Anderson-raised songwriter hits big time, returns home with Paolo Nutini
It’s not the shows Jon McLaughlin plays in far-flung places that stress him out. It’s the ones he performs back home.
Home for McLaughlin is Indiana — specifically Anderson, where he grew up and attended Anderson University, as well as Carmel, where he and his wife moved last year. Island Records released McLaughlin’s national recording debut, Indiana, May 1, but he was on the road performing his florid, heartfelt piano pop long before then. Tours with guitar wizard Jonny Lang and singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles have already happened. A current jaunt supporting Paolo Nutini includes an Oct. 10 stop at the Murat Egyptian Room and climaxes in a return to his alma mater Oct. 13. Soon after, McLaughlin hits the road yet again, this time with Kelly Clarkson, for seven weeks.
“Pretty much the whole year has been on the road,” McLaughlin says. “We’ve had a couple days of breaks here and there, but otherwise it’s been pretty full-on.”
The grueling schedule hasn’t given McLaughlin much time to think about the success he’s already achieved. That includes having his hit song “Beautiful Disaster” used in the Lindsay Lohan movie Georgia Rules, and the track “Another Layer” appearing on the soundtrack to Bridge to Terabithia. This fall, McLaughlin makes his big-screen debut in the Disney film Enchanted.
He’s no stranger to the small screen, either. There have been performances on both The Today Show and The Tonight Show, the latter of which resulted in sales of Indiana jumping 60 percent on iTunes immediately after airing. In August, McLaughlin appeared on an episode of the soap opera The Bold & The Beautiful with American Idol alum Elliot Yamin. The exposure prompted US Weekly magazine to name McLaughlin one of “The Boys of Summer” — none of which flutters this fresh-faced 24-year-old.
“I feel like I kind of eased into it,” McLaughlin says. He’s still finding his comfort zone, though, when it comes to playing in front of family and friends.
“Sometimes, it’s a little nerve-wracking coming back and playing,” he says. “Sometimes, it’s easier to play in front of people where no one knows you, and personally, you don’t know anyone else. There’s a comfort there. When I play in Indiana — because it’s like a hometown show [and] there are a lot of familiar faces out there — it has the potential to be a really intimate and great thing. But it also has the potential to be more nerve-wracking.
“I get a little nervous when I come back to Indiana to play,” he continues. “You think, ‘Oh, nobody’s going to come. They’ve seen the show a million times. I’ve got to do something different.’ All that kind of stuff. It’s easy to psych yourself out. I don’t know if it’s like that for other artists going back to their hometowns, but it’s definitely a thing for me.”
The best example of that so far was McLaughlin’s performance at Carmel’s “Rock the District” fair in July. City officials got excited when they learned a national recording artist was living in their midst. McLaughlin accepted an invitation to perform for his new hometown. It started out with the intention of being a small show. He was going to play in one of the stores on Main Street, but it continued to grow. Worse yet, no tickets were sold ahead of time.
“We had no idea what the turnout was going to be,” McLaughlin says. “So as it grew, they started getting more bands to come in. It ended up [that] they were going to block off the whole street. My stomach was in knots. I thought, these poor, sweet people in Carmel are going to be so disappointed when no one comes to this show. Your ego’s on the line a little bit. You feel like everybody’s looking at you, like, ‘This is your hometown. It should be packed.’ That’s a lot of pressure.”
McLaughlin anticipated an awkward night. It ended up being one of his best gigs ever.
“It was a really great turnout,” he says. “That’s the kind of moment I’m talking about. It potentially could’ve been a disaster. But the fact — I don’t know — 3,000 people came out to the concert, gives you such an appreciation for being from there [and] being connected with Indiana.”
That’s a long way from the kid who, at one point, didn’t want to play music anymore.
McLaughlin grew up with the common sounds of Cat Stevens, the Eagles and Billy Joel, and his parents, brother and sister are all musicians.
“There was a little bit of Richard Marx in there [too], which my parents might be embarrassed to [admit],” he says. The beginning of his musical collection was even less auspicious: He bought cassette singles of MC Hammer’s “Pray,” “Too Legit to Quit” and “U Can’t Touch This.”
McLaughlin started taking piano lessons at age 4. By high school, he was ready to quit.
“Nobody takes piano lessons in high school anymore,” he says. “I was the last kid left going to piano lessons on Wednesday nights.”
He spent years trying to get his parents to let him stop. A rollerblading accident that shattered both of his wrists marked the end.
“Ironically, the night the accident happened, it was right before I was supposed to go to a piano lesson,” McLaughlin says. “I was happy to take a couple months off.”
