Forbes Interview: John Mellencamp Opens Up On Music And Art

By Steve Baltin -Forbes

Sad Clowns And Hillbillies is the twenty-third album from Rock And Roll Hall of Famer John Mellencamp, a remarkable achievement for a man who says he didn’t even own a guitar when he got his first record deal.

Of course, as Mellencamp grew up and grew as a songwriter in the public eye, he morphed from John Cougar, the angry young man writing pop/rock fare like “Hurts So Good” and “Jack And Diane” to John Mellencamp, one of America’s finest songwriters, offering meditations on aging and life in songs like “Check It Out,” “Minutes To Memories” and the brilliant “Between A Laugh And A Tear.”

The superb new album, featuring Carlene Carter on much of the record, is vintage Mellencamp, It is a thoughtful, articulate, at times profound collection steeped in the sounds of America, from country and blues to gospel.

Mellencamp, who calls himself a curmudgeon, doesn’t do many interviews. But when he does, as you can read here, he has a lot to say on art, music, songwriting and more.

Steve Baltin: On this tour, are there songs you’re excited to bring back because they fit the political climate or you just enjoy playing them?

John Mellencamp: Well, I’ll be playing “Easy Targets” for sure. I try to not make shows too political, I used to maybe 10, 15 years ago. But now it’s about the songs and a lot of the older songs we rearrange them and I’m pretty sure the audience sits there for a minute and says, “What song is this?” Then words will come in or hook line will come in and they’ll go, “I got it.” I don’t know, I’m still thinking about what songs I’m gonna play off this record, probably do three or four and I’m gonna have Carlene come out. I’ll for sure do “What Kind Of Man Am I?” and “Grandview” and “Easy Target,” those three songs. And maybe “Mobile Blue.”

Baltin: Of the older songs are there ones right now that are really speaking to you?

Mellencamp: Talking about songwriting in general, a good song is always a good song and it’s timeless. So I’ve been fortunate to have some songs that seem more relevant today than when I wrote them. So I’m very aware that a song like “Love And Happiness,” for example, the lyrical content is more relevant today than when I wrote it in ’91 or ’90.

Baltin: I remember speaking with Jackson Browne and he spoke about some of his old songs felt prophetic to him. Are there songs you feel the same about of yours? Songs like “Minutes To Memories” and “Check It Out” feel like they were written from an older perspective speaking to someone younger.

Mellencamp: It makes perfect sense. But many years ago, to me, what started happening is I quit writing songs. I write them but I don’t think I’m going to sit down and write “Easy Target.” I’ll give you an example. I’m also a painter, which is what I’m doing right now as we’re talking. I was painting and a voice said, “Okay, you need to write this down.” Then I painted a little bit more and it said, “Come on, man, you need to write this down.” So finally I put my paint brush down and went over and sat down and wrote “Easy Target” in 10 minutes, never changed a word. And that has been happening to me since the early ‘90s. So what I’m saying is that I’m available to wherever these songs are coming from. I’m open, I’ve been a songwriter long enough.

Baltin: How have you changed as a songwriter?

Mellencamp: When I was a kid songwriting was a struggle. When I got my first record deal I didn’t even own a guitar. I had written like two or three songs, so all those early records I made really was me learning how to write songs and how to be a band leader. I was leaning on the job and I was learning in front of everybody. So am I available to write a song like “Hurts So Good”? Probably not anymore. It’s such a simple song, but it was a struggle to write cause I didn’t know how to write a song.

Baltin: Are there songs then you can look back on and say, “That’s when I became a songwriter?”

Mellencamp: No, it was a slow grind, it was baby steps. Every song was a baby step and then, like I said, a few years ago, songs just started being sent to me. And I prefer it that way cause I’m not a songwriter that goes, “I have to write a whole bunch.” I don’t do that. Over a period of time I’ll have written maybe 30, 40 songs and then I’ll go make a record. So I write a lot, I’m type A and I’m available, but I’ve spent the last 35 days painting. I get up, I get dressed, I go to the art studio, I paint, they bring me my lunch, I eat, I paint and then it gets dark, I have my dinner, I watch the news, I go to bed, I do the same the next day.

Baltin: From others I have spoken with painting seems like a very open medium. So do you feel you are more available to songs because of your painting?

Mellencamp: Yes, it’s very smart of you to realize that because when you’re creating and making stuff every day…I like to have something to show for my day every day, every f**king day I’ve got to make something. I also workout cause I’m a smoker, and I think I’m offsetting smoking by working out, so if I don’t work out then I feel guilty. If I don’t create something, if I don’t make something every day then I feel guilty. And that’s my problem with going on the road, it makes it really hard to create on the road, which you’re just really repeating something you’ve already done.

Baltin: As a fan I am glad you tour still. Does the being onstage offset the tedium of touring enough it makes it worthwhile?

Mellencamp: I’m with ACA in New York and have been for about eight, nine years, so ACA is one of the oldest galleries in New York. I think I’ve done one show in art in the last five or six years. But I don’t really like to mount shows because they want you to be there. I don’t know why, but they want you to be there. And I don’t want to be there because I don’t want to talk about the painting. I really don’t understand trying to explain art to people. I don’t like to have to try to explain songs or the painting because it’s not my job. My job is just to make them and then if people respond to them, it touches them in some fashion or they feel the song is about them or the painting is about them, then that’s great. But it’s okay if they don’t like it too. That’s what makes the world go round, different tastes, different things.

Baltin: Tell me about what Carlene brought to the record.

Mellencamp: I got to know Carlene, Steve King and I did a play with music. We did about 30 shows around the United States, it was Ghost Brothers Of Darkland County and they’re working on it in London right now. But Carlene had a small part. And of course Steve and I would hang around sometimes in certain shows and one day I was standing on stage during a break and picked up a guitar and started playing while the cast was on break and Carlene started harmonizing with me. I thought, “This sounds great together.” And so then I got to know her a little bit during that time period of rehearsals and shows. So then I asked her if she wanted to open up for me and we did 130 shows together. And we played together on stage every night, so during those shows about a year and a half ago I said, “We should do a record together.” She said, “Okay.” It was going to be a religious record, like John and her mom used to do. But I said, “Let’s not do traditional gospel songs. Let’s write our own gospel songs.” And of course she did and I didn’t. Gospel songs were not sent to me so I just wrote “Easy Target.” But she ended up writing, there are two gospel songs, one is a song called “Damascus Road,” and the other song that Woody [Guthrie] wrote the lyrics for and I wrote the music for, “My Soul’s Got Wings.” Those are the only two religious songs that ended up on the record. But it was supposed to be a gospel record in the old country tradition.

Obviously the timing in music makes it that you have to tour unless you are Adele. I didn’t think there would ever be another diamond album.

Mellencamp: The music business has changed so drastically since I started. And you’re correct, Adele is…I’ve never heard her records, I’ve heard some songs, but to have that kind of exposure and to sell that many records is just unheard of today. And I don’t understand what the future is going to be. I guess I’m saying I wouldn’t want to be a young songwriter today trying to make a living with my songs.