songwriter Jen Cork, cellist Michael Ronstadt (he’s Linda’s nephew), and drummer David Anthony, and MacRae’s younger stepdaughter sings on a couple of songs as well.
MacRae had previously released albums in 2015, 2017, and 2019, but ran into a case of writer’s block after completing that last album. While attending the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas, some of his peers in the New Folk competition encouraged him to dig deeper for inspiration.
“We were sitting in a circle around the campfire talking about our experiences with family issues, and I certainly shared a lot about what was going on at home at that time,” he said. “For me, things were very complicated. I didn't always feel like I knew what my role was, and as a stepdad I didn't feel wanted a lot of the time. So all of that stuff kind of came out in the songs.”
MacRae said his wife and the girls’ mother, Rebecca Potter, reacted positively to the songs.
“Obviously, some of the songs that are a little darker bring up some pretty deep emotions for her,” he said. “But I want to say Rebecca is my first critic – whenever I write a new song, I go to her and try it out. She's just an amazing partner. So she saw the songs in earlier stages and was part of the process of birthing them. She’s certainly okay with all the songs, but I think some of the songs are harder for her to listen to than others. They're hard for me to listen to and sing. A song like ‘Shades of Grey,’ I hope I get through that on Friday without getting emotional.”
MacRae has been performing many of the songs from “New Weather” over the past few years. “I've had a really strong response with this batch of songs,” he noted. “Step-parents or people who are in situations where they're trying to integrate a family will come up to me after the show, and there's this emotional response to the songs that I never expected. It was like a whole other level of emotional response to my songwriting that I didn't even know existed. At first, I was surprised; now I've gotten kind of used to it.
“But, it's not just step-parents, but all parents, because so many of the songs apply to parenting in general,” he continued. “Like my song ‘Tiny Houses,’ in which I’m talking with a teen. How many parents struggle with trying to find a conversation with their 14 or 15 year old?”
At Friday’s show, MacRae will be joined by Sonntag and Cork, bassist Casey Widger, brother Devon MacRae, sister-in-law Sophie MacRae, and possibly another guest or two.
He’ll also have an exhibit of many of his recent paintings, which draw inspiration from the area’s landscapes.
“I live in Enfield, so my painting is heavily influenced by a lot of the stuff just down the road for me, like the Bock-Harvey Forest Preserve and Stevenson Preserve,” he said. “I do a lot of hiking and I do paint outdoors in the warmer months. In the winter, I did a lot of taking photos to use as references for the paintings. So most of those paintings are locally based.”
MacRae picked up his paintbrushes after a 20-year hiatus, “and it was by sheer accident,” he said.
“About a year ago, we were redecorating our bedroom and Rebecca wanted to buy this print from an early 20th-century English architect who did a lot of these bird prints,” he said. “She was going to spend a few hundred dollars on this print, and so I said, ‘You know, honey, I think I can I think I can do a copy of this on canvas even though I haven't painted in about 20 years. So after I got done with it, I posted it online, and a couple of people asked if it was for sale. That got me thinking, so I posted a couple more paintings, and those sold. And so that was kind of how it was totally unexpected.
“I did quite a few during last year and they sold very well, and I'm also doing commissioned work now, which is great. You know, I'll do anything from pet portraits to sunrises and sunsets – whatever people want, I'll paint because, to be honest, painting and writing music are my two passions in life besides, of course, my family.”
If you go
Who: Austin MacRae
What: Album release show for “New Weather”
When: 6-8 p.m. Friday
Where: Hopshire Farm and Brewery
Cost: free; donations welcome