He ended up taking a couple years off. It wasn’t until McLaughlin joined a band at his church during his senior year of high school that he fell in love with music again.
“It was a totally different way of playing than I had done before,” he says of the experience. “I was used to reading music, playing classically and all that kind of stuff. … [This] opened me up to a different style of playing, which was more my style.”
He plunged back into his former interest, attending Anderson University’s School of Music. There, he not only could concentrate on his muse, but he started writing his own music.
“I would spend hours a day in a room just practicing piano,” McLaughlin says. “Just by the sheer time I spent playing, I feel like I grew a lot, even though I had been playing over a decade. A lot of those years were just kind of idle years.”
McLaughlin won a contest to be the first to record an album for the school’s own label, Orangehaus. He used his self-titled debut to perform shows in and around Anderson, eventually graduating to bigger, nearby markets.
“AU really kind of gave me an outlet to play on campus, play new songs I had written in a smaller, friendlier environment,” McLaughlin says. “It’s a small school, so if you go play a little coffeehouse around town, you’re going to have something of a crowd come out. It eased me into the world I’m now in.”
McLaughlin recorded a follow-up EP immediately after graduating in 2005. From there, he built a grass-roots following using both old and new media channels before major labels came calling.
It’s been a precipitous climb for McLaughlin. Only, he’s not sure why it’s happening to him, and yet it’s exactly what he hoped for.
“Man, I have no idea,” he says. “I ask that question almost every night. You think, this is wrong. Something got mixed up and it really shouldn’t be me, but I definitely didn’t see myself doing anything different. If it hadn’t worked out this way, I have no idea what I would’ve done. No idea. With the exception of getting burnt out a little bit in high school, I’ve wanted to do this since I was 4 years old. I’ve put all my eggs in this basket.”
Most of McLaughlin’s success stems from his keen ability to weave ornate piano figures into relentlessly catchy and uplifting tunes. McLaughlin also parlays wisdom beyond his years into relatable lyrics.
McLaughlin wrote the title track to Indiana during an extended stay in California. “I’m glad I never lived next to the water / So I could never get used to the beach,” he writes. “And I’m glad I never grew up on a mountain / To figure out how high the world could reach.”
It’s that old saw where someone can’t wait to leave home, only to realize what’s special about those familiar surroundings. Even though McLaughlin has crisscrossed the country many times already, his feelings for home haven’t changed.
“For some, the world’s a treasure to discover / Your scenery should never stay the same,” he sings on Indiana. “They’re trading in their dreams for explanations / All in an attempt to entertain.”
And no matter what may yet come for McLaughlin, he doesn’t ever see himself leaving home completely.
“We feel like we’d always like to live in Indiana,” he says. “We’ve talked about, for a year or something like that, living someplace else just for the fun of it, like out West or even [in] Europe, but I would imagine we’ll always be in Indiana.”
Making of a music video
McLaughlin supports Indiana
Jon McLaughlin has enjoyed an immeasurable amount of success as a professional musician this year. His native Indiana has played a large part in that.
Seth Hancock, a video production manager for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Bureau, conceived the idea of shooting a promotional video of the city using McLaughlin and one of his songs. McLaughlin not only agreed to participate, he gave his time — over two days in mid-September — for free.
“This is tremendous that an up-and-coming artist like Jon took time out of his touring schedule to come and do a video for the city he loves,” says Hancock, the director. “It’s been amazing how gracious and wonderful Jon has been.”
Originally, the plan was for McLaughlin to write a song specifically for the project. Eventually, he had to tell Hancock that with his busy schedule he couldn’t produce a new song. Instead, Hancock bought the rights to “For You From Me,” off McLaughlin’s national recording debut, Indiana.
“If you listen to the lyrics, we can really tie that into the city,” Hancock says. “The things Jon says and the imagery we’re laying over the top with video, it can easily be construed. It’s one of those songs, it can be a pensive song or a happy song. We’re choosing to make it a happy song.”
The video portrays McLaughlin walking around the city, ending with a performance at the Slippery Noodle Inn. Along the way are stops at familiar locales like Massachusetts Avenue and Monument Circle, and more exotic spots like the Villa Spa at 15th and Delaware. Extra footage includes licensed images from the major sports represented here, as well as various museums.
The video will be available on the ICVB’s Web site, www.indianapolis.org. If it’s deemed good enough, McLaughlin may use it as the official music video for “For You From Me.”
“I’m not counting on that right now,” Hancock says. “What I am is when people think of Indianapolis, they see Jon McLaughlin, they hear the song, they see the images and [they] see how much fun and beautiful Indianapolis is.”