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Interview: Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness

Grant Walters Grant Walters Interview: Andrew McMahon in the WildernessPhoto courtesy Brendan Walter.
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The former Columbusite comes home to Newport Music Hall on Tuesday night in support of his latest album, "Upside Down Flowers"

The only thing better than listening to Andrew McMahon’s storytelling through his exquisitely crafted compositions is watching him bring them to life on stage.

I was invited to McMahon’s last performance at Newport Music Hall in 2017, and it was a phenomenal sensory blast. Eyes clenched shut and hunched over his piano like a Glass Houses-era Billy Joel, he delivered sparkling renditions of songs like “Fire Escape” and “Walking In My Sleep,” frequently leaping up on the tops of speakers to engage with the crowd. Near the end of the show, he surfed the audience pit in a giant inflatable rubber duck as he belted out the celestial ballad “Don’t Speak For Me (True).” It was weird and wonderful.

For McMahon, the connection between spectacle and song has become an indelible part of his identity as an artist. Tomorrow night, McMahon returns to the Newport in support of his latest album, Upside Down Flowers. He alludes to the fact that he’s perhaps upped the audio-visual ante on his already rather stellar game.

“If you get a chance to [see] some of the hysterical shots from what this tour is looking like, it shines a little light on how truly bizarre and kind of beautiful and fun this production is, and how much music gets played from sort of all different areas and wings of my career that manage to unfold during this particular two hours of music,” he explains during our phone interview. “I really hope that my fellow Ohioans will make their way out to see this one, because it’s definitely not to be missed.”

Born in Concord, Massachusetts, McMahon spent some of his formative years in Bexley before he and his family permanently moved to Southern California a few years later. He began taking piano lessons at age 9, and began writing songs before he was a teenager. While at Dana Point High School, McMahon formed and fronted the alt-rock outfit Something Corporate in 1998 with friends Kevin “Clutch” Page, Brian Ireland, Josh Partington, and Richard Hernandez. The band signed with MCA’s Drive-Thru imprint in 2001, and released their major label debut, Leaving Through The Window, the following year. A planned solo project for McMahon while Something Corporate took a self-imposed hiatus in 2004 eventually evolved into forming the band Jack’s Mannequin, who produced three albums between 2005 and 2011. Since 2014, his solo work has been dispensed under the moniker Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness.

McMahon is a cancer survivor, receiving a diagnosis of Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia in 2005 just as he finished recording Jack Mannequin’s debut album, Everything In Transit. McMahon established the Dear Jack Foundation in 2006, which supports initiatives and provides programming in order to promote positive health outcomes for adolescents and young adults, ages 15-39, from the moment they are diagnosed with cancer through survivorship.

During a tour stop in Austin, McMahon and I discussed Upside Down Flowers, and how writing, performing, and the relationship he’s built with his audience has sustained him personally and professionally.

First, I wanted to tell you how much I love Upside Down Flowers, and I really like the metaphor I’m presuming it implies about how humans grow and blossom in different and unexpected directions during our lifespans. How did that idea surface for you?

“Well, it popped up in the writing of a previous song that didn’t make it on to the record. It was, in a way, a profile of the characters that I live with and the characters that I am, I suppose, you know? [laughs] It’s what life for me is like in the beach town where I kind of eventually planted roots, and grew up, and now live and where I’m raising a kid. But, yeah, the broader idea behind it – and you really nailed it in what you said and what you read – is, if we’re honest with ourselves – the beauty is often is in the strange and the backwards ways that we think and live. And if we own those things, I think there’s a lot of beauty in them.”

One of the things I’ve loved about your music is that you write with such precise and vivid imagery – and that first sort of grabbed me when I was listening to “High Dive,” and the visual of ‘headlights in the driveway’ persisted. I couldn’t get the song or the picture out of my head for months. The same thing has happened with “Ohio” from the new album. How do those little vignettes enter your consciousness as you write?

“You know, I think “Ohio” is actually a pretty good case study in that for me, because in that sense I was in the middle of what I consider my writing ‘practice,’ so to speak. And then for me, on this record especially, it was kind of waking up and doing coffee and breakfast with my wife and my daughter and sending my kid off to school, then sitting at the piano and just starting to play. And in that particular song, it was that melody that’s at the top of the tune and is in the re-intros. You know, I think those things a lot of times come first – some kind of piano thing, or some basic mood gets set. In the case of ‘Ohio,’ the first set of words: ‘On a razor’s edge/at the first sign of light’ – that kind of just hit me from clear blue sky just as I’m playing around on the piano.

