“In much of my meditation now and my sobriety, it’s just being present. It’s one day at a time. And I guess that’s maybe the greatest gift I’ve gotten from recovery. It’s just, man, tomorrow is not promised to anyone. So, that’s kinda just the way I see things now.”
Michael McDermott is marking 30 years of penning some of the most poignant and personal songs any songwriter has ever had the gift and guts to write. In addition, he’s celebrating six years of sobriety. Aside from commemorating these monumental personal and professional milestones, the Chicago-based singer-songwriter can symbolically lay claim to be a clairvoyant of sorts with the June 5th release of his oh-so appropriately titled album What in The World… (available on Amazon).
The ten-track collection is a sonic and lyrical kaleidoscope covering a wide swath of sounds and subject matter tailor-made for the troubled times we’re experiencing. McDermott has climbed over and crashed into more than his share of figurative walls in his time, and with every lessoned learned come out the other side with his muse and music intact. I recently spoke with McDermott about What in the World….
Photo Credit: Darin Black
Let’s talk some music. The new album What in The World kicks off with the title track, which includes the line “Dark days are coming for the USA.” I’d argue that they’re already here, so…
Tell me, is this song an anthem? Is it a battle cry? Is it a protest song? A call to arms?
Yeah, I don’t know, that’s a good question. And it’s funny because I tried different wordings with that, you know, because I had all these lyrics. The verses were all kind of moveable pieces. I was kind of moving stuff and kind of tinkering with them as it went on. So, the song was kinda like, “what in the world is happening here.” There was no chorus. And I thought, you know, it needs something, so, when I stubbled upon the chorus, then I thought, well jeez man. I don’t like despondent music, you know. What’s the point? So, yeah, I was troubled by that last line, and tinkered with it and I tried to make it optimistic, like good days are coming. That made no sense. So yeah, it was the only thing that seemed authentic to me and true to how I really felt because, keep in mind this had been a song that I’d had for a couple years. Maybe not a couple of years, but over a year or so, and had I known the state of things, like, okay the week the song actually is made public, here’s what America is gonna look like. I would have been like, holy sh*t! I think it’s a, yeah, a battle cry. I like that. I like battle cry. Yeah.
Good. Yeah, and it’s the state of the union now, unfortunately.
It is. Because it’s not even like a pointing a finger at Trump necessarily. It’s what it’s become, and obviously we could debate that, but you know it’s been a long time coming. And I’ve also said I’d be glad never to sing this song again after November, but the question is, what’s gonna change? Everyone’s so eager to get back to their lives, you know now with the pandemic and I look at these people – people I know, people I’m friends with – (and think), you seemed like a pretty miserable f**k before this. What are you looking to get back to, man? You know, why are we trying to rebuild Babylon? But what an opportunity this is to really make seismic shifting change. And I don’t see it. But it’s lovely to think about.
I am hopeful. I am (in) a glass half-full kinda space now. But I will gladly never sing this song again if I feel that it’s outdated or antiquated. I’ll be glad to put it aside forever (laughs).
Let me reference another line here and then jump right into my next question. The one that stood out for me is, “The truth here is in danger. Treachery, treason, fiction or fear.” So, after taking us to the proverbial ledge there, you kind of took your foot off the tempo throttle certainly for the 5:30 ride to (the song) “New York, Texas.” Those vocals and the vibe of that song is obviously a U-turn from the first…
The vocals go from a scream to a whisper, right?
Yeah. That song was a struggle for me, actually. You know, like sometimes it’s like an indie movie in your head and I didn’t know how to tell it. So, it was really tough. I had it as a piano ballad for awhile and I had it just musically different. And I had a different story. But it was something I just kinda saw and I’m just thrilled with how it turned out because it’s just like a weird, like this kinda cautionary tale. You don’t really know what happens and if they’re ever going to make it, or if their just dilutional. So, yes, I love that song. It’s very American in nature, I think. But I kinda didn’t mind turning up the guitars on that one and being kind of a little big shouldered on that.
Yeah, like a lot of your songs its just another one that puts the listener, I think, like sitting on the next barstool, or sitting in the backseat of a car in the case of this song.
