John Mellencamp has been putting stories to music for nearly four decades. In that sense, "Ghost Brothers of Darkland County" is nothing new for the 63-year-old Rock and Roll Hall of Famer.
Nothing new, that is, except that he has a collaborator for one of the few times in his career. And that his collaborator is Stephen King, the most prolific (and successful) horror writer of modern times.
And that he's not just writing songs, but writing songs for a rock musical in which a father takes his two feuding sons to a cabin where his brothers met their deaths while battling over a girl. Billy Burke (the "Twilight" saga) and Gina Gershon ("Killer Joe") lead the cast.
We caught up with Mellencamp during a rare 15 minutes of down time at his Indiana home, and he was glad to share his thoughts on collaborating, writing for the stage and whether there are any trips to Baltimore in his future.
This musical looks like it was about 12 years in the making. Tell us a little bit about how the process got started and why it took so long to get it all together.
It's actually like 16 years. It's a work in progress. You have a book writer who's never written a musical, and you have a guy who's been in a rock band, basically ... doing something that they've never done. So it was a huge learning curve for us.
We started in Atlanta, where the show was done basically in a traditional Broadway style. After that run, we decided, "Listen, we don't like this. We don't like dancing and we don't like this many props, this many sets. How can we pare this down?"
To make a long story short, it's not really a musical. It's a play with music. ... Steve and I can look at what is going on, see what adjustments we want to make. This is an art project that Steve and I will have to decide, at some point, "OK, we're ready for this thing to be called done."
Is this very much still a work in progress?
Art is never really complete. I hear my songs on the radio — I had a song many years ago called "Pink Houses." And I hear that song, and it's like, "Dammit, I wish I'd done a better job on that last verse."
So this thing will only be done when Steve and I go, "It's done." He'll continue to make changes, I'll make changes. That's what art is. It's just constantly in motion.
You may be the only person in the world who thinks "Pink Houses" still needs to be tweaked. I guess you have that right.
Well, thank you for saying so.
How about the process of songwriting for a play vs. songwriting for albums and for singles? Did you find it a very different process?
First of all, when you make a record and your name's on it — I don't know why this is, but people think that the songs are about you. And I don't know why they think that. But the songs have never been about me on my records. I'm the guy singing the song, but it's always been observation or channeling. You get an idea for no apparent reason and you write it down.
But writing songs for "Ghost Brothers," Steve would call me up and go, "Look,
this is where I'm at with this, and we need some character development so people
know why they're doing this. Can you write a song that speaks to this part of
the person's character?"
It was like almost an assignment. And I found it to be easier than writing songs just for John Mellencamp. It was like you had a specific goal in mind, there was something happening, you knew what was happening, you knew what was going to happen. So how can this person speak about themselves inside this situation?
There was a record T Bone Burnett produced, [recorded] about three years ago with where the show was at that point. The show has evolved immensely since that album came out.
So it would be a different album if it came out today?
There would be some different songs, yes. Kris Kristofferson played the father on the album. Well, the father now is a hell of a lot meaner guy than Kris played him. He's a lot meaner, and the mother's a lot crazier than Meg Ryan played her. Meg played the mother kind, but now she's not kind at all.
You've been doing rock concerts for some 40 years now — you've certainly made your mark there. Are you ready to be known as John Mellencamp, Broadway impresario?
I don't think that's ever going to happen.
I didn't ever really worry about being called "the Voice of the Heartland" or something like that, because it doesn't really matter. All that matters is that I'm working and that I'm being an artist. I've got to create the same way that you've got to eat. I get up in the morning, and it's just like, "OK, I've got to get busy," whether it's on a painting or writing a song.
Any chance you'll be coming to Baltimore yourself?
Maybe. It just depends on how we feel the show is going. I'm going to be playing in Baltimore. I'm getting ready to do 80 shows starting in January myself, and I'm pretty sure Baltimore is on the playlist.