Standing Out from the Pretenders: An Interview with Soul Track Mind’s Donovan Keith


Soul Track Mind is known as one of Austin’s most lively R&B groups and their newest album Unbreakable shows off their exciting sound and continued evolution. We got the chance to speak with frontman Donovan Keith about Soul Track Mind’s past, present and future, digging into everything from Keith’s views on R&B “pretenders,” working with big time producers and using the snare drum from Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” sessions. The band is currently on tour but will return to Austin on May 2nd when they play the Continental Club.

Morgan Davis for Ovrld: Soul Track Mind really came together via a weekly residency way back in 2008, and the band’s most recent album Unbreakable is well-produced but still shows off that organic tightness that only well rehearsed bands have. Do you think starting with a regular residency was instrumental in honing your sound? Do you feel that commitment to stagework is something that helps you stand out? 

Donovan Keith for Soul Track Mind: The residency lasted for two years and was more of a playground for myself and the band to find our sound and build our musicianship. I had just moved to Austin with no experience in a band and no formal music education. It took me awhile to refine my style and vocal chops even after the residency and our first recordings. Our sound continues to be more progressive and our message is becoming more refined now that we’ve had plenty of time to learn and discover exactly what we want to convey and what our audience feels with our music.

Ovrld: For Unbreakable, you teamed with C.J. Eiriksson, an engineer and producer with a tremendous amount of mainstream rock credits, including collaborations with the likes of U2, Incubus and local favorites Fastball. Was the decision to bring Eiriksson on an effort to add more heaviness to the Soul Track Mind sound? Did his more rock-leaning perspective make you approach your music differently?

Donovan: We were at a point where we needed a professional outside ear to be able to tell us what worked and what didn’t. C.J. was someone we could all respect who could be critical of our limitations but in a productive and challenging way. What we really wanted was a fuller, more modern sound to separate ourselves from the “throwback soul” stigma we were stuck in. We never saw ourselves as a throwback band and always wanted the sound to be more progressive but until we worked with C.J. we weren’t sure exactly how to get that final product. We learned so much from him and he was exactly the guy we needed at exactly the right time.

Ovrld: Not too long ago, the New York Times Magazine grouped you with other classic R&B influenced artists like Aloe Blacc, Jamie Lidell and Fitz & the Tantrums. Do you believe Soul Track Mind is part of a movement to bring that hard R&B sound back? When you started the group almost a decade ago, did you think this kind of music would come en vogue the way it has over the past few years?

Donovan: I think there are three different groups among the classic R&B resurgence: throwback soul, pretenders and then everybody else. There are many artists who are preserving an older sound in a modern recording that is authentic, like Sharon Jones, Charles Bradley, Lee Fields, etc. Pretenders are all the bands who are trying to “act like” a soul band with horns, choreography, matching suits, etc. That’s ok for them and it’s certainly fun and entertaining, but it’s all transparent with no depth and the music says nothing. Personally as a fan of soul music that stuff makes me cringe. Soul/R&B is supposed to be genuine and speak from the heart with a level of intensity and sincerity that captures the spirit and the truth. I appreciate Aloe Blacc because he has a progressive sound of matching R&B & hip hop with sort of a folk element that is unique and true to himself. We are carving out our own spin on soul/R&B with a little more driving rock edge but also pop as well. The music and our message is honest and inspirational.  Of course we want to make people dance, but more importantly we want to share an experience.  We want to make our audience “feel” and you can’t do that without being honest.


Ovrld: To my ear, Unbreakable is a mixture of Stax brassiness, Motown arrangements and the inventive textures of modern R&B. Were there certain albums and artists you had on constant rotation while developing the album?

Donovan: The album was recorded over nine months and some songs were developed a bit before we started tracking it, so there wasn’t really any direct influence to the sessions. The Stax and Motown sounds have always been influences. We wanted a more modern feel with a thick wall of sound on some tracks, but then laid back on others. So to capture some of that we referenced Raphael Saadiq’s Motown album, Aloe Blacc’s most recent releases and Aerosmith’s Nine Lives.

Ovrld: Unbreakable also has some ballads like “Silhouette” and “Remember Me,” which show off a softer side of the band. Can we expect more of that material in the future? Is it hard to dial back the band’s maximalism while working on softer songs? Or does it come naturally?

