Jon McLaughlin is no stranger to playing shows in Indianapolis, having grown up in Anderson, and it is common knowledge that whenever he returns to play a show here audiences are in for a treat.
This Saturday night he’ll return to play Deluxe at Old National Center for the first time, the final performance of his fall tour, where he’ll be promoting his sixth studio album Like Us which debuted in October. That album, produced by John Fields, manages to bridge the gap between the early piano songwriting he featured on his debut, Indiana, and the pop-based songwriting of OK Now which first introduced his music to a broader audience. This best-of-both-worlds approach serves McLaughlin well, proving that a decade into his career he’s still got the songwriting chops to find wider audiences.
Before a Thursday-night show in Minnesota, McLaughlin spoke to Hear! Hear! to discuss that record, the first concept album of his career, his experiences working with LA Reid when he first signed to Island eight years ago, and how his songwriting has evolved over the course of his career.
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I saw on the video you posted online that this is your first time playing Deluxe. Minus all the fireworks you say we won’t be getting, do you have any big plans for the show?
We’ll mix in a little bit of Christmas music, but it’s not an actual holiday show this time. We did our first Christmas tour last year, and we did a bunch of shows at the Jazz Kitchen at the end of that. But we’ll throw in a couple songs this time too. I’ll say we’ll probably play longer than usual since it’s the last show of the tour. We’ve also got an opener, her name is Tess Henley, she’s killer.
On the new album you use the same producer who helYou med Indiana and OK Now, which showcased two sides of your musical personality. This one brings those personalities together. Was that intentional?
The first record with John Fields was during a time where I was in a phase where I wanted to write more on the guitar. Those were the songs that came about at that time, and John is a great guitar player and he can really take that … if you want to do that 80s pop thing, he can take it and run with it all day. So it was a really fun album to make but production-wise it really threw a curve-ball to the fans. So this one we did together, I told him before we even started, ‘here’s the rule for this record — you are not allowed to touch a single guitar unless we both talk about it, sleep on it, and decide this song actually needs it.’ So we approached it very differently. But these songs that we brought in, they were already a lot more piano-based, so I knew going into this record that even though I was going to use the same producer, I suspected the sound I had in mind would go over a lot better with the fans than the last one.
I really liked “You and I” where it starts out with that a cappella opening before you ever hear a note of piano. Did it start out that way or did you just decide it sounded better opening with only the vocals?
Yeah, I wanted it to be all a cappella initially, and maybe we would have some kind of tag thing coming in. We experimented with it, but in the end it felt right to just make it feel very live and raw with the piano coming in later.
That’s a hard thing to pull off, doing anything with just straight vocals, unless you’re a group like Pentatonix where you’ve got all the different voices to work with.
When I went back to listen to OK Now, I found the line from “Four Years” where you said “they tore my high school to the ground / and put a new wing on the East Lot / on my old parking spot.” and that drew me into “Don’t Mess With My Girl” because I noticed that same kind of insecurity projected through almost false confidence. At this point is that just part of your style?
That’s an interesting question. I don’t know if it’s a constant thing where I see it that way or if it’s kind of my persona. It may be a little bit of both. I was doing an interview in DC a couple weeks ago and the guy was being funny but he was going through the lines of “Don’t Mess With My Girl” and he’s like ‘okay, 150 pounds, is this you?’ and I was like ‘that’s not really true. I weigh 160, but 150 sounded funner!’ There’s a little bit in that song that’s the real me, and there’s the part where I take on a character. But that line from “Four Years,” that’s all true. They actually tore my high school to the ground.
Right, I saw that you and a baseball player are the most famous alums of Highland High, but the school doesn’t exist anymore.
Yeah, it exists but it’s a middle school now.
Has it been difficult staying true to your Hoosier roots throughout your songwriting career?
The question I get the most is ‘how do your Hoosier roots influence your music?’ And I don’t think it’s a conscious thing. Someone from Hawaii is Hawaiian but they don’t walk around thinking ‘okay I’m from Hawaii, I’m from Hawaii. I’m ordering a coffee but I’m not doing it as a Hawaiian.’
Everything’s not accompanied by a ukelele.
Exactly! That’s how you picture it but it’s not reality. But being a Hoosier influences who I am to some degree. It’s inevitable because that’s where I’m from and it’s where I’ve lived for thirty years of my life. So I don’t exactly know where Indiana stops and I start, but I think it definitely has influenced who I am as a person. When I’m actually conscious about writing, though, I’m just writing from my perspective.
This is your sixth album. At this point you’ve had plenty of live performance experience and time to stretch in the studio. Which do you prefer, the solace of studio work or fleshing songs out in front of an audience?
