They say what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, and Jack's Mannequin's Andrew McMahon is living proof. In 2005, the former Something Corporate frontman was diagnosed with leukemia months prior to the release of his debut, Everything in Transit.
It was a real blow for an artist to whom everything had come easily. A gifted pianist from the time he started playing at eight, McMahon led Something Corporate onto a major label for two albums, the last of which, 2003's North, made it into the Top 25. But the pressures of the music business broke the band up, leading McMahon to embrace the warm piano-pop of Jack's Mannequin.
"I don't think we were consumed by business as much as the business consumed us. There were just so many things getting in the way of what was otherwise pretty natural in the relationships between us," says McMahon. "That Jack's started to become an idea, and was evolving into something more, was really driven by the fact that the edges were fraying around Something Corporate."
The idea of starting a new project after six years of making music and finding success with his friends was somewhat discomfiting for McMahon. The anxiety and excitement fueled the lyrics of Everything in Transit. That sense of possibility would suffer a setback after McMahon discovered he had leukemia. Though he would beat it into remission, it would leave a scar in the form of 2008's The Glass Passenger, whose rich piano ballads and power-pop arrangements can't disguise a dark, introspective album.
"I was 22 when I was diagnosed. It affected me deeply. I find myself in various stages of recovery and acceptance even now that I'm six years out," he says. "It definitely takes a lot from you. That said, I feel like it couldn't have happened to somebody that was more willing to take it on, and I think that in a lot of senses I'm glad I experienced it because I learned a tremendous amount about what's important."
But there's no hiding from the fact that The Glass Passenger was written in the immediate aftermath of the sickness, and the songs are subsequently about personal doubt and facing your mortality. However, there were other things going on in McMahon's life as well; he had just gotten married before the diagnosis. On his latest album, People and Things, he sorts out the facts.
"A lot of People and Things ends up reflecting on how all of this madness ended up playing out in my relationship," says McMahon. "I had a marriage that was struggling along while I tried to sort out all these things. People and Things ends up more honestly telling the story of what it actually looked like."
You can hear these ideas percolating through songs like "My Racing Thoughts," which sounds like the Gin Blossoms and Ben Folds, the anthemic piano ballad "Hostage," and the irrepressible road ode "Hey Hey Hey," which sounds less like a complaint than a call to arms.
"It's like 'Hey, I'm not sick anymore and I'm not broken up,'" he says. "This is, 'Now you're in it, and you have to own it and to live every day inspired, and you have to keep accountable.'"