It’s impossible to separate the music of Andrew McMahon from the tragedy of cancer. Andrew might have never touched a piano if it weren’t for losing his uncle to the disease. “I was really young when I first started writing poetry, maybe nine,” the singer explains. “A couple of weeks after my uncle’s passing, a friend showed me a couple of chords on the piano. Two weeks later, I had my first song. I started my career at a very young age—with songs about death.”
His career quickly took off. He fronted Something Corporate, a piano-driven alt-rock outfit that inked a record deal when the vocalist was just 19, released two albums in as many years and then went on hiatus after burning out on a relentless touring schedule. Andrew then turned his attention to a solo project under the moniker Jack’s Mannequin, which took a step away from songs about high school girls and rivalries that marked Something Corporate.
Just months after completing Jack’s Mannequin’s major label debut, Everything in Transit, the demon that was the catalyst for Andrew’s songwriting returned—this time taking up residence in his own veins. Andrew was diagnosed with Leukemia. In a very strange twist, the album was released on the same day that Andrew received a life-saving stem cell transplant from his sister Katie.
After a two-year hiatus that he used to recover from the disease and upstart a pediatric cancer research charity, Andrew returned to the music scene in September with The Glass Passenger. Obviously, the album deals heavily with Andrew’s cancer journey, but not in the stereotypical “life is fragile” sense. “Your experiences inform your perspective,” he shares. “One of the struggles I had was learning to transition back into normal life, where questions of my mortality and survival weren’t looming on a daily basis, and that perspective definitely influenced the record.”
While he never uses the word “cancer” in a song, there is no mistaking the mark of the disease on the artist. It’s easy to view Andrew as a performer who understands he’s been granted a second chance. He’s a ball of hyperactivity on stage, smiling the whole time. He stands on his piano and literally stomps on the keys, giving sold-out crowds every ounce of energy he can muster as they sing along with every syllable for two solid hours.
A change in perspective is also obvious in Andrew’s songwriting. In the early days of Something Corporate, he burned with anger and lust (an entire song, “If You C Jordan,” was written around screaming expletives at a former high school rival). On Everything In Transit, he sang happy-go-lucky songs that anyone newly in love—and with some money to burn—would write.
The biggest difference on The Glass Passenger is the focus of the songs. Rather than spotlighting his love life or breakup drama, Andrew turns his attention to the faces in the crowd, and takes encouraging them pretty seriously. “You’ve got to swim/swim for your life/swim for the music that saves you when you’re not sure you’ll survive,” he sings. A few tracks later, the singer attempts to comfort an afflicted friend by singing her to sleep on “Hammer and Strings.”
Whether or not the shift in perspective has resulted in The Glass Passenger being Andrew’s “best work” is indeterminable, since he’s penned four very solid albums with two different bands. What this new project does signal is a step forward into artistic maturity. The Glass Passenger captures the grit, happiness and heartache that marks every human life.
For seven years, Andrew McMahon has written, recorded and performed great songs. Three years after almost dying, he’s creating the best songs he’s ever written. Because, unlike the vast majority of artists in mainstream rock, he’s come to the understanding that life is about much more than just his own happiness, and he knows that the songs he writes should reflect that.