Andrew McMahon prepared for his new album while preparing for his daughter Cecilia to be born. Here is the story about the birth of both.
Starting over is all well and good to talk about in theory, but even trickier to pull off when put into practice.
There are the trials, tribulations, and everything in between of embarking on any new project or chapter in the book of one’s life. For Andrew McMahon, that new shift has come to fruition both on and off-stage for one of sun-soaked California’s most successful songwriters of the 21st century.
Last month, McMahon dropped his first full-fledged solo disc, Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness. The album, a 10-song set of songs about looking forward to impending fatherhood with the occasional introspective look back on a life lived down many of life’s roads, has been creating a commotion on radio stations across the country.
This album is McMahon’s first since what would eventually become Jack’s Mannequin’s final studio effort, 2011’s People and Things. After a brief hiatus from the music industry after management and label shuffling, it was time for the 32-year-old singer-songwriter to start on his most personal record to date.
“I built a plan with this management company, who has been really fantastic. That was probably the summer of 2013 or so and we said, ‘Let’s gear up,’” McMahon said.
“They took me off the road and said that if you’re going to make a great record you’ve got to stop spreading yourself too thin. That’s sort of what I had been doing, truthfully, over the last several years making music and why it had taking so long to put things out. Sort of right around that time my wife was getting pregnant and we decided, ‘Okay, have a baby. Make a record. New life,’” he added with a smile.
The album, an electronic-infused and inspired set of songs including the single, “Cecilia and the Satellite,” had its early October 2014 release date penciled in on the calendar even before the principal recording and production had begun. All the while, McMahon and his wife Kelly were preparing to become parents.
“When you’re preparing for a new child, getting your house ready, and those things, you just focus, put your head down, and do the work,” he said.
“It really became about writing music and getting to a place where I felt comfortable with songs enough to start the production and preparing for Cecilia to be born. That was my life for the year leading up to February.”
Two of the album’s tracks stick out from the others in the form of Maps for the Getaway and All Our Lives, a pair of songs centered on encountering the troubles of the past and facing them head-on. On an album with an eye prominently transfixed on the excitement of what life has in store, these two tunes look at where McMahon has been and the people who have helped him get to where he is now.
Maps for the Getaway, the album’s closer, starts with the gentle hum of synths before getting to the heart of the matter, looking back at a tumultuous time spent in McMahon’s old house on a hill in Echo Park. While recording with producer Mike Viola (of Candy Butchers and That Thing You Do! fame) at his home studio, occasionally, McMahon would occasionally find himself parked outside his old house with a funny green roof while recording sessions would be momentarily pushed back while Viola drove his own two daughters to school.
Those excursions down memory lane brought a realization of surviving some tough times in his twenties and somehow he and Kelly made it through those years.
“I had this weird instinct and I just drove and parked outside of my old house. And I would just write, journal these notes about this time. It wasn’t this horrible time; it was just a lot of confusion when I lived there. And so, the song itself, if I really boil it down, is kind of about escaping Los Angeles to build a healthier life for myself back home where I had grown up in the beach towns of southern California,” McMahon said.
“But it’s a lot about the things that transpired in that place with my wife and I and how we went through a lot under this weird green roof, and made it out alive. To the point where I was almost going for broke at the time to make records and start over. It’s this idea that I could give up Jack’s Mannequin and everything that came with it and leave this 4,000 square foot house on a hill, for a little beach cottage that’s like 900 square feet, make this baby, and these things and be so much happier. That’s really what that was about getting away. If you trace every verse it’s kind of this thing where “we survived it after all.” It was the last song written for the record because I think it took me a lot of the reflective stuff before I could own the fact of what the record is; a representation of that escape.”
All Our Lives, the album’s fourth track tackles the idea of role models and seeing the effects of life head-on. The song was the first written for the In the Wilderness album and showcases McMahon’s strengths of being a storyteller with the verses and choruses of his music.
A self-proclaimed fan of the Counting Crows, James Taylor, Paul Simon, and Tom Petty, storytelling through music is firmly planted in the roots of his musicianship.
“I had a friend of mine who is this amazingly talented artist who lost most of it to drugs, and who never totally bounced back. But he was someone who I always looked up to and to this day still do have a lot of respect for what he’s gone through,” McMahon says of the song’s muse.