And it’s strange, because usually the stories that I tell, or have been telling these days, have been rooted in some form of the present or something that I’m kind of wrapped up in in the moment. And, strangely, I heard that lyric, and I was, like, ‘I just saw my sister and I getting in that car and moving across the country.’ And I remember thinking to myself, ‘oh my God. Are you really going to write this story now?’ [laughs] But, then it was very clear. From that moment forward, it was, like, ‘okay, this is what I’ve got to talk about.’ And it happened very quickly – that song got written fast. I think most of these ideas, especially when it comes to the storytelling stuff, you start with a set of words at the top.

I’m a very linear writer – I write from the beginning, mostly. I’m not…it’s very rare the chorus comes first, you know? I start writing the story, and a lot of times the first few words I write dictate how the rest of the song is going to play out. And I just go from there.”

Thinking about ‘Ohio’ a bit more, you lived in Columbus for a short period of time when you were younger. What do you remember most about it?

“I mean, it’s interesting – it was kind of a complicated time in my life and in the lives of my family. We came out there with my dad’s job. You know, I have really fond memories of going to elementary school – Cassingham Elementary had this amazing fifth grade teacher, and I made some really great friends. But, I was a pretty awkward kid, and my family…I’d kind of grown up in a scenario where we were pretty well off – a pretty strong middle-class family – and in the course of our time there, that sort of eroded and we lost just about everything.

And that’s why we left and went to California. There are a lot of mixed-up emotions in it. But, to this day, I go back to Columbus and it’s one of the few places – and I travel everywhere – where I go, ‘you know, I could live here.’ I still have friends there, and I love the fact that it really, in some ways, is a more moderated version of the American psyche. [laughs] You know there’s not…it doesn’t feel as extreme as some places I go in the country. I feel like people are willing to have conversations, and there’s still a sense of hospitality and warmth.

And so, despite that time being tricky – especially toward the end – I really do have fond memories of being there.”

My cousin, who lives in Calgary and is one of your super fans, and I were chatting online a few weeks ago, and she’d wondered how your Something Corporate band mates had reacted to “Teenage Rockstars”. I thought that was a really good question to ask. 

“To be honest, I sent it to everybody, and there wasn’t, you know…nobody said, ‘I can’t believe you did that!’ [laughs] Truthfully, the way I gave it everybody was with the video attached, because I felt like my whole goal with that song was sort of to look at that moment in my life and do it without judgment. I can’t say whether or not they took that away from it or not, or if it struck any raw nerves, or anything.

I felt like it was really the first time in my life that I could actually see it clearly for what it was – and it was this really beautiful thing that so our friends and families, and we, all celebrated together. But, it was also this real thing. We had fun, but there was also some drama and things that go along with being super young and forced into, like, a very weird social and interpersonal relationship world that I think not a lot of people experience – and, therefore, not a lot of people can relate to.

My goal was to find the most human way to interrelate that experience to people without complaining or whining, or doing some of the things I think happen a lot of times when bands break up, you know? [laughs] But more of, ‘this was great, and we left it behind. Let’s celebrate that.’ I feel like they got it. There was an email chain that went back and forth, and everybody talked a little bit, and just said, ‘wow! It’s crazy to see these videos and relive these memories.’ And the moms and parents were fans, so that’s good! [laughs] I heard from all my band mates’ families, for the most part, and they were really into it – so that was good news!”

I went to your show the last time you were in town, and I’ll say that normally I find big, loud concerts distracting because I’m such a listener. But, I didn’t feel that way about your show, and there was just this harmonious vibe between you and your audience where everyone felt in sync. It was fun and celebratory, but it didn’t detract from the enjoyment of your songs. I think that’s quite rare now in the context of a larger venue.

“It’s interesting – and I will say that I appreciate you saying you felt there was a little bit of a contrast, you know, between my crowds and some of the others crowds you see. It’s sort of a thing for me, and I’ll say this – we opened our show in Phoenix, and now we’re on night three in Austin, and the production for this tour is pretty out of control. When we opened the show in Phoenix, there were a lot of moving parts and lot of things that went wrong as things do, often, when you launch something. And it was the first time in a long time that I’d walked off stage and had been kind of bummed. It wasn’t that I felt the show didn’t go well – people were great, and the fans were awesome, and the band played well.

