The Tribune: Seymour native Mellencamp discusses 25th studio album

The Seymour Tribune By Zach Spicer

Growing up in Seymour and falling in love with music at an early age, John Mellencamp said his vision was to make one album.

His professional music career began in earnest in 1976 when MCA Records released his first album, “The Chestnut Street Incident.”

After releasing a few albums, he broke out in 1979 with his first hit, “I Need a Lover.”

Three years later, his fifth album, “American Fool,” was the year’s best-selling album with two big hits, “Hurts So Good” and the No. 1 single “Jack and Diane.”

Fast forward to Jan. 21, 2022, and his 25th studio album, “Strictly a One-Eyed Jack,” was released.
“I had no idea that I’d be 70 years old and still making records,” the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and now Bloomington resident said in a recent phone interview.

As a young person, Mellencamp said he didn’t have a vision of reaching a milestone like that.

“Particularly at the time, 1974, ‘75 when I signed my first record deal, there were so many people that would make two records and they were done,” he said. “I saw that a million times because that’s the way the record companies work, and I figured that’s what would happen to me.”

He said he had no idea it would be a lifelong occupation.

“But at the same time, I’m very lucky,” Mellencamp said. “I’m very, very lucky, and I appreciate the time and the people and the music. I’ve never really had a straight job. I’ve never really worked for wages. Maybe a little bit in the summer when I was a kid or a little bit when I first got out of college, but think about that, never had to work for wages. I’m very happy about that.”

While the new release is his 25th studio album, Mellencamp said he has several more records than that if you count greatest hits, live and acoustic packages.

The new album is out on Republic Records. It was written and produced by Mellencamp at his own Belmont Mall Studios in Bloomington, and it was recorded and mixed there by David Leonard. Scott Davis was assistant engineer, Michael Stucker was technical engineer and Bob Ludwig mastered it at Gateway Mastering Studios.

The album features three collaborations with fellow singer-songwriter Bruce Springsteen. He provides harmony vocals and guitar solos on “Did You Say Such a Thing” and vocals and tremolo guitar on “Wasted Days” and has an electric guitar solo on “A Life Full of Rain.”

Mellencamp said he has known Springsteen for a long time, but he only knew him to “say hello and exchange pleasantries.”

In 2019, though, they performed together during the 30th annual Rainforest Fund benefit concert in New York City.

“We just connected as friends, both of us having the same job. We talked about music, but we talked about other stuff, too,” Mellencamp said.

He liked collaborating with Springsteen on this new album.

“He has the rare combination of having a lot of humility but at the same time having a healthy amount of ambition,” Mellencamp said of Springsteen. “That’s a rare combination to find, that they can balance that.”

“Wasted Days” is the first album single, and a music video has been released. Mellencamp said he left those decisions up to the record company.

“I just said, ‘Whatever you guys want to do’ because I’m done trying to sell records,” he said. “Anybody that knows me knows that I’m not for everybody. I’m just not for everybody. My personality is not for everybody. I don’t pander to an audience. I just don’t do that. I don’t pander to people in real life. Some people say, ‘John’s kind of prickly. Well, he has always been kind of prickly, even before he had a record deal,’ and that hasn’t changed.”

Mellencamp said he makes the records, and it’s the record company’s job to sell them.

“I think it’s only fair to tell you once upon a time, I didn’t treat things that way. I controlled everything,” he said. “But as I’ve become an older gentleman, it has been kind of like, ‘You guys think it’s best, then let’s just do that.’ Then if it works, it’s great. If it fails, so what. It’s on them, not me.”

When he was younger, Mellencamp said he would labor over songs and try to direct them. Now, he said he just lets the songs come to him.

“I know it sounds crazy, but I don’t really sit down and think about ‘Well, I’m going to write a song about this or about that.’ They just kind of till up in my head … and then I try to see if the band can play it,” he said.

After awhile, he said he just got out of his own way.

