From hitting international musical success while still a teenager, to starting again with a new band only to find himself in a battle with Leukaemia while writing their sophomore album, to most recently enjoying his biggest success to date with a song written about the imminent arrival of his first child; few musicians have had quite as rollercoaster ride a career as Andrew McMahon has experienced over the last decade and a half. Along the way the former Something Corporate and Jack’s Mannequin frontman has documented his journey with a back catalogue of exquisitely crafted, beautifully phrased and revealingly open songs that have become beloved by fans around the world.
Andrew returned to the UK at the end of February for the first time since beginning his new ‘In The Wilderness’ phase of his career, and before his show in Leeds he opened up to Already Heard about tiring of major label life, his daughter giving him new perspective on writing and touring, getting to grips with social media for the first time and much more.
AH: It’s great to see you finally back in the UK for the first time since the 2013 festivals. Are you glad to be back and what are your memories of those sets?
Andrew: They were all great. I love being here and I wish I could come more often. It’s expensive to get across so there’s always that barrier. So you really always have to have a reason to come. Every time I play shows over here it’s always such a good time. The fact that in some ways we are almost forced to do them acoustic, because it’s hard to get the whole band out, mean I end up having these really special shows every time I play here. There is an intimacy to every gig I do in the UK now where it’s me and the piano and its sink or swim. You have to tell good stories and have a rapport with the audience to really get the show to fly. So I’m always on my toes when I’m out here which is fun.
AH: Has the atmosphere on this run of shows been as special as the last time you were here?
Andrew: I’ve been playing for ninety minutes on these shows, over the course of that time you have the chance to really sink your teeth into material from every record with people singing along. It’s a great vibe.
AH: How have things been since you started performing under your new moniker of Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness?
Andrew: It’s been great. It’s an interesting thing that I’ve always been one to hit the reset button when I felt that things were getting a little stale, or I needed some new inspiration. It gets a little bit more nerve-wracking when you get a bit older to hit that reset button because you don’t want to fuck up and have to claw your way back. But that said I feel it was such a worthy endeavour because it gave me the chance to really dig back into playing my piano. I think by the last Jack’s Mannequin record, I’d scaled back the piano so much. I really wanted to sit and focus and write great piano parts for this record. And I hired new management and had a new label.
There is this whole fresh excited energy around the record. Whereas by the time Jack’s was winding down I had been with Warner (Brothers) for three records. It was a revolving door of people coming in and out and it was exhausting and became this laboured thing working the last record. I just wanted to have fun working a record. So far it has been great. In the States, the single (‘Cecilia and The Satellite’) right now is sitting at the highest chart position I’ve had any song of mine. For both bands, it’s the highest chart position that I have reached. I kind of do this every day (taps the table) that it keeps going and spreads even further. It’s been really rewarding.
AH: Is it a surreal experience to have the most wide reaching song you’ve put out be about such an intensely personal event in your life?
Andrew: It is but at the same time it makes so much sense to me. Not to take anything away from any single that I have put out, as there is a huge piece of me in every song that I write. But I feel like there is always a hesitation, especially from majors who are working the radio at a time when it’s hard to sell records, to get people to commit to working a song that is so specific. It’s tricky. The fact that the team we put together were so excited by it and were like “this is the one, we have to do this,” meant I could feel like if it really went, it would be such a good introduction for new fans to who I am and where I come from. Because that’s really what the song is. It is an introduction to what I’ve been doing for the last twenty years of my life. It was for my daughter but if it works for a whole new group of people listening then that is pretty awesome too.
AH: It seems like it should a very special moment when she’s old enough to understand that such a successful song was written for her.
Andrew: I know. I hope it pays her college tuition. But I also hope she doesn’t hear it and be like “Dad don’t play that again!” I’m sure that at least that will happen.
AH: What was behind the decision to adopt a new stage name rather than simply putting out music as Andrew McMahon like with the ‘Pop Underground’ EP?
