Andrew McMahon’s ability to make empowering music has brought a positive influence in the lives of others through his work in Jack’s Mannequin and Something Corporate. For those who have watched One Tree Hill, you may remember him making an appearance on the show – not to mention having the beautiful Peyton Sawyer (Hilarie Burton) be part of his music video for “The Mixed Tape”. It’s safe to say that piano rock has always been a forte of his and that in itself has shaped him into a compassionate man, ensuring that what he does brings inspiration in his life as well.
Working solo again under the name of Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness, McMahon has encouraging insight on his music career and the learning curves he has had to face in his life. In this interview we talk about his musical progress, his battle with cancer and the sacrifices he has made to be where he is now.
SR. Since finishing up Jack’s Mannequin, how has working solo again been for you?
AM. It’s funny – kinda almost the same as it was before. I mean, if you consider when I started Jack’s Mannequin, I mean it really was a solo project in a pretty true sense and certainly over the years it developed and had more of a band influence but it always ran as a business as a solo artist. The biggest change is just the way I had run the business before – I was on a major label and we switched over to an independent for this record [self-titled album under ‘Andrew McMahon in the Wildness]. I think there were a lot of elements of making this record that were done before. I kinda found people who were excited to make the record but I did a lot of recording in garages and home studios and really had to kind of maximise our dollar and really find the inspiration in different places which for me, I think was an exciting challenge.
SR. Yeah, I found that a lot from your debut album which was released last year. Lyrically it matured a lot and musically you channeled through all these sound influences as well. I know you also managed to release an EP called The Pop Underground and that adapted an electronic sound. What do you find most challenging when it comes to experimenting with music?
AM. I think for me, I don’t know if challenging is the right word but I think the goal with all of this stuff especially when I was doing the EP thing was that I wanted to shake the tree a little bit and experiment and try and work with a different palette. The beautiful thing about stepping into projects where you don’t have or have an association with a sound is that it gives you the freedom to try new things and there’s a lot of exciting music out there right now – the fact that I picked piano and keyboard. Keyboards and synthesisers become such a staple of contemporary music; it gave me a chance to explore arrangement ideas and sonic ideas with the instrument that I already play and that really was exciting for me. The goal along the way of course is to try not to alienate your fanbase but I think that was just part of the process.
SR. It’s obvious that you’re such a driven and hardworking musician – even through the tough parts of your life. There are also many deep and meaningful songs that you’ve created. Do you find it therapeutic that you’re able to channel through emotions of the past and turn these into songs?
Yeah absolutely. I think the big thing for me about what drew me to music in the first place was the idea that songs can help you through – whether it’s a hard day or the soundtrack to a beautiful moment in your life. And then when I actually sat down at a piano and started writing songs, it really became about using the piano and using the craft of songwriting as a way to process my day and a way to work through. Whether it’d be a hard time or a new experience or a move or a major change in my life – that’s always been the cornerstone of my songwriting and certainly continues to be so over the years.
SR. Ten years ago you battled cancer and I can’t believe it was that long ago because now you’re in your 30s. I’m 22 and you had cancer the same age as I am now and it’s insane to think as it was probably one of the biggest hurdles you had to face in life. After going through that, did it turn things around on how you live your life now?
AM. That’s an interesting question – I mean, it certainly changed the way I lived, it changed the way I think about life and anything of that magnitude – it marks you and it changes you; some ways for the better and some ways for the worst and there’s not a lot that you can do. You obviously can’t go back and re-write history so you have to sort of work with what you’re given. I think in the past handful of years, more so than anything, I feel like I’ve been able to use what I went through in being sick and channel it into something really positive. There were certainly years where that was a more difficult task but I also think there are some times in your life where things work themselves out quickly and through getting ill like that and feeling very close to your own mortality. It can be a tricky hurdle to overcome but I’m really glad to say that now and nearly ten years later, I feel like I do see the positive from that experience and it has turned into something that has brought a lot of brightness and a lot of perspective into my life that I wouldn’t have gained if it didn’t happen.
SR. Yeah definitely. Especially in those cases where you don’t know what to do in that sort of situation. I guess music was a really strong outlet for you. Did you feel like at the time you were still able to feel inspired even though you were going through that sickness?
