Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Exclusive: Interview with Jon McLaughlin

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(Jon McLaughlin, Me)

Fresh on the heels of his show stopping performance at this year’s Academy Awards, singer/songwriter Jon McLaughlin is ready to burst onto the scene as the next musical American heartthrob. Having his music featured on countless television shows and movie soundtracks, McLaughlin is gearing up for the release of his sophomore album and his takeover of the charts. Right before his packed headlining show at the renowned Bowery Ballroom venue in New York City on July 14th, he took some time out to talk to me about touring, the new record, tabloids, and yes, his bulge.

AN: You have toured alongside some of the biggest names in the music industry, including Kelly Clarkson, Sara Bareilles, OneRepublic, Duffy, Paolo Nutini, and Colbie Caillat. How different is it for you this time around that you’re headlining?

JM: It’s a lot different actually. A headlining tour as opposed to opening up is for me … there are many pros and cons. When you’re opening up, the pros and cons of opening a show are, the good thing is that you don’t have to be responsible for everything. You know like everything is not on your shoulders, like if the show tanks, the promoter’s not coming after you. So you get to, or at least I’ve got to tour and open up with some really great artists who pull in a lot of people so you don’t have to worry about a crowd being there. I love the aspect of, or the idea of getting up on stage as an opening band and having no expectation. Like most of the people out there don’t even know who you are, they have no expectation of you, if anything they’re expecting to probably not listen to you or like you. And I love getting up on a stage and trying to win them over because it’s just fun, everything is light, they don’t have any expectation of you, you don’t really have any expectation of them, you just do your thing. You either love it or you hate it, it’s like you’re just putting it out there, you know? And on a headlining tour there are pros and cons as well because it’s, it’s … the greatest thing about a headlining tour is, like the other night we were in Philadelphia, you know you can play a song and you can kind of just step away from the microphone, keep playing and the crowd sings your song. Which is really the ultimate goal in this whole thing, like that right there – being in a room playing a song that you’ve written and having this room full of people you’ve never met in your life singing these thoughts you’ve written down. I mean you can get a bigger room and more people, but that’s it, that’s the end game of this whole deal. You get that when you’re headlining and you don’t necessarily get that when you’re opening up. It’s fun though, you get to play longer, you get to jam a little more, you don’t have to watch the clock. I definitely would take a headlining tour over an opening tour but whenever I go out on an opening slot, I’m just kind of like stress free, nothing can bother me in the world.

AN: Did you know that both you and Kelly (Clarkson) had songs titled “Beautiful Disaster” when you embarked on the tour with her or was that just a weird coincidence?
JM: I did know that. I knew that she had a song “Beautiful Disaster,” after I wrote it though. I heard it somewhere - I heard like an acoustic version of it and I really liked it actually. And I think that I had heard her studio band version, but I just didn’t pick up on it being the same name. It is kind of funny though, but I don’t think she ever played it on that tour, so it was okay (laughs).

AN: This past year has been pretty big for you, a lot of it attributing to the fact that you were featured in the hit Disney film “Enchanted.” The song you sang in the movie, “So Close,” went on to be nominated for an Oscar and you actually got to perform it at the Academy Awards this year. In fact, sales of your first album increased by 1,514% overnight after that performance. What was it like singing on that stage in front of practically every big name in Hollywood?
JM: It was ridiculous. In a way it was like a nice break, a nice vacation. Obviously it’s a crazy, not normal event and it’s amazing to be a part of something like that. Just to be able to go was amazing. It was cool, we went in for a whole week, we got to do rehearsals everyday, which I loved because I loved being in that theater and being around everybody. I wanted to do rehearsals everyday. That part of it was a little, as compared to what I do normally, was a lot less stressful because we don’t have any gear, I just show up and sing and that’s it. You either like it or you don’t. But actually going to the Academy Awards was like going to the senior prom times a million, going to your senior prom with like Penelope Cruz and George Clooney. It’s just crazy, there’s no way to explain it. Hopefully I’ll get to go again.

