BY: JIM VILLANUEVA
PHOTOS: Tony Piccirillo
“Songwriters like to wax on, like, sometimes things just kind of come on through you. I just don’t like to put out, like, 12 songs. I wish it wasn’t even quite that long, but I thought if I was gonna put out this album I may as well just push the envelope a little bit.”
Michael McDermott is a Michelangelo of songwriting. Not unlike the renowned Italian sculptor, painter, architect and poet, McDermott’s lyrics paint vivid images on various sonic canvases, and on a wide range of subject matter. Good and bad, dark and light, comparable to Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child sculpture and the Sistine Chapel ceiling Separation of Light from Darkness. Also akin to Michelangelo’s work, McDermott is as prolific as he his profound.
All these broad-strokes form the genesis of McDermott’s latest 12-track musical masterpiece Orphans, available now. The tales told are sometimes harrowing, sometimes heartwarming, occasionally life-affirming, occasionally life-threatening. But all are told by an Irishman through and through who is never afraid to peel back layers of real life to expose all hues, from the darkness to the light.
Jimmy V! I’m doing good man, everything’s good.
Alright, well let’s talk a little business here. Actually, pleasure! Much more pleasure. So, a lot of interviewers – I would say mostly the lazy ones – often ask folks like you, “What’s your favorite song on the album or in your catalog? I’m sure you get that a lot.
Oh, yeah, sure.
And generally, people have said, oh, that’s hard. It’s like asking who your favorite child is.
So, why’d you name this album Orphans?
So, usually you make a record and you forget about everything left over, and they die a slow death. And on occasion you need an extra to put on something, and you go, ‘Oh, what did I leave off. I’m a very moving forward kind of guy. (McDermott’s 2018 album) Out From Under was very hard to sequence, so I knew some of these songs had legs, like, you know, they weren’t just gonna go away. They were songs that I would still play live. And then, there’s nothing more embarrassing when you go do a show and then people come to the merch table and say, ‘Hey, what was that (Orphans track) ‘The Last Thing I Ever Do,’ that song you did on piano?’ And I say, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s not on either of these records, you know (2016’s) Willow Springs or Out From Under (laughs). So, that just kept happening a lot. So, the songs just kinda had louder voices than a lot of the outtake stuff I usually put out at some point. And there was still a lot more stuff I could have picked from. I wish there were some other songs that could have made the record, but they just weren’t finished enough. So, the orphan thing (was) just because they felt like kinda abandoned children of mine, and they kinda had nowhere to go, and they don’t really belong to anything greater than themselves except that they’re just these little vignettes I wanted to put out. That’s all. So, it seemed a fitting thing to call it that.
You know I’m fortunate enough to have a substantial catalog of conversations like this to draw from. I’m pretty confident in saying that – and I know this won’t shock you – you are the most honest songwriter I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with.
Aw, Jim that’s a huge honor!
A line like, “Guided by the darkness that looms while I’m alone” is ample evidence of that. Paint me the picture of “Black Tree Blue Sky.” Tell me about that one.
That was done for Willow Springs, oh, you know what, it was on Willow Springs until I wrote “Shadow in The Window”. And I just thought, oh god, like something’s gotta go!
Wow, what a choice!
Yeah, Willow Springs was done and mastered, so to make it simple I just put it in the same spot. I had the mastering guy just take out “Black Tree” and put in “Shadow in The Window” where that is. So, I don’t remember exactly where it was, but I remember one night on the road, by myself, mired down in all the darkness of it all I had a show in Pittsburgh, maybe, and the next thing I knew I woke up and I was somewhere in Indiana. I had no idea how I got there. I woke up and I was perpendicular to the side of the bed and I look up and had to look at the phone to see where I was. And I saw that I had kinda like negotiated the price of the hotel down on the receipt that was in the room. And I thought, well, at least I got a better deal (laughs). Like, I must of talked this guy’s ear off. It was funny, but it was the first time that I was actually a little scared. And I called a few people driving through the night, and people were like, ‘Dude, what was last night? What was that all about?’ And I didn’t really know. So, anyway, that was kinda the foundation for that story and image. In the house in (McDermott’s Illinois hometown) Willow Springs there was this image of this tree that always appeared very black against the blue sky.
So, you whittled the orphans down to a dozen. How many did you start with, and what was the main criteria you used to choose these songs, other than they’re good, of course?
It was just kinda, they work together and the songs that were most completed. I just don’t like to put out, like, 12 songs. I wish it wasn’t even quite that long, but I thought if I was gonna put out this album I may as well just push the envelope a little bit. My original intention was just that it was gonna be for fans, really.
So, as you know, having lived and worked in L.A. most of my life, the song “Los Angeles, A Lifetime Ago” triggered quite the flashbacks. I was gonna point out two lines that I wanted you to comment on: “Some dreams don’t die easy, some dreams they never seem to grow.” What were you dreaming of during your time in L.A.?
So, I had a couple of tries living in L.A. One at the very beginning of my career. Los Angeles was the beacon of your dreams, really, going back to the Depression and The Dust Bowl dreams of people migrating west. It’s always served as kind of this beacon, and the (Hollywood) sign is kind of very symbolic. And how many people go out there seeking that same dream and end up kinda toiling away. You know more dreams die out in Los Angeles than grow, that’s for sure. But yeah, I felt that was, too, and I felt a little beaten up by Los Angeles. I always kinda came back home with my tail between my legs, telling my friends it was because my parents were sick, but in reality, it got the best of me. Nashville is kinda like that, too, and because of that feeling of inadequacy it forces you into doing a lot of things that you probably shouldn’t be doing (laughs), you know, embarrassing stuff. So, I have a lot of ghosts out there.