“The song was kind of a reflection on how in a very classic sense you look at role models as people who do great things and that you aspire to be. I realized along the way that some of my role models and some of the people who had been my greatest influences and the people who have influenced me in the most positive way and the people who I love a lot who have made some pretty bad mistakes and have gone down some pretty hard roads and made some pretty big mistakes and almost cleared that path for me.”
“They’ve said like, ‘You can maybe walk here for a second but if you go all the way, this is where you may end up.’ I think that’s what that was really all about. How there are people in my life who have become role models not necessarily by virtue of their greatest actions but by virtue of their weakest.”
McMahon’s new music has fit nicely with an already well-established catalog of songs that he’s been playing since his halcyon teenage days in Something Corporate. On stage is where McMahon shines his brightest and showcases songs that inform the audience of his experiences.
Though, for McMahon, the process of building a setlist that engages fans both old and new is a tortuous endeavor. Picking and choosing from over a decade and a half’s worth of music is tough for any performer, especially one who has brought those songs to the masses in now three different projects.
“There are now so many moving parts, especially when you build up catalogs of material so it becomes an art form in itself,” McMahon said. It’s one that I care deeply about and one that I beat myself up about when the setlist feels like the show isn’t flowing.”
That was not the case however during McMahon’s career-spanning set on November 8 in Hartford which included an intimate solo piano triumvirate of his songs Miss California, Rainy Girl, and Cavanaugh Park, a stalwart from Something Corporate’s 2002 debut effort, Leaving Through the Window.
Cavanaugh Park, an ode to adolescence, shows the journey of growth that McMahon has made as a songwriter and as a man. Though, on the current tour, McMahon has been talking more about the older tunes and where they’ve come from.
“When I get on stage, and this tour particularly, I talk a lot because there’s so much light shone on the past at this point and having a kid now and seeing now that there’s this linear thing that happens in the living of life that I think so much of life is cyclical,” he said. “It gets to a point that when I play Cavanaugh Park, which I do almost every night, where I think about what that song meant and what I was talking about like, getting in trouble with my friends and having my dad spell out to me like how f—ed up the things you have the potential to do as a grown person really are.”
“Then being that guy, and seeing how my 20’s were like with Jack’s Mannequin, and my teens were like in Something Corporate and fighting through Jack’s Mannequin to grow as a person, and being weighed down by this thing and I see all that now. I see that when I’m on a stage and it becomes very strange and really cool because every few songs are anchored by a new thing that is sort of symbolic of the growth of that place and those places. It’s spelled out every night in black and white when I play these songs now.”
In a city that has housed such prominent American storytellers as Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Wallace Stevens, McMahon’s blistering 21-song set fit in nicely with a town that prides itself on surviving their history with a narrative. He played his standard fare that bring the mid-to-late-twentysomethings out of suburbia and into the Webster Theater’s sprawling live music space for some turn-of-the-millennium nostalgia, and his new material that brings teenagers out in the midst of making their own adolescent memories to tune of an Andrew McMahon-penned soundtrack.
The road for a singer-songwriter brought up under the shining sun that illuminates the southern California beach towns of his youth has not been an easy one to travel down. After a cancer diagnosis, a victory against the disease, and trials and tribulations in years spent underneath a green roof in Echo Park, McMahon has finally found himself squarely in a life destination that seems to suit him just fine with a new baby, record and newfound map for a future out of a mid-career darkness and into the light of what’s next up the road.
That future is present in both the notes and lyrics of his latest single, Cecilia and the Satellite, and in the face of the song’s namesake.
“The thing I love about that song is that it tells people who I am and where I came from in the context of who I’m trying to be, and what I want to do. I think that maybe I’ve had so much pride in being a f–k-up for a long time in so much of my music, and I still am proud of that, it’s nice to sort of own that and talk about that. It’s like I’m looking back on tripping in a hotel room in f–king Amsterdam, but, look, ‘I’m going to look after you, baby girl.’”
You can pick up Andrew McMahon’s new album, Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness, at your nearest record store. He’s also still on the road with his band and you can find upcoming tour dates here.