“I don’t mind the dying. It’s the living that feels hard./
“Working towards the middle just to watch it fall apart./
“When all the proud men, all the please the crowd men get everything they want./
“Then they realize it's not worth a life of lying to your nature, when the truth is something greater./
“To know yourself for who you really are.”
-- “Wild” by Evan Bartels
Evan Bartels doesn’t know for certain where the words to “Wild,” or any of his songs, come from.
“I have no idea,” he said. “It’s almost like when I write some of these songs, I’m kind of pulling them out of the ether, or somebody’s telling me something. In high school, whenever I’d try to sit down and write a song, it almost always turned out crappy. …
“My best songs have always been the songs that I sit down and just play ‘em. I’ll just start singing and playing them and do it over and over again."
Songs like, “Wild” and the rest of “Promised Land,” the EP Bartels will release on April 26, don’t come fully formed when he sits down with his acoustic guitar to write.
"I’ll have a line that comes into my head, and a melody, and I’ll find the guitar to go with it,” Bartels said. “Or I’ll have a chord progression and guitar part and I’ll sit down and play it over and over until something comes. It’s weird, and it might make me sound kind of goofy, but I’ll always say ‘let’s see where the spirit leads us with this.’ … It really feels like there is a driving force that says go this way or this way. Any more I’ve just let go and started following it.”
Where the spirit leads is easily defined for Bartels.
“It’s storytelling, true storytelling. That’s what I want to focus on. I don’t want to focus on fluff. If somebody hears me and becomes a fan, I want them for the long haul. It’s been a slow burn to get there. Now it’s starting to take off a little more. And it’s surreal to see it. What you don’t see is the 10 years before that.”
In that decade, Bartels has written and abandoned dozens of songs and played hundreds of shows in Nebraska and across the country, often on tours in which he drives thousands of miles alone, stopping to play shows sometimes for a handful of people.
Even worse, those few people often are watching the TV behind the bar and not bothering to pay attention to the music coming from the stage.
“That kills you, especially if you want to be a songwriter,” Bartels said. “But in my opinion, that’s necessary to get those songs. I feel like at some level you have to earn whatever song you’re going to write. It’s not to say if you write murder ballads or songs about addiction, you have to do that. But all the best songs are based on true emotions you felt or experienced in some way or another.
“I feel like all those sh*t shows and the hundreds of thousands of miles and no money, no attention and only a very few people believing in you, maybe that gives you character to actually write something that matters. So that when people do start listening, you have something to say.”
Bartels began the journey to having something to say at age 13, when he started writing songs -- out of necessity -- after he and his buddies in Tobias started a band.
“Nobody knew how to play, nobody knew how to sing,” he said. “I just got stuck as the singer. We didn’t know how to play instruments, so we couldn’t play other people’s songs. So I just started making up my own. … I always liked doing that.”
Even though he said he got stuck as the fledgling band’s vocalist, the truth is that his desire to be a singer began even earlier.
“We had this swingset outside and I would pretend I was Elvis, singing ‘you ain’t nothing but a Hound Dog’ and songs like that,” Bartels said. “I really liked the idea of being a rock ‘n’ roll singer.”
Halfway through his senior year in high school, the 17-year-old Bartels landed his first pro gig, playing acoustic rhythm guitar with popular country cover band Cactus Hill on weekends.
“Those guys were all such pro players,” he said. “I definitely wasn’t good enough to be in the band. But I got the gig. I learned from the guys I played with. That’s what got me up to snuff musically and it helped with song structures, too. I had to learn 60 songs … and I learned a lot about how to run a band as a business with those guys.”
He began putting that knowledge to use in 2013, when he started an acoustic trio with his brother Logan on bass and Jake Brandt on guitar. They called the group the Stoney Lonesomes.
Adding a drummer and going electric, Bartels and the Stoney Lonesomes started playing shows in Lincoln, then expanding outward, gaining fans and laying the groundwork for cutting a record. Drummer Bryan Keeling joined the group just as they were preparing to do the recording -- “he just completed the puzzle.”
In 2017, Bartels and the Stoney Lonesomes released the superb “The Devil, God & Me,” a country-rock collection of his songs that received notice from blogs and radio programmers around the country and sent the band, and Bartels separately, on the road.
Last August, Bartels heard from comedian Theo Von, who had somehow discovered “The Devil, God & Me" and was inquiring about using some of the Nebraskan's songs on his “This Last Weekend” podcast.
“He just looked me up via my website and asked if he could play my song,” Bartels said. “I listen to that podcast. He did it and we had a pretty solid boost. It boosted our Spotify up and YouTube. It just gave me a wider platform.