I was along for the ride as much as anybody, really. And then when she was pregnant I kinda shouted, Oh no! I can’t have her be pregnant. This complicates the whole story! But it was funny, I remember laughing at it, being kinda like annoyed that she was gonna be pregnant.
Well speaking of barstools, I guess, “Blue Eyed Barmaid” (laughs)…
(Laughs) Perfect segue!
Yeah! Again, sonically to me it has a lilting kind of Paul Simon-like guitar and vocals.
Yeah. I wasn’t sure it was gonna make the record. I like the song. It’s a fictional tale. You know, I’ve written so many songs about drinking, which I have just no interest in. And it’s even hard for me to sing my old drinking songs. It seems so disinteresting to me, so I thought how about a sober guy, a recovering guy, walks into a bar. That was always kinda the jumping point for like every song I wrote (laughs) for like 30 years, and now it’s like, okay a sober guy walks into a bar. Why does he go into a bar? Because it’s raining and he had to duck in. So, there’s kind of a reference to my nephew, which we’ll talk about in (track five) “The Veils of Veronica.” He was the soldier that did two tours and had PTSD and he appears again in “Veils of Veronica” because my nephew committed suicide and then two days later his sister did. And that’s kinda more “The Veils of Veronica” story, but even just having that reference to Ryan in there, it kind of swayed me a little bit to put it on the record.
So, let’s jump to “Veils,” which I was gonna ask you about. And actually, I was gonna combine this question with (track six) “Die with Me.” One of the many outstanding qualities of course that you possess as a songwriter is honesty. In my opinion, these two songs are probably the most personal songs on this or any album…
I don’t have a specific question about either of these songs – and you started it – so go for it.
They are honest. So, “Die with Me” was something I don’t know if I can really go into too much. For me it was kind of just about a generational trauma. And the trauma we all suffer really in lots of ways. And that doesn’t have to be abuse. You know, it could be just, you know, emotional neglect, or not being loved the way we wanted to be loved as children. Or not getting the attention we wanted. And those things are generational. The more I’ve dug into my own recovery the more I found out about that. So, “Die with Me” was just about, it’s ending with me. I am not gonna perpetuate the things that have befallen me. No way! So, that’s that. And “Veils of Veronica,” June 1st and June 3rd of 2019 in a span of three days my niece and my nephew both committed suicide by gun. So, it was an incomprehensible few days. Erin and I – Erin who died on the 3rd – we had a lot of things in common about addiction and self-abuse. I tried to help her on many occasions unsuccessfully, but we had that bond, you know. And she had reached out to (McDermott’s wife) Heather within the hour of her killing herself. And what hurts me most was that she said that she was really calling for me and we didn’t get the call. It went to voicemail. And my last interaction with Erin was, she came over and she was drunk, and I was very short with her. I shouldn’t have behaved the way I did. I was cold. Maybe generationally cold. So, yeah, I regret that for as long I live. I think they’re back-to-back, so I thought let’s just tackle it now. I thought of, just like, let’s get into it and take a deep dive here and then we’ll come out the other side.
Let me jump back to “The Things You Want.” Buckle in here, brother…
I’m curious why you would include the (Bruce) Springsteen and (Bob) Dylan reference when years ago those would be the last names you would want to hear.
(Laughs) Yeah, I know! Crazy! Because I’m not bright, Jim (laughs). Yeah, I don’t know. It was just conversational. As a writer I write lots of dialog and it just came to me. And then, so you know I do worry about certain Springsteen things or Dylan things. I mean, in “What in The World…” I literally used the word “Subterranean” in the song that was an homage to (Dylan’s) “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” And then people go, oh it’s like Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” That is not the song that it was referencing (laughing). I used “Subterranean,” did I have to use “Homesick,” too? So, using Springsteen and Dylan: yes, years ago I would have avoided it like the plague, or like I owed it money. So, now it’s almost, come on let’s – we all see the elephant – let’s go ahead and talk about it.
Let’s talk about “Contender.” You say, “I became a slave of doubt.” How free of doubt are you today?
Ooh! Well, doubt is a great friend of any kind of drug or drink, so I mean I think that I’m freer from it because those things aren’t there. You know I’m still just gripped with it. I don’t know what’s good at all anymore. I’d be curious to ask somebody – I’d be curious if you’ve asked them – somebody who’s written so much, I wonder if they struggle with the same thing of just like, have we tread this terrain before? Like, have we been here? It sounds familiar to me. Because you forget. So, I am very gripped with doubt still.
