“I wrote a pop record and then she showed up.” Andrew McMahon laughs, cradling his 6-month-old daughter, Cecilia, as his wife Kelly lounges nearby with their dog, Doris. The young family is backstage at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park relaxing before McMahon performs a sold out headlining show. McMahon is referring to his new release, the self-titled LP, Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness.
McMahon has had a winding road to this artfully balanced life. This is a man who was diagnosed with cancer at 22 years old, on the cusp of releasing his debut album (as Jack’s Mannequin). Who wed Kelly the following year and then took on an arduous schedule of touring and album releases. Who was nominated for an Emmy Award for his song “I Heard Your Voice in a Dream” on NBC’s Smash. Who sold nearly 2 million albums in a little more than a decade. Who, for much of that time, was struggling underneath the weight of it all.
Despite these outward signs of success – beating cancer, getting married and an Emmy nom – McMahon says the road to recovery was “a rollercoaster ride” that took the better part of a decade. “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.”
The time allowed McMahon to process what had happened and to renew his passion for songwriting and record making, to refill the well of his creativity. McMahon also changed his mode of operation, taking the critical step of physically distancing his work and home lives by retreating to a cabin – “a shack, really. It had no running water,” – in Topanga Canyon (CA) to hatch the album. He would spend the weekdays in the canyon immersed in music and on the weekends travel the hour and a half back south 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.”
In Topanga, Andrew was able to focus intensely on song craft. He poured his feelings into his work: the anticipation and anxiety about becoming a father, excitement for meeting his new daughter, ambivalence about entering his 30s. Soon after the Canyon sessions, McMahon began working with producer Mike Viola, who McMahon calls “the album’s spirit guide.” In Viola’s Echo Park garage studio, the two of them meditated on a range of classic rock and modern artists.
At the same time, McMahon began to consider the might-have-beens of his life. “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 adds, “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.”
“High Dive” emerged from the sessions with Viola and is the most representative of this sort of Sliding Doors exploration. “‘High Dive’ asks the question ‘If I had never gotten sick, where would I be?’” says McMahon. “My illness put a lot into perspective for my wife (then girlfriend) and I. With ‘High Dive’ 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.” The song buoys McMahon’s gentle tenor, slowly building from a spare composition with a snapping, driving beat, ‘High Dive’ swells into the bridge (“Flashbacks get me close”) and resolves into a viscerally satisfying chorus flush with other voices, McMahon’s piano wrapping around the melody.
Intimate details populate the album, with McMahon writing sometimes obliquely, sometimes frankly about his struggles. “See Her on the Weekend,” a literal recounting of his time in Topanga, drops the aside “I drink more than the doctors say I should.” “Halls” outlines self-sabotaging tendencies in service of his career, “Cut my hair, and I found me a new girlfriend / Thought a broken heart could write a perfect song.” “All Our Lives” is particularly unguarded but even when he’s singing about someone else, an old friend with “a heart so gold, and words so blue / in a body home from hell,” you wonder if he’s not singing about himself in some roundabout way.
The first single, “Cecilia and the Satellite” was actually one of the last songs written for the album. “A few weeks before Cecilia was born, I was introduced to James Flannigan, a British songwriter and producer. 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.” While “Cecilia” details McMahon’s love in high contrast with what he calls “the impermanence of living,” – its soaring chorus anchored by a kick drum like the steady thump of a heartbeat.
After seeing the impressive results of their session, McMahon asked Flannigan to join him and Viola to help finish production of the album. The three of them bounced around LA in various production spaces and studios until all the details had been tweaked and McMahon was satisfied that it reflected the journey as a whole. “I had been dreaming about an album that sounded like this for years, but I didn’t know it until I heard it. It took all three of us. I realize now how important every piece of the process was – every step on the path and every voice in the room.”
If, as McMahon says, “music is a mirror to the adventure of living,” then it follows that each new chapter of life deserves its own title. As such, he decided his music would go forward under the name Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness. “My wilderness is mostly abstract,” he posits, “I forced myself into strange new places on the hunt for these songs, and I met some amazing people in the process. The new name carries the spirit of our collaboration.”
There is a balancing act that permeates not only McMahon’s life but his new album as well, mixing the electronic and the acoustic, the modern and the classic. But even though McMahon may have created two mini-masterpieces: an epic pop album stocked to the gills with anthemic songs and a healthy, bright, baby girl with Kelly, there’s no question which one he’s more proud of.