This month’s cover star, Andrew McMahon has faced more than many twice his age, yet he’s not complaining. As he’s gearing up for the release of Jack’s Mannequin’s sophomore album, Annie Zaleski brings you a closer look at the music McMahon’s creating now.

McMahon is sitting at 4th Street’s grand piano in complete darkness, his white-collared shirt seemingly glowing as he works through a new song that’s tentatively titled “Annie, Use Your Telescope.” McMahon’s long-time studio confidants-producer Wirt and engineer CJ Eiriksson-are there to offer suggestions and guidance as McMahon performs chord progressions and harmonies on the gorgeous, Ben Folds-esque song. At one point, McMahon playfully vamps on Bruce Hornsby’s ultra-cheesy 1986 hit “The Way It Is,” causing everyone to groan and chuckle. During another take of the tune, Wirt plucks out the riffs to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” McMahon laughs when he realizes the similarities.

He does take after take of the song, stopping when he makes a mistake, or to test out ideas that pop into his head before recording them. (McMahon doesn’t like to re-record things, choosing to commit perfect drafts to tape.) The painstaking way he discards what sounds like good takes is often maddening, although completely unsurprising. When new music takes hold of McMahon (and right now, it certainly has) he has a singular focus and drive, to the exclusion of almost everything else.

“I don’t think anybody could ever apply the kind of pressure to me that I apply to myself,” McMahon says. “It’s more been about educating the label of that being the reality of me as a person. I know that I’m a hard artist to work with-I get it. But that’s who I am. I tried so many times to reshape myself for the benefit of other people when it comes to creating things, and all I’ve found is that it just dilutes my output.”

From the control room, Wirt suggests “Telescope” go longer; at this point, the song is going to clock in at just two-and-a-half minutes. “Dude, 2:30 sounds sweet!” McMahon exclaims gleefully from the piano, his voice booming into the control room. “The fucking Beatles wrote songs that were 2:30. Why not go short?”

But this isn’t a rough dismissal; McMahon trusts Wirt and Eiriksson implicitly. The men are part of the extensive family of music professionals and friends he’s built around him. The circle seems like it functions as a security blanket for him, grounding him in ways that growing up didn’t-and allowing him to be comfortable enough to branch out creatively.

“He surrounds himself with people he trusts,” says Bobby Anderson, Jack’s Mannequin’s guitarist. “Everybody around him is his influence, really-even for lyrics and stuff like that, you’ll end up in one of his songs. We’re kind of all the best friends we have here in Los Angeles.”

As a testament to McMahon’s commitment to friends, neither he nor Brian Ireland thinks that Something Corporate is finished; “suspended animation” is a good term for the band’s current status. Both Ireland and Mcmahon have remained on excellent terms as friends, feeling the band will do something again, even if McMahon says that right now he’s “not creatively charged to go do a Something Corporate record; I’m nostalgically charged towards [that].” ALT