Edwin McCain plans concert at San Juan College
FARMINGTON – The phone at singer-songwriter Edwin McCain’s house in Greenville, S.C., has been ringing almost nonstop for a couple of weeks now. He knows what most of those callers are after even before he answers, and it has nothing to do with his music.
They want his vote.
As a resident of the Palmetto State, McCain found himself smack in the middle of a pair of fiercely contested presidential primary races last week — and all the silliness that accompanied them. Like many of his fellow South Carolinians who still have a home phone, he was being been bombarded by robocalls from this campaign or that campaign as the election dates — Feb. 20 for Republicans and Feb. 27 for Democrats — neared.
By late last week, his patience was wearing thin, as was his devotion to his land line.
“I quit counting one day at 15 (calls),” he said in his gentle southern drawl over that same phone last week as he prepared to hit the road for a series of tour dates with his acoustic trio, including a stop at San Juan College for a performance this weekend. “I cling to (a land line) for no good reason. I am sentimentally attached to it. … It’s ridiculous. There’s no reason for us to have a land line, but we do.”
McCain — best known for his late-1990s hit singles “I’ll Be” and “I Could Not Ask for More” — isn’t really the type to stick with old school approaches to communication. In fact, he likes to joke about the negative impact the explosion in recording technology in the 21st century had on his sound at one time.
“There were times when we put so many effects on a record, you’d go back later and listen to it and think, ‘What were we thinking?’” McCain said, laughing. “But it was a new toy, and we slathered it all over the place. Listening to some of that stuff now is like leafing through a photo album. There was a bunch of stuff that you thought would be cool, and it wasn’t.”
OK, so maybe modern technology isn’t always better. McCain delights in telling another story about himself, relating how he once made a gift of several of his CDs from that era to a plumber who had put in some long hours repairing McCain’s pipes at home.
“He came back a few days later and said, ‘I listened to all of ‘em, and, yeah, I have some notes,’” McCain said, this time laughing uproariously as he recalled the plumber’s detailed critique of his work. “And you know what? Everything he called me out on was 100 percent correct.”
The lesson he derived from that exchange?
“The listening audience is way more sophisticated than we ever give them credit for,” he said.
A little more than 15 years ago, McCain was a big-time pop star, recording a series of major-label discs and regularly landing his songs on the charts. But in the early 2000s, he made a conscious decision to go in a different direction, choosing to record for independent labels where the demands on him would not be so heavy. The resulting decline in his album sales and audience is something he has accepted as part of the trade-off.
“My attitude toward the music business has changed drastically,” he said. “Going to an indie label from a major label was the best decision I ever made. It was probably not the best financial decision I ever made, but it was the best from a personal balance standpoint. When you’re on a major label, you’re obligated to do everything they need you to do. That’s the way I felt, and before I knew it, a decade went by of me sitting in my hotel room all day waiting to go to another meet-and-greet. Now, my career’s at a different stage.”
McCain certainly has no regrets about the way the early part of his career went as he rode the success of “I’ll Be” and “I Could Not Ask for More.” He said he had a tremendous amount of fun and enjoyed every minute of it, but by 2001, when he was recording his album “Far From Over,” he realized he was ready to step off the carousel and catch his breath.
“I was making the fourth record with Atlantic, and I loved it — it was all over the place, like all my records are,” he said. “My approach was to go in the studio with my songs, and they would reveal themselves in new ways. That’s what I loved about making records that way — the songs became whatever the studio experience was going to be. My vision of a song was essentially done when I finished writing a song on an acoustic guitar. But the label wasn’t digging it.”
That’s putting it mildly. At major recording labels, where music is an oh-so-carefully packaged and marketed commodity, there is little use for that kind of freewheeling, “whatever happens, happens” approach. Even though McCain had built a solid friendship with label head Jason Flom — a relationship that lasts to this day — both men knew the time had come to split.
“We shook hands and parted ways,” McCain said, describing the end of his major-label recording career.
There’s no sadness in McCain’s voice when he tells that story. In fact, as with most of his stories, he found a punch line in it.
“That’s a good lesson for the kids who might want to tempt fate,” he said, laughing, and recalling how the album was called “Far From Over.” “As it turns out, it was exactly over."