Donovan: We absolutely plan to do more laidback material. We’ve always had a big energetic live sound, but we’ve never been able to capture that on a studio album until now. Now that we’ve done that we’d like to push ourselves. We’re firm believers in variety. I think that’s been both a strength and a weakness for us. Our versatility in our songwriting and overall sound can be hard to put a direct label on. But at the same time our music has a universal appeal because there literally is a little something for everyone. Because our audience is so broad and our influences are so diverse, that helps us stay open to new ideas. Part of becoming a better songwriter and studio musician is learning to let the song grow organically and go where the song takes you rather than being stubborn and married to your initial idea. I think “Silhouette” and “Remember Me” were products of that.

Ovrld: The band is known for its incredible live shows and you’re in the middle of a little mini Texas tour before going on larger tours throughout the rest of the year. What cities do you think “get” Soul Track Mind the most? Is there anywhere you’ve been itching to play but haven’t gotten to yet?

Donovan: San Antonio has been our home away from home. I know that might be surprising for some who consider it more of a rock and metal city, but we connected with SA long before we caught on in Austin. They take such good care of us there and there’s always amazing turnout no matter where or when we play. It’s been that way for years. We haven’t been to Chicago or New England yet. We would love to play New York and Boston.


Ovrld: Other than Austin, Soul Track Mind seems to have an affinity for New Orleans, with recording stints in that city and even a Louisiana Music Prize win for Unbreakable. Both Austin and New Orleans are known for their music cultures, but how do they differ in your experience? What do you think the two cities could learn from each other musically?

Donovan: The biggest difference is obviously the Cajun/Zydeco/Delta influence. New Orleans is overrun with tourists and their respective tourist trap venues that only play New Orleans style brass music or Zydeco. Austin doesn’t have anywhere near that kind of saturation. It’s still a fairly new city and doesn’t have quite the music history that New Orleans does. I would venture to say that even though artists like SRV and Janis Joplin came from here, Austin doesn’t actually have a distinct musical stamp that you can associate with the city. There’s nothing as definitive as Memphis Soul, Motown, Chicago Blues, or the New Orleans sound. There’s too much diversity and not enough cohesion to any one particular music scene. That’s just my opinion.  But I believe it can come in time.

Austin needs more cohesion to its relative music scenes and stronger support for them from the bookers and venues. The city is growing so fast that its musical identity is in a constant state of flux. New Orleans could use the growth and musical diversity that Austin has. There are some phenomenal musicians in New Orleans, but some of them get stuck playing touristy music because it’s the only style they can afford to play.

Ovrld: Continuing on that Louisiana note, your Louisiana Music Prize performance impressed Boo Mitchell enough that he gave you studio time at the legendary Royal Studios in Memphis. What was that experience like? The studio is most notable for its connection to Al Green, if you convinced Green to come out to the studio and record with you, what song of his would you most want to put your spin on?

Donovan: We just recently returned from our two-day stint at Royal and the experience was amazing! The studio is set up exactly the way it’s always been and we got to use the actual snare drum from all of Al Green’s hits like “Let’s Stay Together.” The entire vibe of the place was inspiring and we tracked some great new material there. We’re hoping to go back in the fall. We’re not sure if we can get Al Green to come out for us but I wouldn’t bother trying to do one of his tunes. You just can’t remake that kind of greatness. I’d let him sing on one of our songs if he liked something we wrote.

Ovrld: Have you started working on Unbreakable’s follow-up yet? What can we expect from the next album?

Donovan: We have written a lot of new material for a new project. But we’re taking our time because these new songs are even more progressive than anything previous and we want to make sure they’re exactly right. The new songs and ideas are challenging us as musicians and we’re excited to be creating again. With each new album we’ve refined our style a bit more and these new songs will push our boundaries even more than that. So expect the unexpected.

Morgan Davis sells bootleg queso on the streets of Austin in order to fund Loser City, the multimedia collective he co-runs. When he isn’t doing that, he plays drums for Denise and gets complimented and/or threatened by Austin’s musical community for stuff he writes at Ovrld, which he is the Managing Editor of.