BY: JIM VILLANUEVA
PHOTOS: MICHAEL COAKES
As so many of us struggle to make sense of the sadness and madness that surrounds us, we often try to find solace in songs. Thankfully, we have master songwriters like Michael McDermott and the dozen songs on his new album Willow Springs (available now) to provide perspective and shed a little light.
The Chicago storyteller’s latest collection of societal snapshots once again proves he is an indispensable artist whose songs should rank among those of some of the seminal songwriters of this or any other lifetime. Ah, but the key word here is “should.” So why don’t they? Why isn’t Michael McDermott selling more albums and selling out theatres across the country? Why isn’t he rubbing elbows with the likes of Bruce, Bono and Bob at the Grammys? What is it about the current state of the music business, or the current state of mind of music consumers, that fails to support and promote such a gifted artist?
To be sure, these are impossible questions to answer. But they are worthy of discussion – and debate. My most recent conversation with McDermott centered around personal and professional highs and lows, seeing the light and shedding the darkness, optimism and pessimism, death and rebirth, whether one’s glass is half empty or full, and pain and joy. In other words – life. And the subjects in his songs. (NOTE: our conversation took place less than 24 hours after the massacre at the nightclub in Orlando.)
Hello, sir. I’m good. How are you?
I’m doing okay, overall. Obviously trying to make some sense of the madness and trying to find some solace in songs.
Yeah, right, I hear ya. It’s like, disgust, nothing happens, carry on, repeat. A lot of talk, discussions, no adjustments, repeat.
Yeah, and that’s the most maddening part, I think, you know?
Yeah, I know. (Singer-songwriter) David Baerwald (David + David) wrote, “Are we just completely insane as a society?” Unbelievable. And you know I resist writing about it because I have an odd number of real right-wingers on my Facebook and stuff, so I don’t even like to engage in discourse with those people, you know?
Yep, yep, I agree. I try to stay off of it as much as possible too, on the social media front.
Yeah, and the only things they do post are things that I know there’s just no way you could argue with this. It’s just like, oh my God, it’s unbelievable!
Exactly! We’re on the same page. So let’s switch gears and talk about wonderful things and another frickin’ fantastic record!
So, I’ve got a lot to ask, and a few things to say, so let’s jump into it. I know very well – as do many others – that at one point in your life and career you were sick and tired of hearing comparisons to some of the seminal songwriters of this or any other lifetime. I also know that you don’t quite feel that way any longer. With that as a prologue for my first question, the title track opens your latest current classic collection Willow Springs is by far the best Bob Dylan song he never wrote. In other words, I’m comparing Dylan to you!
That is awesome!
Take us through – and to – “Willow Springs.”
Yeah, so I’d gone out of my way – and to a fault, I think – to avoid those things (comparisons). Things that just come naturally to me. Throughout my whole career. I just kind of never figured those things would still be bandied about 25 years later. You know, like, “Really? Still with the Springsteen thing?” But, it is what it is. And I’d gone out of my way to avoid those things, and sometimes, probably ended up producing something that wasn’t as authentic as it could be because it wasn’t as natural to me because I took the way around that. Where you know I should’ve just said f**k em and just done what came naturally. So with this record is was kind a like, you know what, I don’t care. If it sounds like Bruce, if it sounds like Bob, if it sounds like Tom Waits, you know, I’m just gonna do it! And you know, like, who cares, really? And so this one (the title track “Willow Springs”) particularly just kind of came out that way, that I was like, wow, this is really derivative – I can’t think of a particular song that it’s particularly derivative of – but it just feels like it to me, too. Originally it was called like “Apocalyptic Subway Dream No. 23.” That would be having fun with it, just to be like, “Yeah, I know!” But that’s as far as I came to like really sidestepping the natural instinct. Anyway, I love it and it’s fun and it’s hard (to play and perform). I play it every night now and I kinda think it’s gonna be a song I’m gonna be playing every night for a long time.
Well, overall, I’m just gonna say stick to your guns, in the sense that, as you said, f**k it! It’s you!
Yeah, f**k it!
