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Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness

Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness

By: Lori Smerilson Carson

Music has often been thought of as therapeutic and an amazing way to tell a story. Singer/Songwriter/Pianist Andrew McMahon has been using his extraordinary talents to take these concepts to a whole new level since he first hit the music scene in 1998 with this band Something Corporate and then in 2004, his solo project turned band, Jack’s Mannequin. His album The Glass Passenger reached number 8 on the top 200 Billboard chart. Then in 2014 he released his self-titled debut LP under his current project Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness which was received in the top five of Billboard’s Alternative Albums and also, Independent Album Charts. Now, after opening a few shows for Billy Joel during this summer, McMahon and his amazingly talented bandmates Guitarist Bobby Anderson, Drummer Jay McMillian, Bassist Mikey Wagner and keyboardist/guitarist Zac Clark are touring the U.S. with Dashboard Confessional.

Catching up with McMahon just prior to the start of the tour, he revealed some details about the show, how he became a musician, his foundation and what fans can look forward to.

SFL Music: You’re out touring with Dashboard Confessional. How did this all come about?
Andrew McMahon: Well, you know Chris (Carrabba) and I have been friends for a lot of years. We played shows on and off since I started playing music back gosh, I started touring twenty years ago. Chris was a big thing back then and as Something Corporate kind of came up the ranks and then Jack’s Mannequin, we did shows on and off. We never did a full tour, but we’ve always been friendly and I think coming out of this sort of COVID insanity, there was a little bit of a sense of like let’s just get in a safe fun place with good friends and like try and deliver a show for people that, I don’t know, maybe in a way helps them remember a time before all this madness (he laughed).

SFL Music: Yeah, that’s a great idea. What can fans look forward to with your show?
McMahon: Look I think for me, I’d say personally the thing that I’m most excited about is the lineup of the band is some of my closest, both friends and musical accomplices. Its guys I’ve been playing with onstage for years. I mean, Bobby and Jay have been with me on and off since 2004. Mikey joined in 2011 and Zac in 2014. It’s kind of my all-star lineup band which is exciting and you know, I think the thing that we’re really looking forward to is sort of threading the needle of all of these projects that I’ve played in over the years and kind of creating something that feels close to nostalgia. We’re still leaning to the future on some level. We really do want to build a set that if you were into Something Corporate or you were into Jack’s or in the Wilderness or just into one, you’re gonna get a good dose of music from sort of all the different eras of my career.

SFL Music: Your last solo album UPSIDE DOWN FLOWERS was in 2018. Are you working a new album?
McMahon: I am, yeah. I’m actually really excited. We’re gonna be releasing a new single in the middle of this tour. So, we’ll do one brand new song that I’m just absolutely in love with. I think this new music is some of my best. I worked with two incredible producers and you know, just kind of build this little family vibe up in the Canyon, up in Los Angeles and kind of put together a batch of songs that are collected from basically the four years since I put out music. Obviously, the pandemic, I wrote a memoir. I think the process of unpacking those major moments in my life is really informative. The music that is coming out of this new album, but it’ll slowly be released in the course of the next, I don’t know maybe six months, and the album will come out full in the new year. So, you’ll expect a new song on this tour and then I’ll sort of shift gears from the pure nostalgia and see about starting to promote a new record once this tour is done.

SFL Music: You are based in California. Do you think that atmosphere in the Canyon helped with writing the songs? Environmentally relaxing?
McMahon: Yeah. I mean, look, I think the best thing that can happen with a record happening, this one which was, I think a lot of the struggle and the hard work was in the living around the music. I think the sort of peaceful and joyful part was assembling the record. You know, sometimes the record can become the struggle and yes environmentally speaking, we had this beautiful place to write and record these songs and it really was, I don’t want to say it was an effortless process because it did take a lot of effort, but it was a kind of joyful effort you know, like when you’re a kid. You’re playing with your friends in your room (he chuckled). I like always joke, it’s like getting your buddies in a room when you’re like seven years old and playing with toy cars. The best music making on some level feels like that, even as a grown man (he laughed).

SFL Music: That’s cool. Does the album have a theme?
McMahon: Yeah, I would say so. The reality is I’m turning forty this summer as I kind of finish the mixes of this record. I’ll hit this kind of strange milestone both in my turning forty, but also celebrating twenty years of a life on the road and in the studio. So, I wanted the songs in a way, it wasn’t like I didn’t try to force it, but I think just naturally the songs became a bit of a reflection on the road that I traveled, but also a meditation of what I wanted to come next and what lessons I feel like I learned from traveling on that road. So, there’s a sense of nostalgia and a sense of I guess, some sort of personal growth I suppose, or a hope placed into these songs that say like, oh well, you’ve made your mistakes. Like, how do you want to live now? And in that sense, I think it’s a sort of sentimental album of songs that really celebrate my place and arriving in a certain place.