Andrew: The EP almost was Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness. It can be so hard for me to just come out and say it. But with the EP I think there was something missing. I felt like there was a reality to what the music was and where it came from. I wanted there to be something more when people heard my name on the radio or saw it on a TV screen or their laptop when they were going to buy the record. I felt like there was more to the music then just my name. It was this crazy moment in my life where I decided to cut everything loose and start afresh. To me that felt like the wilderness in every way. And it still really does. To feel like there is something new in the music business after 15 years of being in it is pretty miraculous. I wanted to celebrate that in the album and project title.
AH: What does that word ‘Wilderness’ mean to you?
Andrew: It means a lot. It’s funny when it started it was almost like the digital wilderness for me having to take over my Twitter account and my Instagram and Facebook and everything else from the label who used to run everything for me and say “I’m going to do this now”. It’s so funny because it was almost the exact opposite of the wild, it was this constructed place that everybody lives in but for me it was totally new and scary. But I think more than anything it represents a space where you’re free, and a space where you’re free to try new things. You can look at it as if you’re trying to get out or you can look at it like you’re trying to stay. But one way or another, it’s an adventure. I think so much about this process of getting to where I am right now was an adventure and I felt the name “The Wilderness” summed it up pretty well.
AH: How did the Hit List events where you worked with stars and artists from Broadway come about?
Andrew: There are a couple of my fans from over a lot of years, going back to around 2003 in the Something Corporate days, that have ties to the Broadway community. One of them produces a lot of shows at 54 Below where that show took place. Once I started working on ‘Smash’ it tied a lot of those things together. It made sense all of a sudden to introduce me to Broadway and vice versa. Originally they did a show of ‘Broadway sings Andrew McMahon songs,’ then six months later or so I came in and did a performance of ‘Hit List’ which was the story arch which I wrote for ‘Smash.’ Then they did a second MFEO Broadway sings Andrew McMahon songs right before I came out here. That one I was really able to be involved with. The first I wasn’t available to even be there. It’s a great community of theatre actors and singers who get together thanks to this couple of fans in that community that brought us all into the same room.
AH: What was the experience of hearing all these classically trained performers singing your songs like?
Andrew: It was awesome just to be in a room with other people singing my songs. For me, it was such a unique experience as that’s just not something I’m used to seeing. Occasionally someone will send me a YouTube clip of a cover, but to have these trained theatre actors and voices behind my songs and interpreting them with almost a storytelling type of approach was really cool. I actually got to sit in the audience for at least half the show with my wife and a group of my friends to witness this hysterical event, it was hysterical because I had never seen anything like it. It was a lot of fun.
How has the arrival of your daughter Cecilia and fatherhood changed you as a writer?
Andrew: If anything it has really focused me. I think there is something when you’re writing solely for yourself, and when you have nothing but time to do whatever you want you can almost take it for granted. I think being in a position where I want to spend as much time with her as humanly possible, when I get into the writing room and that space it has trained me on the prize which is to write a great song. It has lent a lot of focus to my life in every respect. Also they travel with me pretty much full time now and that is a new, exciting thing. I was ready for it. I’ve been doing this for so long that it was time for me to see the world through another set of eyes.
AH: How have you found having your wife and daughter on the road with you so much?
Andrew: It’s amazing but like anything it’s hard. But I find the shows are so much better because, instead of spending the day agonising over the set list or what it will be like tonight compared to last night and getting myself worked up, I spend the day living and I spend the day present. With them, we travel and sightsee in every city we go to. Then when I take to the stage, I take to the stage fresh with this feeling that I just went out and lived a day and then I’m going to play a show. It’s kept me so much more centred and so much more present, which is something I sought for a long time. I did not expect that having a baby would be the thing that would actually bring it about. But it’s done a pretty good job so far.
Did knowing you had been able to find new success after Something Corporate make the decision to call time on Jack’s Mannequin easier?
