Edwin McCain

by Dan MacIntosh

The song is more popular than the artist. "I'll Be" hit the charts in 1998 and has been on playlists ever since. More folks can sing its chorus than tell you the first thing about Edwin McCain. Some songwriters have rocky relationships with their well known hit, but McCain loves everything about it. On the road for hundreds of dates every year, "I'll Be" is the honey that attracts new fans to his rootsy music not suitable for pop radio. The song tells the story of a turning point in his life - his "Hail Mary" moment. It's a song so intimate that we hear our own stories in it, and often use it to accompany weddings and other moments that define our lives.

So who is the guy behind the song? McCain is an introspective singer/songwriter from South Carolina, which in the mid-'90s meant Hootie & the Blowfish. This got him a deal with Atlantic Records that petered out after his big hit and when the Hootie backlash began. After his 2001 album Far From Over, he left the label on shockingly amicable terms, going the indie route ever since.

As Edwin tells the story of "I'll Be," you'll hear how the song defined him as an artist and brought him to a positive place from a period of alcoholism and despair. This interview was rescheduled once, which as we found out, can happen when the subject is also driving the bus.
Edwin McCain: I'm good. I apologize for the other day. I was doing double duty as bus driver and we got into this traffic snafu that was of epic proportions. I literally was trapped behind the wheel of a bus. And I tell you, it was just one of those things, I got jammed up. But I do apologize.

Dan MacIntosh (Songacts): That's all right. I live in Los Angeles and we have traffic jams of epic proportions almost every day.

McCain: Yes, yes, you do. And especially when they close the highway for a month. I was out there when they did that. I was like, Oh my God, people are going to lose their minds.

Songfacts: (Laughing) I'm sure some have. Anyhow, I saw that over a million Dr. Phil viewers voted "I'll Be" as the best wedding song ever written. How do you react to that?

McCain: It solidifies the fact that intention of the songwriter is 180 degrees from potential interpretation by an audience.

Songfacts: Really? Why do you say that?

McCain: Because I didn't really write the song as a love song. It was kind of a Hail Mary prayer for me, personally. And it's been obviously linked as a romantic song. It's one of those things that I hesitate to say too much, because sometimes songs become what they were supposed to be, and it's not really up to the songwriter to determine what that is. I mean, all we're capable of doing is birthing it in a way, or being the conduit. It's kind of like giving credit to the lightning rod for the lightning. You try to get in the right space and let the song become what it's going to be. I'm always amazed by the different things that people find in songs and typically they find what they need in music, and art in general isn't complete until the audience has gotten from it what they're looking for.

Songfacts: I don't want to burst anybody's bubble, but did you have something else in mind when you wrote this song, something that's maybe not so wedding related?

McCain: Well, it was a combination of a few things. It was the end of a relationship for me, and it was also an admission of my inability to function in a relationship, hence the love suicide line. And it was the hope that I would be better, grow and be better as a person. I was struggling with some personal problems at the time, as well, so it was all of those things. It was this admission of failure and this prayer that I could be a better person, wrapped up as sort of the end of a relationship kind of thought. And it was something that I said to a girl that I'd been going out with. I knew that she was waiting, and I always said to her, "Don't ever look back on this in any other way than I'll be your biggest fan." You know, "I'll always be a fan."

Songfacts: That's interesting, though, that you described it as a prayer.

McCain: Yeah.

Songfacts: Does it feel that way still when you sing it?

McCain: Yeah. It does, because I look back on that time and the moment when I wrote the song, and we were in danger of being dropped from the record label. Anything that was remotely related to Hootie & the Blowfish, there was a backlash against. And so my friendship with them, while incredibly beneficial in the beginning of my career had now become kind of a liability. And the label was not happy with my sales numbers. Which is really funny to say, because I think our first album sold like 250-300,000 copies, where today they would have a parade. But back then those were disappointing numbers. So I was in a place where everything that I had dreamed about in my whole life was kind of falling apart. I was not dealing with that information in a healthy way. I was drinking and following a course of action that would be described as self-destructive. And it was a time that this was make or break. This is it. And it was Hail Mary. If I don't do something that's worthy or that strikes a chord, or if I don't do something great here, it's over.

And the only thing I know how to do with songwriting is to be honest and emotional. You have to be honest and emotional and admit the things that maybe you don't want to. And that was basically what I did. I just put it all out there, here it is, here's my scary moment, here's my fear. And here's what I hope. Here it is.

Songfacts: Just carrying that analogy a little further, if it was sort of like a Hail Mary prayer, do you feel like your prayer was answered?

