On an unseasonably warm day this spring, Indiana native and Disney-friendly pop star Jon McLaughlin explains why he's returned to Indiana. Los Angeles hasn't exactly beaten up the singer-songwriter, whose major label deal remains intact, and who even found some screen time, notably in the film Enchanted, a song from which he performed live during the 2008 Oscars.
"I love Indiana," he smiles, sipping a glass of pink lemonade, lounging on a restaurant deck. "Like today. Today's the perfect day. I mean, look at this," he motions to the people walking along Broad Ripple Avenue with their strollers and puppies, and puppies in strollers.
Over the past three years, McLaughlin has stomped a nice little footprint in the ever-shifting sands of pop-rock. He signed a major deal with Island Def Jam Records in 2006, which released his freshman attempt, Indiana. The album hit #81 on Billboard's Top 200.
Two years later, McLaughlin's sophomore go-round, OK Now, debuted at #49 and went on to sell upwards of 100,000 copies.
As of 2008, McLaughlin had the attention of the music industry and fans everywhere, with Billboard's Chuck Taylor declaring, "It's high time for singer/songwriter Jon McLaughlin to earn his due." So, what was his next step?
A new routine
Six months ago, smack dab in the middle of writing his third album, McLaughlin and his wife packed up their Malibu swag pad. McLaughlin says the opportunity to see friends and family without traveling cross-country was a big draw, as was, it would seem, a generally less frenetic way of life. But he also says the move was about making music in a different way.
"I feel like I haven't done a record yet that gives the best portrayal of the sound that I want," he says."Going into this record...I didn't want to do it the way we did the other ones. "
The creative process McLaughlin used on both of his studio albums was heavily collaborative and often rushed, with the second record largely being crafted while he toured in support of the first. This time around, he wanted things to feel different right from the start.
"I just wanted to go off by myself and write for a year," he says, waving his hand through the air to illustrate his plan's simplicity.
McLaughlin spent the first half of his writing sabbatical in Malibu. For the second half, he's been back in Carmel.
"This is my day," he elaborates. "I will wake up whenever. I will go and get some hot tea. And then I'll go upstairs in my little studio. I'll sit my tea down on my piano, open my computer up, and I'll go into this world of emails, and Facebook, and writing songs and practicing...and then the day's over."
He says that this more secluded life is allowing him to find a different sound.
"This record's definitely better than anything I've done so far. I feel the most connected to it," he says. He says he's trying to recapture the sound of his first efforts as a singer-songwriter. "If you had gone to a show back in the day, this would be more like that."
And as it just so happens, I know exactly what he's talking about.
Anderson U BMOC
On an evening in fall 2003, at a little Muncie coffee shop, I stood on my chair and craned my neck to see above the 200 other Anderson University co-eds who had packed themselves in to see a performance by one of their own. Having just released his first album, Up Until Now, on the school's student-run label Orangehaus, McLaughlin was a BMOC amplified. Being the lowly freshman that I was, I had never met him (or even seen him up close), but the girl in the dorm room next to me guaranteed he'd be worth the $5 cover charge that evening.
"He's so hot," she promised.
Not that I caught a glimpse of McLaughlin that night. But I sipped my latte and listened.
McLaughlin's instrumentation told me he played piano rock—bright, melodic, emotional, catchy. His vocals told me he played soul— throaty but smooth, with a fall-off here, a well-placed melisma there. His up-tempo numbers employed funky bass lines, unusual and intelligent chord progressions and technical key solos. His ballads reminded us why the piano might just be the most romantic instrument. Hot or not (a later run-in at the library would confirm the former), McLaughlin could play.
I remember thinking that night about Billy Joel, and Ray Charles, and Ben Folds and then Billy Joel again. Not that McLaughlin had found some earth-cracking new way to blend the styles of these performers. But he was able to channel them in the effort to find his own sound.
McLaughlin's two studio albums have been more tailored experiences, spit-shined to perfection by pop producers like John Fields (The Jonas Brothers, Switchfoot, Miley Cyrus). They both made a lot of sense (Indiana was a singer/songwriter album; Ok Now was about the 80's), and they were both successful by just about any industry standards. But neither showcased McLaughlin's ability to wander between genres and styles. Neither adequately demonstrated his virtuosity.
So imagine how excited I felt to hear him use the phrases "back in the day" and "next record" in the same sentence. Will this be the album that shows the world what he's really capable of?
Sneak preview in B'Town
A couple weeks after our Broad Ripple meeting, McLaughlin is playing something of a "new material preview" show at the Bluebird in Bloomington.
The scene is all too familiar: A small room crowded with faithful fans, me on my tiptoes craning my neck to see. After opening with "Beating My Heart" (from OK Now), he and his band start to run through new tune after brand-spanking-new tune.
And since I once again can't see McLaughlin, I watch the audience. Not a disappointed face in the house. In fact, I catch a couple people doing that thing where you sing along to a song you don't really know, because it just feels familiar.
Between the soulfully introspective "Be Somebody," the full-bodied rock anthem "Lonely People," and a half-dozen other genre-confusing new tunes, McLaughlin convinces me that he has indeed come home.One minute, he's playing a 2-minute sonata-style intro on the keys, the next he's up and leading the band on guitar. Then, out comes the harmonica.
Not tailored, spit-shined or calculated at all. Or at least not in a way that compromises McLaughlin's raw talent.
Will he—along with the help of new producer Dennis Herring (Elvis Costello, Modest Mouse, Ben Folds)—be able to reproduce this on record? The as-yet-untitled third album is due in early fall.