Andrew McMahon's backstory is filled with all the right dramatic ingredients: a life-threatening bout with leukemia, relationship struggles, life-long Catholic guilt. And the singer/songwriter/guitarist for alt-pop heartthrobs Jack's Mannequin knows his turbulent biography might grab more headlines than his catchy, well-manicured music.
"There's an obsession in the press over what I went through," he says. "It's a good story—and it's always going to be a part of my story."
McMahon started his music career in the late 1990s as the frontman for Something Corporate, bashing out spacey piano ballads laced with his trademark falsetto and capturing MTV audiences with larger-than-life tracks like "Space" and "Me and the Moon." Fast-forward to 2005: McMahon was set to release his solo debut, Everything in Transit, under the Jack's Mannequin moniker. A nasty case of laryngitis sent him to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, leading to a long recovery process and mounting tension in his personal life.
"I had a pretty interesting last five or six years, moving from one trauma to the next for a while there, and to some extent, this new record is sort of clearing the deck of all of that, moving past that," McMahon says. "The Glass Passenger [from 2007] was so much about my recovery and what I encountered recovering from my leukemia, and I think this record is sort of about my recovery from the recovery.... It's sort of a selfish time for obvious reasons, but I had to get myself well. But it didn't play out in a very positive way with my relationships at home and with friends and loved ones, and I think this record is largely about that period of time and what went on during Passenger that I didn't really talk about."
There's a song about that recovery from recovery on the new Jack's Mannequin album, People and Things, due out in October. It's a joyous pop anthem called "Hey Hey Hey (We're All Gonna Die)," originally written for The Glass Passenger but cut from the final tracklist. In its shout-along chorus, the track twists vivid plane crash imagery into a life-affirming message of celebrating the few moments we have.
"I was in Philadelphia with my band, and we were on fire, and then I got f--king sick, and it sucked," McMahon says, explaining the song's inspiration. "But then you hit the chorus, and it's like, ‘Everybody, listen up real quick.' Something like this is going to happen to everybody at some point in their life. And we can focus on it and talk it to death, or we can just say, ‘You know what? It's going to happen! Let's celebrate.'"
At 29, McMahon has settled into marriage, domestication, and consistency.
"I always want my records to be honest as to where I am in my life," he says. "With this album, the people around me in my world are starting to get older now. My friends are getting married and moving in with their partners, and it's just that moment when you go from, ‘Yeah, okay, I'm an adult' to "Okay, now I actually have some responsibilities!" I know it's not necessarily a sexy subject matter for a lot of people, but for me, part of the challenge and the excitement behind this record was trying to find the universal truth in that, and this idea of sticking and not running when it gets hard, being in love in a way that is really deep and connective and keeps you there, that doesn't make you run in the other direction when you want to at times. There's something very powerful about that."
"My Racing Thoughts," the glistening lead single from People and Things, marked a change in McMahon's songwriting. Not only is it musically infectious (featuring input from veteran producers Jim Scott and Rob Cavallo), but it's also a signpost for his current lyrical headspace, doling out portions of the Catholic guilt that originated from his church-filled childhood ("I was raised in the church/But I couldn't practice what they preach") and the struggle of trying to wrangle art from domesticity.
"I don't want to get too personal, but a lot of artists, when they first get married, go through this period of fear," he says. "Because for a lot of artists, being able to constantly source new love and new romance and these things, they're fiery subjects, but that's not really life. You can run around, but you miss out on so much of what life is really about. And in a way, this record is really about reconciling that and finding inspiration in something deeper and something that doesn't maybe force your hand all the time, but if you really choose to look it, put it under a microscope, it's amazing."