AM. Yeah I did. You know, my relationship to my music was a tricky thing for sure in the aftermath of getting sick. There were without question, amazing moments of inspiration where a song broke through in the spur of the moment or a feeling that was attached to that experience. There were other moments where I found myself, you know, in doubts with writer’s block and feeling a little trapped or confused about what direction to go and a lot of that I think was associated pretty closely with just feelings of fear. But for the most part I think music was a positive influence on my recovery and helped me in a lot of ways to just pull out of the tough spots. It gave me this sort of score of music that I do feel is a really honest portrayal of what a recovery looks like and there’s a lot more recovering than just getting better and I also had some moments where I was waking up one day and going, “This is so great! I’m fine.” You realise it’s more complicated than that and I don’t think anybody who has not had the experience really gets how complicated it can be.
“I feel like I’ve been able to use what I went through in being sick and channel it into something really positive.”
SR. So true. I feel like young people often take their life for granted – that they’re sort of this invincible figure. No one knows when we’re gonna go as dark as that sounds.
AM. Yeah true. I think that’s the beautiful thing about being young though and I wouldn’t judge anybody for living their life that way. I think there’s something really special about that feeling that you can do anything and truthfully, I think you might as well live like that because the fact of the matter is, even if it’s true and those are things that are close at hand – it’s so worthless to spend your time thinking about them, you know. I think even now, having encountered that and having that at the back of my mind from time to time, I do try my hardest to live a life without regard for the fact that those things are around the corner. It is an unpredictable space we inhabit, you might as well have some fun, you know [laughs].
SR. Not only that but you also founded the Dear Jack Foundation straight after you recovered from cancer. How has helping other people shaped you as a person?
AM. I think there’s something that clicks in a lot of people who go through something like this – whether it’s an illness or a major life change where you do feel the need to go back and try your hardest to help others who may encounter that and you do your best to make it easy for them or easy for them as it was for you. I think the foundation has been a really positive thing for me. This difficulty was a part of my life but it’s given me the reason to help others and you know, make the change and make an impact for them. In that sense, it’s been really positive – it’s been a very positive force in my life and this year, we’re making even more changes and growing the foundation and really trying to step up the amount of change we can bring to the cause of young adult cancer and that’s a very fulfilling thing for me.
SR. You’ve also created an impact from your music as well and I can see that through your songs. I found it really interesting that when you made Everything In Transit you pretty much put all your savings on it when you were producing and making the record. As you’ve progressed as a musician, do you believe the importance of sacrifice when it comes to doing something you’re really passionate about?
AM. I think it’s one of the most important aspects of being a creative person or just being somebody that’s just passionate about anything. If you’re not willing to risk it all – to pursue something that you love – you might not love it as much as you think you do and I think for me with this record as well, it’s a scary moment. We’re very attached to the things that we own and the things that we have and it’s hard to imagine a life especially once you’ve acquired a certain level of success. It’s hard to convince yourself to get out of your comfort zone in the interest of pursuing something new – even if that is the most inspired path you can take and I had to do it again for this record. There are a lot of things in Jack’s Mannequin that provided for me that I had to ask, what’s more important? Is it being able to collect that enormous show guarantee because I have a band that has a certain level of success or is it creating the next thing that keeps me inspired? Maybe it will one day lead to that same guarantee or more because I’m inspired, you know. I found myself having to challenge myself throughout my career and I’ve always found that the end of the day that is by far the best decision you can ever make; it’s to follow your gut and not your wallet.
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SR. Sometimes it’s hard to live in a realistic world because your dreams feel so close but you have to give what it takes to actually get there. In a sense you’ve done that as a musician and it’s contributed to how much you’ve grown as an individual too.
AM. I think those kind of decisions are tricky and it’s hard to place a value on your security vs. the level of inspiration you wanna live with. But the fact that we’re sitting in this phone call right now and having this conversation is probably an indicator that both you and I have a lot more than most of the people in the world. I think it’s easy to lose perspective on that but I’m always making sure. Like with my wife, if we can afford a studio apartment and we’ve got each other and enough food to eat and I’m able to create and work, I think we can be happy. I don’t try and throw out the money but if it means pursuing the right project because it’s gonna lead me to an inspired place then I’ll do it.
To find out how you can help Andrew and the Dear Jack Foundation visit: www.dearjackfoundation.com