So, the first time I heard (track eight) “Mother Emanuel”…
Confession time here for me – I was not prepared to hear what came out of my headphones.
I was expecting something much more solemn musically…
Can you explain why I was not prepared to hear…
Yeah. It’s a weird song. It is, and I wasn’t prepared the way it came out either. Honestly. I don’t know, it just seemed like it had different parts. You know, like were they being forced together in a non-organic way? So, I was pretty sure I had missed the mark on this one. What got me to believe in it again was that everyone thought that it sounded just very different for me, and unique, and maybe that’s a way of saying it wasn’t very good (laughs). But I took it as to be like, this is really fascinating in some ways. And because the story has no real answers in it. And then I reached out to the pastor of Mother Emanuel and he – and I’ll say rightfully so – was cold to the idea, but I couldn’t kinda let it go. So yeah, it’s a weird piece of music. It’s probably the weirdest I’ve done.
But I like it.
So, here’s the question: would you consider ever going back and doing an acoustic version or something?
So, I’m doing these (online venue) Stageit shows for the release and I’m gonna get into it this week and see how it goes and try to come up with another way of presenting the story.
Okay, cool. Let’s see, (track nine) “No Matter What” is what I would call my (NBC TV show) This Is Us song from this album. I assume you get the reference.
Well it’s a TV show, right?
It’s a TV show. It’s a brilliant TV show!
Is it? Oh, I didn’t know. Okay. Yeah, I need something good to watch. I’ve kind of binged everything already.
The music synchs up with the lyrics perfectly. A line like, “your worth it, don’t give up.”
Yeah, this is a song that was also kind of sparked by the tragedy in June, you know. It’s a song I wished I could have had written. That event got me to write it. I’ve lost a lot of people, but in this one obviously it was family and it was just so violent. It shook me. And I had these two kinda ideas. One was almost a funny song about my buffoonery as a drinker, and then it gets into this mantra-like thing at the end which I think makes the whole song. I mean the whole song is just the end. You know, with the “don’t give up, no matter what, you’re worth it, you’re worth it.” The other stuff is just kinda the setup to the payoff. That’s a big one for me. I like that one a lot.
Two more here for you. “Until I Found You” sounds like a long thank you card to someone who saved your life.
Yeah, and (Michael’s wife) Heather (Horton), we joke onstage, she’s like, “You know, I gotta sing all these songs about other women Michael’s written for,” and people laugh and it’s kind of a joke, but I think on some level it must be annoying. Aww, that’s a really nice way of putting it, a thank you card. So, it’s just a sweet song. I really borders on being too romantic almost for my taste, you know, but it’s a high wire walk where I walk to the ledge and kinda went woah, woah, woah, but I like it.
The line that sticks out to me is, “Scattered like broken glass were all the things I needed most.” That’s a great, great line.
Aww, thanks Jimmy.
So, the album closer is “Positively Central Park”. (Sample lyric: “If you knew you had just one day left/I bet you wouldn’t waste your breath.”) If you knew you had just one day left of course, what would you do and say?
Yeah. I mean I think really at the heart of almost everything I’ve written is kinda this theme of…you know Woody Allen would say everything he writes is just questioning God or questioning the existence of God. Every movie he’s ever made is just questioning the existence of God. Which is funny because I think that’s kind of how I feel about some of it because that’s kinda the same question I find as I’m typing away like a mad man. That’s kinda the thing that always comes up. I’ve had a very complicated relationship with faith. And it’s changed. And I think I like it better now. Some would say, boy he’s fallen away from the church or whatever, but it’s not even about that for me. In much of my meditation now and my sobriety, it’s just being present. It’s one day at a time. And I guess that’s maybe the greatest gift I’ve gotten from recovery. It’s just, man, tomorrow is not promised to anyone. So, that’s kinda just the way I see things now. I meditate every morning for 20 minutes. Does it help me? I don’t know. But I think it does. If I think it does, then it does. So, if they think going and getting on their knees or putting their hands up in the air and praising Jesus is gonna help them then that’s their thing. And I can’t make fun of them.
Alright, man, take care.
Alright brother. Thanks man.