Michael McDermott
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Michael McDermott

Mertingen, Bavaria, Germany | MAJOR

Mertingen, Bavaria, Germany | MAJOR
Band Folk Singer/Songwriter

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MICHAEL McDERMOTT

Noise From Words, the new album from singer/songwriter Michael McDermott, is a candid song cycle of addiction and redemptionor more accurately, the struggle for redemption. The Chicago-based artist holds nothing back on this boldly autobiographical work, motivated by the same impulse that led him to the lecture circuit, where he speaks to troubled individuals who are battling the same demons McDermott has at long last managed to subduethough he would assert that this battle is never over. I do it not because Im fixed or healed, he says of this impulse to lend a helping hand, but because Im broken.

The album (Aug. 28, One Little Indian), primarily performed live in the studio using sparse instrumentationat times paring things down to just his vocal and acoustic guitarcaptures McDermott at his most intimate and most searingly honest, duplicating the cathartic experience of his solo live performances. Its fun to have your buds onstage and jump around in front of a band, he says. But when it comes down to the solo stuff, its very naked and much more difficult to pull off on an emotional level. After a solo set, Im just drained, not because Ive been jumping around, but because Ive just turned myself inside out.

Its precisely this acute degree of psychological self-exposure that makes Noise From Words so powerful. McDermott retraces the path that led him to the very brink of the abyss and back again on such unforgettable songs as Long Way From Heaven, My Fathers Son, Broken, Just a Little Blue and I Shall Be Healed. These understated but urgent songs form the chapters in a sort of aural autobiography whose thematic range also encompasses relationships (Still Aint Over You Yet, A Kind of Love Song, Tread Lightly, No Words, All My Love) and belonging (The American in Me), forming a comprehensive view of contemporary existence at its extremes.

McDermott describes the cinematic opener Mess of Things, with its evocative tableau of acoustic, dobro, piano and pedal steel, as the thematic cornerstone of the record. The genesis of this song came from a collage of images of how my past seems to follow me around. The line, Im on 23rd waitin on a friend is from my memory of living on 23rd Street in Manhattan and waiting on my dealer. It was one of those moments when you get the feeling that, no matter how bad a decision youre about to make, there are forces at work beyond your control, like loving the wrong things and the wrong peopleand when you reach the crossroads, which direction you ultimately go in.

At the tender age of 20, McDermott broke out of the Irish Catholic neighborhood that had formed the boundaries of his world, signing a big-time record deal with Giant/Warner Bros. My ship had come in, or so I thought, he says with a rueful laugh. His debut album, 1991s 620 W. Surf, introduced the artists spiritually inclined songs and expansive, rootsy soundexemplified by the rock hit A Wall I Must Climbgenerating critical hosannas and drawing the requisite Springsteen comparisons, as did his 94 follow-up, Gethsemane. But McDermotts ascending career brought with it an equal and opposite reaction, as the newcomer quickly got his introduction to temptation.

On my first tour, he recalls, every night there was a bottle of Jack Daniels in the dressing room, and pretty ladies waiting at my door. In high school, I had read William Blake, who wrote that The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom, and Arthur Rimbaud, who wrote that In order to be a seer, you must have a rational disordering of the senses. Those two quotes became my mantras. I wanted to experience all that was in lifeeverything, the good and the bad. On my first trip out to L.A., as I was driving down Sunset, I said to a friend, Show me the gutter, because I really wanted to experience it. Years later, that same friend said to me, I wish I had never shown you the gutter. I never knew youd take it down this far.

Even while he was plumbing his personal depths, McDermott was writing and singing uplifting songs, and those who were listening closely found them inspiringa situation he found wrenchingly ironic: I had grown men come up to me and tell me that they had been atheists before hearing my music and through it found Godto which I replied, Tell him I said hi; he stopped returning my calls a long time ago. Throughout the years, I had continued to feel like I was on a mission of sorts singing spiritual songs but never really feeling good about the other elements of my life. I had become self-consumed, alcoholic and a drug addict, and still had the arrogance to think that God had enough time to worry about my record sales and to think he was hanging me out to dry. That how delusional I had become.

After years of self-destructive behavior, McDermott had his moment of truth in November 2004, when he was arrested for possession of cocaine a