AN: Your new album “OK Now” is being released on October 7th, and on your website, you say you went into the recording studio with the “intent on undergoing both a musical and stylistic transformation.” What can we expect to be different on this album from your first record “Indiana”?
JM: Um, It’s not going to be as “Jon sits down on the piano for 12 songs” kind of thing. I get away from the piano a little bit. It’s kind of just a little more extreme. I feel as a whole, as far as a piano player I just pick my shots a little more, or a little better. There are some songs that are definitely piano based and a little more piano solo type things, but there are some songs I didn’t even play piano on. Most of the record I didn’t even write on piano, I wrote on guitar and I think that comes across in the production as well. We kind of did more 80’s vibe, synthesizer, guitar stuff and didn’t stick to the same thing. Like the last record that I did, I wanted every song to be piano, bass, drums, guitar, organ, and that’s it, nothing else. Maybe some strings and that’s it. And on this one, for whatever reason, I was just down with doing some different stuff, like maybe I won’t play piano on this, maybe this song doesn’t have to start out with solo piano and then the band comes in. I just kind of got tired of that and wanted to switch it up a little bit and use some synthesizer, use some different sounds and make it a little bigger. It’s definitely more pop and it’s a direction I didn’t see myself going in at all two years ago, it’s almost the opposite direction, but it works and it was necessary I think.

AN: So were you worried about your fans’ reactions to this change in sound, as opposed to just releasing an “Indiana” part two?
JM: Um, a little bit. We’ve already gotten a little bit of feedback from fans saying “where’s the piano?” The first single, even though it does technically start out with a piano, it’s not piano based. And I knew that was inevitable, but that happens with every record. Every record that a band does, I would say like 95% on the next record are like “where’s the last record?” And they’re like “we’re still selling it, this is just a new record.” Which is just a tendency, people want “Indiana” again – different songs but “Indiana.” They’re just like stay there, we don’t want anymore, we got it, we got who you are just do it again. And it’s fine. It’s just growing pains. I’m not worried about the fans once they get the full record, loving the record because I would not put it out if it weren’t ready, if it weren’t up to what I feel like is a standard where I’m not wasting people’s time and money. I just wouldn’t put it out, what’s the point?

AN: You recruited help from many new people on this album including Grammy winners Tricky and The-Dream who helmed Rihanna’s 2007 anthem “Umbrella” and John Fields, who has produced hits for bands such as Lifehouse and The Jonas Brothers. In the future if there was anyone you could work with on a third album, who would it be?
JM: Ohh, I don’t know. There are so many. That’s almost a thing that’s a real question because even though I won’t make another record for a few years I should probably start thinking about it now because there are so many great people out there. I worked with John Fields on this record on all but one song, and I worked with him because I heard this band named Rooney, I heard the record they just did with him and after I heard that record, I was like “he has to be the guy to make this record.” And because of that, every time you hear a great record you’re like, who produced it? What a genius! There are all kinds of guys out there. So, if I had to pick an artist to collaborate in the studio with, I feel like I would want to get together with the band The Raconteurs and I would want to record the record as them being the band and them as the producers, and we all just get in the studio, all 5 of us, for a month and see what happens.

AN: Based on the tracks that I’ve heard so far from “Ok Now”, I find it extremely interesting because it’s so clearly a modern pop/rock record, but there’s still something very vintage about it in the sense that it throws me back and makes me think if The BeeGees or Billy Joel were still making music today, this is what it would sound like. That being said, who would you cite as your biggest influences in making this album?
JM: Well the song that you’re referring to, I’m sure, is “You Can Never Go Back,” and I wrote that with the sole intent of writing a Billy Joel song. 1978 – what would Billy Joel write? And it turned out to be that and the verse of the chorus brings a little old feel, but the whole thing is a definite throwback to a 70’s/80’s kind of thing. And I think that’s where Fields came in. I think that the writing as a song, lyrically especially, it’s a throwback, and then Fields came in with his sound that somehow in the end, we managed to have something that gets the point across of where we wanted to go but doesn’t feel like it’s not relevant or that we’re trying too hard to go back there.
AN: Yeah, definitely. Even when I heard the first single, “Beating My Heart,” I thought it sounded kind of like a very new wave U2 meets Coldplay.
JM: Yeah! You know that’s the other thing I can accredit Fields to because I did not go into the studio thinking U2 at all, and it just ended up with U2 all over the record. There are a lot of influences for sure that came into play. Whereas I came into the studio with “Indiana” first off thinking Ben Folds, Billy Joel, and Elton John – no one else will influence this record. Then on this one, I just walked in kind of open to whatever and you get all kinds of artists in mind.

AN: I read that one track on your record, “You Are The One I Love,” was inspired by the tabloid coverage of fellow singer Amy Winehouse’s troubled relationship with her husband Blake. What about their relationship and the way the media handles it inspired you to write this song?
JM: Well I wrote that song with a guy named Jason Reeves who I met in L.A. one day to write. I don’t know why but I think we just got online, he just opened his computer. We hadn’t written anything yet and his default page was CNN or something like that, and there was a picture of her on the cover. It was back in December when they got into that big fight and there were all those pictures of her and bloody feet, just like weird disturbing stuff. We just read it for fun and were like “haha this is so crazy,” and then we read some of the quotes she said about Blake and how she had cancelled her tour because he’s in jail and she can’t live without the guy. We kind of were like “wow, this is a really crazy and messed up passionate love affair”, which was kind of cool. The song that we wrote is not exactly what you would expect if someone were to tell you this was a song written inspired by the tabloids, written about Amy and Blake. We focused more on that they really love each other, and there’s kind of a cool love story there in the midst of bloody shoes (laughs).

