Steve McKellar, frontman for the former South African rock group Civil Twilight, is a big proponent of musical evolution.
"We're a vastly different group now than we were when we started out, and thank goodness," McKellar says of his now Nashville-based band. "I think if we were the same then we'd be in trouble. Even with what music we like to listen to, we're different now from how we were when we made the first record."
After releasing its self-titled debut album in 2009, Civil Twilight has spent the last few years touring with the likes of Mutemath, the Smashing Pumpkins, Florence + the Machine, Anberlin and Silversun Pickups. Add to that performances at the Austin City Limits, Bonnaroo and Voodoo Music festivals, and that growth isn't particularly surprising. Civil Twilight also added a keyboardist, Kevin Dailey last year, which brought a fresh dynamic to the group's shows and songwriting process.
One thing that has not changed, however, is McKellar's penchant for lyrical soul-searching.
"If our songs aren't challenging me then they're not very inspiring," McKellar says. "The last thing I want to do is sound preachy — or like I know what I'm talking about — but these songs and the questions they pose are all things I've been asking myself. I've found that a lot of the songs I've written have a lot of question marks."
McKellar knows a thing or two about the importance of not assuming you know it all. He, his brother Andrew (guitars) and Richard Wouters (drums) all originally hail from Cape Town, South Africa (they added Dailey to the band after moving to Nashville), and for a long time McKellar had this idea of what America was like simply because his mother was born here. But making the jump to the States forced him to change his perspective.
"With America, I thought it was one thing and it turned out to be something else, and that reality was quite a lot to swallow," says McKellar. "It's not that I got disappointed or anything, it's just not what I thought it was going to be. But then before you know it, you're a part of that culture. You're no longer just an observer or a foreigner; you're now actually becoming part of that place."
That realization, along with all the touring, helped evolve Civil Twilight's approach to its 2012 sophomore album, Holy Weather. Incorporating a dreamy, Brit-rock aesthetic that calls to mind the likes of Oasis, Coldplay, Muse and early U2, the new songs are loaded with thought-provoking material. "Move/Stay" and "Every Walk That I've Ever Taken Has Been in Your Direction" convey the idea that there's some purpose behind everything we do, as do lyrics like, "Everything's got a reason / Everyone's got a place."
While the band is ultimately about getting up onstage and having a good time, McKellar figures the artistic transformation has also manifested itself on a personal level.
"When you have a passion, or a talent you discover, it's there for a lot of reasons, and one of them is to learn from it, to learn about life and how to love people through it," he says. "It's a tool for understanding God and yourself; it's there for way bigger reasons than just making beautiful sounds. It's something that I need to do. It keeps me sane, you know?"