Lindsey Byrnes

Revisiting Conversations with Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness Through the Lens of a New Album

Tilt At The Wind No More is the great equalizer – just under 40 minutes of coming to terms with the world at large and your life at hand. Its beloved and influential creator lays the contrast on thick, intricate runs on the keys and riffs on the guitars don’t always mirror the heavily reflective, occasionally somber, yet predominantly promising lyricism… and we love that. Few can pull off a new record in the 2020s with such beauty and such a balance of heart, mind, and soul, Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness did.

Bold, piano-driven, sentimental, and riveting, Andrew McMahon is the people’s performer. He entertains like no other, makes it look easy, but is honest in the fact that it’s not. Like the rest of us, he has his ups-and-downs – some more public than others – while being as creative as can-be in tough-times, putting his family first, and appreciating the world at large. From his Jack’s Mannequin days and Something Corporate reunions to now, The Aquarian has been part of that journey, this two-decade-plus-long career in and around the arts. To pay homage to that friendship and mutual artistic appreciation, we went back in our archives to re-ask McMahon some questions we have broached before to see just how much some 20 years in the industry can change you (if at all).

In 2016 we asked you if you had any tour traditions or superstitions that have survived the years of playing shows and being on the road. You had said that you mix a cocktail for yourself, start your warm up, and do so alongside Billy Joel’s ‘Songs In The Attic’ and The Beach Boys’ ‘Pet Sounds.’ How has that changed, if at all?

It’s pretty much exactly the same. Still, I have built in a proper YouTube channel that has these tenor vocal warmups into it. I’ve added that into the mix on the warmup. I will say that now I’ve made it sort of more of a priority to try and feed myself in the late afternoon/early evening before a show. That’s kind of the old man in me [Laughs]. I wander off, or, if my family’s out with me, we’ll wander off right after we do the sound check and the meet and greet – which is kind of a newer thing in the schedule – to try likened find a little dinner and some quiet time just to kind of reflect and get grounded before the show starts.

Of course you want to be in the right headspace and also not be hungry on stage, because I can imagine that’s not ideal!

It’s that fine line of how you don’t want to eat too soon before the show, but if you’ve got a few hours, it’s nice to get a little something in there so that the cocktail that I mix before the show doesn’t catch up with me.

[Laughs] Totally – and you’re going all these different places, so you can always try something new, which is exciting.

Yeah, it’s definitely a highlight of touring these days. There’s so much good food everywhere now, so there’s no shortage of places that you can go to find something. It’s a far cry from the old days of the road. There’s always some chef that’s moved down the street that opens up a spot that is better than any fast food you used to find [in] the early days. That was a lot of Taco Bell. I was vegetarian back then, too, so it was never easy to get a good meal.

Now, in 2015, which was right on the very of the streaming boom for the music industry, we talked about the changes you had seen and felt first hand having been doing this for some 15 years. Now twenty-something years in, and with streaming leading the pack, do you think there are any similarities to the early days of recording and releasing a record? Or is everything that music different?

I mean, honestly, the one constant in this business is just that it is always changing. I think that for me, my way of coping with that is just to put my head down and write the songs and make the music and do my best to sort of fit in and find a way to work within whatever the landscape is at the time.

Then there was the big tilt towards streaming. It had been going on for some time, sure, but obviously it had really taken hold at one point. Now, in the age of social media, it’s certainly all about [streaming]. For me, someone who has always been a late adopter to whatever the newest technology is, it’s a wild world to all of a sudden be sitting in my studio and creating a TikTok or checking in on Instagram.

I think it’s just nature, though. If you want to play the game, you have to find a way to be authentic when playing it. You know, in that sense, nothing’s really changed. Of course, if you told me in 2001 that I would be on this thing called Instagram or TikTok or whatever, spending whole portions of my day trying to figure out how to be clever, I would’ve laughed and been horrified [Laughs], so it’s a new world for sure.