AN: Speaking of tabloids, since your introduction into the limelight at the Oscars and being named one of Us Weekly’s “10 Hot Guys Of Summer,” have you had to deal with much of the dreaded Hollywood paparazzi or negative press on gossip blogs and such?
JM: Well, you know there’s been some stuff. There was some tabloid stuff after the Oscars. There was some stuff dealing with … I’m going to blush when I say this … dealing with a website, I can’t remember what it’s called, something like bigbulge.com or something like that. Someone sent some picture in making reference to my bulge. Someone took a picture of a rehearsal that we did, and I swear the picture is … is a little … like I think they got into Photoshop a little bit and pulled some stuff out. But that was the only blog thing. One of my friends found it and I was a little more concerned that they found it then it was actually there because what are you doing on bigbulge.com? (laughs).

AN: That’s so odd, haha. So as someone who grew up in a conservative Midwestern home, has the transition from Indiana to the L.A. scene affected your music at all?
JM: Yeah, actually. I think a lot of the music I’ve written in the past three years has been influenced by that change. On the last record, the song “Indiana” is actually a song about the music industry. It comes off as a song about a girl but the girl in its’ true meaning is the music industry and being accepted and being loved by the music industry. On this record, the song that is kind of the “Indiana” of this record is a song called “The Middle” which basically is my song of me just wanting to go home sometimes, just wanting to go back to the Midwest and kind of just chill out a little bit. Everyone’s just kind of a little more chill, it’s like everybody’s cool with just going to the bowling alley Wednesday night and going to there 9-5’s and having barbeques on Saturdays, you know whatever. It’s like the whole middle of this country is suburban and obviously that’s home to me.

AN: You also recently recorded a song with Jason Mraz for Randy Jacksons’ first production album. What was it like working with such industry heavy-hitters and how were you approached to lay down this track?
JM: It was completely, like, what’s the word? As half-hazard as it could get. I was doing an interview with Randy on his radio show and literally I just stopped in, drove over to his studio, I’d go in we did the interview, I can’t remember if we were done or we were still on the air and Randy was like “So you’re in LA, so what are you doing tonight?” and I was like “nothing” and he was like “You want to come by my studio and record a song?” and I said “sure” and that was it. So I was like “what time” and he’s like “why don’t you come by around, whatever, 9?” So I went by, he was there eating cereal I think, we were there for like an hour, recorded the song. I had never heard the song before, I just came in, listened the song, recorded it and left, and that was it. It was kind of crazy. It was one of those things where you wake up the next day and you’re not sure if it actually happened.

AN: On this tour, should we be expecting to hear more songs from “Ok Now," “Indiana,” or is it half and half?
JM: Um, it’s not quite half and half. It’s a little … it’s almost half and half, maybe it is half and half. As much as I would want to play the entire record of “Ok Now” I realize it’s not out yet. That’s like the hardest thing in the world because you just want to play the new stuff. Yeah, we’re doing about half and half. I’m only playing the ones from “Indiana” that are our staple live songs.

AN: So are you going to do another headlining tour after the record comes out?
JM: Probably, yeah. We didn’t hit as many markets on this tour as we could have, so that leaves us a lot of room to hit those markets in the fall. I’m not exactly sure what the fall is going to be like, we’re kind of weighing our options right now but I think that it would be important for me to go out and do another nationwide headlining tour afterwards.

AN: So then for my final question, what song from the new record are you most excited about having your fans hear?
JM: (Pauses) I think that you’re trying to ask me what my favorite is in a way that where you’re not asking my favorite, because you probably always get “oh no I don’t have any favorites, they’re like my kids, I can’t choose a favorite.” I’m not sure if that’s true, I think you can choose a favorite.
AN: Well in terms of playing live, for example?
JM: You know I don’t know because it really changes. We could be really excited about one song at first and then on another song maybe we change something up the slightest bit and now that’s my new favorite song. As far as right now, on the record there’s a song called “We All Need Saving,” that’s probably the one I’m most excited to get feedback on and for my fans to hear because it sticks out on the record as an acapella kind of thing, and definitely the kind of calm song on the record.

AN: Alright, well thanks so much for your time, I’m really looking forward to hearing the new album!
JM: Yeah, thanks a lot man, I appreciate it!

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