Michael McDermott Goes To ‘Willow Springs’

Michael McDermott has packed a lot of turmoil, angst and, eventually, victory into his life since releasing his first album 25 years ago. The singer/songwriter conversed with Pollstar about his upcoming LP and what it’s like to be him.

The artist born Michael McDermott Murphy is one of those rare musicians whose own life seems to bleed into other forms of expression.  Brian Koppelman, the A&R man who signed him to Giant Records, went on to become a TV/film writer and producer.  As a writer for the Matt Damon flick “The Rounders,” Koppelman named two characters after McDermott.  Obviously, Damon’s Mike McDermott character was one of them.  Not so obvious is the last name of Edward Norton’s character – Murphy.  Koppelman’s latest project is the Showtime drama “Billions,” which has been known to include a McDermott song from time to time.

Even in the music business where overindulging of substances legal and illegal often seems part of the territory, McDermott’s early years as an up-and-coming artist seemed as if he was hell-bent for a premature final exit.

McDermott’s days of drug abuse, of when a cocaine bust that almost resulted in prison time, and failed attempts at rehab are past tense.  Today’s McDermott is positive about the future, very much in love with his wife, Heather Horton, and is extremely proud of his family.  McDermott and Horton also perform together and in 2013 the couple founded the folk-rock group The Westies.

McDermott’s new album, Willow Springs, arrives June 17 on Pauper Sky Records.  Via an email interview, the artist conversed with Pollstar about his craft, the big fan who happens to be horror author Stephen King, and the changes within the music industry since he got his first record deal.

On Willow Springs you’re in the driver’s seat as producer while your longtime producer/collaborator Lex Price mixed the album.  Producing is hard enough but how did you and Lex handle the swapping of positions?

Lex is so brilliant as a producer.  The reason for the swap was mainly for logistical reasons – he came up to Willow Springs and set up my whole studio and basically taught me how to do it.

Secondly, being clean and sober two years it was a challenge to myself that I could do it.  It was about learning to trust myself not only musically but as a person I have had growth.  Lex and my wife, Heather Horton, still pushed me all through this record.  Heather would come and listen and then say, “I don’t believe you,” if she thought the vocal was anything short of totally honest – those conversations weren’t always pretty.

Lex had to mix because he’s got the best ears of anybody.  But he said he was impressed with my engineering, which I took as a great compliment.

Are there any songs on Willow Springs that you are especially anxious for fans to hear?

“Willow Springs,” because of its immensity, “Shadow in the Window” because of its misery, “One Minus One” for its honesty, and “Butterfly” for its brutality.

When do you know an album is finished?

Ugh. I never do.  This was done, then my father died at the end of January and I wrote “Shadow In The Window” but thought about it for two days and decided it had to be on it. Your mind can play tricks on you because every new songs seems like the best thing you’ve ever written for the first 36 hours.

I’ve been kicked out of enough bars at closing time that I guess I’ve learned to know when it’s time to go home, when it’s over.

When considering your entire body of work, are there songs that reflect your own life at certain periods of time?

Absolutely.  Each album is kind of a photo album – certain songs can make you instantly recall a bar, a smell, a woman you had a fleeting romance with,  a new experience.  When I was looking at six years in prison, those songs certainly are sobering.  There would be very few songs I don’t recall with a fair amount of detail, how they came into being. Considering the extent of my abuse, it’s amazing I remember any of it.

Your music never seems to be overproduced or include too many sonic bells and whistles.  Have you ever thought any of your past recordings were too flashy?  That is, too many overdubs, extra instruments or over-processed (as examples)?

Yeah, there are things that make me cringe and to no fault of the amazing producers I’ve worked with. I’d say they were a sign of the times, or my obsession with Sinead O’Connor yielded some less than wise decisions with drum machines.

Heather got me away from that.  She hears the songs in the kitchen, just me playing them, and every time I start adding guitars, bells, whistles or clarinets – I can tell by the look on her face, I’ve gone too far.

You have praised your wife and family for only helping you face life’s challenges and take on a more positive outlook.  But does having that love and support hamper a songwriter’s ability to write about life’s darker corners?

It was a concern at first but I’m Irish, an alcoholic and a drug addict, who suffers from depression. There’s no shortage of darkness proclivities here!

 Do you think you have yet to write your best song?

Damn, I hate you for asking me that!!!! Maybe?  I got a few new ones that I haven’t finished that could be the best, but I always think that.

Stephen King is very familiar with your work and has mentioned you and quoted your lyrics in his books.  Are you as familiar with his novels as he is with your songs?  Also, do you have a favorite Stephen King book?

Had a very long conversation with my promoter in Norway today.  He has read everything Stephen has written.  I’ve read a lot but not everything.  I love “The Dark Tower” [series]. 

You’ve seen a lot of changes in the business of music since you signed with Giant a quarter of a century ago. From a veteran’s viewpoint, what do you think are some of the positive and negative changes?

The positives and negatives for me are the same.  The upside is that everybody can make, produce, distribution an album and the downside is, that everybody can make, produce, distribute an album.

I think the clutter of it all gives me pause and it clutters so much. There used to be regulations on the quantity.

Do you feel more in control of your career today than when you were on a major label?

I suppose so.  I was given a lot of freedom by my A&R man Brian Koppelman.  We worked together, we were a team.  A lot of artists were not that lucky.

As you travel, do you think different countries inspire different songs?  In other words, do you think that Italy might inspire a different kind of song than Ireland or France?

I hadn’t thought about it but yeah, I suppose it does.  Those places have different ghosts lurking around, and they whisper to you, sometimes.  You take on their dreams and desires,

I’m not sure musically for me it would be much different but I think in terms of empathy, point of view, the posturing your characters take, what they would and wouldn’t risk.

But on the other hand we’re all the same – frightened by our own insignificance, our endless need for love and protection.  The way we express, the way we communicate are what makes us different but if you peel it a little further it’s all the same.

What’s the best advice anyone has ever given you?

Get busy livin or get busy dying. lol

“Heather would come and listen and then say, "I don't believe you," if she thought the vocal was anything short of totally honest.”

Michael McDermott’s upcoming shows:

May 18 – Vasto, Italy, Piazza Rossetti
May 20 – Grosseto, Italy, The Dog House
May 21 – Pavia, Italy, Piazza Della Vittoria
May 22 – Cernusco sul Naviglio, Italy, Arena Estiva DellaVittoria
May 28 – Atlanta, Ga., The Buckhead Theatre
June 10 – Minneapolis, Minn., Aster Café
June 11 – Milwaukee, Wis., Shank Hall
June 24 – Ann Arbor, Mich., The Ark
June 25 – Kelleys Island, Ohio, Memorial Park (Kelleys Island Music Festival)
July 8 – Three Oaks, Mich., Acorn Theater
July 21 – Spring Lake, Mich., Seven Steps Up Live Music & Event Venue
July 24 – La Salle, Ill., Social Kitchen
July 29 – Chicago, Ill., City Winery Chicago
Sept. 18 – Chicago, Wrigley Field (performing “National Anthem”)

For more information, please visit Michael McDermott’s website, Facebook page, Twitter feed and YouTube channel.