Social media has completely shifted the landscape, but as you said, the landscape has always been shifting, so it’s just understanding that, respecting it, and going with the flow that way.

Yes. I think that the beauty of the changes that have happened over the last several years – and certainly over the couple decades that I’ve been in the business – is that it’s easier than ever to be making something that’s really great, to find your own path, and create your own audience if you’re willing to hustle. I think that has been really good for music because there is so much more available. It can be hard to sift through all of that, but if you’re willing to… the amount of great music and great bands out there that would’ve been throttled by the old ways of the business is pretty, pretty remarkable.

Right, you want to get your music to the right people for you – for it– and there are many avenues to get to them.

I think that ultimately it’s good. The major labels still have a stranglehold on certain aspects of the business – and certainly on most of the money – but the amount of good art that has found its way into the zeitgeist that wasn’t initially anointed by some gatekeeper at a label or radio station is impressive.

It clearly is something to behold. You hustled, you connected, you’re here today, and now there are new ways for you to connect and find people – the right people in addition to your dedicated, existing fans.

It’s nice to have fans and not be starting at ground zero today and having to purely grind it out on social media and try and become an influencer as well as a musician. I don’t envy artists that are in that position, yet I think for a lot of them, it might also come naturally ’cause they were born with a phone in their hand. For me, you know, I had a landline until I was 18 [Laughs], so it comes a little less naturally to me, but that’s the journey I’m on. You take the good with the bad, but, at this point, I am grateful for the fact that I’ve got a good following of people who are paying attention when I put out new music. Hopefully they will lead some new folks into the fold for me, as well.

In 2009 we appropriately talked about hard times, personally and professionally, and, quote “dark days” versus “hopeful days” as a creative. Music and art, as well as sharing both with your fans, is what kept you inspired and confident. Did you feel similarly to that peak pandemic days and this current world we live in?

Truthfully, I did turn to social media and to these concerts I was doing out of my living room as a version of art therapy in a way to stay connected. I think at a time when, certainly I was feeling cut off from my art and from just society in general, I really leaned on fans. I found that in the aftermath, seeing so many people in these last year or so as I’ve kind of gotten back to work on the road, that, in a way, they were leaning on me, too, to provide some entertainment in the midst of all of the craziness. It felt like a very important moment to be active and to reach out and to sing some songs and let people know they weren’t alone, but also at the same time to get the sense that I wasn’t either.

And then, largely, I turned to the writing of the book as my main outlet during COVID. As hard of a time as it was in general, I think there was this amazing moment that I found to dig deeper. I think about my story and where I come from, and it’s a very rare thing where I’m spending a year at home with really no place to go. I channeled a lot of that into the book, which freed me up in a big way coming back into the world as the pandemic waned. To be able to write songs that felt freer and didn’t feel so mired… after 2020 and 2021, it felt good.

That forced period of introspective allowed you to grow as an artist, reflect as a human – a father, a husband? To be able to do that in an artistic way, a nostalgic way, a personal way, a professional way, and a social way is something powerful. I am happy for you – and we got this album out of it.

Yeah, and in a way, too, this project is really about collaboration in the studio, and I didn’t really feel like I set out for that. know a lot of friends who wrote songs on over Zoom and they did these kind of virtual sessions, but that just wasn’t me. I need to be in a room with people. It’s just how I am. Coming back to the writing and the production of the record after being away from it for so long, it really was this moment for me where I was like, “Wow, I really love this job. I love working with people.” It’s not that I have ever felt like I didn’t, but just like anything, when something feels like it’s sort of taken away, it reframes your perception of it. Sometimes you lose something and you go, “You know what? I don’t need that anymore,” and maybe there was a part of me that was afraid of that. As soon as I got into the studio to work on this music, though, I was just wowed. I was so glad to be there. There were still things going on in my life and some of them weren’t the easiest at that time, but it was just like, “Oh, in this space, in this studio, I’m safe. I can just play with my friends and make things and enjoy it.” For me, was a truly important realization to be making in the midst of the creation of this record.