Singer, songwriter, and guitar and ukelele player Mike LaBella writes songs based on his travels and adventures, many of which include Scranton. He graduated from The University of Scranton in 2017 with degrees in philosophy and communication and will play in Scranton throughout the spring and summer. His next show will take place Saturday, April 21, at 8:30 p.m. in Back Breakers Lounge at Back Breakers Training Center, 1008 N. Washington Ave., Scranton.
Meet Mike LaBella…
Much of your original music and lyrics are inspired by your time in Scranton. What specifically inspires you?
The first time I became acquainted with Scranton was coming here for school at the University of Scranton. In the four years that I spent here, I really fell in love with this place. I came to Scranton at a time in my life when I was really growing as a songwriter and I was looking for inspiration in different places, and I found a lot of that in Scranton, in the people I met here, in the character of the town and in the community within the university.
What do you mean by the “character of the town”?
The thing that I love about the city is the on-the-surface bleakness and the starkness, but juxtaposed to the warmth and kindness that I’ve found here. Wherever you go, you can be surprised by the kindness of people and the welcoming nature, but it’s especially surprising here just because it’s not what you’d expect if you just look at the surface.
You have a series of music based on Scranton called “Steamtown Tapes.” Can you explain some of your inspiration for that?
That was a project I did my senior year. I was trying to put some songs together that I wrote about Scranton. There’s a song called “Honey Whiskey,” which is the favorite drink of a person who I became very close with and showed me that despite being here for three years, I didn’t know as much about Scranton as I thought I did. Another one, “Love Your Enemy,” was written in my house on Linden Street. I’ve taken those songs with me, and I’m currently working on an EP called “The Pennsylvania EP” that will include those songs and all the songs living in this state has inspired.
What was your music experience prior to Scranton?
I played in a cover band in high school. We had gigged a bit and won high school battle of the bands, but that was the biggest thing up to that point. I continued to play throughout my time in Scranton. What changed in Scranton was meeting Tim Poole; he plays alongside me whenever he can, and he’s one of the most brilliant musicians I’ve ever met. We played in a lot of different groups together, but now it’s pretty much just me and him, and I’m really happy where we’re at together.
Describe the contrast between being in a cover band, playing solo and performing as a group of two.
I love the opportunity to play original music even if it is for smaller crowds and not for money, because, to me, I’ve always wanted to tell a new story with music. Playing original music with Tim has afforded me the opportunity to sing the songs that I want and sing to audiences who are there to listen and are open to new experiences. The time I spent playing covers — I’ve been playing in bars since I was 16 — taught me what I had to do to play in front of a crowd and how to work a crowd. I think that was important, but I’m happy to be where I am now and be able to play songs that I’ve written over the past couple years.
Who are your musical influences?
It changes for me a lot, but over the past few years, it’s been Trevor Hall. He’s like folk, indie and reggae, but his songs are very spiritual and founded in deep spiritual journey. More recently, Foy Vance; I just think that guy is a powerhouse of a songwriter.
What are your interests outside of music?
Philosophy. I had an amazing experience with philosophy at (University of) Scranton, and the department is great. It helped me develop as a person and helped me understand what character meant and what kind of morality I wanted to move forward in life with and what kind of spirituality I wanted to embrace and how to live that.
As someone who studies philosophy, what is your personal philosophy, or some wisdom you’ve learned that you try to live by?
Be there for people because nobody, even if they pretend to, has their life figured out, and that can cause a great amount of suffering and confusion and loneliness, and we need to be there for each other.
Do you have one particularly meaningful lyric you’ve written?
I might never answer this twice the same way, but I’d have to say it’s from the song called “Love Your Enemy.” The lyric is, “I don’t want a reason to be kind.” What that gets back to is the uncertainty and the fallibility of a lot of our convictions about life and truth and what is real. There is a lot of uncertainty, but I don’t think that is an excuse to not be good to other people.
Are you involved in any other activities or volunteer organizations?
My dad runs a foundation called the Trinity Help Foundation. He does a lot of local work in soup kitchens. He also does work in Haiti. I’ve been looking for a way to contribute. I have a day job outside of music, so I have the opportunity to give the money I make from music, whether it’s from ticket sales or getting the cut of a bar tab at the end of a show, and donate it to my dad’s foundation. I always consider music a gift. My attraction to music didn’t have to happen, so I see it as a service and look at what it can do for other people.
photos by Emma Black