Monday, November 30, 2015

I'm the Satellite

In a 2014 interview at Asbury Park's Stone Pony, Andrew McMahon, cradling his daughter, Cecelia, laughed and said, "I wrote a pop record and then she showed up." More than ten years had passed since Andrew was diagnosed with lymphoblastic leukemia. He went on to say that the road to recovery was a ten year "roller coaster ride." "My body healed faster than my mind and my heart. It took me years to realize that and do the work. I had to figure out how to acclimate to the world post-illness. I decided to take time away from the business of making music so I could pay attention to everything else. I left my label, my management and the name I had been making music under for the better part of my 20s. I moved out of Los Angeles. It was a metaphorical hard reset."

For his latest LP, Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness, Andrew altered his MO by physically distancing his work and home lives by retreating to a cabin in Topanga Canyon, "a shack, really," he said. "It had no running water." He spent weekdays in the canyon immersed in his music and on weekends returned home to be with his then newly-pregnant wife. "It was important to me to be completely present when I was home. Separating out the work actually created more space to live a life worth writing about."

I can picture that scenario, having spent the informative parts of my youth in Topanga. It's a world away from the hustle of L.A., a paradise of dried brush and sandstone. For Andrew, Topanga was an awakening and a place of reflection: "I found myself asking, 'What would have come next if I hadn’t encountered that bizarre chapter of my disrupted 20s?' As I was writing the new songs, I was able to revisit relationships that had evolved or been dismantled in the vacuum of that disruption. He added, "It’s not that I wanted to erase my past. I wanted to explore it, to go back to the point where I had lost myself, where my personal narrative was overtaken, and move forward from there."

In the canyon, Andrew was able to focus solely on craft. He poured his feelings into his work: the anticipation, anxiety and excitement about becoming a father, the ambivalence about entering his 30s, the struggle to become again the Andrew he once was. Soon after, AM began working with producer Mike Viola in Viola's Echo Park studio. One of the LPs personal memoirs, "High Dive," emerged from these sessions. "My illness put a lot into perspective for my wife and I. I imagined what it would have been like if we'd split up and she'd moved on. In a universal sense, it's about letting someone go and realizing you were wrong, but it's too late" ("Flashbacks get me close”). Intimate details like this fill the album. "See Her on the Weekend" is a literal retelling of his time in Topanga. Here he admits, "I drink more than the doctors say I should." 

Andrew's songs have always been personal statements, but generalized so we all get it, so we're all a part of it. The songs on AM in the Wilderness are different somehow, the lyrics less accessible to the listener; it's a memoir not Chicken Soup for the Soul. "Halls," for instance, outlines how Andrew was wont to sabotage himself for the good of his career, forgetting that if the plane goes down you put on your own mask first: "When I left town we were heading for the altar/ And I told you I'd be back before long." AM in the Wilderness is that personal. Go ahead and relate if you want, but the listener's response is sympathy not empathy. 

Nonetheless it's songs like "Rainy Girl" and "Cecelia and the Satellite" that exemplify the memoir pastiche. "Rainy girl, I can't wait to meet you"  is the kind of lyric that we all, as parents, can relate to. It was a stunning solo opener for the tour's last show this past Saturday at the Fillmore in Philadelphia. And the encore, we all knew, would be "Cecelia and the Satellite."  Doesn't get more personal than that, a song cycle for his family. "Cecilia and the Satellite" was fittingly one of the last songs written for the album. "I knew I wanted to write a song for her, to show her who I was before she was born and my commitment to protect her." Seems like Andrew gets it now and puts on his mask first.

Next Up: AM in the Wilderness - The Fillmore, Philadelphia, November 28, 2015.

No comments:

Post a Comment