If anyone lived happily ever after, you'd think that would be Andrew McMahon. Everything about his life–the highs, the lows–was made for a storybook. The 32-year-old singer/songwriter was a teenage rock star; in the late '90s, he led Dana Point pop-punkers Something Corporate to fame. He moved on to the solo project Jack's Mannequin a few years later, but while recording Jack's Mannequin's debut in 2005, he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
His healthy recovery (after a stem cell transplant from his sister) was the subject of a documentary, Dear Jack, and has turned McMahon–cancer-free since 2006–into a de facto spokesperson for raising cancer awareness for young adults. His nonprofit charity, the Dear Jack Foundation, has raised more than $8 million for research since 2006. Along the way, he married his longtime girlfriend, Kelly; wrote music for a TV musical, Smash; and welcomed a baby girl, Cecilia, in 2014.
And for anyone else, that really would be enough for a happily ever after. But not for McMahon. He's still writing his story and now making music as Andrew McMahon In the Wilderness.
“Searching has always been a big part of my m.o. in trying to make my way to the next thing as artfully as possible and not getting stuck in any one place,” McMahon says. In his evolution as a musician, he did some good old soul-searching while making the last Jack's Mannequin record. “A number of factors led to a feeling that it was time to wind that project down. I still loved music too much to go do something else, but I definitely knew there were a lot of things still attached to my cancer that I hadn't dealt with.”
Among other things, the reflection led to a move back to Orange County from Los Angeles. “I glossed over some of the finer points of introspection related to the psychosocial issues that related to being a young adult with cancer,” he says, explaining that his body healed faster than his head did. “I chose to close the chapter of Jack's Mannequin as a chance to get back home and surround myself with friends and family and analyze what I wanted to do next.”
McMahon has made music since he was 9, starting to produce records at 19.
“There was a part of me that had burnt out from doing things the same way. Getting out of LA and focusing on my home life and getting to a healthier place, personally, was a really big part of that.”
McMahon has built a studio in his San Clemente garage as a sanctuary. And writing for such TV programs as Smash was a breath of fresh air. “It put me in a position to write for another purpose instead of just 'I want to talk about me,' which is what a lot of my songwriting has been about.”
In 2013, he released an EP under the moniker Pop Underground. But he was still evolving. “Eventually, I was ready to make a full-length record and put my name on it,” he says. Thus, Andrew McMahon In the Wilderness was born; the name has everything to do with the fact that a lot of McMahon's life feels, as he says, “very much like I was out on this adventure trying to navigate a new terrain.”
His solo stuff–if the first single, “Cecilia and the Satellite,” is anything to go by–is different from his previous work. It's still hooky, of course, and piano-driven, but songs are now programmed with synths and beats. It's not quite filled with the same frenetic energy that drew kids to Something Corporate or Jack's Mannequin. It's introspective, contemporary and–dare we say it?–more mature.
In “Cecilia,” he talks about his life before becoming a dad: touring the world, having fun, crashing cars–all of which are nothing compared to parenthood. He loves the airplay it's getting, he says, “because, indirectly, it's a good introduction to people who might not know my music. My hope for the way people hear that song–and for [Cecilia], when she can actually process the lyrics–was to make an introduction and give context of the highs and lows of the life that I'd lived up to the point that she arrived, what I've been up to for the last several years leading up to this record.”
McMahon's influences for the eponymous project included Bruce Hornsby, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Paul Simon, Phil Collins–acts he grew up listening to. But he also drew from more recent indie/electropop bands such as Phoenix and Niki & the Doves. “There's something exciting about this hybrid of synthesizers programming and live instrumentation, about taking every tool in the tool box and finding your way to the best sound.”
Despite being a solo effort, the upcoming release was a fiercely collaborative one, McMahon says. “If anything, I used the opportunity to be out of the classic band construct to throw myself into as collaborative place as I could be,” he says. Mike Viola (who helmed Jenny Lewis and Ryan Adams' latest sets) produced the record, with the U.K.'s James Flannigan co-producing and Kevin Griffin from Better Than Ezra contributing.
“I like to start over,” McMahon says. “When I hit moments where there's a need for new inspiration, I'm happy to get to rebuild.” More than anything, he says, this project feels like a chance to make records and tour–in a more sustainable way.
On his upcoming tour, he'll be bringing his family with him. It will be his baby's first Coachella, and he's looking forward to having Cecilia on the side stage for his performance (and getting her styled out for the fest!). “We're blessed to be able to travel together,” he says, “and we'll do that as long as it makes sense and they're happy on the road.”
After all, bringing a child into the world and being there as a parent is tricky, even if you do live in happily ever after. “I wake up every day with an immense amount of focus on how to be there for my family and how to make this project as or more successful than anything I've done,” McMahon says. “It's a pretty happy time for me. There's been a lot of unforeseen struggle that marked several years of being a touring and recording musician. But this period has been blessed and positive, and that's been worth everything that led up to it.”
Andrew McMahon In the Wilderness performs at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, 81-800 Avenue 51, Indio, (888) 512-7469; www.coachella.com. Sat. Sold out. For more information on McMahon, visit www.andrewmcmahon.com.