Definitely live. They’re both great, the studio can be really under a microscope, but that’s the case for both really. You’re not going to get up on stage and have merely an okay show. At least in my experience it’s either a great show or I really walk off stage and I know it was terrible. And it’s the same in the studio. The goal is to do something magical, so you write this song and and you think the song is ready to be recorded, you’re determined you’ve written the right song. You go into the studio aiming to make a finished song that moves people, and when that doesn’t work you can definitely get into a swamp where a day just feels off, or maybe a couple days. It’s so intense! It’s either intensely awesome or intensely terrible. So I love them both, but playing live is just my favorite thing about being a musician. I absolutely love it.
Do you ever work songs out in front of a crowd before taking them into the studio for that treatment?
I’ve changed my thinking on that. I’ve been on both sides, because I’ve definitely had songs that I’ve played out live as soon as I’ve written them … I get excited so I play it. And I suppose this is a good thing, because sometimes we’ll play a song and realize right away it’s not working. It’s not gonna make the album. But even the ones that feel great, when you go into the studio to record them, we look back on the version we played together before and realize that back when we played it live we didn’t even know how the song could sound. We shouldn’t have even been playing it yet.
It’s interesting that some of the songs you’ve recorded, but didn’t make it on an album, have gone on to work well with other artists. Did you ever imagine one of your songs would go on to be recorded by Beyonce?
That’s actually an interesting story. These two guys, Tricky Stewart and the Dream, they actually wrote that song. And they, along with LA Reid who was running Island/Def Jam at the time, they wanted me to record it. And I listened to the song and I could tell it was a great song but it didn’t sound like me at all. I’d never recorded an outside song, so there was a lot of back and forth, but in the end I wound up going out to Vegas to their studio and recorded it but the whole time it never felt like my song. Before the record came out, and that was slated to be the first single, I wrote “Beating My Heart,” and LA Reid heard the new song and said he liked the song better so let’s make that the lead single.
I bet that made you feel good that he liked your song better than the outside contribution.
Right, it definitely felt more like me. And I’m not saying that “Smash Into You” is a bad song, but it didn’t feel like it fit with me. So my version was out there but Beyonce ended up recording it and it’s become one of those things where the whole story never really got out there.
I thought it was cool that LA Reid actually liked your original songs from your pre-Indiana demo enough that he insisted they make the cut for Indiana because they were his favorites. It seemed you two were a good fit.
Like any record executive versus artist thing, you don’t always see eye to eye. I don’t think that has ever happened, it’s more typical for the artist to be like ‘I want to do this my way, this is what sounds good!’ and the record label says different. And I look back on a lot of those battles and I think ‘they were totally right! That song was terrible! Why was I fighting for that song so much?’ But that “Beating My Heart” situation was a nice situation where I ended up winning that battle and that song was the first single instead of “Smash Into You”.
Is there anything about the new album you would want fans to know but maybe they don’t already know?
The thing with the new album, which I think is definitely evident if you’ve listened to the album front-to-back, this is really the first somewhat concept album I’ve done, if I can call it that. This is a record where I had some songs that were good songs, and they were good enough to make the album but didn’t fit the concept so we didn’t put them on. Whereas in the past, I really just picked the ten, eleven or twelve best songs and made an album, tried to figure a title out that worked. This one actually has a common theme which is a relationship. I wanted to write an album that had all the different emotions involved in the ups and downs of a relationship.
You really nailed it on the closing song, “Walk Away”. It’s hard to write a song about divorce that doesn’t come off as overpowering. It reminded me of a piano songwriter, Lucas Jack, and the songs he’s written in the same vein. He’ll get right down to the bone lyrically, and that seemed what you were going for.
Yeah, that song wasn’t the one I originally wanted to end the album with, on that note lyrically, but musically it’s definitely the way the album needed to end. I’m a sucker for sad songs though.
One last question. I was looking through the list of artists you’ve toured with and Sister Hazel popped up. My wife and I are big fans of them. How did that come about, and what were they like to tour with so early in your career?
They were really the first band that took us out on the road! That was nine, almost ten years ago, and we were with them for most of the summer and some of the fall of 2006. That year we were with them a lot. I love those guys and they will always have a special place in my heart because they were the first guys to take us out and we learned a lot on that tour. The very first show, I don’t even remember where it was but someplace in Florida, but we were playing a show with them and we hadn’t even met them yet. We’re nervous and it was only like the 30th show we’d ever done, and we’re backing our van into the lot and we accidentally backed our trailer into their bus and broke their headlight. We literally hadn’t even said hello, but that was how we introduced ourselves. Of course they were totally fine, they treated us great and I see them every now and then … we’ll go on the Rock Boat and relive that experience.