Interview: Micah Motenko

Micah Motenko is an Austin, Texas singer-songwriter and keyboard player who has loved Motown from a young age. His band, Motenko, have released their first two songs, “On Your Level” (which has gotten over 75k plays on Spotify) and “Silhouette”. He formed the group in 2018 as a 60s/70s soul and New Orleans boogie inspired side project. The other band members are Cat Clemons III, Josh Flowers, and James Gwyn. When he’s not with his band, he works as a session/backing musician. With his band, he wants to go back to his roots and play music that first inspired him and that he feels passionate about. You can stream the two songs below on Spotify.

We are lucky to have Micah Motenko with us on the blog to talk about his music. If you want to learn more about Micah, his music, and his band, keep on reading!

Angie Moon: How would you describe Motenko to a new listener?

Micah Motenko: I would describe Motenko’s sound as a cross between Bill Withers and D’Angelo. The slightly longer answer is that we’re a funky soul band – we play 70’s-style soul with a modern twist, and incorporate some New Orleans sounds and some contemporary R&B sounds.

Angie: How did the band get started?

Micah: The band started as my own brainchild – I wanted to create a group where I could play my favourite styles of music – catchy funky songs that still allow for improvisation. I met James Gwyn while selling merch on tour with another band (The Whiskey Shivers), which he was the drummer for. We got to talking about the funky/groovy side of things and seemed to have a lot in common musically.

Some time passed and eventually I had enough original songs to give it a real shot. I had met Cat and Josh on some other gigs and I just remembered them as having that ear for catchy melodies with a deep rhythmic foundation. I started the band because I hadn’t been getting any calls to play keyboards in this genre of music, but when I started singing my own songs in front of a crowd, backed by a full band, I was hooked.

Angie: How did you get into soul and R&B music?

Micah: Soul and R&B has been a consistent love of mine ever since I was young – my dad introduced me to Motown when I was really young, like 7. Then I discovered boogie-woogie on the piano. Right around when I started high school, my brother showed me a few Hip-Hop and R&B artists like A Tribe Called Quest, D’Angelo, and The Fugees. I was exposed to a lot of other music at the time – classic soul like Aretha, Bill Withers, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding…

I also fell in love with Classic Rock – but I kept coming back to R&B, even after growing tired of the same rock albums or soul hits. Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Anthony Hamilton, Lauryn Hill, I was obsessed. Eventually I also discovered the classic funk/soul sounds from the late 60’s / early 70’s – especially the southern stuff. The Meters. Little Feat. Lee Dorsey. The band is more closely based on the work of these artists.

Angie: What makes those genres special or significant to you?

Micah: To me, it’s all about the groove. Sometimes I think I should have been a drummer. But almost equally as inspiring is the harmony, the vocal harmony. Which, after studying Jazz, I’ve really come to appreciate as complex but still quite tasteful. In general R&B uses rhythms and melodies that are simple and therefore easy to make sound mediocre. But instead, my favourite artists make these simple ideas sound so profoundly catchy and groovy, and add just the right amount of embellishment, I just feel like I have to figure out how to achieve that sound because I love it so much.

R&B is all about being tasteful and catchy. Just as much about the space in between the notes as the notes themselves. So, after the initial excitement of enjoying a tune, theres still so much to study and learn from the genre. I think that’s why I’ve always kept coming back to it in my personal listening.

Angie: Who are your biggest influences?

Micah: My biggest influences are Bill Withers, Ray Charles, The Band, Dr. John, Lee Dorsey. My favourite band is Bob Marley and the Wailers. And also more contemporary artists like Brittany Howard, Hiatus Kaiyote, and basically anything Anderson Paak is a part of. There’s plenty more but that’s a good start.

Angie: What are your favourite R&B and soul albums?

Micah: Songs in the Key of Life by Stevie Wonder. Maggot Brain by Funkadelic. Ray Charles’ early albums like Yes Indeed and What’d I Say. Voodoo by D’Angelo. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill by Lauryn Hill. Mama’s Gun by Erykah Badu. Donny Hathaway Live. And Look-Ka Py Py by The Meters.

Angie: What was writing and recording “On Your Level” and “Silhouette” like?

Micah: Well those were two of the first songs that I wrote that sounded like that. I had written other soul songs earlier that were more tongue-in-cheek, but I had just been through a break-up and the songs just sort of tumbled out of me. Like, basically 80% of the song had materialised out of nowhere in like half an hour.

Originally they were too high for me to sing very well, and so I had to grow as a vocalist as I started writing in that style. It just felt so much more exciting than anything else I had written, and it felt like my voice, something that was actually inside of me instead of some imitation of something I though I was supposed to feel.

Recording those songs years later was really fun, we got drums and bass and guitar all in just a few takes, and then I took those recordings and did a million different vocal takes until I was happy with it. I also wrote horn arrangements for “On Your Level”, which was really fun.

Angie: How have those releases been received so far?

Micah: You know, people seem to like the songs – it’s always strange to try to find meaning in how many streams or plays it’s received online, but I can say it’s always so amazing to hear that my friends have been playing the songs on repeat, or a new listener discovers it and is pleasantly surprised.

Angie: What future plans and releases do you have?

Micah: We’ve got three more songs that are mastered and ready to go. There will be an EP of 5 songs total released at some point soon. I have a lot of other material written and I’m thinking about how to package it. But I’m really excited to release the next batch of songs so people can hear our versatility. I’m really happy with On Your Level and Silhouette but they don’t quite fully describe our sound. There are some more things we have to say before people understand what we’re all about.

Angie: What are your biggest goals?

Micah: To make a living playing the music I love with the people I love, for groups of people that love the music. If we can continue to do that and make a few recordings along the way, then we’ve made it as far as I’m concerned.

Angie: What have you been listening to lately?

Micah: Nick Hakim. Shuggie Otis. Steve Lacy. Khruangbin. Gabriel Garzón-Montano. And I’ve really been digging SiR.

Angie: Any words for your fans?

Micah: We love you and we can’t wait to release the rest of our stuff. And so many thanks for playing our music and videos while we’re all stuck inside unable to play for you! We will get back to it. In the meantime, keep it up!

You can follow Motenko on Facebook, Instagram, Bandcamp, and their website.

Shoutout to my friend Patrick for supporting the blog!

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