Secret Stages Highlight: Oxford Con

Oxford Con performs with guitar
From post-rock guitarist to acoustic singer-songwriter to indie soulster, the Birmingham-bred and raised Connor McCullum has constantly been a shapeshifter throughout his musical career.

Now based in Nashville, McCullum has released seven singles under the name Oxford Con. He will return to Birmingham this Friday, August 6, for Secret Stages.

We spoke with McCullum about his songwriting beginnings, immersing himself in the Auburn music scene, challenging yourself as a musician, and forming an all-star team of Birmingham musicians.

Chris K. Davidson for Magic City Bands: Which came first for you, vocals or guitar?

Connor McCullum: It was guitar first. I’ve been playing guitar very poorly for a while. I was probably five or six when I picked up a toy guitar where you press the buttons and it makes a noise. Then I found out I like singing a lot more than playing guitar. It came a little more naturally to me, I think.

MCB: When did you start writing songs?

CM: I was in this post-rock band in middle school that was the first band I was ever in. We were really into Explosions in the Sky and This Will Destroy You. I was writing guitar parts for a while. I first started writing lyrics early high school.

MCB: A big turning point for you was going to Auburn University and getting involved in the scene. I feel like their arts scene has really been growing this past decade or so. Can you talk about being involved in that scene?

CM: Auburn is so cool because everyone is so supportive of what everyone else is doing. I think Birmingham is getting there too. There was just always an opportunity for me to play in Auburn. It could be a weird show, but you would have an opportunity to play somewhere every week if you wanted it.

It was one of my worst shows, but I played a show at Zoe’s Kitchen in Auburn, on the patio. I played this song about alcohol, and this guy who was a former alcoholic got really upset. He was one of the people there.

We had a house that we played at all the time called the Ross House, where a bunch of our friends lived. We’d bring people from out of town to play there, and one of us would open. The scene has grown a lot, and it looks like they’re doing even better.

I think I learned a lot about stage presence in Auburn because I played to a lot of different crowds. Playing a lot of house shows, playing a lot of intimate environments. It taught me a lot about songwriting because I wrote a huge bulk of songs in Auburn just experiencing heartbreak for the first time, experiencing a lot of adult things like running out of money, things you don’t experience until you live on your own. I think intrinsically Auburn had a big impact on my music as well.

MCB: When did you open for David Ramirez? I saw that on your Spotify profile.

CM: We played outside the John Emerald Distillery on the Railyard stage. That was super cool. It was last-minute. Someone way better was supposed to open. Richard Patton, who runs all their shows in Opelika, called me a few hours before the show and asked if I wanted to open. I was going to the show anyway because I love David Ramirez and his writing. That was a good time.

MCB: Your music has gone through a few different phases with the song “Blue Jag” being a bridge between Connor McCullum and Oxford Con. Can you talk about the two phases and how the song connected them?

CM: I was really caught in this phase that a lot of songwriters probably go through, where they’re just writing a bunch of sad songs. I was Connor McCullum for this long period of my life where it was just me on acoustic guitar, doing the songwriter thing. I had a lot fun doing that and was finding the success that I wanted. I didn’t feel the need to shift based on success, but more from an enjoyment aspect and what I enjoyed playing.

I always wanted to have a band because I love camaraderie. I love rehearsing and growing with other musicians. I was feeling isolated playing as Connor McCullum, and a lot of people that I look up to play in full bands or at least have surrounding bands. I really wanted to surround myself with musicians that were stronger than myself and could challenge me.

With “Blue Jag” specifically, I really wanted to give myself a challenge to write a song that was really hard to write. I thought about subjects that would be challenging to write about. I found this girl on Instagram I was really attracted to from a distance, but I didn’t know her. I thought “what if I wrote about in a very literal way getting to be with her” and challenged myself to write about something really uncomfortable. I want to write about sex, and I want to make a song that’s just purely risque. I sat down and proceeded to write “Blue Jag’’. Funny enough as it is, that girl has been my girlfriend for three years now. I don’t think I told her until a year in.

From there I realized that I loved playing that song. I felt more like myself. I grew up listening to a lot of soul music and bedroom hits. I think just more of myself came out. I had more fun, and that rubbed off on people. I played a show at WorkPlay that was one of my last shows as Connor McCullum. It was one of the first times I had played “Blue Jag’’ in front of a significant amount of people. One of my close friends pulled me outside and he’s one of the biggest impacts on my life. He walked me to my car while everyone else was leaving, and said “man, I see the future of Connor McCullum, and it’s playing music like this. That’s the most fun I’ve had at any of your shows. People loved it.” I literally came up with the idea for Oxford Con the next day or day after that.

