Australia's Courier Mail: John Mellencamp Will Tour Australia

John Mellencamp is a fighter and music survivor who has never been afraid to tell people how he feels, regardless of how it affects his career.

God knows, it's hard enough to carve out a 30-year musical career, let alone one as a songwriter of serious intent.

But surely few have done so after such an inauspicious start as John Mellencamp.

It's fair to say that if you were taking bets 30 years ago on someone who might be inducted into a Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in 2008, Mellencamp, or Johnny Cougar as he was then, would have had odds out in the tens of thousands.

But what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, and 30 years after his first Australian hit – the featherweight I Need a Lover, from an album that didn't even get a release in his American homeland – Mellencamp is a survivor in a business that might easily have chewed him up, spat him in the hole and stomped the dirt down.

His first three albums received a critical panning, and none of them indicated that he was destined for anything more than a few minutes of fame as just another handsome pop star.

Yet here he is, excited about the release of his 21st studio album, Life, Death, Love and Freedom, still stubbornly walking his own road, still saying exactly what's on his mind – he's a lacerating critic of US President George W. Bush – and not giving a damn what that might cost him out in the heartland that buys his music.

"Sisyphus, that's me," Mellencamp says, talking from his home in Indiana before setting off on a season of touring that will bring him back to Australia for the first time since 1992.

He's referring to the character from Greek myth condemned to hard labour for eternity.

"I'm the guy always rolling the rock up the hill," Mellencamp says.

There might be a dark rasp in his voice, evidence of a lifetime of thousands of gigs and many more cigarettes, but it sounds like there's a twinkle in his eye as he talks.

"I've never really pursued it any other way, I'm a walking contradiction.

''But I don't know how anybody could be anything other than that, particularly if you are questioning yourself and how you are doing it.

''Whenever I meet people who are so sure of themselves, I always kind of wonder, 'Who am I really taking to?'

"In the '70s I had the struggle of trying not to be categorised as just a flash-in-the-pan pop artist. In the '80s I struggled with record companies. In the '90s I struggled with myself. And here I am now, 30 years into it . . ."

And, this year, included in the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, alongside the likes of Madonna and Leonard Cohen.


Mellencamp has had a few of those, starting with overcoming spina bifida as an infant, then becoming a father when he wasn't long out of high school, and the long battle for musical credibility – and even his own name, since the Cougar moniker was dumped on him by early manager Tony DeFries – which might have crushed lesser spirits.

He didn't start to find his own voice as a writer until breakthrough albums like American Fool and Scarecrow in the early '80s, with hits like Jack and Diane and Small Town.

That finally gave him the clout to get his own surname on his records, but he didn't manage to get rid of the "Cougar" for good until 1991.

In the '90s his nicotine addiction hit home and hard, with a 1994 heart attack at least forcing him to cut down his habit, if not give it up for good.

And while the hits that made him a staple on Top 40 radio dried up, the songs never have. Last year's Freedom's Road was his strongest collection of tunes since the '80s, and Life, Death, Love and Freedom, recorded with producer T-Bone Burnett, finds his music stripped to the bone, harder, leaner and darker.

Clearly, his writing has taken inspiration from his 2004 covers album, Trouble No More, where he went exploring in the dark side of the American tradition with songs from the likes of Robert Johnson and Woody Guthrie.

"All those songs are real sad, they dealt with life's tragedies, and so I found myself writing a bunch of songs in that style," Mellencamp says.

"That music talks about stuff that most of us keep private to ourselves.

''It lasts because it's timeless to every generation, whether they know it or not."

If I Die Sudden has the kind of lyric that might have featured in a blues song any time in the past 100 years.

Don't Need This Body is from the point of view of a hard-bitten character near the end of his days; County Fair is narrated by the ghost of a murdered man.

These ominous songs are balanced by tunes like the charming roots-pop stroll of A Ride Back Home.

"We were lucky enough to capture an authentic feel on this record; we had a magical time in the studio.

''That doesn't always happen.

"Everything on this record is homemade, arrangements pretty much made up on the spot. We painted fast and made some mistakes and we let the mistakes work themselves out.

"As opposed to the last record I made where we spent hours and hours and hours on arrangements, and by the time we recorded the songs we knew them too well.

"When we are all pleasantly surprised at the end of the take, that's always a good sign to me."

Jena recounts the story of the controversial trial in the Louisiana town of Jena which sparked protests that white youths were treated more leniently in court.

John discusses his perspective on race when introducing Jena.

"I don't think racism is as bad among those under 30, but this shocked me.

''There was a fight between high school kids and they prosecuted some of the black kids and sent them to prison.

''Some of the kids hung nooses in the trees. I thought it seemed weird that it would happen among younger people. I just wrote the details down."

As with his 2003 song To Washington, the song has hit a nerve, for and against. Mellencamp wasn't impressed when John McCain started using his song Our Country during his campaign to become Republican presidential nominee and wrote to McCain's staff saying they should take a closer listen to the lyrics.

"I've said so many things that have pissed people off, particularly under the Bush Administration.

''To Washington came out before the Iraq War and that made me very unpopular, all of a sudden I wasn't patriotic.

''But I'm dead-set against nationalism, America-love-it-or-leave-it.

''I'm not down with all that."

John Mellencamp To Washington Video

He sees American foreign policy in the Middle East as a disaster.

"It's been a terrible failure.

''Even if we win we lose.

''But listen to us talk now, you couldn't have said some of these things eight years ago, and some musicians were being crucified because of what they said.

"I think that's the reason I've said, 'This is who I am and this is what I believe'.

''If it means I can't sell records, then that's the way it's going to be."

What does he feel is is the greatest lesson he has learnt from his career as a songwriter?

"I never look back.

''I really hate talking about what happened in 1985.

''I'm also a painter, and when I finish one of my paintings I turn it against the wall.

''You can't sit there and look at an old painting."

Life, Death, Love and Freedom is out on July 12 through Universal. Mellencamp, with supports Sheryl Crow and Shane Nicholson, performs at Brisbane Entertainment Centre on November 25, with tickets on sale through Ticketek on July 7.