Newsweek Interview

Back to Basics

John Mellencamp's new record, 'Life, Death, Love and Freedom,' taps into a few universal roots.
Kristi York Wooten
Newsweek Web Exclusive

Updated: 6:44 PM ET Jul 23, 2008

Just because he's riffed his way into our collective consciousness with no-frills all-American rock songs doesn't mean John Mellencamp can't be introspective. After getting flack for putting his 2006 song "Our Country" in a patriotic Chevrolet truck commercial, Mellencamp, 56, is currently enjoying a mini renaissance--thanks to his recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction and a stripped-down new album of soulful ruminations called "Life, Death, Love and Freedom," produced by T-Bone Burnett ("O Brother, Where Art Thou?" and "Raising Sand"). In this election year, candidates on both sides of the aisle have used his songs at their rallies. NEWSWEEK's Kristi York Wooten caught up with Mellencamp to talk about the new album and a very busy 2008. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: How do you feel about this year you've had so far?
John Mellencamp: Quite honestly, for me, it's just another year I've been working. The fact that I got into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is nice. But I don't think much about the candidates. I'm definitely a liberal-leaning guy, so I will always support the most liberal candidate.

How is "Life, Death, Love, and Freedom" different from your other records?

I wrote all the songs in like 15 days. I got up in the morning and wrote all day long until I had a song or songs. And then the minute I found out I had about 15 of them, I phoned up T-Bone and said, "Let's go make a record in a week." And he said, "OK." Of course, that week turned into almost a year. I think we ended up making a record that sounds pretty authentic and pretty different for [me], for sure.

"Life, Death, Love, and Freedom" is being released in multiformat (CD, DVD, MP3, others) using a process that essentially distributes the recorded information in the same way as old analog tapes and records did, but without the compression that normally happens with digital files. Why?
I can listen to the DVD of "Life, Death, Love, and Freedom" and tell you where in the studio I sang [each song]. You should be able to hear the space. That's what we listened to on this record. It wasn't the notes we were playing, we were listening to the space the notes occupied. But you can't hear that in digital stuff. Analog is done in waves. It's like the ocean, it's a very natural way of hearing. Digital's not.

The themes on this new album are pretty heavy, such as in "Don't Need This Body," where you talk about being "washed up and worn out." In "Mean," you talk about an "outlook that is haunting us all." Are some of the lyrics autobiographical?
Because we treated it with the idea of making it authentic sounding, all of the songs were written from the American Songbook tradition, you know—old blues, old folk—and, of course, all those songs dealt with death and major problems in people's lives. But one would be making a mistake to think that these are real personal songs. They're just not. "Mean" is making a very little statement, but I had the country in my mind. I thought, "Quit being so mean to everybody." It's cruel the way that we treat the middle class and the poor in this country. That was in the back of my mind when I wrote that song, but it's written in a very personal manner, as if I'm talking to another person.

Explain the song "Jena," about the Louisiana town .
The song was written really early on when I first heard the initial report about the nooses hanging in the trees. No matter how you cut it—who's right, who's wrong, who did what to who—that's wrong. The song is about showing compassion and dignity and dealing with problems in a way that can produce positive results as opposed to negative results. If you hang nooses in a tree, you're going to get a negative response. If you paint a swastika on somebody's door, you're going to get a negative response. It shows no compassion and no thought. That's really what I responded to. I tell this story in concert: When I was 14 years old, I was in a band. There were two lead singers, me and another guy. And this guy was a black kid, and he was a soft-hearted, nice kid. And everybody loved that kid on stage, but when we got off stage, the rest of the members who were all white, we heard comments like, "He can't stay in here, get him out of here." It was like, "What the f---?" That made a big impression on me as a 14-year-old. I've written a lot of songs about bigotry and hatred over the last 35 years, and I think that's why. It really made a big cut in my psyche.

Tell me about the recurring theme of freedom in your music.
I think the best line that I've written about freedom comes from a song called "Freedom's Road." It says, "Sometimes I wonder what kind of freedom you're talking about." The freedom that people can search your home without search warrants, tap your phone without probable cause—that's not freedom. It just kind of annoyed me the way that word was thrown around. The word became very smarmy to me.

And now "Freedom" is in the title of the new album.

T-Bone and I were talking about what the album should be called. If we want to call the album something reflective of what's in the album, it should be called "Life, Death, Love, and Freedom." It never even dawned on me that my last record was called "Freedom's Road," because I never look back. I never even gave it another thought.

What happened when you found out John McCain was playing "Pink Houses" and "Our Country" at his rallies?

Some people said, "He can't do that. You got to have him stop it." And I said, "No, no, no. I'm not going to tell anybody they can't use my material. If [McCain] thinks it's a good idea and his people think it's a good idea, then just say, "Look, are you aware that Mellencamp is very liberal and that he is supporting the Democratic Party and do you think it's a good idea to use his material?" And that's the question that was asked of their publicity people, and the answer was, "No." So they quit using it.

Do the politicians really listen to the lyrics beyond the chorus?

I think that they do, but don't know to what extent it means. Hillary Clinton gave a speech in Washington a few weeks ago when she gave up the fight. When she was done, she played a song and said, "Let me say thank you." I realized it was my song ["Thank You"]. I wrote that song, put it on an album, had never played it live and totally forgot about it. And then I called up one of the guys in the band, and I said, "Did you hear that?"

What is it about your music that appeals to the candidates in both parties? Mike Huckabee has been quoted in the press as saying he is a fan, despite your political differences.
I don't really know, except that they're not really pop songs. I'm trying to speak in some honest tone that maybe the people who pick their music understand. I know John Edwards well enough to have [had] a conversation with him about stuff like this. He related to "Small Town" many years ago. I would imagine Huckabee is the same way, although I've never spoken to Huckabee.

You got lots of criticism for allowing Chevrolet to use "Our Country" in a truck ad, even though you've said before that you did it so your music, in lieu of radio play, would get heard. Do you regret it?
No. You know something, I don't even think about it unless somebody brings it up. Like I said, I never look back.
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