“I tried to control the songs when I was younger, but I found that from writing so many songs and painting so many paintings, you just get out of your own way and don’t try,” Mellencamp said. “If you’re trying to do something, that’s the best thing I can say. I stopped trying like 20-some years ago, and my songwriting got better and my performances got better. If you try too hard, it’s just a pressure that you put on yourself and you can’t get out of your own way.”

When asked what he personally likes about the new album, Mellencamp said, “That I’m done with it” and laughed.

“I’m already preparing to make a new record. I’m already writing songs for a new record,” he said. “I live an artist’s life. I paint every day or I write songs every day. I’m very solitary, very open to inspiration, be it on canvas, be it in a song. Things just come to me. I’m very fortunate. You know what luck is? Luck is thinking you’re lucky, and I’m lucky. I’ve always been lucky.”

Whether it’s records, paintings or songs, Mellencamp said they are never done.

“In other words, you could work on an album forever, if you chisel away on this, do that, they are never really done. They are just abandoned,” he said, noting he’s working on a big painting now and may come back to it in a year, look at it and see what he can do to it.

In terms of choosing the title of the new album, Mellencamp said anything like that that’s creative comes from him.

“A one-eyed jack is the most dangerous card in the deck. There are only two of them, you see half his face and there’s a sword behind his back,” he said. “This album is coming from one voice. This is one guy telling his story, talking about his life.”

The album cover features a painting of Mellencamp wearing a patch over his right eye. That painting is special to Mellencamp because it was done by one of his sons, Speck Mellencamp.

One day, John said Speck told him, “Dad, I’ve never painted you,” and he arranged for Speck to do one painting of him and another painting of a friend from California at the same time.

“The paint wasn’t even dry off of my friend’s painting and Speck sold it,” John said.

He said Speck has been able to “scratch out a living” by selling his paintings and running Southern Indiana Center for the Arts in Seymour.

“When he was growing up — I have five kids — him and one of my daughters, but him the most, would come up to my art studio and he would sit around all day and just watch me paint,” John said. “Even as young as 9 and 10, I’d say, ‘You want to paint this boot?’ so he had a real interest in it, and we knew right away when he started drawing that he had a talent for drawing, and then he graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design.”

Mellencamp said he planned to tour with the new album and had shows booked, but for the third time, the COVID-19 pandemic forced them to be canceled.

Looking to the future, Mellencamp was asked how many more albums he wants to do and said, “I’ll be making records until I’m dead.”

“I’m a guy that just thinks forward. I don’t think back,” he said. “I can’t go back and look at things and go ‘Oh.’ I just don’t. I’m always looking forward to the next thing.”

Mellencamp said he thanks the supporters from his hometown, including the late Larry McDonald, a classmate and former bandmate who owned This Old Guitar Music Store in downtown Seymour and spearheaded a project to have a mural of Mellencamp painted on the side of his building. Later after that was completed, the Mellencamp family made a donation to add a plaza in front of the mural.

“I know that for him, it was an important project,” Mellencamp said, “and so I’m very happy and grateful that Larry wanted to do that because it’s nice for my dad (Richard), who is 90, to see something like that.”

John Mellencamp’s 25th studio album, “Strictly a One-Eyed Jack” 
1. Always Lie to Strangers
2. Driving in the Rain
3. I Am a Man That Worries
4. Streets of Galilee
5. Sweet Honey Brown
6. Did You Say Such a Thing
7. Gone So Soon
8. Wasted Days
9. Simply a One-Eyed Jack
10. Chasing Rainbows
11. Lie to Me
12. A Life Full of Rain
Critical acclaim 
“Mellencamp is a poet of ennui, making him an apt mouthpiece for our moment.” — The New Yorker
“Mellencamp is absolutely uncompromising and unyielding as an artist.” — Forbes
“Longtime fans of Mellencamp will find much to like on this new offering from the artist. Time spent listening will certainly not be wasted time.” — The Associated Press
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