John Mellencamp’s latest album, Strictly a One-Eyed Jack, has only been out for a couple of weeks, but the Indiana rock veteran is working determinedly on what’s coming next.
“I’m already writing songs for another record, so that’s how far ahead I am,” Mellencamp tells Billboard from his home in the Hoosier State. “I’m talking to you about a record that’s been done for about a year and a half, so I’m already on to my new songs — not as a job, just as they come. I can tell you there’s a couple good songs already that I thought, ‘Wow, did I write that f–kin’ song?!’ So that’s encouraging.”
Working again with his band, including guitarists Mike Wanchic and Andy York, and engineer David Leonard at his home turf Belmont Mall Studios, Mellencamp adds that the next album likely won’t reprise the stripped-down, parlor quality of Strictly a One-Eyed Jack, his first set of all-new material since 2017’s Sad Clowns & Hillbillies. “The record will sound completely different than this record,” he promises. “Andy and I and Mike have already talked about the direction the music is going to go so these guys can start honing their skills on stuff they don’t normally do. I’m just not interested in repeating myself.” Mellencamp does, however, have a potential head start with songs that he wrote while making Strictly a One-Eyed Jack that he deemed inappropriate for that project.
“The album’s really about one guy, just one guy’s voice speaking about his life,” he explains. “When I put it together it felt like John Huston sent me all these songs. And I wrote quite a few songs for this record, and some of the songs didn’t have his voice, didn’t have the feeling that this record has. So they were eliminated, and it didn’t take me long to make that decision. I’d walk in and the guys in the band would look at me and go, ‘Not the same guy talking,’ so we’d just move on to another song. But some of those songs we didn’t record were pretty good, too.”
Mellencamp says Strictly a One-Eyed Jack, written mostly before the pandemic and finished up after restrictions pulled back, was “a very easy record to make.” He credits a familiar studio routine with the musicians, as well as a more relaxed attitude toward the process that he embraced after his explosion of hits during the ’80s.
“About 15, 20 years ago I quit trying and I got out of my own way,” Mellencamp says. “With this record here, I never sat down once, not one song, and thought, ‘I need to write a song about this….’ The songs just come to me now, sometimes at very obtuse times, but they come to me and I’ll write ’em down and then I’ll find them later and be like, ‘When did I write this?’ That’s the way my songwriting has been for the last 20 years, really. Some people call it inspiration, but I think I’m just a conduit for something. What I’ve found after all these years is true art is when the artist is surprised by it.”
One surprise, for many, was Bruce Springsteen’s appearance on three tracks — “Did You Say Such a Thing,” “Wasted Days” and the closing “A Life Full of Rain.” The two had a cordial relationship for many years and became particularly friendly after Springsteen invited Mellencamp to perform with him at Sting’s 2019 Rock For the Rainforest benefit concert in New York City. “We found out we had a lot more in common that we ever knew,” Mellencamp recalls. “We had fun talking to each other, and we continued that relationship. He knew I was making this record. I said, ‘Hey, you want to come out and sing on it’ and he said, ‘Yeah, I’ll be in Indiana when you want me to be there.’ So it was pretty easy. I didn’t know what he was gonna do. He just showed up and we worked it out.” And, Mellencamp adds, Springsteen brought more than just his guitar and vocals to the sessions.
“Bruce has a wonderful way of having humility and tenacity, all at the same time,” he says. “He can get his ideas across with humility and an ability to do what he wants to do. He’s run his own band longer than I have, so I don’t have to say, ‘Hey Bruce, how about…?’ He says, ‘How about if I try this?’ and ‘How about if I try that?’ And he’s Bruce Springsteen — sure, try it.
“It reminded me a little bit of when Bob Dylan used to call me up in the middle of the night and read his lyrics to me that he was working on for new records. And I finally told him, ‘Bob, would you quit calling me, because I’m not gonna say anything. I’m not a good sounding board because I like everything you do. I’m happy to hear this stuff, but I’m not that great of a sounding board.’ And it’s the same with Bruce. There’s very few guys I ended up admiring, musically; Bruce and Bob are definitely two of those guys, and I’m happy to say I have a good relationship with both of them.”
Dylan and Springsteen, of course, are among the growing number of artists who have sold off their song catalogs. Mellencamp says he’s been approached with offers as well but hasn’t made a deal. Yet. “That doesn’t mean I won’t,” he says. “My opinion is it’s a good idea to do that, because if you leave it to your heirs, it’s just gonna cause trouble. If you leave them money they’ll know what to do with that. But they’re not gonna know what to do with songs, y’know? Only Bob Dylan knows what to do with Bob Dylan songs. Only Bruce knows what to do with his songs. I mean, he’s got one kid who’s a fireman, how’s he gonna know, ‘Should we allow this to be in this movie’ or whatever. They don’t know. It’s a big burden to put on your kids, and I think it’s very fortunate that these guys can (sell) like that. At one point it was so important to have ‘legitimacy,’ being in a rock band. Now it doesn’t seem mean as much. I mean, who ever thought these songs would be around this long and have this kind of value? I sure didn’t.”
The other surprise for some is the quality of Mellencamp’s vocals on the album. Always husky, he says now “the cigarettes are finally paying off” to give his voice a noticeably smokier quality — so much so that engineer Leonard at one point created an A/B comparison of Mellencamp’s vocals alongside Louis Armstrong’s, just for amusement. “I know other singers who smoke, and their voice has changed,” notes Mellencamp, who’s puffing on an American Spirit during the interview. “I can’t take any credit for it. It’s nothing I tried to do, try to sound like Tom Waits or anything like that. It’s just this is what happens when you smoke your whole life.”
With Strictly a One-Eyed Jack out and a new album in the works, Mellencamp has other projects on his docket as well. One is a new mix of his five-times platinum Scarecrow album. That work is being done mostly by Leonard and Wanchic, according to Mellencamp, but he’s happy with what he’s heard so far. “It sounds like we made the record today,” he says. “You can hear sh-t better. That record had no bottom end on it, originally. You can’t hear the bass parts on the original record, but you can now. So the record sounds beautiful.
“I really haven’t had anything to do with it. I never listen to my old records, never — except maybe when we’re getting ready to go on tour and I’m thinking about what I could put in the show that we haven’t done or never played live or something. I’m glad those record were made and that some of them were so successful. I was watching the football games the other day and there were 80,000 people in the stadium singing ‘Jack and Diane’ like it was the national anthem. I have to scratch my head about that, ’cause I wrote that song when I was a kid. But, really, I never think about it. I’m more interested in thinking about what’s next.”
Mellencamp is contemplating his next tour plans, too. He had 80 dates booked for this year that he decided to push to 2023. “I’m gonna err on the side of caution,” he says. “I do not want some guy walking up to me going, ‘Hey John, I saw you in Detroit’ or something, ‘it was a great show except my wife got Covid and died.’ Just the thought of hearing that…The business side of my career is like, ‘This many people will see it! You can make this much money!’ Blah, blah, blah. But once this latest round of Covid hit I said, ‘Guy’s, what’s the difference — this year, next year. There’s no difference.’ So next year, hopefully, we’ll be on top of (the pandemic) and it’ll feel alright to go out.”