Driving Through a Dream with Andrew McMahon

Andrew McMahon has fronted Something Corporate, Jack's Mannequin, and now his own In the Wilderness solo project. None of it, however, beats being a brand new dad.
Andrew McMahon
Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness

Seven albums, three bands, and 15 years into his career, Andrew McMahon continues to reinvent and reinvigorate his music.

The Southern-California singer/songwriter’s latest album, the self-titled first release of his new Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness project, was released in October of last year and finds McMahon spreading his wings into new sonic and thematic territories while retaining his penchant for deeply personal lyrics and confessional melodies.

Reinvention, though, is nothing new for McMahon, who started out fronting emo band Something Corporate before breaking off for a solo project under the name Jack’s Mannequin. McMahon recently made a change again with the release of Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness. “I think I was ready to move on from Jack’s Mannequin,” he said. “A lot of that music was so closely attached to a really difficult time in my life that spiritually I was ready to cleanse myself of that and move into a new, exciting chapter that didn’t have to be so closely attached to my cancer,” referring to his diagnosis and battle with acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

With a newly born child, McMahon was ready to look forward and felt a new name, his own name, was a necessary step to take in his career. “I felt like I was in a new moment in my life where so many things were changing and my emotional and spiritual headspace was so much more grounded. In that it was like this is the moment to step out and say, ‘Yeah I am a guy in a band but my name is Andrew and I’d like you to hear my new songs.'”

Still, though, the inclusion of “in the Wilderness” in his moniker adds a layer of disconnect he felt it was important to have. He explained, “One, this was such a collaborative process. Even though I consider myself a solo artist, I can’t deny the fact that there are so many people whose hard work factors into these songs, and this was an extremely, if not the most, collaborative process I’ve ever been a part of. The other side of it, when I hear the word ‘wilderness,’ that’s really what I was feeling. This sort of strange moment where I was on this adventure, I was stepping into new territory, I was maybe a little afraid but also very excited to walk into this new world.”

Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness finds McMahon co-writing songs more than at any point in his career, working primarily with Mike Viola (of Candy Butchers fame) and James Flannigan to flesh out his more pop-centric songs. “I didn’t want to rest on my laurels if I was gonna make a new record under my own name. I wanted to find new melodies and find new changes and find new rhythms to set those songs to. Certainly I learned that by getting into a space with other people and being open to that, you can find your way to new sounds.”

After taking some time off following Jack Mannequin’s 2011 People and Things, McMahon “was hungry for a new approach.” He said that he “felt like sitting in a room alone was starting to get a little tedious.” It was around this time that he began working with songwriters and producers to create music for other artists as well as writing three songs for the hit TV show Smash. “I see this record as an extension of that, trying to grow myself as a writer and approach songwriting in a new way. [In co-writing] you end up developing these deep relationships with people with the song as the focus of that relationship. You start having conversations about experiences in their lives and experiences in your life. You try to find common ground to talk about universal themes but to also tell your story.”

Still, the songs on Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness are as personal as any songs he’s written on his own. In particular, the album is centered around his daughter and his experiences as a new father. “A lot has changed obviously. I have a whole new set of responsibilities that go along with being a father and I certainly would say that now, more so now than ever, I have my attention focused on two things. I have my career and I have my family to worry about. Not to say that everything else falls to the wayside, but those are my two priorities right now. To the extent that I can keep them as closely tied as possible, that’s what I do. These songs are a reflection of a time that I was in getting ready to meet my daughter. That was a whole new experience for me. As I go to tour this record, my wife and my daughter are by my side for quite a bit of it. My daughter’s spent months on a tour bus, she’s been to Europe already, and they go visit the radio stations with me. Rather than keep these things separate, I try my hardest to really have these pieces of my life be reflections of one another.”

McMahon addresses his new role as father most directly on “Cecilia and the Satellite”. The song reassures his daughter “I’ll keep you safe, I’ll keep you dry/Don’t be afraid, Cecelia, I’m the satellite/And you’re the sky.” The “Day In A Life” version of the music video shows McMahon, his wife Kelly, and their daughter Cecilia spending time together on the road and then going to one of his shows. The video displays the powerful love and connection the family has with each other and brings to life the sentiments of the song.

“There’s so much spiritual and physical energy that it takes to make a record. I just dug in really deep and got into my corner and said, ‘I’ve gotta make a great record for me.’ I had to make all these collaborations I was stepping into about making a great record for myself. I think, like anything, you can’t take for granted what you have and you also can’t get too set in your ways. You gotta just keep moving and keep your eye on the future. I’ve been really blessed, there’s no question about it. I’ve been very lucky to be supported by a lot of great people who believe in my career and believe that it deserves to keep moving forward.”

Splash image: press photo of Andrew McMahon