Powell’s music career began after giving songwriter Jules Shear a tape of demos in 1989. This lead to a contract with Elektra Records and a demo produced by Shear. Elektra nurtured Powell with equipment and vocal coaching, but ultimately passed on making a record. Powell then signed with RCA Records and recorded Ballad of the Tin Men. Powell co-produced with engineer Pete Coleman and played all the instruments except drums, strings, and one guitar solo. After sitting on the shelf for a year, the record was bought by Mercury Records. Mercury immediately arranged for Powell to be the opening act for much of Todd Rundgren‘s Individualist tour. Just months after Ballad of the Tin Men was released in April 1996, Mercury dropped Powell.
The demos for what was to be the second Mercury record were released under the name Curiouser by Not Lame Recordings in 1999. Powell had been in talks with Rundgren to produce the record. Notable guests include Steve Allen from 20/20 and Tom Petersson from Cheap Trick. In 2000, Powell delivered a new set of songs to Not Lame called More. Powell played all instruments and handled the production, engineering, and graphic design.
During this time Powell was invited by Jerry Dale McFadden (keyboardist for The Mavericks and Sixpence None the Richer to sing backup vocals on a jam session recorded with some other Nashville friends. The group included a revolving membership but centered around McFadden and Robert Reynolds (bassist for the Mavericks). After releasing a 45rpm single on Diesel Only Records, the band began to play some gigs around Nashville. At that point Powell, McFadden, Reynolds, Ken Coomer (drummer for Wilco), and Tom Petersson started playing under the name Swag. Over the next few years Swag wrote and recorded whenever everyone was in town. Petersson had moved from Nashville, however, and played a lesser roll. Brad Jones and Warren Pash took on the main bass duties in the studio and live, respectively. Jones also produced the full length album Catch-all, released by Yep Roc in 2001. Legal issues caused the first pressing to be recalled and re-released with Todd Rundgren replacing the few parts recorded by Tom Petersson. Swag appeared on Late Night with Conan O’Brien on April 20, 2001. Powell left Swag after suffering a vocal chord injury that required surgery and left him unable to tour. While recuperating in 2001, Japanese label Wizzard in Vinyl released an EP of songs called Venus Di Milo’s Arms, featuring darker, more aggressive songs than his previous work.
Powell signed with Parasol records in 2002 and released The Lost Chord. The CD was a dramatic departure from his previous Power Pop work. Instead, the Lost Chord was experimental, progressive, art rock that still placed a heavy emphasis on melody. The record was performed entirely by Powell with the exception of drums on Baby Blue, which were played by Prairie Prince. Powell continued the stylistic break in 2004 with Day for Night, another one-man-band performance.
In late 2004 Powell was contacted by Elliot Easton, guitarist for The Cars. Easton had heard Powell’s recording of Candy-O and was impressed enough to ask Powell to be the singer of The New Cars, a reformation of The Cars without Ric Ocasek and Benjamin Orr (who had died). Powell began working on demos for the project and completed six demos. However, as the plans for the band evolved The Cars decided to bring bring in a higher profile singer, and settled on Todd Rundgren. Powell released the six demos as well as other leftover songs on Four Seasons, released on the Paisley Pop label. The set included “God Bless Us All,” a song written for Ringo Starr’s 1999 Christmas album but went unused.
After a hiatus, Powell returned in 2010 with The Apprentice’s Sorcerer. The record is a concept album where each song gives a different aspect of the transcendental argument for God’s existence while using the terminology of stage magic. The record was another stylistic departure, this time focusing heavily on electronic sounds.
The book Shake Some Action lists Curiouser and Catch-all as the 97th and 80th greatest Power Pop records ever made.