McCain: Yeah, absolutely. I think it opened up a whole new lesson for me to learn in my life. It gave me all the things that I thought I wanted and taught me a lot about myself. The success in the major label arena, it can be a blessing and a curse. I think I learned a lot about what not to do during the next five years, and now in light of being a 41-year-old singer/songwriter traveling musician, that song is a gift that you can't even believe. Because what it is is an invitation - everywhere I go, it's an invitation to the town that I'm in to people, and they go, "Oh, let's go hear that guy that sings that song." And I've got 90 minutes to show 'em all this other stuff we do. And it's hard enough to get people to come out to hear music. There's so many other options. To be able to put two or three hundred people in a room just on the back of one song is a gift. It's an unbelievable gift, and it gives me the opportunity to earn their return visit the next time I'm in town.

Songfacts: I like how you put that. So that song, it's almost as if you're saying, Hey, if you like this, then you're probably going to like all of these.

McCain: Yeah. And the fact that people use "I'll Be" for their weddings, and weddings don't have an expiration. Every year there are weddings. I'm not associated with the '90s, I'm associated with weddings. So it never ends. It's timeless. It wasn't my intention and I would be lying to you if I said that it was all part of my grand plan, because it wasn't. And I'm the fortunate recipient of a beautiful gift in music. It always cracks me up when I meet songwriters and musicians who have had one or two big hits and they feel resentful towards those songs, because that's what they're known for and they're not known for anything else and they get this sort of bitterness about it. I think to myself how incredibly selfish that is to not see it as the gift it truly is. Don McLean has lived a life that he would never have achieved if not for "Starry, Starry Night" and "American Pie." And I think he gets it. I think he realizes how spectacularly lucky he is that he gets to sing these songs for people. I sing "I'll Be" every night with the same passion that I sang it with the first time I played it for the band.

Edwin's 2011 album is called Mercy Bound. His collaborator on the album was Maia Sharp, a musical octopus who is credited for 12 different roles on the album, starting with "Composer" and ending with "Wurlitzer." She honed her considerable skills by going to work with her dad, Randy Sharp, who told us that Maia wrote her first song when she was 5. A turning point for Edwin was ceding some of the songwriting duties on the album, and recording some cuts he had no hand in writing. The title track was written by Mark Addison, who first recorded the song with his band The Borrowers.
Songfacts: I want to talk about the new album Mercy Bound. We were talking about the spiritual element, almost like an answer to prayer that "I'll Be" was. And I see a lot of spirituality running through this album. What kind of things were going on in your life at the time that you wrote these songs that made it turn out that way?

McCain: Well, my relationship with Maia Sharp (who has 12 credits on the album, starting with "Composer" and ending with "Wurlitzer") is one of the big reasons this album sounds that way. She challenged me as a songwriter since the day we met. She has a hard and fast rule: the way that she writes and her approach to songwriting is based on the fact that if you don't follow an idea to its greatest conclusion, then it's disrespectful to somebody who would have. And I never thought of it that way when I met her. I very selfishly looked at songwriting and said, "The first answer is usually the correct one." The first idea is usually the right one.

And that's kind of a lazy way of doing it, and an egocentric way of looking at it: "The first idea that I come up with must be the best one." Sometimes that's true, but you won't know that until you've tried to beat it. And not in the way that leads you to the self-impressed digression, but that leads you to the truth that you're trying to get to. And by challenging each other in that way and being slightly adversarial in the way that we song-write, we've gotten better. I think we've become more concise and more clear in what we're saying. I like it when reviewers put it in terms of it's smart or it's intelligent music. It's not meant for the passive listener. And it's not meant for pop radio, it just isn't that. It's not meant for everyone. And I'm totally cool with that.

Songfacts: Following up on what you said as far as reaching the greatest potential for each song, do you feel like you were patient enough and persistent enough in order to accomplish that for the most part on this album?

McCain: I am. We took a lot of time picking the songs. And I'll tell you, for this album, I used some songs that I have no writing credit with at all. It was hard to get to that spot for me, personally, because for years I felt like I could at least have co-written everything. And the Dianne Warren anomaly had gotten me into this - I'd been a little bit negative about doing anybody else's stuff, because it just wasn't my voice. But Maia brought songs that were undeniable to me as far as having the same mind-set and to be included in a collection of songs. The song "Mercy Bound" (written and first recorded by Mark Addison) has been floating around for 20 years. It's like this orphan bluegrass song. If you heard the original version, it's like this sort of country sounding train track snare drum bluegrass song. And if you hear it in that context, the lyrics just fly by and you don't even notice what is being said. I was listening to these lyrics, to what he was saying, and I realized I don't have to write everything. I have to believe in it, and I have to love it, but I don't have to write everything.

Songfacts: That's interesting. So that's a sign of maturity.

