INTERVIEW: Jon McLaughlin

It takes a certain type of songwriter to connect deeply with a listener, and Jon McLaughlin has proved himself to be in that category.

At age five, he began taking piano lessons but started to dread them – though it is hard to imagine now Jon McLaughlin not playing the piano. Despite his disdain for the lessons, a rollerblading accident during his freshmen year of high school redirected his passion for music. McLaughlin then attended Anderson University to study music, where he became the first artist to sign on with the school’s record label. It was during this time that McLaughlin established a following as an independent artist, which in turn caught the attention of a major label.

McLaughlin has had his music featured on a number of television and movie soundtracks, notably being featured in Disney’s Enchanted in 2008. As well, he has co-written songs with a number of other artists. However, it is in his own music where his most measurable achievements have been made. McLaughlin is a storyteller – particularly in the way his lyrics convey emotions. Last year, he wrote a song called “Hope Happens Here” for the Riley Hospital for Children from the perspective of a parent. The song is not only a tribute to the trials and tribulations that families go through, but all of the proceeds from the song go to the hospital.

There is certainly a deep connection that McLaughlin maintains with his home state of Indiana, which served as a title of his debut album with Island Records. Looking ahead, McLaughlin is gearing up to release his new album Like Us on October 9th, and will be supporting the release with a US tour. We had the opportunity to chat with him about his musical inspirations, songwriting, and what to expect from his new album. What was the first song in your memory that inspired you to pursue music?

Jon McLaughlin: I think it was Billy Joel’s “She’s Got A Way”. We had this old VHS tape of him singing it, solo piano. I mean, I was probably five or six or something and I would watch it all the time – which is kind of an odd song for a five year old to love. I didn’t really have any idea what he was singing about, but there’s something about the whole vibe. At this time I was already taking piano lessons, so I think it had something to do with it, theoretically I could do that with what I was already doing – we already had a piano in the house.

A: Billy Joel is, of course, a huge inspiration for you. Last year, you actually had the opportunity to open up for him on a few of his tour dates. What was that experience like?

JM: It was so surreal. For a couple of days, I thought it had to have been some mistake – I didn’t even know if he knew that I existed. It was amazing, it was so affirming. I’ve been doing music now for over ten years and you play shows that are great, you feel great, you put out records that are received well – all that kind of stuff, and that’s all great. But to have a moment like that where one of your musical heroes reaches out and says, ‘Hey, I like what you do. Why don’t you come play some shows with me?’ – that’s just as good as it gets. The shows were great, Billy was really nice, his whole team was really nice – it was just a blast.

A: I was looking on YouTube and saw that you were a surprise guest at one or two weddings to perform “So Close”…

JM: Oh no… I haven’t seen those videos! I have no idea what they’re like!

A: I think it just captures the moment really well. What I was going to ask you was how it feels when people connect and relate so emotionally to a song that you wrote, and feel like you would make a wonderful part of their wedding day?

JM: It’s funny, because in that position as guest artist surprising the bride, I feel like you’re supposed to play it cool like, ‘This is what I do. I grace audiences with my presence‘ – that kind of thing. But really, inside I’m like… what an honour to be a part of this couple’s story. I’m sitting there playing and thinking this is so cool – this is the reason why I do any of what I do, in that my music would mean something to somebody.

A lot of the songs that I write are obviously written about my wife, Amy, so they’re very personal to me. Somehow, in a weird way, it makes it all the more meaningful when I see somebody mouthing the words that mean so much to me personally, and I can see tangibly how much it means to them. It’s such a cool thing.

It’s nerve wracking on one respect because when it comes to a wedding, I’m always like, what if I screw up? If I screw up one of my shows, it’s no big deal, it’s just one of my shows. But if I appear at somebody’s wedding and ruin the moment for them forever… luckily, that hasn’t happened yet! It’s great. I don’t do it everyday, but the couple of times that I’ve done it really have been special.

A: One of the things that stand out about your songwriting is that you’re a great storyteller, particularly in the way you convey emotions.

JM: Oh, thank you!

A: What would you consider to be one of your biggest personal growths as a songwriter since your earlier work?

JM: I would like to say there’s a list of things that I’ve improved on. If I could sit down and write a song with [myself], I think the biggest difference would be that 12 years ago I was kind of narrow-minded. I feel like when you write a song, it’s less about chipping away at and working at this thing. It’s more about, I find, letting go and letting yourself hear the song as it comes.

I think I’ve learned how to do that a little better now than I did when I was starting out. I think when I was starting out, I was trying to create a song out of thin air, and now it more feels like I listen to what any given song sort of wants to be.
A: Yeah, kind of a more organic process.

JM: Yeah, just kind of like not writing with my brain, more writing from the heart and writing from the vibe and letting it be organic as you said.

A: With your new album, Like Us, which will be released on October 9th. The first single of that album is “Before You”, which still has your signature sound with the piano but there’s bit a fresher feel to it.

JM: I’m glad you feel that way!

A: Kind of continuing with the songwriting question, what was your approach in the process for creating this album?

JM: I knew that I wanted to write an album’s worth of relationship songs, which is of course not a groundbreaking idea. In terms of putting an actual album together of cohesive songs that have to do with one subject, I’ve never actually done that before. I’ve always been interested in the fact that musicians and songwriters, we write about relationships all the time and overwhelmingly, the majority of songs are out there.

It’s not an an album of love songs, per say, it’s an album of relationship songs I wouldn’t have been able to write ten years ago. It’s an album that someone in their 30’s has written, not somebody in their early 20’s, you know. There’s some heartbreaking songs on there that are about the toughness of a break-up, there’s some songs about maybe a relationship that shouldn’t be but just is – things like that.

I’ve tried to write an album’s worth of songs about a relationship from a bunch of different angles.

A: If you could narrow down a message that you would want your music to convey, what might that be?

JM: That’s a good question. I don’t know if anyone’s ever asked me that question before. I think I would say… it would come down to this phrase: “Love well”. I think that would be it.


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