SFL Music: What influenced you to become a musician?
McMahon: I think it’s probably a large number of factors. I was always surrounded by music in my house. I’m the youngest of five kids, so and my parents were in their teens and twenties in the sixties, and so there was always really great music sort of channeled onto all of the speakers in bedrooms of the house, the houses that I grew up in, but I think the biggest influence for me was the passing of my uncle when I was about eight years old. I found my way to a piano and started writing songs as a way of coping with that loss. I think sort of the confrontation of death at a young age had a pretty profound impact on me. So, those early songs were really kind of tools to help me navigate through grief, and I think having started there, that kind of became the base line for how I create and why I create. Essentially, songs have always been a way for me to make sense of whatever it is that I’m dealing with in life at that time and kind of help me to navigate through the world. They’re sort of like little book ends for chapters of the moments in my life.

SFL Music: Is that what you would say inspires you when you write your music?
McMahon: Absolutely. Yeah, I mean, look, I’ve always been a largely autobiographical writer. Occasionally you’ll find songs on records that are sort of more story driven or a little more non-fiction I suppose, but I think in a weird way, the first draft of my songwriting process is sort of a selfish endeavor. Like writing a journal. A way to kind of unpack the feeling or the scenery, and then it becomes a little bit more of a, I don’t know if service is the right term, but you know, you try and take those feelings and try to find a way to package them so that your experiences can almost connect you to the world. So, it’s like a two-part process. The selfish unpacking of my own life, and then trying to relate that back to my fans and the rest of the world, and find a way to connect. I think that’s always been what I think moves me the most about this idea of recording music for people, is that it ends up being a way to understand somebody else’s day in a way to connect and say, oh, this may be a very specific experience I’m writing about, but it’s also a universal one. If that makes sense.

SFL Music: Yeah, it does. What would you recommend to up-and-coming musicians?
McMahon: Well, I think my biggest recommendation is to do it because you love it first. To do it because it’s useful to you in your personal life and because it helps connect you more deeply to yourself and then to the people around you. Then should you get to a place where you feel like you’re writing the kind of material that can connect to people on a larger scale, start playing. Start going out. I mean, today there’s so many more channels to be seen than there were when I started out. It used to be the best way to find out if you have the chops and if you have the ability to connect on a large level is you went and played shows. I still recommend whether it’s putting a band together. Putting some sort of show together that you can go share with people. Whether that be in a club or on social media or whatever. Those places become a proving ground for your art and if it’s not working there, then keep adapting and keep evolving and trying to find a path that leads to more people listening.

SFL Music: That’s great advice. Did you teach yourself piano and music or did you have some lessons?
McMahon: I was self-taught at first. Yeah, I would say that first year that I kind of mentioned earlier where I was writing songs and started dealing with the grief of losing a loved one. A lot of that was a friend’s dad had taught me a couple of chords on piano and I just sort of moved those chords around the piano and started singing songs that I was writing over those chords. That only lasted me so long before I kind of ran out of the strange magic that would find me in those moments and at that point, I began studying classical music. I pursued that for a few years before reaching high school, and then in high school, I had a really awesome choir director named Gray Woods who, he sort of taught me the professional side of playing in a band and how to read sight books and chord charts and the kind of more professional working musicians code and language and all of those different, those layers of teaching. The fundamentals that I learned in class, and also this sort of working man’s and woman’s version of being in a band. I learned later those layers, and the two things are really what comprised my years of study I suppose.

SFL Music: You can hear that in your music. You’re very talented.
McMahon: I appreciate that. There’s always a lot more to learn, but I think in a way I found the tools that help me sort of unlock my voice and unlock the sort of subconscious and they work for me, but I would be lying not to say there are days I look at other keyboard players and wish I had their skill, but you know, we work with what we have, right?

