“It was almost like picking up where I left off”—Andrew McMahon on his new project and fatherhood

September 18, 2014 by Annie Zaleski

“It was almost like picking up where I left off”—Andrew McMahon on his new project and fatherhood

ANDREW McMAHON has gone through many changes in the past few years: retiring the Jack's Mannequin moniker, striking out as an independent artist, moving back to Orange County from Los Angeles and becoming a dad to a little girl, Cecilia. (Adorable proof of the latter on his Instagram.) On October 14, the songwriter officially starts the next phase of his career with the release of the stellar self-titled debut from his latest project, Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness Longtime fans of both Jack's Mannequin and Something Corporate won't be disappointed; there's plenty of the California yearning and ornate piano melodies for which he's known. However, the record is a decided step forward, with nuanced production, subtle synth flourishes and lyrical sophistication.

When reached by phone earlier this week, McMahon sounded a bit tired—perhaps because he and his wife had been up all night with the baby, who had her first fever. (Don't worry, though: She was on the mend.) Regardless, he was reflective about fatherhood, the new record, where he is now in life—and where he's going next.

What's been the biggest adjustment for you since becoming a dad?
ANDREW McMAHON: That's an interesting question. We wanted it for a while, and had to put a lot of work into it, because obviously with all the stuff I went through, we had to do IVF [in vitro fertilization]. In a weird way, the big adjustment came before she got here: preparing the record and having to find the balance between being home and doing the doctor's appointments while doing all the creative, [writing] the album and record[ing] it. But since she's been here, it's surprisingly made things a little bit more peaceful in my world, I would say.

You are probably the only new dad who would say that.
[Laughs.] It was a welcome change for me. If nothing else, it's lent a pretty significant amount of focus to the work I've been doing lately, because I don't have as much free time.

Was it a challenge not to make this entire record be about impending fatherhood and Cecilia?
It wasn't as hard as I thought it would be going into it. There were multiple phases of the writing process of the record. The first one was the "hiding out in Topanga" phase. I rented this shack in the Topanga Canyon, and I would sit there with my keyboard. I really wanted to focus on getting back into my piano playing. Being alone and not really being forced to record right away—[I had] the ability to write a bad song if I wanted to write a bad song, or write the kind of song that maybe won't make the record, but may help me get to the songs that I wanted for the record.

In that phase, there was tons of music that came out, but the first thing that came out was "Rainy Girl." That was the moment where I was like, "Okay, this feels like where I'm at." It's a song about being excited to meet the baby. The next one that came was "See Her On The Weekend," which is not so much about the baby as it was about being in this cabin in Topanga while my wife was back home in Orange County, pregnant, and I would spend these four or five days in this retreat writing and then come down. That's what the whole song was about.

Eventually, [the album] steered into this more reflective territory, where it was a combination of this moment I'm in now and also circling back to some of the themes that were on the first Jack's Mannequin record, of coming back to Southern California and starting a new life over again.

Anyone who's followed your catalog will recognize familiar imagery throughout Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness. But there is a distinct vibe of looking back—the emotions on the record aren't quite as immediate and on the surface. You feel them, but they're not necessarily intense.
Right around the time [when I was putting out Jack’s Mannequin’s People & Things], I had gotten my fill of Los Angeles and was ready to cut bait and move back to the beach towns where I grew up, and where my family was, my wife's family was. It was a good moment, where [I could] kind of focus on all the important stuff now and try to get out of this weird phase of post-illness and all these things. When I got to the point where I started writing the [new] record, there were so many things that felt like…it was almost like picking up where I left off after that first Jack's [Mannequin] record. Not to say, like, as if I hadn't gotten sick per se—but almost like what might have happened next if I hadn't jumped ship on this hometown that I was writing so much about in that first record and snuck out to LA and ended up on this bizarre side path that I hadn't anticipated.

It's like a Choose Your Own Adventure path…
[Laughs.] It's weird—I've definitely had that conversation a couple times onstage sometimes, talking about "High Dive." I look at that song and I think of it like one of those Choose Your Own Adventure books. It's weird—I think a lot of this record sort of explored that theme: What if it had gone a different way?

One of your co-writers on the record is Kevin Griffin from Better Than Ezra, who I think is a very underrated songwriter.
It's funny, because Kevin gave Something Corporate one of our first big breaks. The Better Than Ezra guys took Something Corporate out on one of our very first tours, right around the time we got signed to Drive-Thru. The same venue where we cut our very first demo record, Ready…Break—it's called the Observatory now, but the theater was called the Galaxy. Whenever a big show would come through that needed a local opener, they always looked out for us because we [sold] a lot of tickets. We played a gig with Better Than Ezra, and we became friends and they ended up taking us out on tour dates.

Kevin and I have always talked about writing together. [Laughs.] And finally it was on this record that the stars aligned. I had been running into him on and off, because he's written with a handful of my friends; he's written with Matt Nathanson, who's a good buddy of mine and who just got off the road with this summer. I said, "Okay, let's do this, after all these years!" He and I and Sam Hollander wrote the lead-off track for the record, "Canyon Moon."

Your EP was released under your own name. Why release this record under a project name instead? What was the thought behind that?
It's a project name I've kicked around since the beginning of this whole thing, and one I almost put on the EP. Truthfully, it was probably one-part insecurity and not wanting to just fly that flag. I feel like there's something for me that's always been compelling about trying to find a project title that encapsulates what the music is. It also felt like a pretty honest application for the music that we're making.

I tend to look at this whole experience of making this record [along with] everything that led up to it in the past few years—of cutting ties with the major label and moving into a more independent phase of my career and trying to figure out my way around the digital landscape and social media and all these things I had initially been pretty repelled by, I would say. [Laughs.] So in a lot of respects, it felt like being out in some form of the wilderness—granted, an abstract one. So when it came time to call [the project] something and I initially thought it was just going to be my name, I reached back to a handful of journals. Pretty much the first journal I have from the time I moved back home to south Orange County and got out of LA and started this whole process was a journal called "In The Wilderness." I decided to honor that and the spirit of what I was going for at that time, and attach it to the ol' project here.

You recently hit the nine-year mark on your stem cell transplant. When you look back and think of it, what are your thoughts?
It's an interesting thing. I'm really thankful I survived it. It's funny, because at this point, I don't even think so much of the transplant itself and the illness as much as I think of the post-cancer malaise and that period of just total confusion. More than anything, that's what I'm most thankful I've survived. Not to take anything away from the initial experience of being sick—it was obviously a pretty grueling, crazy time—but when you're ill like that, you just put your head down and you do everything you can to get well. It was that part of it that I look back at and go, "Wow, I can't believe I made it through that!" [Laughs.]

I would imagine too that being a father would be pretty rewarding. I can see that even being really healing.
Oh, absolutely. It's a really interesting thing, because I had to bank my sperm before I got treated, so it's a 22-year-old me being responsible for creating this life as part of our IVF treatments. In a really strange, poetic moment, I remember walking down the street with my daughter and looking at her and going, "Wow, if any of that hadn’t happened, I wouldn't be sitting here with her." It put a lot in perspective. Of all the times where I've looked back and said, "Would you do this again?" [or] "If somebody told you [that] you had to go through this, would you choose it?" And most times I would tell you, "Absolutely not." But definitely seeing her and seeing how we got here, it's probably the first time I'd say I wouldn't change it. It's a blessing, for sure. alt

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andrew mcmahon jacks mannequin andrew mcmahon in the wilderness

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