Andrew: It’s never easy to close a really important chapter of your life. So I didn’t do it loosely or think “hey this is going to be easy.” Truthfully I assumed it would be easier than it actually ended up being to some extent. I didn’t anticipate that I was going to need to re-educate people on what they were going to expect to see when I came to the stage. I think people were nervous that starting this new thing, meant that I was somehow going to torpedo everything else that I had ever done and never sing another song by Jack’s or Something Corporate. I looked at it as a chance both to play new music and to celebrate all of it in one space. Rather than going on tour with Jack’s Mannequin and playing Something Corporate songs which never really made much sense. Now I can be on a stage and play new songs and Jack’s and Something Corporate songs and because I wrote them, it does make sense. But I think the decision to close up Jack’s wasn’t really informed by any sense of this is going to be easy as much as this is what needs to be done.
AH: Do you ever find it strange that despite writing a lot of beautiful, intricate piano based songs, one of the songs that you are most well-known for is ‘Punk Rock Princess’?
It’s funny I wouldn’t even think of that one first. I thought you were going to say ‘Konstantine’ because I get harassed for that song all the time and I almost never play it. What’s funny about ‘Punk Princess’ is that the way that song is written, is that it was actually written as a piano ballad. Of that era of music that I had written, it was one of the more forlorn piano ballads that I had written. So the fact that it turned into this kind of thrashy eighth note garage band kind of thing, at the core of it, is this sweet ballad. So it does make sense to me in some respects.
AH: If Something Corporate and Jack’s Mannequin were the first and second chapters of your career, what are your hopes or expectations for this new chapter?
Andrew: I think to be able to achieve what both of those bands did, and have a steady consistent core in the markets that I play is really what I hope for. Just to be able to go and play good sized rooms that help me pay the bills, and are filled with audiences that are excited. And that new people keep coming. That for me is always important. I don’t want to be a guy that always plays to the same crowd every time I come to a room. I want to keep making music that excites the fans that I’ve made, but that excites new generations of music listeners. My idols like Tom Petty, Paul Simon and Bruce Springsteen, these writers that I grew up listening to, they still have new fans showing up. There are still kids discovering these records and their new music and coming to their gigs. For me to have a career that is decades long where I can say “this is me, I’m Andrew come and see my show.” That’s really what matters to me. And that there are new exciting twists and turns along the way.
AH: Your fans have such strong emotional connections to so many of your songs, what do you feel is the key thing about writing a song that the listener can deeply relate too?
Andrew: I think it’s telling the story (and) not explaining the feeling. That to me is the biggest thing. I find that my songs connect to people the most when, instead of saying oh I’m sad because of this or that, I say this is what I saw on that day when I wasn’t feeling good. I think having a visual lyric that puts people in your shoes so that they can feel what you’re feeling but, rather than having to pander to someone and say this is a breakup song or this is a song about overcoming something, telling them what that looked like. I think being as specific as possible without alienating people is really the key.
AH: Finally, what does the future hold for your Dear Jack Foundation?
Andrew: I think it’s just to grow it. This year we are trying to get as laser focused as we can. We do a lot of collaborations with other organisations. There actually is one here tonight called Love Hope Strength. We sign people up to the Bone Marrow Donor Register through this organisation. We have actually matched twelve people this year for Bone Marrow Transplants. We do a lot of that. We also fund scholarships for young adult cancer survivors to get into college, which we do with another organisation. So a lot of what we do is collaborative. I think this year one of our big goals is to create an initiative that is strictly a Dear Jack branded initiative/ One that impacts the lives of young adult cancer survivors in a big way. I think you’ll see a lot more fundraisers this year. We’re already off to a really good start in the last six months, and I’m hoping that with more success with the record we can really grow the cause even bigger than it’s ever been.
‘Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness’ by Andrew McMahon is out now.
Words by Dane Wright (@MrDaneWright)