Andrew McMahon on His Music and Fighting Cancer

In 2005, everything seemed to be coming together for Andrew McMahon. His band, Something Corporate, had done well with their sophomore album, and he was ready to release his first solo effort, "Everything in Transit," under the moniker Jack's Mannequin in August.

During a tour in June, McMahon was exhausted and suffering from persistent laryngitis. He checked himself into the hospital and was soon diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia at age 22. "Everything in Transit" was still released as planned on Aug. 23, the same day the singer received a bone-marrow transplant from his sister. The album sold 250,000 units, despite the fact that McMahon was in the hospital, unable to tour to support it.

Now, three years later, the singer is in remission and ready to release the next Jack's Mannequin record, "The Glass Passenger" on Sept. 30. He spoke to NEWSWEEK's Susan Elgin. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: "Resolution" was just announced as the first single off "The Glass Passenger." Why did you choose that song?
Andrew McMahon: To be honest, I took myself out of the equation for single selection. I've been working on this record in various states for a year and a half now, so I'm at a place now where everything seems like vertigo. But seems like a sensible introduction.

"Caves," the last song on the album, directly acknowledges your battle with cancer. Did you intend to pack everything into that one song?
Absolutely. It's the last song on the album, and in some respects, it probably should have been the first. Pretty much everything covered on the album is the aftermath of what is being spoken about in "Caves." The piano hook, the monochromatic rise you hear throughout, haunted me. I woke up with that in my head at 2 in the morning. It was a huge breakthrough on the record because I tried to avoid writing that song for a while. I am glad I did, because I think it came in the most natural way possible. The second half of the song, I guess, represents the aftermath of what came following being in the hospital.

Why did you avoid writing a song about having cancer?
I'd lived it, and I wasn't sure I wanted to live it again, you know? I've always tried to write in the present moment about what's going on at the moment. With this record, there were obviously some unavoidable things and some things that were definitely hanging over my head. I wasn't aiming to capture that as much as I was aiming to capture what the fallout of all of that was, and where it put me in the present day. Being a dude who tends to write from a fairly therapeutic standpoint, there were certain elements in what I had gone through that I had never been totally honest about or spoken about. Music is where I tend to do that. I think, as we go toward the second half of the record, songs like "The Resolution" or "Caves" started popping up out of a necessity to reconcile a past that I hadn't gotten a chance to reconcile.

What do you mean by fallout?
It's one of the things you don't hear about when you're going in for your first treatments. When you survive the big battle, there's a whole life after that that can be a little confusing. Having walked right up that door and knocking on it, whether or not you're staying here or going, is pretty heavy. There's a shell shock that comes along with getting re-acclimated to everyday life, and integrating back into the real world was not necessarily as easy as I had expected or planned for it to be.

"Swim" definitely has some political references in it.
At this period of time, it's impossible to not have that permeate in some respects. But I try to be sensitive about that, and I don't want to create a scenario that draws a dividing line across my fan base either. There are things that are bigger than partisan politics, and there are problems in this world that have nothing to do with what side you align yourself with. This record wasn't meant to take those head on, but there were times when I felt that so strongly that I had to write about it.

Cancer and politics are heavy topics, and yet the record still seems overwhelmingly optimistic.
I try, as both a writer and a human being, to use songs to help me get past things. What I'm trying to find at the piano is the feeling of hope. If this record wasn't hopeful, I might be in a little bit of trouble, personally. I was trying to use this record to bridge that gap and get push past these feelings of being overwhelmed. And I'm glad you're picking up on those lines of hope and if it brings that into my listeners' world, I couldn't be more pleased.

You say you're using this record to "push past" and yet you have journalists like me asking you about being sick.
Believe me, I anticipated it. It's OK.

How do balance trying to promote and focus on your music, while trying to move past the huge back story behind it?
This record is where my real life and my music merge with each other, so sometimes it is hard to draw that line. I try everyday to find the balance, but when part of your gig is airing out your dirty laundry, separating yourself can be hard.

Are you worried that people who know about your struggles with cancer will bring expectations to the record?
Yes, there's always going to be that worry. But at the end of the day, I can't change who I am and I can't change my experiences. I've tried to communicate any sort of struggle I faced in a way that can be related to on a larger level. There were moments I just wanted to put it all out there, and other moments where I felt I needed to find a way to communicate a feeling without detailing the story exactly.

You recorded your experiences with cancer into the documentary "Dear Jack." When will that be out?
I'd started a video diary in late 2004, when I started doing the first Jack's Mannequin record. At the time, I was separated from my girlfriend, so I was a lonely dude looking for a place to vent. That ended up finding its way into the hospital and I documented a pretty large portion of what went on in the hospital while I was being diagnosed and treated. A friend heard I had this footage and asked if I'd feel comfortable with him seeing it and possibly putting some interview footage together and editing a documentary. MTV came on board to do the final editing. I'm not sure how and where it will be released, but it is finished. The goal is to do what we can to raise as much money and awareness to help impact cancer research, more specifically blood-cancer research. We're in the process of trying to figure out when it will come out, but there's potential for a broadcast release of it on the music networks in the next couple months.

Have you seen the documentary?
Truthfully, it's hard for me to watch. It's a heavy thing. It communicates what goes on when people say "cancer" or any major illness. I made it out, so people who see the film will hopefully know there's light at the end of a very dark time.

Will this tie into your charity, the Dear Jack Foundation?
Yes, any monies that are made on my behalf will obviously go directly into my foundation, which acts as a conduit to various charities that impact cancer research and blood cancer research, so we deal directly with Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and the Pediatric Cancer Research Foundation, which is based out of Orange County [Calif.] where I live.

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