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Finding a Way 

VIDEO: Check out Marshall McLean playing on the street outside our office.

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Marshall McLean’s songs play like sleepy fairy tales: the stories of a prince who can’t find his way to the castle; a man, lost in his own kingdom.

For McLean, these images have a greater meaning. His songs are filled with Christian overtones — references to the King, Eden and heaven. McLean says the guitar is an outlet for the poetry inside his head.

“I like to set my words in stone, to revisit it and chisel away at it,” he says. “You never feel like you’re doing it right but you’ve got to fight the curse. Each live performance is like chasing down that perfect moment for a song.”

On stage, McLean rarely moves further than an inch — maybe an inch and a half — away from the microphone. Shoulders hunched, he clutches his guitar. Occasionally, he speaks to the audience, delivering wit with the prophetic, weaving quirky mannerisms into eloquent sermons.

“It’s a voice that calls us, just like Abraham, to the wilderness that we don’t really get,” he says to his audience one night. “We don’t see the big picture, we don’t see one foot in front of the other.” Religious prerogatives aside, McLean’s themes of searching for oneself and wandering with a purpose are concrete and, at times, profound.

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The Montana native began performing at 16 and, following a brief stint in art school, moved to Spokane in 2006. That same year, McLean applied to a competition co-sponsored by Hatch — an arts and culture nonprofit organization in Bozeman — and Gibson Acoustic Guitar. Surprising even himself, McLean won and was bestowed with the 2006 Gibson Acoustic Guitar New Musician award.

“The award sounds pretty prestigious, but it’s kind of been a weird deal,” McLean says. “A lot of stuff that was set into motion from the award is still kind of playing out.”

In the end, the award granted him a set at a Bozeman concert, a custom Gibson guitar and exposure to industry producers — including the people producing his latest album.

As an artist, McLean is becoming more at peace in his own space and, in turn, a more versatile songwriter. His 2004 debut album The Pilgrim Sessions and 2006 album Heaven’s Grey feel forced, too radio-friendly and stink of acoustic rock. Although it’s a more dangerous path, the direction he’s taking now with softer, folksier numbers feel like a better fit.

Much like the battle between David and Goliath, it is the quiet roar in his voice that perseveres. Songs like “Say It” from his new album are gentle and sweet, whereas songs like “A Long Way for Eden” are upbeat, showcasing his guitar work and playing more like Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”

So maybe this prince isn’t lost after all. He’s just waiting for the right time to leave.

“You start out with ideas of who you think you are and try to make that work,” he says. “Then you realize you’ve got a much different sound that you think. Talent isn’t something you start out with, it’s something you invest time in to.”

Marshall McLean plays with Bill Mallonee and Karli Fairbanks at Empyrean on Friday, July 16, at 8 pm. Tickets: $8. All-ages. Call 838-9819.

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