But, personally, for me, I took away from that experience…the thing that I crave the most when I play is a sense of intimacy with a lot of people – if that makes sense. If, for some reason, I can’t get that or if I can’t find my way into the larger group mentality and be inside it with them and sort of carry that and be carried by that, then it’s hard for me to enjoy myself.

That’s why I invest time and energy into crafting a set list, and to building a visual esthetic, and to work in my catalog and new music to make sure it all interacts in a way that keeps people who may have been fans of one or two of my projects more than the other feeling into the experience. It’s a tightrope walk, but when I’m on stage, that’s what I’m…one, I’m thinking about it, but then when it gets good, I can stop thinking about it, and the sort of craftsmanship that went into it from the get-go sort of carries me through it and we all get in it together.

I think that becomes the real art of what I do. Obviously, my first priority is, ‘I’m a songwriter.’  And even in that, moreover, it’s really about the words – that’s what the genesis of all this is. My next priority is, ‘how do I keep people entertained and keep me feeling connected to them?’ That’s what’s running through my ever day when I’m going on these tours and when I’m on stage.”

Another track from Upside Down Flowers that really resonates with me is “Goodbye Rock and Roll.” So many artists that are at the foundation of my love for music are now gone, so I especially appreciated the nods to Bowie and Tom Petty. If someone were to write a song about you when your time on earth comes to an end, how would you want to be referred to in the lyrics?

“That’s a tough question! [laughs] You know, if I think about all of this and the threads that sort of run through all these songs – and also runs through the shows, especially as I’ve gotten older – is some level of acceptance of how life moves and what direction it will take you, whether you want to go that way or not. And just trying to write that in a way that helps me make peace with it, and, hopefully, helps my fans try and make peace wherever the motions of their day are taking them through.

But, yeah, I don’t know – I hope people would say there was some poetry in the way that I talked about real life, you know, and that at the core of most of these songs was a desire to love and to be loved, and to sort of put that out into the world.”

I spent some time reading the annual report from the Dear Jack Foundation the other day, and I was just blown away at the number of people you and your team have helped over the years. And not just in fundraising, but in getting them access to real, meaningful care and support that benefits their day-to-day lives. How can people contribute or get involved?

“There are a number of ways. Obviously the all need money, and I know that sounds a little bit callous in a sense, but we’re always happy to take any spare change off people to help fund them. But, the fans do some pretty remarkable things on their own. If you follow the Dear Jack website, you’ll see that we’re regularly posting pictures and stories of the participants in our Life List program. These are people that are largely within the demographic of my fan base – young adults between the ages of 15 and 39 years old – who don’t really have access to the same level of social support that younger demographics do, or that patients do who are a little further along in life and have families and social networks that help them.

We have fans who do things like collect letters for every patient they see posted on that website and send things along to them through our Dear Jack headquarters so that we can pass along words of encouragement to people. And you’d be surprised how many of our patients come back and say how much that meant to them when they were in a tough spot – that there were strangers who read their story and have compassion for what they’re going through. From an advocacy standpoint, just to read a little bit about this chasm in research and psychosocial support and networks for this demographic. Cancer is the number one disease killer of people in this demographic, yet we’ve seen almost no improvement in survival ratings in thirty years compared to all other demographics.

I encourage people to learn about it and talk about it, because just as Dear Jack has started to talk about it in the past 10 years, those numbers are starting to move – granted, not fast enough. Having been the very first organization that advocates for adolescent and young adult patients, it has been pretty remarkable to see what talking about this does, and how it permeates consciousness. There are now hospitals around the country that are starting to build programs for adolescent and young adult patients. These are things that did not exist when I was a cancer patient, you know?

It’s slow moving, but I think just having that discussion – and if you encounter someone who’s an adolescent or young adult and they’ve been through stuff, you just reach out to our email address and we do our best to help them find the services they need.”

Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness takes the stage tomorrow night – with special guests flor and Grizfolk – Tuesday, Feb. 26, at Newport Music Hall, 1722 N. High St. General admission tickets are $29.50, plus taxes and applicable fees, and are available via TicketmasterVisit Andrew’s official website for more information, or follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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