“People started to hit me up on Instagram and Facebook and email. It just kind of started tumbling from there. It’s dipped up and down, but in the last six months, it’s been an upward trend of growth.”
Bartels now has 18,000 monthly listeners on Spotify and hopes to expand that number with “Promised Land,” a recording on which, unlike “The Devil, God & Me,” he played and sang everything and co-produced with engineer Jeremy Wurst of Coyote Face Recording.
“I did all the instrumentation on it … the guitar, the piano, the organ, the electric guitar and vocals,” Bartels said. “I wanted to keep it minimal, but make it really full sounding.”
While the sound of “Promised Land” is a departure from “The Devil, God & Me,” less beat-driven with more “experimental guitar” tones and sounds, it’s in the same ballpark as the full band record.
“It’s just a modern take on folk music,” he said. “People like songs that tell a story. If you can do it well, it’s a narrative set to music. I think that really connects with people. Whether you like country or rock or pop or hip-hip, you hear a good song and you know that’s a good song.”
So what makes a good song?
"I think a really good song is taking whatever the subject matter may be and breaking it down in a way that somebody hears it and they go ‘how did I not think to say it this way?’” he said. “What makes a good song that’s a really great song is when you can talk about something and make people think ‘how did I not say it that way’ and have it be about something people don’t want to talk about.”
Asked about influences on his songwriting, Bartels pointed to three writers -- David Ramirez for his honest, personal approach, Jason Isbell for “saying things that really cut” and Canadian cowboy poet Colter Wall for creating settings in his songs.
“I want to be honest to what I really feel without trying to put on airs that I’m really cool or I know something the listener doesn’t,” Bartels said. “I don’t want to say things that don’t need to be said. I don’t want to use too many words. And I want to write things where people can see them.
“My eyes are usually closed most of the time when I’m playing. Part of that may be some sort of anxiety and nerves. But a lot of what it is is whenever I perform live, I want to get to the mental space I was at when I was writing. When I close my eyes, I visualize these things and it gets me there.”
With lines like “With my hands on the wheel of my ’99 Trans Am, I dropped the clutch in second gear to prove I was a man/On the outside of Western in my buddies' old sedan, we’d get high and look at highways and talk like older men,” there’s plenty of the visual on “Promised Land.”
There’s also a lot of autobiography.
“This EP is about a transition in my own personal life,” Bartels said. “It’s about being kind of a hellion and basically breaking yourself down to your bare core and everything that you’ve believed since you were a kid, whether its religious beliefs or moral beliefs or this or that, having the mental fortitude to look at yourself and say ‘why do I believe that?’ and looking at what I really want out of life.”
“Promised Land” opens with a song called “Drugs,” that upon close listening reveals itself to be learning to love yourself and ends with love songs “She Being Brand New,” to his wife Cryssa, and “A Thousand Times,” for his now 1-year-old son Cohen, yes, named after Leonard, another of his influences.
“Promised Land” is available for pre-order at evanbartels.com. Bartels will play a release show for the EP at the Rococo Theatre on April 27.
Bartels, who moved to Omaha last year at the same time that he became a full-time musician, will be touring later this year and has begun writing songs for a new full-length album with the Stoney Lonesomes.
He is living the life he’s wanted since he was singing Elvis on the swingset and bashing out those first songs with his middle school band.
“I never imagined myself doing anything else,” Bartels said. “I’ve had a bunch of different other jobs. In high school, a lot of people tell you it’s not possible or not feasible. What they mean is it’s not safe, it’s not guaranteed.
“There are definitely days when I say ‘what am I doing? I could have made so much more money if I’d have gone into welding.' But even if I did something like that, I’d still be writing songs. It’s my way of processing life. I’ve just been lucky to have people start listening.”
What those who listen to Bartels’ songs will hear is the work of a young man who has endured some of the struggles commonly associated with songwriting -- enough that when he heard of Kris Kristofferson’s line from “Songwriter” that goes something like 'does a man have to be a miserable son-of-a-bitch all the time to write a great song once in awhile,' he quipped “that goes on my tombstone.”
Then, he corrected himself.
“I don’t think you have to be miserable all the time, you just have to be constantly willing to go wherever emotionally," he said. "A lot of people, they aren’t able or don’t want to. That’s what makes songwriters important. We’ll go there and if we’re lucky, we bring something back.”
As he talked about his songs and why he writes them, Bartels said he’s come to the realization that he may never fully accomplish his primary goal -- to make the listener feel the same emotions that he had while writing the song -- at least when they’re listening to the recording.
“That’s why I love live performance,” Bartels said. “Sometimes, if everything’s just right, you’re all feeling it together. That’s the money right there. That’s the point to my life, to try to facilitate those feelings in my own heart and in those who I come into contact with.”