Posted on Wednesday, Jan 13, 2021 by Lindsay Williams
THE K-LOVE COVER STORY
At the beginning of what would become one of the strangest years in recorded history, Mike Donehey met with his friends, Jeff Owen and Ruben Juarez, who together with Donehey, comprise Tenth Avenue North. With four young daughters at home, Donehey felt the need to limit his time on the road; so he asked a simple question of his bandmates: “What if we don’t tour next fall?”
It turns out, it was a loaded question. Juarez confessed he was already planning on exiting the band in order to pursue a full-time career in real estate. Owen admitted that he and his family dreamed of moving to Florida, where he simply wanted to write and produce songs.
What began as a proposition to pull back ended up becoming the final nail in the coffin of a 20-year dream.
The writing had really been etched on the wall three years prior as the band gradually began reducing their number of annual concerts in an effort to maintain healthy personal lives. “Our band was always successful enough to keep working and keep doing shows, and never so successful that we could take time off,” Donehey offers. “I had never gone more than four weeks without playing a show in 15 years. That’s got to be unhealthy.”
RELATED STORY: 10 Songs That Defined Tenth Avenue North’s Career
Then, two years ago, Tenth Avenue North’s original drummer, Jason Jamison, left the band in favor of spending more time with his family, leaving Donehey as the only remaining founding member of the group.
Despite the lineup changes and fewer scheduled shows, Donehey found himself surprised that his bandmates were ready to completely end what had been a long, rewarding chapter over the previous two decades.
Twenty years ago, Donehey and Jamison formed a band while they were students at Palm Beach Atlantic University and took on the moniker Tenth Avenue North, named after a street in West Palm Beach, Fla., where they were living at the time.
Donehey had only begun playing guitar and writing songs his senior year of high school after a near-fatal car accident broke his back. “I started playing guitar because I was laid up and couldn’t move for months. It was really just a way to pass the time, waiting for my back to heal,” Donehey shares. “When I go to high school reunions, people are still very dumbfounded that I ended up being a musician because they just remember me learning to play guitar, and mostly, it sounded like dying cats screeching. I was not a quick study."
“I got to college,” he continues, “and I really didn’t expect music to be part of my future.”
Tenth Avenue North toured independently for eight years before officially signing a record deal in 2008.
Since their acclaimed national debut, Over and Underneath, Tenth Avenue North’s career has been built one hit song at a time thanks to fan favorites like “Love Is Here,” “Hold My Heart,” “By Your Side,” “You Are More” “Worn,” and “Control (Somehow You Want Me),” among others. Their 12-year career as a signed band spans six full-length projects, a couple EPs, a popular Christmas album and their recent farewell acoustic project, Unplugged for the People (The Acoustic Greatest Hits). Throughout their tenure, Tenth Avenue North has garnered three GMA Dove Awards, including a win in 2009 for “New Artist of the Year.”
It’s a legacy that’s hard to leave behind.
LISTEN NOW: Tenth Avenue North "Love Is Here (Unplugged Audio)"
When Donehey, Owen, and Juarez agreed to call it quits, they realized their spring tour would, indeed, be their last. So they scrambled to get the message out to fans, letting them know that this would be a farewell outing.
A few weeks later, all touring ground to a halt as COVID-19 shut down the live music industry. The drastic turn of events left Donehey feeling lost.
“So not only is the band over but touring is over, shows are over, everything is over,” he says of the conclusion he came to after surveying the grim landscape. “I would say I spent about a month in dark, dark sadness.”
Feeling helpless, Donehey headed out to his backyard and started working on his daughters’ treehouse. “I just kept going to Home Depot. It was like the only place you could go, and I was buying more lumber; and I just kept building, tearing parts of it off and rebuilding. I suppose it was sort of allegorical of everything feeling like it was falling apart. I wanted to be able to put my hands to something.”
When there was nothing left to add to the treehouse, he decided to try his hand at building a home studio. Up until that time, he had never needed a studio space of his own; he had always ventured over to Owen’s house to record demos. After his studio was complete, he did the only other thing left to do. He started writing.
“I’ve written probably 75 songs this year, which is more songs than I’ve ever written in a year,” Donehey reveals. “It was amazing because it was sort of like the songs saved me out of depression during the pandemic. I needed them. I have a friend who says songs can be like lifeboats for people—when they’re in a troubled sea, they can cling to a song. Well, I felt like I was making my own life rafts writing songs.”
This idea of songs being lifeboats is, interestingly, what kept Donehey and his bandmates afloat throughout the ups and downs of their career.
