Before the arrival of his firstborn in February, Andrew McMahon wanted to write a proper musical introduction to his daughter. Eschewing a typical love song, McMahon — a veteran pop-rock singer-songwriter and cancer survivor at 32 — was most interested in portraying "who her dad was before she arrived," warts and all.
"More than anything, what I wanted the song to say to her was, 'Look, I've been through the highest of the highs and the lowest of lows. I've been beaten up and I've beat myself up,'" McMahon said on the phone from a tour stop in Minneapolis last week. "But you can still end up surviving pretty tough stuff. She's a daughter of a survivor and I hope, maybe in some way, she'll have a little piece of that built in her consciousness."
The result, "Cecilia and the Satellite," mentions cafe crawling through Amsterdam and touring the world with his punk rock band. It also introduces the music public to the singer's latest project, Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness, which headlines Rams Head Live on Friday. The moniker follows McMahon's two previous endeavors, the piano-meets-pop-punk Something Corporate and the more accessible Jack's Mannequin.
Adopting a new name symbolized a new challenge and uncertain future, according to McMahon. In his mind, it was a risk worth taking.
"I needed to prove to myself that I wasn't afraid to take a big chance," he said.
McMahon is no stranger to leaps of faith. After winning over Warped Tour crowds over the course of two Something Corporate albums, the frontman from Southern California forged ahead solo, and in the process expanded his pop palate, as Jack's Mannequin. Then, in 2005, came his unexpected diagnosis of acute lymphatic leukemia at 22, which naturally unsettled McMahon's entire world. After three more albums as Jack's, McMahon retired the name in 2012, in part as an effort to leave behind years of emotional baggage.
Closure cannot occur overnight, though. While McMahon nears a decade in remission, unexpected and unseen scars from the ordeal remain. When asked if dealing with cancer while navigating a music career forced him to grow up too quickly, McMahon laughs before adding, "It's an interesting subject and one I've covered through many, many hours of therapy."
"I learned earlier than I wanted to that everything can be really taken away from you, and you can lose it all pretty quickly," McMahon said. "That was the thing I struggled with the most, and made my 20s as tricky as they were."
After years mixed with tumult and success, McMahon seems happily relieved in his current stability. For his latest album, McMahon practiced the time-honored tradition of songwriting solitude. He escaped to a cabin in California's secluded Topanga Canyon, where his cell phone lacked service and a couple of whiskey bottles fueled his writing.
"It made it a lot easier to dig into myself and say, 'What am I really dealing with right now? What do I have in my head?'" he said.
With a familiar penchant for soaring, piano-driven pop melodies, the album "Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness" sounds like a natural next step for the singer. While many peers from his pop-punk days struggled to artistically transition to adulthood, McMahon has avoided such difficulties. Part of that richness is life constantly throwing him curveballs, but McMahon ultimately credits a constant need to write, wide-eyed and in the present.
"If you look back at songs like 'Cavanaugh Park' on that first Something Corporate record or sillier songs like 'Punk Rock Princess,' they were all pretty honest about where I was in my life," he said. "Even from a really young age, my goal was to write about life as I was living it at the moment."
The new album attempts to capture McMahon, a father and husband. At this point, the key, he said, is to write material that both engages audiences and feels true to the singer's current place in life, which is easier said than done.
"It's trickier to write songs as you get older, and you're not in the middle of a breakup every other day like in Taylor Swift records," he said. "It's hard as a songwriter to commit yourself to live a life that is something you could be proud of and still write music without dropping bombs on yourself every other day.
"I struggled with that, too," McMahon said, "but it's a challenge the best songwriters have had to face."