The Roots Report: An Interview with Edwin McCain

Okee dokee folks… Singer-songwriter Edwin McCain may not be a name that is at the forefront of your brain, but you definitely know his music. His songs “I’ll Be” and “I Could Not Ask For More” are mainstays of “lite” radio, have become classic wedding songs and are often sung on “The Voice.” McCain has released 11 albums and five have reached the Billboard top 200. I spoke with McCain last week and I honestly have to say it was one of my more enjoyable interviews!

John Fuzek: Hey, Edwin, it’s John from Motif magazine in Rhode Island.
Edwin McCain: Hey, John, how’re you doing?
JF: Alright, how are you?
EM: Good!
JF: Are you in South Carolina now?
EM: Yes, but I am actually driving and heading to Georgia right now!
JF: You’re driving?
EM: Yes
JF: Are you okay to talk?
EM: I got my headset on and everything is good!
JF: So, you are headed to the Odeum in a couple of weeks
EM: I am looking forward to it, I don’t think I have ever played there before
JF: I am not really sure, too many things to remember these days and my own gigs, too!
EM: It all runs together, doesn’t it?
JF: Yeah, it does! So, are you playing tonight?
EM: Yeah, it’s a private, corporate thing, Christmas party
JF: What time does that start?
EM: 7
JF: Not too long of a drive is it?
EM: Nah, it’s like an hour and a half, no big deal
JF: What part of SC are you in?
EM: I live in Greenville
JF: so you are just going over the border pretty much
EM: yeah, it’s literally like a two hour drive
JF: That’s not too bad! So, at the Odeum will you have a band, trio or playing solo?
EM: Trio, I rarely play solo, Craig and Larry and I have been playing together for so long it’s just easy to play this way
JF: What is the instrumentation?
EM: My sax player, Craig, he plays wind controller, saxophone and various wind instruments and Larry is my guitar player, and Craig, we’ve been playing together almost 30 years, and Larry’s the new guy in the band he is a scant 25
JF: Wow, this getting old thing sucks, I think of where I was at that age and it’s a drag!
EM: Are you my age? How old are you?
JF: I am ten years older than you!
EM: oh, ok, so you’ve got road years on me and road years are like dog years so you’ve got about seven years on me!
JF: So you’re two big songs are songs that are big at weddings
EM: Thank, God!
JF: How do you feel about that? Are you a big wedding person?
EM: Well, it’s interesting because when i was in the throes of it, when Atlantic was pushing me to be this balladeer, I was in my 20’s, oh my gosh, 28 year old me, I was like (said in a goofy voice), “I don’t want to be known for just singing wedding songs”, and 48 year old me looks back and thinks what a douchebag 28 year old me was, I couldn’t see how ridiculously lucky it would be to have a song be considered a wedding song, right, that just didn’t occur to me, i was like, (said in a goofy voice again),”well, that’s not cool…I wanna be ironic and I wanna write these dark songs and stare into my belly button” and now I just laugh at what an idiot I was and I laugh and I always say that 48 year old me would  never be friends with 28 year old me at all, not one single bit! I am so lucky to have a job playing music and I wouldn’t care if they were known for being in cat food commercials! As long as I get to play gigs and there are people there, are you kidding me?
JF: You know, you are the first person I have ever interview to actually say this! I look at it the same way and I am grateful I can play music!
EM: Oh, my God! Nobody has any clue how lucky, like the fact that I was so oblivious to how ridiculously lucky I was to be when I was, you know the thing about it is, in your 20’s, like I wanted to believe that it was because “I got a talent” but you know what, lot’s of people have talent! The timing of it is everything. Like Malcolm Gladwell has this book called Outliers and that is all you ever need to know about what success is. It has mostly to do with timing, a lot of people put in their 10,000 hours but timing is what plays a crucial function and we were so lucky  to be when we were and we worked really hard, I’m not going to say that we didn’t work hard because we worked our tails off but so did a lot of people, at the end of it, I think the people that I met along the way that are still playing after 30 years, I’ve never met anyone who isn’t grateful, you can’t be here this many years and not realize how supremely lucky you are, my wife laughs at me because every year I give her the “2 year speech”, I’m like, “Baby, this is only going to last a couple more years, I got to find another job” and she just laughs at me! And then someone on American Idol sings it again, and I got a new job!
JF: I have a song that’s been played at a couple of weddings, I have never performed it at one, it’s a real schmoltzy song that I wrote with a friend, sometimes I am embarrassed to play it but I have played it opening for some national acts and these little old ladies went right out and bought the CD and I was like “Yes!”
