Photos © 2009 by: Matt Ginger
Just four years ago, McLaughlin’s Island Records debut propelled his song “Beautiful Disaster” up the charts, with “Beating My Heart” following quickly after. Hollywood immediately took notice of the young songwriter and didn’t stop at just using several of his songs for films and commercials. McLaughlin himself was offered a role in the hit film Enchanted, performing a song that was later nominated for an Academy Award. In 2008, he found himself onstage at the Oscars reprising the tune in front of 32 million US viewers. In between the hit songs and television appearances, true to his hardworking Midwestern roots, McLaughlin spent his nights opening for the likes of Sara Bareilles and Kelly Clarkson, recording with Jason Mraz and writing for other artists.
But the affable McLaughlin was never quite comfortable with the artistic compromises he made along the way. Largely inspired by an extraordinarily close relationship with his fans, he left Island to create an album like he had never done before; one that was filled with lyrics that were a part of him. Careful to note that he genuinely loved working with other songwriters and found great meaning in their collaborative work, McLaughlin nonetheless couldn’t shake his need to be completely responsible for the songs he delivered to his extremely loyal fans. An ardent social media aficionado, his interaction with his audience influenced him to release this album on his own for the first time.
“A lot of songs over the past few years, there’s nothing wrong with them,” Jon explains, “but there was no weight or significance with me. I felt like I was in a way not being completely fair.” “It feels really good to have a record that I’m working on that I can really deliver wholeheartedly knowing that the fans are getting a piece of me,” he continues. “There isn’t a note on the record that I didn’t spend hours scrutinizing over, or at the very least sitting with and playing over and over again. I feel like it’s a real connection to me.”
Once Jon began writing the new songs that would ultimately fill Forever if Ever, the rest fell into place just as quickly as his career took off. He began producing for the first time, drawing from hours spent with brilliant producers he’d worked with throughout the years. He experimented with equipment, including some a former tour manager had sagely told him to explore. He wrote exactly what he wanted to, spending weeks upon weeks making sure every lyric, every note was just where he needed it to be. And perhaps most importantly, he recorded with the musicians he’d been touring with not only his entire career, but his entire musical life.
Convinced to use studio musicians by his former record label, McLaughlin was finally able to make an album with his longtime bandmates. And it resulting sound plays just like that – warm, familiar, comfortable and seamless. They finish each others’ musical sentences. “It’s the first time that I’ve listened to something at the end of each day in the studio and I loved it,” Jon says excitedly, “every single day, from beginning to end.”
But McLaughlin’s liberating euphoria surprisingly isn’t the theme for Forever if Ever. Ironically, the album is filled with powerful, agonizing, gut-wrenching songs about love and loss thereof. “I guess I would call myself a bit of a romantic,” he starts, “but at the same time I’ve always loved those painful break-up songs. There’s something about the agony of love at any level that I am obsessed with, whether it’s that overwhelming love or heartbreaking break up end-of-love. There’s nothing more universal than that.”
The galvanizing pain of lost love is particularly poignant on “These Crazy Times,” written after the cataclysmic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Jon’s lyrics are graceful and angry, despondent and incredulous as he struggles to find meaning in the death of his cousin Adam who was on the oilrig when it exploded. “It turned into this kind of a song about the state of the economy, the country right now,” he says quietly, “and I’m not Neil Young. I don’t typically write songs like that a lot. But it came out of a real place.” “I think I haven’t written like that before because if it’s not genuine it sounds pretentious and fake,” evoking those earnest, Midwestern ideals again. “But it became the most therapeutic, thing I’ve ever done,” he reflects solemnly. “I needed to write about it or I would have been a different person if I hadn’t.”
“If Only I” bears a different take on loss, cleverly written from the perspective of a person deeply, madly in love with someone they’ve never worked up the courage to talk to. Mirroring Jon’s chutzpah behind Forever if Ever, “I feel like that song was the song where I said, ‘I’m really just going to do everything that I would want to do in a song.’” And armed with his newly earned creative freedom, McLaughlin did just that.
He returns to a more traditional view of heartbreak with the wistful “Summer is Over,” written for a friend in the throes of a crushing break-up, but lest fans begin to think he is about to drown in the depths of love’s despair, McLaughlin throws in “Without You Now.” “The word ‘pop’ is a polarizing word sometimes, especially for songwriters who want their lyrics to be felt as much as heard,” he admits, “but when it comes down to it, everybody just likes a good pop song. And that song is this song on the record.” “Windows down, driving in the country on a great summer day…that kind of song…and of course, there’s some agonizing heartbreaking in there,” he adds with a smile.
“Making Forever if Ever reminded me that music is a personal thing,” McLaughlin reveals. “It’s not a corporate business. It’s just music. On my previous albums, I was tied up in a lot of red tape and meetings and actually heard myself say ‘fourth quarter budgets’ at one point.” “And now I get to be a musician again!”