I’ve carried around a handful of lyric lines that have spoken to – and for – me most of my life, and I quote them often. Two examples are: “With every mistake we must surely be learning” from The Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”…
Oh, that’s great, yeah.
…and another is “You said change should not be difficult, you said change should lead us home” from the brilliant Irish band Hothouse Flowers…
Oh, wait, wait, what song?
“An Emotional Time.”
Oh my God, I don’t know that song, but I love them!
It’s from their album Songs from the Rain. So those are just a couple of examples. So now I have a new one, of course, and it’s “I’ve never understood why Heaven would have a gate.”
(Laughs) Oh, okay, good, good.
What does that line mean to you?
Well, it was something I had never thought about, I gave it no thought whatsoever until I typed it out, and it was probably something that at 5:45 in the morning I wrote, I typed and I probably smiled and just kept on going. But I knew right away, it was like, it made me smile and I gave myself the invisible pat on my own back as I put that one down, you know?
Yeah, well deserved.
And about Hothouse Flowers and (lead singer, main songwriter) Liam (O Maonlai), I think he’s really amazing, and I don’t say that about many. I opened for them in, Cork, I think, and it was a Wednesday and it was like a $5 cover, and it wasn’t that long ago, and it wasn’t packed. But I just thought, like, wow, really? Because in my head they were always this bigger, huge band. I thought it’d be a madhouse, and it was not that crowded, and I don’t mean that disrespectfully. I was like, what?
Oh I know exactly what you mean, and you’re telepathically leading me to my next question and comment…
…because as I mentioned at the top, I have a few things to say, in addition to ask. As you know I just started this new job, so coming back home at around three in the morning I popped the CD in and by the time I got to “Getaway Car” (track 3), you stoked an emotional response I think that I’d never felt before while listening to music, and that was anger. Feigned anger, of course, but I’m literally going down an empty highway pounding my hands on the steering wheel, and here’s why – and this ties into what we were just talking about with a five buck cover and a half-empty house in Cork for a Hothouse Flowers show: what the hell’s going on here? And I’m yelling at myself in the car, like, what can I do? What is wrong with the music business in that you’re not touring cross country and filling great theaters and sharing these songs? I mean I’m banging my hands on the steering wheel going, “What’s wrong here?”
Well make no mistake, you are helping, Jim. You really are. There’s an absolute difference you’re making, and I’m so grateful. Now if you want me to respond to this, I guess I could say that it drove me to almost kill myself – that frustration. And I just couldn’t hold on that tight anymore; I just couldn’t control it anymore, and it became this really out of control vehicle and it almost destroyed me. And I noticed somehow there’s a balance there. I’m not saying this is exactly the answer, but it’s to kind of not care a little bit. And since I’ve been doing that I’ve noticed an absolute difference in response, and (Michael’s wife and The Westies bandmate) Heather (Horton) is a great reminder (of that). It’s like Lenny in Of Mice and Men: you wanna pet the rabbits but you remember you petted them so hard you always kill them. And so I’m just trying to keep it light, but it can’t be totally entirely true because I get very frustrated, but there’s really nothing I can do about it. And you know this record does feel very different. If anything I think this record seems to be engaging some people, and so we’ll see.
Good! And thank you for feeling that way, and thanks for caring. That’s the thing, too, it’s about people caring and I love you for it and I really appreciate it.
You’ll get the reference here, but what I was left with that night after hearing the album in its entirety is this: why aren’t you and Bono friends? (a reference to the line “I’ll have me a million dollars and me and Bono will be friends, and I’ll never be a folksinger ever again” from “Folksinger”)
(Laughs) Yeah! You know that’s a subliminal like sign (laughs). I know enough people that know him or work for him and I would never ask them to play it (for him), but it’s kinda like I hope they hear it and go, “Hey Bono, did you hear this f**kin’ guy like…” (laughs). You know, that’d be awesome, wouldn’t it? If I knew he heard it I’d get a kick out of it, but you know, who knows. If he ever comes to do an interview with you I’ll hit you up.
(Laughs) I’ll have the CD in my back pocket, I promise.
Before we get back to you and Bono being friends, let’s get back to “Getaway Car.”