EM: Yes, Yes! That’s the other thing, the songs that I love are the ones where other folks go get a beer, I am not allowed to ever be the one that picks the single, like one year at the record company I forced the issue and made them let me pick the single, I know which song is going to connect, I thought and I pushed this song called “See The Sky Again” it didn’t even circle the bowl! I don’t think we got one, it was so ridiculous how wrong I was and from then on, and the other thing, too, always the songs that I think are going to register with people it’s never that, that was the lesson where I learned art isn’t about intention it’s about interpretation, and it isn’t art until it’s been interpreted and it’s none of your business how they interpret it, like when people ask me what does this song mean I never tell them because what i meant is off compared to the way some people have heard it, and I’m like “that’s a way better reason!” I realize that it’s sort of like giving credit to the lightning rod for the lightning, this stuff is out there, we try to get in the way of it, we try to be a good conduit for it, but never in any moment are we the genesis of it
JF: It does take on a life of its own
EM: right, it should, and if it’s good you’re just letting pass through you and all of my heroes and all of the people that I revere as musicians, artists and songwriters are the ones that it just flows through them effortlessly
JF: and who are they?
EM: Kevin Kinney from Drivin’ n Cryin’, David Wilcox he’s another one who can just tackle some 5000 year old biblical human condition and can sew it up in 3 1/2 minutes with elegant language where it all makes sense with interesting guitar parts
JF: he’s got all those capos going on!
EM: Right! and part of it, too, you know I really love the 80’s, I can’t listen to it now, don’t ever think I am sitting around listening to Husker Du, but the 80’s punk, these bands back then that I was way into because of what it was, it was music for its sake, it was a voice, it was energy, that kids needed to rally around and so I was into that  so I think that sort of educated my position on what music was supposed to be and it probably cost me a lot of money, too cause that punk ethic runs contrary to commerce at times so, but I love the idea of just being out there playing and I did not function very well in the  big label model where you trying to just go on a campaign
JF: I am not really a big fan of that whole process, I have been doing music for most of my life and I just play it because that is who I am, if turns into a business it kind of sucks the life out of it
EM: Music and money are two completely different substances, it’s oil and water, you can put it in a paint shaker and shake it up and it will separate, right, I have always found that to be true and another thing to, I never wanted to go, and that was the big conundrum, too, the big, the big Diane Warren song, like that was a little bit of a moment of sell out where I agreed to that  song because they paid me to do it and I never wanted to do other people’s songs, I felt that when I was going to hear a songwriter i was going to hear something perceptive, this is what they’ve mined out of life, you know, this is where they’re coming from, that was the thing that would always blow me away was someone’s interpretation of their life so far was the whole idea for songwriting, that’s what I loved about songwriters that I was a fan of, this is the poetry they’ve mined out of the dirt and not a song that 3 songwriters wrote in a writing room for a song pitch and you know, it’s not fictionalized
JF: sometimes you have to do those things because it allows other people to hear what you do
EM: Agreed, and I had to come to that conclusion, it was a narrow minded way of looking at it but it was always how I approached my career
JF: it’s just a way of evolving, too, that just shows that you can evolve, some people can’t evolve, and they’re not capable of doing any mental evolution, the fact that you can shows where you are as a musician and an artist
EM: It’s like Billy Joe Shaver, Billy Joe sort of, when Billy Joe is playing you a song, you know that that is some shit that happened to him, and I love those songs, but he also wrote songs for other people, so I get it, but it took me a bit to be able to get there
JF: Sometimes it’s just s tory and it’s interesting to repeat a story that someone else has told and you give your version of that story sometimes it can be done in an interesting way, kind of like the Jeffrey Gaine’s version of Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes”, totally different but both great versions
EM: Jeffery is a huge influence on me and a good friend as well, I’m a huge fan of Jeffery’s, when I point to should have beens I point to Jeffrey, like why wasn’t Jeffrey the biggest thing on earth, well, there’s a lot of reasons, and it wasn’t Jeffrey’s fault
JF: There’s a lot pf people like that! It’s sad, we could sit here and name all the people who should have been, I know lots of them, that’s the way that it is, you just do it because you love it, and if you can get on a bus that’s going somewhere that’s great
EM: The other thing is that in the back of my mind I am totally fine just one day just being back on the deck of the restaurant and playing gigs back where I started, I’ve got no problem with that
JF: You’re still playing music
EM: It’s that gig snobbery thing, I’ve seen a lot of people kind of end their careers because they can’t go back to that little place that they used to play
JF: I am playing those kind of gigs because it keeps me playing, otherwise I will go periods of time without playing at all
EM: That’s the thing that cracks me up, the people that come hear you play don’t think about that ever
JF: Right, it’s a gig and you’re playing!
