BY: JIM VILLANUEVA
“I’m out from (under) many things. The chains of addiction. The chains of self-consumption. The slave mentality of my own hungers and desires. I feel I’ve really made steps, which is amazing because for so long I’ve lived the life of a slave to so many things. I feel freer now than I ever have. I wish I would have done this a long time ago.”
Michael McDermott continues his quest to heal deep scars from another life on his latest long-hard-look-in-the-mirror album Out From Under. The personal, professional and spiritual wave the Chicago born, bred and based singer-songwriter has been riding since the release of his 1991 debut album 620 W. Surf has – like all waves – been full of crests and crashes. Today, McDermott has replaced self-medication with meditation. He spurns drink and drugs for time with family and friends. He rebuffs a one-time flirtation with priesthood with forthright self-reexamination about faith.
All this looking inward and self-evaluation is laid bare on McDermott’s 11-song – and, coincidentally – 11th studio album Out From Under, available April 27. Where phrases such as “inexplicably overlooked” or “highly underrated” have often been used to describe McDermott’s music, one description suffices to replace both: Michael McDermott is one of the finest songwriters on the planet. Sure, he may have been voted valedictorian of the school of hard knocks, but he unquestionably graduated magna cum laude from the college of rock and roll knowledge. Following a 10-stop European trek, McDermott will kick off a 15-city U.S. tour May 4 in Three Oaks, MI and wrap the run July 21 at the Music and Arts festival in Templeton, MA.
Michael, it’s great to talk to you again. So, in preparation for our conversation today I went back to our last conversation about (the 2016 album) Willow Springs. I was reminded that I started that conversation by letting you know that I thought you’d let just a little more emotional light in on that record than you had on some of your previous albums.
So, upon first listen to this new one I sense that maybe you once again closed some emotional curtains. It’s a little darker. Is that fair to say?
I don’t know. It might be. The way I see it is a little different. Like, Heather (Heather Lynne Horton, McDermott’s wife, bandmate in The Westies and artist in her own right – current album Don’t Mess with Mrs. Murphy) sees “This World Will Break Your Heart” as a very dark, depressing song, and I just don’t see it that way at all. What I’ve been doing a lot in the last two years is working on a recovery element of my life. Even though I was sober and clean I wasn’t actively working in the recovery process. I was just kind of focused on staying clean. So, it’s been a really eye-opening experience getting into doing the actual steps and all that. In being honest, they say you’re as sick as your secrets. Even though your clean and sober you still have the brain of someone that’s riddled. So, it was just coming to grips with a lot of my own responsibility and a lot of my own decision making. So, I see that see that song as just being honest about the way things are. And once you’re honest about the way things are, even if they’re band they’re manageable.
Let me jump in and expand and explain my original thought. The darkness that I reference here is, well, there’s a lot of drugs, drinking, death and sex going on. And that’s just the opening song “Cal-Sag Road.” (Laughs) I mean, that’s fair to say, right?
(Laughs) Yeah! That’s awesome! I love that! I wanna use that as a quote! “That’s just the first song.” (Laughs) I’m gonna quote you on that! So, like with Willow Springs there was this really long, rambling Dylan-esque song (the album’s title track) and I was, like, ‘Where do you put that?’ So, I put it first. Same with this thing (“Cal-Sag Road”). I wasn’t even sure it was really gonna be on the record. And you know this – there’s so much music, it’s so hard to be heard. If anything, I’d at least rather offend people…
At least you have their attention.
Yeah. That’s all it was, really. If you can’t offend some people you’re not doing your job.
Let me jump to track four, “Sad Songs,” which Ironically, sonically seems to be one of the most upbeat tracks on the album.
Right. Right! So, my thoughts on that is that going out touring on Willow Springs it got grueling sometimes to have to go through these emotional songs night after night and show after show, and at record stores. And some days I was just like, ‘God damn, man.’ So, I think I said it one time, I was just kinda tired of singing these sad songs. So, then I thought to just juxtapose it with something more, like not to take it so seriously. But some of those vignettes there are real people. It’s a character study, really.
Well, simply sonically speaking, I found myself wanting to get up and dance 80s style to “Sad Songs.”
(Laughs) Right! Right! It may have been around the time Tom Petty died, so, it was almost kind of an homage of a Pettyesque kind of thing.
You mentioned you were tired of singing all those sad songs. Are you?
Well, it just gets hard sometimes. Because it’s no picnic to do it. So, no, I’m not tired of it. I could never sing any other thing but what I sing. I think it was just kind of a moment of self-pity. And even in ‘Sad Songs’ (a character) says, ‘Why don’t you write anything that’s happy?’ I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that in my life. I’m never compelled to write anything that’s very happy, for whatever reason. Those aren’t inspirational moments for me. Those aren’t the things that send me to put anything down.
You mentioned “This World Will Break Your Heart.” To me it’s a heartbreakingly sad song. Tell me a little bit more about it.
The record was done. It was mastered and sequenced and everything. One of the things I do is I meditate. I’d had that phrase in my head for six months and tried on maybe one or two occasions to write a song about it. And it was all wrong. Every time I tried it and revisited it and listened to it, it was just terrible. It’s just such a heavy line. So, then one morning doing my meditation thing, it just literally all formed in my head and I just started writing and it was just one of those things. Really, within a few minutes it was all written down, so I grabbed a guitar and thought, let’s see. That’s half the battle but I still had half of the puzzle. So, I just started playing it and it was really one of those beautiful moments as a writer where it was just like, wow! It was easy to make anything at that point.
When I first heard that song and you reference the guy, the veteran, at the bus stop, my mind clicked back to something that may have been on Facebook or something. A story I think Heather told on her record…
Yep. The woman on the street. Her name was Pat. Yep.
I connected those two.
