Photo: Courtesy of the artist

Mike Mentz Looks to Adventure in “Ain’t That the Life” (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Mike Mentz reflects on his troubadour lifestyle in the uplifting Americana of "Ain't That the Life".

Mike Mentz has worked his way around the world time and again to garner inspiration for his songwriting, right down to the point where he’s branded it as “travel pop”. Both set to release in 2020, studio album Souvenir, as well as Live in Thailand, are products of travel. Ergo, it’s as different of a world for the artist as it is for the rest of us at-present, wading through something more stagnant at home. Still, the Chicago songwriter finds reason to celebrate, such as in the release of new music to share that reflects on time spent catering to his wanderlust.

The music video for Mentz’s “Ain’t That the Life” was shot on the River Kwai in Kanchanaburi, Thailand. Featuring Mike Aljadeff on backing vocals and guitar, the two perform a rousing live acoustic rendition of Mentz’s stirring Americana number. It’s a departure from the headier arrangement of the song’s Souvenir production, stripped back in a way that highlights the two Mikes’ electric vocal delivery. At its end, the video poses a question very much on-brand for Mentz, asking, “Ready for adventure?” while overlooking the area surrounding the river.

In celebration of “Ain’t That the Life” and the impending release of Souvenir, Mentz engaged in a Q&A with PopMatters.

Would you please give us a bit of background on “Ain’t That the Life”? What was the writing process like for this song? Your favorite part of its development?

“Ain’t That The Life” took me over four years to write. It started with a guitar riff in Nashville, which kicked off three years of lyrical false starts. I knew from the beginning that it was a special tune, but every time I tried pairing an idea to the guitar, it beat me up. Every single lyric I wrote felt wrong until one day…⁠⠀

I crossed a bridge.⁠ I was driving by myself on a back road in Kentucky, and the sun was shining. I pulled the car over. I made my way out to the middle and stood over this lazy river winding through the trees. I imagined what it would be like to be a kid growing up here watching the river float by and wondering where out into the world it could take me.⁠⠀

And then it came to me.⁠ This place WAS the guitar riff. And that kid I imagined being was where the story would start.⁠ I wrote a single line—not a lyric, just a statement; “Youth wants adventure.”

I had a foothold.⁠ It felt right, and the rest flooded in.⁠ By the time I got to Nashville, I had the song’s full blueprint in my head. I took a seat at the bar and quickly answered the what-can-I-get-you with a Yazoo Dos Perros, please and thank you. I took a sip and put the beer down to the side. I wanted the napkin more.⁠⠀

I grabbed a pen from my pocket and jotted…⁠ “Youth…wants adventure…wants love…wants money…wants youth.”⁠ I stared at it for two more beers.⁠ The song was alive.⁠⠀

And what about the music video? Give us a look into its creation process, if you please. What stood out with this project compared to others that you have pursued?

I’m a huge fan of changing locations to gain a new perspective.

This music video is part of a suite of videos I filmed in Thailand. I put together a creative team and a few friends, and we traveled around Thailand for a month to shoot music videos and documentary episodes (the series is called #Travelpop) for every song on my new record Souvenir. We also recorded a live album of all the tunes in transit.

To film this one, we took a train a few hours west of Bangkok to Kanchanaburi, which is a densely green jungly part of the country. We shot all day and into the evening on and around a very famous bridge over the River Kwai. There’s a very famous old movie (Bridge on the River Kwai) about this bridge I remember watching when I was little, so it was surreal walking across the bridge in real life. The story of the song revolves around a river, so this scene was a perfect canvas for the music video.

Before the month-long filming trip, I had never been to Thailand. I couldn’t be more grateful for so many things about that trip, including the breathtakingly vibrant shoot locations we found that elevated these songs and let them breathe in new ways.

Reflecting on the general state of the country and world in present times, many artists are releasing music in a vastly different environment than what they could have imagined. In what ways has creating and releasing your art been different, and in what ways has it remained the same? What do you hope to convey through your music in these times?

The biggest change to my creative process of late has been the interruption of international travel. Motion and new places and different people are all huge sources of inspiration for me, and I’ve written my last two albums in transit. I’m really happy to see most of the world taking this pandemic seriously, and the temporary travel restrictions have been a heartbreaking but necessary step to combat the virus. I have an upcoming project that similarly hinges on large-scale travel, but luckily at the moment, I’m still in the planning stages. After four months in one place (an eight-year record for me), I got in my car just recently and drove 18 hours to the mountains in Colorado. It’s a real good atmosphere to gain some perspective and get creative with a pretty wild social distance.

More than anything, I hope that my music plants a little seed of curiosity and wonder in people. I hope it inspires them to get up off their couch, out of their hometown, and to see a place they’ve never experienced before. When you see the sunrise in a new country, the world you know gets bigger. When you see what life looks like through someone else’s eyes halfway around the world, it’s a lot harder to fear or hate that person. I believe the farther we travel, the closer we all become. Especially right now with a global pandemic and the rise of nationalism/isolationism, I think it’s more important than ever to kindle our collective curiosity and sense of adventure to combat the crippling headwind of pervasive fear.