But the experiences he racked up during that part of his career are something he treasures to this day.
“I got to ride the last wave of the big-time music business,” he said, recalling the time before the Great Recession and fractionalization of the audience sent sales plummeting. “The timing of it was crucial; it was right at the pinnacle. I was there when the last people were regularly selling 20 million albums. It was crazy, and it was so fun to be a part of that. I was playing gigs with Ray Charles, Kenny Loggins and Boz Skaggs. Now, I drive the (tour) bus and play my gigs for a few hundred people if I’m lucky, and it’s great.”
McCain said there’s little question his desire to downscale his career impacted his songwriting, as well.
“I was in my twenties when I got started, and I had that 20-year-old point of view,” said McCain, who is now in his middle forties. “A cross between Shaggy from ‘Scooby-Doo’ and David Lee Roth would have been my perspective.”
In those days, McCain said, when life’s possibilities seemed endless, he wrote about major themes and global ideas — everything was a mix of music and spirituality, big dreams and crazy ideas.
“It was exactly what 20-year-olds can do, and there’s no reason not to write that way,” he said.
But after life bloodied his nose a few times, McCain’s perspective changed. He said he’s come to the realization that he was right about maybe a third of the things he was so convinced about in his early 20s, and the themes his lyrics reflect are considerably smaller now.
“I write about my daughter leaving sticky fingerprints all over the house,” he said. “I’m trying to write poetry about the little things now. I don’t go chasing after the ball in a split second.”
More than ever, McCain said he’s convinced that the secret to producing good music is not about unlocking the secrets to the latest recording technology. It’s about writing lyrics that matter.
“That seems to be the real challenge now — and I think that’s what it always was,” he said. “I have a rule that if I can’t play a song with (just) an acoustic guitar, it’s not really a song.”
From 1995 through 2011, McCain produced new recordings at a steady rate, never letting more than a few years go by before he delivered a new record. But it’s now been close to five years since his last effort, “Mercy Bound,” was released. He said that recording hiatus was a conscious decision.
“I stepped away from it right in the middle of the recession,” he said. “Producing new music in a down economy seemed weird to me.”
McCain also became involved in a television show, “Flipping Ships,” that airs on the Animal Planet network. McCain has his own boat restoration out called Boats Have Souls, and the program chronicles his efforts to take vessels that have fallen into disrepair, and not just restore them, but customize them to the specifications of their owners.
McCain said the program has gotten his creative juices flowing again, essentially clearing his artistic palette. But it has provided him with another benefit, as well.
“If it’s done anything, it’s made me appreciate how good I have it on the music career front,” he said. “This is the hardest I’ve worked since the beginning of my career. When we’re in production, it’s 18 hours a day, eight days a week.”
While that’s not a pace he cares to maintain for very long, “It’s good to know I can still do that,” he said.
As demanding as production of the program is, McCain said it hasn’t interfered with his music career. He still tours a lot, and he just finished recording three new songs. As always, McCain said he was content to let those tunes develop on their own in the studio.
“My new approach is to spend time in the studio with people I’ve admired as musicians. Then, I let them dress up the Christmas tree however they want to,” he said, explaining that he hopes to record more material with such artists as David Ryan Harris, Maia Sharp, Lyle Lovett and Steve Earle.
“I just want to show up with a song and let ‘em rip for me,” he said. “That’s the adventure, musically.”
Rather than concentrating on albums, McCain plans to release his new material in three- or four-song batches from now on. He said that seems to make sense in an age where most music is downloaded instead of packaged in the form of a CD, tape or vinyl.
“I’m just biding my time, waiting to see how this shakes out,” he said of music’s conversion to a digital format. “I guess you could say that’s just an excuse to be lazy.”
But McCain said he also realizes there will come a time at some point when he simply needs to step out of the way and let younger artists take over.
“Maybe part of my journey is knowing when to stop,” he said.
Mike Easterling is the A&E editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.
If you go
What: Edwin McCain concert
When: 7 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 28
Where: Performance Hall in the Henderson Fine Arts Center on the San Juan College campus, 4601 College Blvd. in Farmington
Tickets: $20 for adults, and $18 for students and seniors at sanjuancollege.edu/silhouette.
For more information: Call 505-566-3430