EM:I just like to play certain places because it sounded so good in there, there is this one place that I used to play that had this big brick wall and was out on a patio but the sound used to just soar and it sounded so good and I used to play there all the time
JF: I play places like that, there is this place in Northampton that I love, and I don’t make much money but I love it, it’s a guitar shop/bar/performance space
EM: I know that place!
JF: It’s just a cool place, it’s a two hour drive but I have met some great musicians there and the best part is that the first time I played there a dog sat at my feet while I played, how much better than that can you get?
EM: Isn’t that the funniest thing? I had a Golden Retriever come on to stage during a big festival gig, walked up the loading ramp and then just sat down next to me for most of the gig, just sat there looking at the crowd smiling…
*NOTE: we went a little off track talking about some mutual friends in the business…so i skipped this part…but it came around to this…
EM I say this all the time, “The only currency of my life has been the relationships, the friendships that I have made along the way and the rest of it is just ancillary” The friendships are the real treasure, there’s no doubt
JF: Does your wife give you shit about your life?
EM: Oh, never
JF: Then you are golden, that’s one of the downsides is that you are in a relationship with someone who doesn’t get it and that makes it suck, but other than that it’s usually great, as long as you are with an understanding person
EM: Yeah, that was kind of Rule #1, this is what it is, but personally I modulated my tour schedule just so I could be home more for my kid, and I think think that I found the sweet spot right around 70 shows a year, I think that’s the magic number
JF: As long you can make it work and everyone is happy then that’s the way to do it!
EM: I am the bus driver and I am doing a lot of the maintenance, we are just mean and lean
JF: So, going off subject a bit, it sound like you had another project at one time called “Flipping Ships” (TV show), is it still going on?
EM: Yeah, I;m not doing television ever again! That’s a classic case of me coming up with a idea and thinking that it was a really good idea and then just working my ass off to make it happen and then realizing that this is a horrible idea (lots of laughing)
JF: So I guess that show is not on anymore
EM: No, they actually came back and asked me if I would do a reboot of it and I just priced myself right out of the stratosphere because it just wasn’t enjoyable, television is just really stressful
JF: Well, you gave it a shot
EM: That’s the thing, you know, nobody can tell you when to back off an idea if you haven’t accomplished it, I wished that I had a crystal ball, future me could have come back and said, “Hey, man, this whole TV thing is going to be a 2 year waste of your time!” But, I am glad that I did it and it was an interesting experience
JF: So does that mean you are into boats?
EM: I was! I don’t like them anymore! I would come home at 5 o’clock in the morning after working on some boat all night long and I would look at my wife and go, “I don’t like boats anymore!”  I guess what I am is a chronic restorer of old things and I like fixing up old things because they have stories attached and old boats have loads of stories and most of the stories are good and people hold onto the old boats and have all these memories attached to them and it was fun to try to take people’s memories and help them out
JF: well, the reason that I brought it up was that East Greenwich is town that has boats, right down the street from the Odeum are docks and stuff, and Newport is a big boat town
EM: Oh, yeah, right on, I am still in the process of restoring this old Hatteras that started this whole thing in the first place
JF: Do you live on the water
EM: we are about 40 minutes from a lake, down on the coast in Charlestown, and I used to be a pretty avid sailor,
JF: Have you ever done the “Stephen Stills thing” and incorporate it into music videos?
EM: No, and I felt like after “Cool Change” Little River Band and Christopher Cross I feel like they said all that needed to be said! They kind of did it! I felt like I would just be running over the same old ground, right, although, however, Bertie Higgins did it best
JF: I don’t think that I know him
EM: I’ll just go ahead and say “You’re welcome” cause when you hang up with me, YouTube Bertie Higgins “Key Largo” and watch that video and then enjoy yourself because it may be one of the greatest like 70’s yacht rock videos of all time!
JF: Oh, wait a minute, I don’t know that one! The one that mentions Bogie and BaCall!
EM: Yup!
JF: Well, it’s been a pleasure talking to you! It was fun.
EM: I have a feeling that if we lived in the same time we would hang out!
JF: I am going to try to get to your show, I have a gig during the day but I think I can make it
EM: Don’t kill yourself because I plan on phoning it in anyway! (laughs)…I’m KIDDING…
JF: I have never seen you play and I think that I should
EM: Yes, come!
JF: Cool, I will
EM: 10-4
JF: Good luck with your gig tonight, have a safe drive and I will see you next week!
EM: Thanks!

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