That leads me to the other line I wanted to ask you about. “We got so tired of hanging around just waiting on our big break.” On the record there’s a pause, and then you say, “that never came.”
You know, being out there as a kid, my first experience was being, like, 21 years old and out there and I had a half-a-million dollar publishing deal and working at studios in the (San Fernando) Valley with all these amazing musicians, and then, you know, all these hopes and dreams and everybody telling you how great you are and how big this record’s gonna be, and man, within f**kin’ four months it’s over. And now you can’t get those people on the phone. And it’s like, wow, the rug was pulled out. And even though you’re just standing there, it’s a long way down. That’s what it felt like. It was just that real sense of isolation, and you are in this alone, brother.
Yeah. So, I was literally making my plans to go see you in April, either in Petaluma or San Francisco – or both – until I learned what “H.C.” stands for in the touring schedule. For those who don’t know, explain how these special house concerts work.
Well, they’re actually great. And believe me, I am a guy who is a knee-jerk isolationist. I like the club. I like my little dressing room. I like privacy and all that. I was really late in the game because people were doing whole tours of house concerts and I thought they were insane. And I think it just serves what I do better. It’s a very personal experience. On a commerce level, it really isn’t a risk for people to have an artist come to their living room and play. Many of them have sound systems, which I love, but basically it’s just putting up a bunch of folding chairs. If they can get 30, 40 people, each person pays 20 bucks, all the money goes to the artist, and you come in and then you sign CDs and you leave, or a lot of times they have you stay over. I think they’ve perfected the art. It’s nice.
Alright, cool. Then knowing all that I’ll see you in Petaluma. I will see you there then.
So, I wanna ask you about “Sometimes When it Rain in Memphis.” Your storytelling definitely shines brightest – I believe – when you use a city as a canvas for your writing.
Yeah, yeah. There’s so many geographical (references), you know, like (the album track) “Richmond.” So, Memphis is a place that really is near and dear to me, and it’s for strange reasons, I think, because I went down after the first couple records, and whatever, and this is like a new phase in my life. And I had these great number of songs, I went to a new label. And I was down there about six months making the record and I wanted to do everything myself. In retrospect it was a little, maybe not a great idea, but it was something I wanted to try. And I was down there for a long time and a lot went on down there. Now Memphis, like a lot of major cities, for a man of weak moral fiber, Memphis and a man of weak moral fiber is an amazing marriage of forces. And so that was the beginning of a real rapid descent. I love Memphis. It’s a beautiful city. I had these great batch of songs, a new label, everybody’s excited. Stephen King’s gonna write the liner notes. You’re gonna explode, everything’s gonna be great. But you know the King thing in some strange way actually worked against me because all the journalists, they weren’t gonna be told what to like. So, like in my head, in reverie of any sort I’m always in Memphis.
So, I guess this is a good segue to (the song) “The Wrong Side of Town.” Maybe (laughs)?
I love the great guitar work on that.
Yeah, Will Kimbrough, he’s just awesome. I think it felt a little too Bruce-y (Bruce Springsteen) to put out on any of the preceding records. For this it’s fun and it’s upbeat, and I thought there’s not a lot to the song, but it was certainly fun to do.
The guitar part. I get a little bit of The Cure, which is a good thing for me.
That is a good thing! Totally. Like (The Cure’s 1985 song) “In Between Days.”
The Head on the Door was the record and “In Between Days.” I must’ve listened to that a million times.
Me, too. The Cure thing was definitely a full-on complement.
Oh, good, yeah, thank you.
Funny thing about that one is it was in Nashville and (wife) Heather (Horton) and I were living in this house behind a mansion, and I called it the Kato Kaelin house. The people that lived in the main house were good friends with Heather, it was Rick and Eleanor, and so he I think sang with Johnny Cash back in the day, and Elvis, I think, too. And one night we came home, then in the morning I woke up and had this very strong song in my head. And I was typing it on my phone and Heather was downstairs and she came up and said there was an ambulance in the driveway. And then she got a call and said, “Oh mu god, Rick died.” And I said to her, “Oh, well then he must’ve written this then.” Songwriters like to wax on like, sometimes things just kind of come on through you. But I thought, holy s**t, if that was ever a case of that, that would have been it. The song about your last day. So, I ended up singing it at his funeral in Nashville, and it’s just a song that’s always been around. I like to end shows with it because I think it’s a good thought to send people home with. I like that song a lot.
It’s a good one to end the conversation with as well, because I want to thank you for teeing me up for my last question – and an obvious one. What if today were your last? How would you like to spend it, Michael?
Ooh! Well, I would certainly spend it with the two girls (his wife and daughter), the loves of my life. No doubt about it. You know, there’s something about closeness. And I’m a guy who’s never been very affectionate and liking closeness. I mentioned earlier, my knee-jerk, my instinct is to isolate, to pull back. But I would spend it with them, without a doubt. That would be it. That would be my last day.
Obviously, I knew that would be your answer.
Yeah, I know (laughs).
Cool! Thank you.
Beautiful. Alright, I love you brother.
Love you, man. Take care, and we’ll see you soon.