Mitchem’s path to music was an unlikely one. He studied history at Ottawa University in Kansas with hopes of pursuing a teaching career but instead decided to enlist in the Army after graduation. He came to Washington in 2007 to work for the Department of Homeland Security and now has a full-time job with the Department of Justice. Already well acquainted with the life of a nine-to-fiver, Mitchem picked up a guitar only three years ago. Since then, he has recorded three albums with his backup musicians, the Endless Spirits, has zigzagged cross-country on tour, and has concrete plans to turn his music into a full-time gig. We caught up with Mitchem in preparation for his upcoming six-city tour, which kicks off May 25 at Jammin Java in Vienna.
Hometown: Nevada, Missouri.
Current residence: Vienna.
Your music fuses folk, country, and blues. How did that sound come about?
The sound comes partly from what I’m listening to at the time. We brought in a fiddle player for the most recent record, but I would never consider those songs country. I’d say it’s closer to indie folk music. Also, I’m very much a storyteller. I always want to try to tell a story for somebody to listen to that could close their eyes and see exactly what I’m describing in the lyrics.
Tell us about the story behind your latest album. Who is Laura?
Laura is a singer/songwriter from this area that I met a couple years ago. I think there was a mutual admiration between the two of us and a connection that obviously lasted. [Later] we did a concert together, and then afterwards there was a very long conversation about that connection and an almost sad realization that timing wasn’t working for us in our personal lives. Those three songs, “Love,” “Laura,” and “Bomb,” were initially one very long song called “I Confess.” It was my initial reaction after leaving that conversation I had with her.
So what happened?
In some senses it’s sad that I don’t have that connection and have not spoken to her in a while. It was difficult for me but also inspiring. You know, a lot of good things can come from a little bit of sadness. I—in a roundabout way—devoted an entire album to her, so my hope is that at some point it reached her and she’s had time to listen to it. I don’t know . . . maybe it’ll work out one of these days.
You moved to Vienna because it reminded you more of home, but does Northern Virginia really count as country living?
It does and it doesn’t. When I say country living, it’s more a pace of life. That’s what I like about Vienna, but at the same time it still has that faster pace than what I grew up with. I like DC, but I couldn’t see myself living in the city just as I truthfully couldn’t see myself living in New York City or Los Angeles. But if the opportunity came about to go there and stay for an extended period of time but not necessarily live there, I would definitely do something like that.
What do you miss most about Missouri?
I miss being around my family. I have four nephews; I miss being around them. I also miss Sonic.
What do you miss about DC when on the road?
I’m a big fan of the monuments. I always try to go twice a year, if not more, and just hang out. One of my favorite places is the Lincoln Memorial. Some people, it’s their first experience seeing it and you can pick those people out by the way their eyes light up. If it’s been six or seven months, I always tell myself I need to go back and just walk around for a little bit.
So would you count that as one of your spots to go for inspiration?
Not necessarily. Over the last six months, I’ve allowed myself to be inspired by everything. Whether it’s a story on TV or simply overhearing a conversation walking through the Tysons Corner mall or reading something in a book. I think if you allow yourself to be open to it, you’ll be surprised about what inspires you to write a song.
What’s your favorite venue that you’ve ever played?
Eddie’s Attic in Decatur, Georgia. They pride themselves on being a listening room. I performed there last August, and I’ve never had 100 people just sitting there in complete silence listening to everything I said.
Is that a little unnerving, though?
At first it was, but I knew they were listening to every single word I sang that night, and it was an amazing feeling. I wish every artist could experience that every time they perform. Not that I lose faith, but there’s days when it’s a lot harder than other days to be a musician. So having nights like that where you play and people are listening to everything is great.
You’ve been on quite the whirlwind since starting your career in 2008. Any plans to slow down?
I’ve taken the last few months off to really try to become a better musician. I don’t foresee putting out a record this year, but I think I’m going to make up for it next year by putting out a double album. I’m hoping to get into South by Southwest down in Austin next year. I have a goal in mind: Roughly by March or April next year, I’d like to be doing music full-time—or at least to the point where I’m taking a few months where I’m just touring and also analyzing the next record or double record. There will always time for songs to grow, and that’s why I’m waiting a little bit longer this time around [to put out a new record] . . . to let the songs breathe a little bit.