Since then, I don’t think I’ve run too far away from Connor McCullum in songwriting, but I’m trying to really have fun in writing music and trying to challenge myself with each song. I don’t want to have an easy song that doesn’t really push me at all. So that then just carried over to Oxford Con.

MCB: I wanted to ask about the song “No Streams” because it ironically has the most streams out of any Oxford Con song on Spotify. What was the story behind that song?

CM: I think of myself as really meta. I love the idea of writing about writing. Making music about the music industry is one of the funniest things to me. Friends that are local musicians think that song is hilarious and can relate to it.

It goes back to how we judge talent today. I think it’s really skewed. This is a really big thing in Nashville, but some people won’t associate with you unless you have a significant number of monthly listeners or streams on a song. I think that’s messed up because a lot of my favorite musicians that are my friends aren’t making any money from Spotify. I think it’s criminal how Spotify pays musicians. But it’s an excellent platform, and it’s a blessing to be able to put out music whenever you want and it be available to everyone. That is a massive blessing.

It all stems back to that WorkPlay show. I won’t mention who I was playing with, but I’ve just had several encounters with musicians who show me a lack of conversational respect just based on the fact that they can go to my Spotify and see that I’m not on the same “level” as they are. I just wanted to write something just to prove that I don’t care. This is really fun for me to write music, and I’m always going to be here.

It’s a fun song. We all love playing it live. It’s a little bit more energy for my band.

MCB: You’ve mainly released your music as singles. Does that go back to being able to release music whenever you want or do you have plans to write a new group of songs for a full-length album?

CM: I originally came up with this concept that I was going to release seven singles before I do anything else. They would all be a different season like a season of a TV show, but they would all intertwine with each other. “Industry Plant” makes a reference to “No Streams”, and I have other songs that loosely reference each other. They are a collective in the sense that they are seven singles that were put out by Oxford Con. Even down to the design decisions, we wanted to use the same font for every song. We wanted to do these things that connected each one.

I’m not sure what the plan is from here. I have a concept album that I’ve been working for two years now. It’s just lyrics at this point plus a few instrumental ideas. That is in the future. It wouldn’t have any of these current songs on it. It would be a separate piece. It was something I told myself that I would release by the time I was 27, but it’s looking like I’m going to have to grind really hard for that to happen because I just turned 26.

Also with the singles, I think it was a financial necessity. I didn’t want to do any of the recordings myself and produce these myself just because I wanted to get the best I could with the money that I had. I wanted to be able to pay my friends who played on the recordings and make sure they’re taken care of. Once I have a full work and concept that I’m really happy with, then I’m going to put it out and hopefully people will like it the same as the single.

MCB: As far as the people that are in your band, are they Birmingham musicians, Nashville musicians or a combination?

CM: It’s all Birmingham people. For Secret Stages, I put together in my eyes the all-star team. I want all of my favorite musicians from some of my favorite bands to play with me. Mila Oliveira has been my drummer since the beginning of Oxford Con. She’s in like five band. She plays with Zoo Culture, Venture Boi, Jada Cato, a lot of my friends. I have Alexander Duck who’s playing keyboard for me. He’s a great solo artist who also plays in a new band called Apprehend. Park Butterworth from Juco is playing bass. Tully Kay from JOFU is going to be playing saxophone for me, and Jamie Harper will be playing baritone sax. Finally, Alex Drummond from Zoo Culture will be playing lead guitar.

I’ve met a lot of great Nashville people, and I’ve had a few ask me if they could play with me. But based purely on the fact that it’ll be people who already know my music and I’m up in Nashville, I just needed people who were very familiar with the songs. I’m taking off work next week, and we’re rehearsing Monday through Friday.

MCB: Have you been to Secret Stages before as an attendee?

CM: I went in late high school during my junior and senior years, and I remember having a blast both times. Then I came back during my second or third year of college. I remember thinking that this is what Birmingham needed. It’s such a cool opportunity for artists. I remember being way too young and wanting to know how I could play it. At the time, I was just playing covers and not putting out originals, but I just wanted to figure out how to get on that stage.

They actually asked me to play last year after my Avondale show in 2019. Obviously, because of COVID, they honored their promise and let us play this year.

MCB: What are five albums you can listen to from start to finish?

CM: 22, A Million by Bon Iver
Blonde by Frank Ocean
Depression Cherry by Beach House
The Wall by Pink Floyd
Call Me If You Get Lost by Tyler, the Creator

Oxford Con will play Secret Stages on Friday, August 6th, at 7:30 p.m. on the Avondale Outdoor Stage. For more information, visit the Secret Stages site.