Speaking from his home in the Midwest on a beautiful spring day, singer-songwriter Jon McLaughlin would strike you as a pretty relaxed guy. As he recounts his numerous accomplishments without any bravado, it would be understandable for McLaughlin to feel like he could coast a little as he prepares to release his third album, Promising Promises (Razor & Tie). Case in point: An aptitude for piano discovered as a child, submersion in all school related music programs, college to continue his study of music, cultivating a big online following in the early days of social media, scoring a label deal at age 21, inking big song placements on television and movies, a performance at the Academy Awards, selling 170k albums, debuting at #1 on the iTunes Singer/Songwriter chart - pretty heady stuff for a guy from Indiana who just wanted to be able to play like Billy Joel someday.
Along with his older sister and brother, Jon McLaughlin began piano lessons at a very young age presenting an ability his parents hoped to foster. He loved playing the piano, and creating his own sounds, but lessons was another thing. “I took lessons every Thursday and I’d come home complaining to my mom. My dad traveled during the week for work, and when he’d call on Thursday nights, I’d inevitably give him the same grief I gave my mom. To their credit, they never forced the lessons; they allowed me to talk it through and somehow, at the end of every conversation, I’d say, “I think I am going to keep going.” They had infinite patience with me.”
He continued with piano until a rollerblading accident resulted in Jon breaking both his wrists at the age of 15. While slightly self-conscious walking around high school with casts on his arms, Jon still felt a sense of relief that the lessons stopped Taking time off helped Jon realize his enthusiasm for creating his own music wasn’t going to dim. He continued on to Indiana’s Anderson University where he studied music. He also started posting songs he wrote on a then-little known website called MySpace. He noticed that the “plays” for his music grew daily – he was cultivating a fan base. “I began playing live shows on weekends with my band, which I loved doing. One day I was in the computer lab and got a MySpace message from someone at an independent label telling me they liked my stuff. I literally couldn’t believe it. By the end of my senior year in college I was corresponding with several major label A&R people, making plans to play some shows in New York City.”
That’s exactly what Jon did, lunching with label execs during the day and playing showcases at night. His short stay in New York turned in to a two-week jaunt until Jon signed with Island Def Jam Records. In short order, Jon was sent to both Los Angeles and Nashville for some co-writing sessions “No disrespect to the people I worked with, because they are phenomenal songwriters, but it was hard for me. It felt forced, and I was used to writing in my dorm room where I was never looking at clock, worried about writing a radio hit or appealing to the masses..”
Jon released his 2007 debut album, Indiana on Island, followed by his sophomore effort, OK Now in 2008. Both were successful, with Jon sharing the stage with the likes of Kelly Clarkson, Adele, Colbie Caillat, Sara Bareilles, Duffy, One Republic, Johnny Lang, Paolo Nutini, and Matt Wertz among many others. The albums yielded placements on Scrubs and movies like Georgia Rule and Bridge to Terabithia. In the meantime, Jon’s manager got a call about an Alan Menken/Stephen Schwartz song for an upcoming Disney film called Enchanted starring Patrick Dempsey and Amy Adams. Immediately interested, Jon flew to Long Island to record the track. A week later, the film’s producers asked Jon, by then newly married, if he’d like to perform the song in the film. He and his wife flew back to New York, where he spent a week filming the pivotal ballroom scene in Brooklyn. A year and a half later, the film was released to outstanding reviews and Jon was later asked to perform “So Close” at the Academy Awards in 2008.
As Jon began work on his third album, he realized things were changing at his label. “There were a lot of people there I loved, but it started to not feel like my home anymore. I’d been encouraged to co-write on my first two albums, with half the songs being written with other people. I also had to use musicians the producers had wanted, not my band mates, who I’ve literally known, and been playing with, since high school and college.” The recording of this album was different: “I took a long time to write Promising Promises. I knew how I wanted to record these songs, so I got more involved with producing and engineering.” McLaughlin not only wrote all the songs on the album but he also produced it. He understood this was not the album his major label wanted him to make. While Jon accepted their decision, he was not going to change the musical course that finally felt so right to him.
The result is his most authentic album yet. Promising Promises reflects Jon’s confidence and maturity as a songwriter. Releasing the record on independent label Razor & Tie is also an inspired choice for Jon, who says, “It's so refreshing to find a group of people who have so much experience in the music business and are still so passionate about music. I feel like I've found the right fit with Razor & Tie and I could not be more excited about working with them."
The thirteen piano driven pop tracks include first single “Summer is Over” featuring old friend Sara Bareilles, “We toured together, and get along really great. I had not originally planned “Summer” to be a duet. When I re-listened to it, I realized that’s what it needed to be, and thankfully Sara was available. It is a break up song, a situation that actually happened to a friend. He moved towns for a girl, and then it just didn’t work out in the end. I thought this story was very realistic because it was down to logistics, not feelings. At the end of the summer, reality sets in and he realizes he has a life in another place. Sara brings the other side, the other emotion. It’s perfect with her on it.”
Other stand-out tracks include “Promising Promises,” which, ironically, is the first song Jon wrote for the album while still recording for Island. “The music I was writing wasn’t connecting for them, but it was for me. I wrote this song out of a real frustration with the situation. My minute long piano solo was a defiant act; I wanted to say, “Hey! I play piano!!!” This song was very therapeutic for me to write and perform. Funny enough, my former label loved the song.”
“Maybe It’s Over” featuring Xenia Martinez, a Season One finalist from “The Voice,” is a soaring inspirational track with an amazing harmonica break about someone who dreams of becoming a successful musician but can never catch a break despite his talent. “If Only I,” a song about unrequited love, is delivered both poignantly and passionately. It’s Jon’s favorite song on the album, too. “If I had to pick one track, this would be it. Some songs I am proud of because of lyrics, or because of the music, but I am so proud of this song on all accounts. I love the music, the melody, where it goes and the lyrics.”
Promising Promises, out on Razor & Tie on May 22nd, is the record Jon’s always wanted to make. “The number one thing I love about working with Razor & Tie is everyone who works there is passionate about music. They give me freedom and don’t follow a ‘rulebook.’ They work on things because they love the music, and they want to support my vision.”
Also exciting for Jon will be getting out on the road and playing for his fans, who remain a very strong and supportive presences since his early days on MySpace. Jon is hopeful that the audience who stuck with him will be rewarded for their patience. “So much excites me about Promising Promises. Just knowing that when people listen to this record they will be hearing exactly what I wanted it to sound like makes me happy. That wasn’t always the case for me. The first time my band and I played a show where people actually showed up because they wanted to be there was unforgettable to me. The music was catching on and I could hear people singing the songs with me. I looked out in the crowd and could see them feeling the music. What I really want is to be able to keep experiencing that.”