McCain: I guess. I don't know. I have the songs that are mine that I left off the album that I can listen to and look at and say these are not as good as these other songs. And I can say that and be okay with that. And then I love that we've resurrected this song that has been languishing.

Songfacts: You're saying how in a lot of respects, you said that you really wanted the greatest potential reach of each song, and now when you're talking about the album, it's like you wanted the best songs on the album. And what I sense from you is that you just have so much respect for the art form that you're not going to let your ego get in the way of the best being presented.

McCain: Yeah, I think I learned that lesson the hard way, because I let my ego run wild for a few years during the '90s where I had some success and I had a lot of people around me telling me whatever I wanted to hear. And so I came to this understanding the hard way. And I wouldn't change that lesson. I love that lesson, it's forever engrained in me and it's given me a sense of appreciation. The fact that I still get to do this 22 years later and make a living doing it is a staggering reality to me. I see bands - amazing bands - come and go, and almost invariably the stumbling point is ego. Invariably the sense of self is our greatest enemy. The mistake that we're not part of something that we actually are the genesis of it. I watch it all the time and not just in music, but in daily life. And it took me a long time to get to a point of gratitude.

Songfacts: That sounds like a song.

McCain: Yeah, it's gotta be at some point. Everything I think of now I end up trying to think of how I'm going to explain it to my kids. So I think it's going to end up sounding like a kid record. (laughing)

Songfacts: I wanted to talk about "Gramercy Park Hotel," which is such a great historic perspective. Do you recall the creation of that song?

McCain: I do. I remember it as if it was yesterday. I went to New York and met up with Jason Flom, who was the president of Atlantic and the president of Virgin and is a huge figure in the music industry. He was the guy that signed me to my first deal, and a friend to me to this day. I was with him at the Innocence Project Awards Banquet. He's one of the good guys in the music business and never ever told me anything other than the truth. He looked after me when I didn't deserve it. He literally let me out of my deal when I wanted out. He let me go with my material - they let me have all the videos, they showed me unbelievable kindness.

I was with him in New York and got invited to this industry thing by Tom Poleman from Z-100, he's a programmer for Clear Channel. He and I are good friends to this day, too. I'd been doing a lot of work, like playing for AIDS patients in the hospital and doing sort of karmic payback. He invited me to this banquet, and I found myself seated at a table with John Mayer and Jessica Simpson and Nick and Rob Thomas and all the label industry people and their new stars. And it was just that same old scene. I don't know, the lyric popped into my head, "these organ grinders with their monkeys, and here we are." I had left the label, I was happily back in indie-land. I hadn't been around it in a little while, so it was even more pronounced. And of course I was paying for my own hotel room at the Gramercy at that time. The Gramercy was the cheapest place to stay. I mean, it was low-low rent. And I had to buy a shirt to be able to go to this event, because I didn't have anything good enough to wear.

And I Just found myself laughing at that. I had been listening to a bunch of Randy Newman, so I had a healthy sarcastic feeling going, and man, that song - the welcome page on the Gramercy on the hotel TV was, "Hey, welcome to the Gramercy." They didn't have any amenities to brag about, they were just like, "Babe Ruth used to get really drunk in our bar." (Laughing) It was like a catalog of all these famous alcoholics, and at the time I was struggling with my own alcoholism, and I found it funny. I was thinking, Wow, what a coincidence. Me and Babe Ruth have been alcoholics in the same room. And here I am. So I was being sarcastic about my own struggles and everything else.

Songfacts: And it just hit in there, wow, what a great song.

McCain: It's funny to me, because the idea of all the publicists saying, "La di da di da daa." At the time, I had this publicist that took umbrage with that. She was just irritated that I would say that.

Songfacts: Sometimes the truth stings, though, doesn't it?

McCain: Yeah, it's just so much fun when you hear a crowd of a thousand people singing "La di da di da daa" in the tone in which it was intended.

We spoke with Edwin McCain on October 4, 2011. Get more at edwin.com.
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Comments: 3

  • Victoria Jones from Hillsborough, NcI saw Edwin live at the Cat's Cradle in Chapel Hill back in the late 90s. It was just him, with an acoustic guitar, backed by a guy with what appeared to be a reed instrument. That was it. It was intimate and wonderful. I sat to one side, very close to him, drank a beer, closed my eyes and drifted. That soulful voice...
  • Dann Clark from IdahoI have been a huge fan of Edwin's music since December of 1995, when I was living in San Diego, and had the pleasure of seeing him open for Ratdog. Honor among thieves is still in regular rotation on my playlists at home :)
  • Kimberly PerryI have had the pleasure of seeing Edwin live 12 times and It is always like it is my first. He is always excellent and sings every song for us with all that he has. Love his music and band!
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