SFL Music: Right. Absolutely! We all have our talents. You mentioned your book. What inspired you to write that?
McMahon: Well, the idea of me writing a memoir is something that been, it’s a road I’ve almost gone down on a few occasions and I think the inspiration for the book really was a series of essays that I had started gosh, it was probably the summer of 2019. My parents were going to be moving away and I found out they were considering selling the piano that I had grown up playing. It was the piano I wrote all my first songs on and I remember feeling this emotion out of that shocked me, but the sound of losing that piano was like a mix of deep loss, and also a bit of a sense of betrayal. I was kind of heartbroken by it, and I sat down and kind of began writing these essays that were almost conversations with the pianos that had been sort of the most important throughout my career. Pianos in ways almost became like friends or accomplices in the developing of both my writing career and also my touring career and ultimately, when I expressed this to my parents, they were quick to agree to hand over the piano instead. So, it worked out, but I had these essays and I remember thinking to myself wow, this could be a really powerful way to unpack some of my history and where I came from, and some of the hardships that I faced growing up, and some of the beauty in being a truly young person with a big career at a time in my life. Then when the pandemic hit, I had been working on new music and all the sudden you know, the studio shut down and the world shut down. I had a conversation with my wife and she said, “this is your moment. We’re gonna be locked up for a little while here. You’re not going to be able to tour and whether releasing music is gonna be the smartest thing to do in this moment is anybody’s guess. So, maybe you’ve just been afforded this opportunity to speak in a longer form.” And thus began this process of deep diving into a lot of beautiful stories, but also a lot of pain that I had you know, thought I had resolved in years of therapy, but turns out when you start writing these stories down, you realize that there’s more there maybe then you realized or then you previously thought, and it became this miraculous tool for healing and tying up loose ends and finding forgiveness that in a beautiful way kind of putting me on what felt like a really even footing for what came next which was everything we’re about to do. This tour. This new album. It’s been a long time away from music, but I think that writing the book in the end really was a huge benefit to not just to the music I’m making now, but also just to living a fuller life with a bit more gratitude and a whole lot less skeletons hiding out in the closet for me to worry about.

SFL Music: So, you felt like this was part of that therapy you had already gone through?
McMahon: Yeah, I’m a real believer in therapy. It saved my life in a big way. I started back in I guess 2012 and I think gave me the tools when it was time to actually work on the book to say like, what are you still hanging onto? I think largely it gave me the language for how to reconcile those things. How to have important conversations with people who I had felt reconciled to for a number of years, but never really spoke about it and it gave those more difficult conversations you know, a way to take place. I mean, it was hard to do. It was very difficult, but I sleep a lot easier now and I think the people in my life who I sort of went through that journey with, I feel like I see them more clearly and they see me more clearly and that’s a beautiful thing.

SFL Music: I saw on your website another beautiful thing that you do. The Dear Jack Foundation for young people with cancer. That’s wonderful. How did that come about?
McMahon: Well, I’m a leukemia survivor now sixteen years and my journey through leukemia, my survival was pretty well documented. I was a public figure at the time that it all went down and I had amazing support, and I had a lot of people rooting for me and a lot of people who were instantly activated to raise money and raise awareness about not just what I was going through, what other young people are going through. In the process of that, as I sort of made it to the other side, there was a realization that you know, we call adolescent and young adult cancer. These are people ages fifteen to roughly forty years of age, not only are the most under researched demographic of cancer patients, but they also have like a tremendously unique set of experiences and markers that make their journey through cancer much different than say, if you’re a pediatric patient or if you’re a much older patient. There are lots of feeling of alienation. There’s lots of depression, but there’s also not the same level of resources afforded to this age bracket that are afforded to other demographics of patients. So, at Dear Jack we really have honed on a strategy and a series of programs that are geared at giving young adults a voice in their cancer. Giving them a sense of place and a sense of comfort and the knowledge that they’re not alone, and it’s something I never imaged that I would be doing, but certainly I think you know, whenever it is that I’m no longer here, I hope my music lives on for sure, but I think that this thing that we’re doing and this foundation will probably be the thing that I do in life that is probably the most important and makes the most impact.

SFL Music: Well, it’s a wonderful thing and I’m glad you have that fortieth birthday coming up. Happy Birthday! And many more!
McMahon: Thank you so much. I really appreciate that!

SFL Music: Is there anything else you want fans to look forward to? Any new videos coming out?
McMahon: Yeah, I mean, we’re gonna be rolling out the new music slowly. Middle of August you’ll see the first video and hear the first song. I think for me, what I’m most excited about is you know, outside of doing this tour which as somebody whose changed bands three times and has always been fairly hell bent on not looking so much in the rear-view mirror as it relates to my career, but to keep pushing forward. I think I’ve been lucky that I’ve been successful in doing that, but perhaps it is because of this birthday that’s approaching. I’m extremely excited to sort of walk people down this like, I hate to be cliché, but like down memory lane for an hour and a half a night and say this is where I come from and also, this is where I’m going, but to celebrate these moments that I think for me always marked really important shifts and times in my life and I know for a lot of fans, they were the soundtrack to some of those moments for them. So, I look forward to sharing that and I really am, I’m so proud of this music that we made. I think it is some of the most adventurous, but also some of the most honest and cutting lyrics that I’ve written in years, and it really feels like a part of me, and I hope in that sense it will feel like a part of the listener once they get their hands on it. So, I can’t wait to begin the adventure of building a new world around a new set of songs.

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