“People would show up at our shows, and they would give us letters, and it would be, ‘I was driving in my car, and I heard this song on the radio; and I started weeping, and it saved my marriage.’ You’ve never met this person, and you’re going, Wait, how is this possible? How did you hear this song? I don’t know you, and you don’t know me. Those are the best moments,” Donehey recalls. “That was the thing we would always dream about when we were writing songs, like, Oh man, I hope this hits someone in this kind of season and that it might lead them to confession or hope or repentance or trust. You start dreaming about the kinds of stories you might hear from that song. That’s really what gives you the energy to keep doing it.”
When Donehey reflects on the past two decades, a handful of moments stand out: the first time he was asked to lead a student-led worship service at his college; the time Tenth Avenue North won their school’s “Battle of the Bands” contest and got the chance to open a show for Katy Hudson, who later went on to become pop phenomenon Katy Perry; the label showcase they played that earned them their record deal; the first time they heard one of their songs on the radio while sitting in a van in the parking lot of a Panera Bread; the first time they headlined LifeLight Festival in South Dakota and looked out to an endless stream of faces—a scene they had only dreamed about up until that point.
RELATED STORY: Unplugged for the People (The Acoustic Greatest Hits)
But beyond those fleeting moments of achievements, it’s the stories from fans that Donehey says will outlive the music of Tenth Avenue North.
“I never sit and stare at my Dove Awards on my desk and go, ‘Oh, look what I did,’” the longtime frontman admits, “but I do think about the stories and just get teary-eyed.”
As a final gift to fans, in the fall, Tenth Avenue North released the first acoustic record of their career—an album fans (and Donehey’s mom) have been begging the band to make for years.
Unplugged for the People (The Acoustic Greatest Hits) was crafted in the middle of quarantine, so none of the band members recorded in the same room. They simply sent files back and forth. “It highlighted the fact that we were separating as a band,” Donehey remarks of the forced recording process.
The “greatest hits” collection is comprised of entirely stripped-down, reimagined versions of 10 of Tenth Avenue North’s most-streamed songs.
With Tenth Avenue North’s farewell tour on hold indefinitely, right before Christmas, Donehey quietly released his first single as a solo artist. “Better” is something of a family affair. The love song features guest vocals from his wife, Kelly; and the single’s artwork boasts a watercolor painted by his youngest daughter, Margot. The song is the first of more original music to come from Donehey, who says his solo work will be more diverse and broad in nature than the songs he crafted as part of Tenth Avenue North.
“I have no intention of stopping,” Donehey affirms in regards to writing and recording songs. “I want to do something different, honor what was, and then celebrate a new beginning.”
LISTEN NOW: Mike Donehey "Better"
In addition to embarking on a solo career, Donehey is also in the process of writing a new book—a follow-up to his 2019 author debut, Finding God’s Life for My Will: His Presence Is the Plan.
Moreover, he also recently launched a new podcast on AccessMore, Chasing the Beauty, where, each week, he mines the joy that can be found in life’s hardest moments. Describing himself as a naturally curious person, Donehey says he wants to facilitate discussions with his podcast guests that encourage listeners to explore their own feelings and give themselves permission to excavate the beauty in their own lives.
“I’m fascinated by the places that cause us to be really afraid or really angry or really ashamed or really protective,” he shares. “It’s taken a lot of work on my part to realize that all my emotions that God’s given me are gifts. They’re not feelings to be dismissed or defended, but they’re doorways we should be curious about.”
While Donehey is expectant about what the future holds, there’s still much that remains uncertain. The letting go has been harder than maybe it would have been had it not been for the pandemic.
“Taking new steps toward new things, that has not felt weird. But closing down something that we’ve worked on for 20 years, that feels weird,” Donehey admits. “We still have these shows that we keep postponing and postponing and postponing—these farewell shows—so what was going to be like ripping a Band-Aid off is now like just pulling back the Band-Aid one hair at a time.”
Regardless of where the road leads next, Donehey is confident he will keep writing songs, releasing one lifeboat at a time out into uncharted waters. And when he stops to look back on the 20-year legacy of Tenth Avenue North, he knows no No. 1 hit, award, or accolade could have ever been achieved alone.
“At the end of the day, I want to feel like there’s an inexplicable, supernatural element to what happened because I don’t want to be God. I want to know that I’m with God and that He’s with me,” Donehey says. “So I don’t want to climb to the top of the mountain and say, ‘Look what I did.’ I want to get to the top of the mountain and go, ‘How did You take me here, God?’”