I couldn’t help but notice you reference a getaway car in track two “These Last Few Days.” Is that just pure lyrical happenstance or what?
Well there was a time when “Getaway Car” wasn’t going to happen. We actually recorded that for Six On the Out (McDermott’s previous album with his band The Westies) and it was just really bad. It was a song that was just very difficult and it didn’t look like it was ever gonna come out, cus you know songs come and go. Certain songs just don’t have it – they don’t have the juice, really. And then at some point during the recording of this album Heather, with her advice, said get rid of the bad, just do it acoustically. But for me, even just the name of the song and the feel of the song, it’s gotta be a driving song. I wanted it to be like “One Headlight” by The Wallflowers. So I thought, I’m gonna try this one more time. And so ultimately I think it works.
It’s hard to say, but I think ultimately, for me it’s close to the top of the list of favorites on this album.
Oh good, good.
I get the sense through our conversations that Heather is very much a less is more person (laughs).
(Laughs) Yeah, yeah!
Alright well let’s get back to your buddy Bono. I obviously pulled the reference from your song “Folksinger.” You go on to mention a few other things you don’t wanna be anymore, including a soldier, a gravedigger and a Christian. Walk me through this song. Tell me more about it.
There are a couple of kinda funny stories of why I wrote it. Being a rock and roll guy for my whole life, and doing the sex, drugs and rock and roll things, everyone says rock and roll people are very weird and temperamental, but you know who’s weirder: folksingers. They’re really strange, strange people (laughs). One of the funny stories is I did this songwriter’s in the round thing in Nashville and these are kind of supposed to be very kumbaya-ish, but it feels almost like a cage match. It’s supposed to be kind of interactive and you’re free to play with the guy if you know the tune. I don’t know, man, I just don’t like those things at all! But anyway, so that just kind of came to me that night, like, I don’t wanna be a folksinger (laughs). These people are just too weird (laughs). So anyway that was “Folksinger” (laughs).
I think you mentioned earlier that the album is a little lighter in certain spots, and I certainly picked up on that. I think you do let a little more emotional light in on this record than you did on the darker, bleaker yet brilliant The Westies albums West Side Stories and Six On the Out. The songs I cite that I believe have more of that lighter feel are, of course, “Let a Little Light In,” “Willie Rain,” which we’ll get into, and “Folksinger,” which sonically is a little lighter and you’re having some fun lyrically.
Yeah, I’m having some fun with it. Yeah. In the end, doing those Westies shows live, it’s not that fun, man. And you know the record, so you can imagine the shows – they get even more intense and after (the show) I feel like I just wanna come home. And that’s a very weird place for me cus music’s always been a celebration. So I just thought, God almighty keep it light. That’s my new saying, keep it light. Anyway, that’s not a great way to ignore the things that bother you or frustrate you, but yeah, I’m glad this record has some, you know (he takes a deep breath) ah, so you can just take a deep breath onstage and have a little fun.
Speaking of a little light, of course light causes shadow. Both of us recently lost our father…
…correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m sure “Shadow in the Window” is about and dedicated to your dad.
Absolutely, yeah. He had this picture window and when I first started driving I would get in the car and backup and as you look back while backing out of the driveway I would see him. I couldn’t see his face, but I would see him standing there watching me and it was kind of annoying, like, “What’s he looking at?” Like, did he think I was gonna crash into one of the other cars or whatever (laughs), which of course I did later in life (laughs), but that’s not the point (laughs). It was weird, he had this, like, honing device that even when I’d go over there and I’d pull into the driveway I’d see him – the shadow in the window. So anyway, going over there after he’d gone I was able to see all the way clear into the back of the house, and it was literally the first time since I’d been driving I was able to see all the way clear through the window to the back of the house. So I had this (musical) thing and I started playing piano and then I got to the “I love you, I love you, I love you” part and it was kinda like I had it.
Yeah, I was gonna jump in and say that to me the most emotionally gut-wrenching moment on the entire record is when you burst into that almost primal scream-like “I love you, I love you, I love you.”