Yeah, and Heather, she’s such a caring person.
So, the one track I keep going back to on the album is “Celtic Sea.” I just love the feel of that song.
I think your part Irish, man! I mean, I’m not even kidding.
I do, too!
Have you done the ancestry DNA?
I have not, but my wife and I have talked about. She’s McCormick, and I’ve had this crazy obsession with all things Irish for many, many years. So, it could be. I’m gonna do it. So, “Celtic Sea.” I love this line, “’Twas a stormy night, we began to fight/Babe, you’d thought I bought a sinking boat.” So, what sparked this song?
I think it was looking at one of the maps on the plane as we were flying (into Ireland) and I saw the Celtic Sea. So, it was just one of those things. A little mermaid fantasy (laughs) and that was kind of it (laughs). It’s a simple little tune. I like it. It’s funny, that one reacts with people, and I’m surprised by it a little bit.
No, you’re not. Not at all.
It just took me away, I guess.
Yeah, and it’s a song that’s not trying to accomplish anything. And maybe that goes back to the less of the emotional element on this record. Maybe I was just trying to stay out of the way of things and not trying to accomplish anything. I think with Willow Springs I was, like a ‘new guy’ and I needed to put some stakes in the ground and say this is who I am, where this one I was maybe trying to stay out of the way of it a little bit.
That makes sense. So, how did you manage to bail Phil Spector out of jail to produce “Rubber Band Ring?”
(Laughs) I know, right? I gotta give all credit where credit is due. Getting (multi-instrumentalist, longtime collaborator) Will Kimbrough to play on this, I knew I wanted it to do that, and as a producer I didn’t really know how to do that. So, that was a little tricky for me. But Will playing all that old, throwback guitar, it came together really great. Also, I was on the road somewhere listening to some old station and they were playing a bunch of old throwback songs, and I just thought, that sounds so fun. And I’d bought Heather a rubber band ring in Italy. But, yeah, that’s just a fun one.
Let me ask you about “Never Goin’ Down Again.” It also harkens back to a musical era, in this case I think like, oh, 1984?
Yeah! Well, I think that’s kinda like a direct result of the climate of the country. It just felt like we’re going backwards (referring to the 2016 election). And my life was so earnestly trying to propel it forward that I felt this pull, like, no, no, no no. I had some other songs that were more overtly political, but they just seemed a little too obvious, or again, trying to accomplish something. This was one for me that said what I wanted to say. And there’s a line, “at your door is 1984,” that’s in there. There’s an Orwellian kind of reference. But, yeah, it was just kind of a feeling of defiance, and certainly that’s the climate in our house.
I guess the oxymoron is that I found it uplifting.
Yeah, absolutely. I think it is. It’s resilient and hopeful.
Let me ask you about “Sideways.” The lyrics are what else – incredible. Line after line. “So many towns and misfit clowns.” How long did you work on the lyrics to this song?
Not that long, actually. It was one of those things that happens to me fairly frequently where I will text something to somebody, and I’ll go, ‘Ooh, that’s good,’ So, yeah, it just came from that. It’s a high wire walk we walk in this life and it’s so easy to get knocked off. It’s so easily to get totally consumed with yourself and social media, the presidency, the politics. So, it’s kind of like more of a dream. Obviously with most of my songs there’s some real people in that. My brain just works in a very (American writer William) Faulkner-ess way. A lot of things just hit me during the course of a day and I jot them down and try to make sense of it all.
Your brain moves in mysterious ways (laughs).
(Laughs) It does, indeed. I think it was Steven Tyler who once said, “My brain is a dangerous neighborhood (laughs).”
So, the album ends with “God Help Us.” Explain this lyric to me and then I’ll ask you a two-part question: “I’m not sure what we’re doing/but it feels there’s trouble brewing up ahead/We’re on the road to ruin/yet I can feel you in my room by my side.”
Well, obviously there’s been a huge association with being Christian as a songwriter. And it’s funny because I’ve never been really accepted by any kind of a Christian community within music. I was always too rock to be a Christian rocker, and too Christian to be a real rocker. That was always my trouble with the record companies. I never really pledged any allegiance to anything, really. With recovery there’s so much of it based in Christianity even though they say it isn’t. I disagree. It seems fairly steeped in it all. For whatever reason, I had a dark night of the soul, I think they call it, with any kind of belief system with that. It’s funny because most people when they get sober they find another addiction, which is usually Jesus. I’ve fallen quite the other way. So, it’s about questioning whether I even have any faith at all to speak of really anymore.
Well, I prefaced the question by saying I’d follow up with a two-part question, and I think you’re touching on the first part, so here goes – are you a religious, spiritual person? And if so, do you truly believe in your heart of hearts that “He,” “She” or “It” helps us?
Learning what I have learned about myself is that there is something infinite about our consciousness, I think. There is something infinite about our capacity to have empathy and to love. However, I don’t feel that there is any kind of providence from any hands from above, necessarily. I think the dogma of it all is kind of nonsensical. I think really what you’re asking is like, I hope there’s divinity in us all. And I think there is. But how that correlates to any kind of omnipotent figure, I don’t know and I kind of doubt that it does.
Well, we could go on for some time about all of that, but let’s wrap with this: what, if anything, are you out from under?
I’m out from many things, I think. The chains of addiction. The chains of self-consumption. The slave mentality of my own hungers and desires. My “monkey brain,” they call it. There’s your real self and your monkey brain. And so, I feel I’ve really made steps, which is amazing because for so long I’ve lived the life of a slave to so many things. So, I feel freer now than I ever have. I wish I would have done this a long time ago.
Thank you, Michael. I’ll see you in L.A. on May 18th at The Hotel Café.
I can’t wait. Thanks, Jim. It’s always great to talk to you.