When Andrew McMahon takes the stage at this summer as the opening act for Billy Joel’s sold-out show at Progressive Field, it won’t be the first time that the two have crossed paths.
McMahon was in the audience on April 1, 1994 as a fan, watching Joel’s concert at the grand opening of Gund Arena. Living in the Columbus area at the time, where he was still in grade school, he commuted to the show, his first ever, and it became something he would later look back on as an important trigger.
“It changed my life completely. I had been writing songs at that point for about a year, maybe two,” McMahon, now 34, recalls during a recent phone conversation from his California home. “I think that passion for writing moved from just a passion for writing into, you know, ‘I want to get on a stage somehow and find a way to do this professionally.’ It was one of those moments and I think we have a handful of them in our lives where all of the sudden you sort of see a little bit more of your path. I was awfully young for that, but it was defining. And certainly, years later, going back to see him, it occurred to me how many of my moves I had actually stolen. [Laughs] They were sort of embedded from that very first concert and had just stuck with me.”
He had already identified his instrument of choice, thanks to the piano that his parents had in their living room. He found that it was a place that he felt instantly comfortable. “There was just something about that circuit of hands on the keys and singing a song.” Early mentors like Joel, Bruce Hornsby, Elton John and Ben Folds would help demonstrate where he could take things with that piano.
“Those were the guys who were real rockstars. You know, you could look to [them] on a stage or you could see [them on television],” he remembers. “I watched the documentary that Billy had put out at that point and all of the different specials. He had like a PBS special and I remember just thinking, ‘Wow, this guy is electric.’ Especially as a kid who plays piano, this is somebody who is not just playing the piano. I mean, some of those shows that he put on where he’s swinging across the stage on a rope or walking on his hands or crowd-surfing, you know, it sets a high bar, and it also says that the piano doesn’t have to be this stately classical instrument. It can also lend itself to real rock 'n' roll.”
The week that the Piano Man’s camp reached out to offer up the opening slot to McMahon was the same week that he had pulled out Joel’s greatest hits album to play it for his young daughter Cecilia for the first time. It was a cool full circle moment for the singer-songwriter, who will also open several other Joel stadium shows this summer.
Before all of that comes around, he’s got his own headlining tour — one which will bring him through Cleveland for his latest sold out show at the House of Blues, so he hasn’t had a lot of time to think — or worry about how he’s going to approach the Joel gigs.
“I’m so deeply dug into learning the material from the new record right now and getting the show together for the headlining tour,” he says. “The thought has definitely crossed my mind and not to say that I find it daunting, but you know, it’s certainly a gig that you want to play right. So I’ve got one more week of these rehearsals to get us ready for the headlining tour. As we embark on that tour and sort of get that show together, we’ll probably start working during soundchecks to prepare ourselves for the first one of those gigs, which will happen in April.”
Similar to Joel, he found himself in a New York state of mind when he started making plans to work on his latest album, Zombies on Broadway
. McMahon, who logged time in the Orange County-based piano-driven rock band Something Corporate starting in the late '90s, later went solo with his own projects, Jack’s Mannequin and more recently, Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness. He decided in the summer of 2015 that he would book time in New York City to work on the second Wilderness album. It was a purposeful move for McMahon, who had been diagnosed with leukemia in 2005 in New York (he received a stem cell transplant and eventually fully recovered) not long after wrapping up work on the first Jack’s album that same year. He wanted to return to the area to explore unfinished business and hopefully put a few ghosts away in the process.
“There was certainly an effort to put to rest some of these old fears and things that went along with my time in the city,” he says. “I don’t know if I was doing that successfully in the process, but I think that in retrospect as I kind of look back at this record, I think I’ve made my peace with the city. And I think that was my hope going out there, was to say, ‘Hey, let’s make something beautiful. Let’s put a new life into the city for yourself.’ For me, now I think I just as closely associate New York City with this record as I do with some of the more difficult times that go along with having been diagnosed out there and everything that went along with that.”
Zombies on Broadway
reveals that McMahon has once again raised his game, both musically and lyrically, particularly on songs like “Love and Great Buildings,” a sleeper track that pops up late in the album’s track listing, painting a vivid visual of the heart as an apartment building — and the challenges that those “high rise dreams” present. It’s one of a number of tracks on the album where he found himself drawing inspiration from his surroundings.
“That was me sitting in a rented apartment in Brooklyn,” he explains. “I was staring out at another building and realizing, Wow, there are these parallels between living a good life and having real love in your life to these incredible pieces of architecture that are out there, especially in the city where I wrote this music.”
Interestingly enough, some of the most New York-centric material on the record developed after he had departed to head back home to California.
“I eventually found myself wandering back home from the city,” he laughs. “It was an adventure to say the least, but there was definitely a moment where I said, ‘Okay, I’ve had enough of New York and I need to see the sun again and get myself back to the West Coast.’ But surprisingly, it was there that I think I wrote some of the most ‘New York’ inspired tracks. ‘Brooklyn, You’re Killing Me’ and ‘Island Radio’ were sort of written in L.A. and recorded out here, I think as a reaction to my experience in the city. That was definitely how the record kind of concluded, by bringing my experience in New York back to Los Angeles and recording with some Los Angeles friends.”
Thanks to the success of songs like “Cecilia and the Satellite” (which he penned for his daughter) and the debut album, which peaked at #21 on the Billboard album charts, McMahon decided to see if he could use that positive momentum as leverage to attract some new collaborators for this latest Wilderness release that he previously considered out of his reach.
“Can we get ourselves in the room with some people who wouldn’t otherwise get in the room with me? Certainly, working with Robopop, who had done a bunch of stuff with Lana Del Rey and [working] with Gregg Wattenberg [who produced most of the Zombies album], those guys were incredible,” he says. “Ben Romans and CJ Baran, Tommy English, who did the BØRNS record. You know, those were all guys that it was like, wow, let’s take advantage of this opportunity and get into a space with some creative minds that might be able to further this mission of making big music. That was a huge part of this process.”
That “big music” left McMahon and his band with some homework, as they worked at figuring out how to dissect what had been created in the studio to bring it to the stage. Playing songs like “Fire Escape” (the initial single) and “So Close” (a Nile Rodgers-worthy “instantaneous dance party”) live at several early shows, they quickly found that they had hit the mark.
“There’s been this element of man vs. machine and trying to figure out how to dig into these tracks and take some of the programmed elements, but make them live and not have to keep everything chained to a backing track and stuff like that,” he says. “Finding those moments and those elements, it’s been a challenge, but it’s also been awesome. Particularly ‘So Close,’ that chorus has the highest note I’ve sung I think in any of my songs over the course of the 16 years. It’s been a challenge and finally getting to that place, where it’s like, okay, you’re going to hit that high note, the highest note you’ve written to any song. Doing that with the guys, with Mikey [“The Kid” Wagner] singing backup and stuff, it’s been a lot of fun.”
Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness, Atlas Genius, Night Riots, 6:30 p.m. Friday, March 31, House of Blues, 308 Euclid Ave., 216-523-2583. Tickets: $27.50-$37.50, houseofblues.com.