I mean the song could just be that, really. And in the screaming (part) I just wanted to f**kin’ cry while I was doing it, too.
Thank you for putting that song on the album.
Ah, thanks, Jim. You know, you know.
I know. It’s still fresh.
Right, I know. It sucks.
So it’s interesting, following your impassioned “I love you’s” for your dad, you immediately hit us with a different type of “I love you” courtesy of a very special guest. Introduce us to “Willie Rain”
Yes, yes, and it’s certainly intentional. The cycle of life, you know. So my daughter (Willie Rain) comes in and says it (“I love you daddy”). It’s a dangerous song when you do something like that because it was really just something that I sang to her around the house. When I finished recording it, I was in the car and she was in the backseat and I said, “Willie, you know that song I sing to you? I recorded it and could you just hear that first?” And she was like, “Oh, okay.” As soon as it finished she said, “Can we listen to One Direction now?” (Laughs)
(Laughs) That’s touching. I think the song adds the emotional balance that I hear on this record. The light, the dark, the emotional. I love the balance of this record.
Ah, thanks. Yeah the album could have spun out of control after “Shadow in the Window,” so this was kinda like, oh good, and now we’re back (laughs).
(Laughs) Yeah, exactly: that juxtaposition of the two types of “I love you’s.” Before I wrap I wanna jump back to track six on the song list and talk about “Half Empty Kind of Guy.”
Sonically it’s probably the most upbeat cut on the album – again the lighter touch here, so much so that I found myself doing the Bruce Springsteen “Dancing in the Dark” 80s video dance (laughs)…
(Laughs) Right, right, yeah visions of Courtney Cox (laughs)!
Exactly! So fill me in here on this song.
I remember very well when I wrote it because I thought that it seemed like an important song for the record. I think only because I was able to address something fairly heavy with a sense of sass, and it wasn’t so maudlin or something. If I sat at the piano and did that lyric slightly different it would have been one of those, like, indulgent or whatever (songs). It was an important song in terms of knowing what I wanted the record to feel like. Where you could talk about some heavy things, some dark subjects, with the lights on. I kinda joke about it, in that every kind of trouble I had in life with my mother, she would blame it on being Irish. If I’m having trouble at school, she’d say, “Well you know you are Irish.” Mom I’m drinking too much, “Well you’re Irish.” Mom I’m having girl troubles, “Well you’re Irish” (laughs). So I was raised with this very pessimistic view of things, that you’re kinda cursed in some ways. So I think that’s kinda where it stems from (laughs). My lineage of being kinda drunken, bad luck, ill-tempered, half-witted ancestry (laughs).
(Laughs) Yeah, as I was doing my Courtney Cox dance listening to the song, I’m thinking to myself, well wait a minute, should I be dancing to some of these lines (laughs)?
Hell yeah! Hell yeah!
Lines like “I don’t know who loves me, I only know who don’t.” But it’s great, the song is really good.
Yeah, thank you. I’m glad you like it cus that one is near and dear to me.
Willow Springs ends with the touching “What Dreams May Come.” Let me quote a line: “Take my hand, babe, I’ve got a plan/Our lives have really just begun, hold on, what dreams may come.” You know you really should consider writing songs for a living, Michael (laughs).
So here’s my question: what do you dream comes next for you?
Ooh, that just gave me goosebumps! I don’t know. So this year has been a good year, artistically – maybe my best year. To put out two records (The Westies’ Six On the Out and Willow Springs), well, I need to dream it up again, really, to quote Bono. This is kind of a monstrous collection, the three records in the course of two years. So I got a good run, I got a good start, I’m already onto a good start and I’m very happy with where I am. So the future? Well if I could just keep working at a level that I’m proud of. So if I could just continue keeping a level of work up. I’ve never been more focused on what I do than I am now, which is late in the game, but better late than never to be wanting to get down to work and put out as much quality stuff as I can. That’s it, really.
You know, I think that goes back to my favorite Hothouse Flowers line: “You said change should not be difficult, you said change should lead us home.”
Yeah, that’s awesome.
It works for me. Alright, Michael, thank you.
Alright, bud. Love you, man. Thanks.