John Mellencamp wants to make great albums, not hit songs

John Mellencamp doesn’t care what you think of him. “I don’t care,” he said. “I never sought acceptance – from my parents, from my teachers, from my record company.” He resolutely pursues what he thinks is right: “You don’t want to argue with me,” he says.

This rebellious streak was probably Mr. Mellencamp’s greatest strength, the core of his approach to life and music. On the one hand, it helps explain why, as he says, “I’m still making albums, even though there’s not a lot of demand for albums in today’s singles world.”

“I always view albums as distinctive work, not just a bunch of songs.”

Mr. Mellencamp’s new album, “Strictly a One-Eyed Jack,” released Jan. 21, is a collection of songs steeped in folk and blues, told from the perspective of a man looking back on his life. They are presented with gravity – “I always consider albums to be distinctive work, not just a bunch of songs”, he says – but not seriously. One of the highlights is “Wasted Days,” a duet with Bruce Springsteen that’s all about looking mortality in the eye and making the most of every day.

“Strictly a One-Eyed Jack” is Mr. Mellencamp’s 25th studio album. His first, “The Chestnut Street Incident”, was released in 1976 under the stage name Johnny Cougar, a move he says he opposed. But Mr. Mellencamp had struggled to get his big break, repeatedly driving the 12-hour drive from his home in Seymour, Ind., to Manhattan, where he roamed the streets cold-calling every music management company and record labels he could find. Having come too far to give up, he agreed to be billed as a pop idol with a new nickname.

In 1982, the multiplatinum success of his fifth album, “American Fool,” boosted by the hit singles “Hurts So Good” and “Jack & Diane,” gave him enough clout to change his billing to John Cougar Mellencamp. He recorded under this name until 1991 when he finally dropped the Cougar. Mr. Mellencamp attributes his success to his working-class attitude: “I knew while other guys were in nightclubs, we were rehearsing, trying to learn how to be the best we could be,” he says. “We knew we had to work harder and I had to break records because the rock critics weren’t going to support me.”

Mellencamp on stage in London, March 1978.


Gus Stewart/Redferns/Getty Images

Mr. Mellencamp, 70, has lived most of his life in and around Seymour, and his songs reflect the reality of the people he knows there. This has led some writers to hail him as “the voice of the heart of the country”, but he rejects this idea, considering his writing too political and socially conscious to deserve such a title.

More than a decade ago, Mr Mellencamp told his booking agent that he was done playing arenas, stadiums and large amphitheaters, where he felt “there is always a barrier” between him and the public. “I told them I was done playing at the gallery,” he says. “I’m just going to play in the theater, the only place you can play front row. I don’t care about money. I have enough money and I don’t need more applause in my life.

An annual exception is Farm Aid, the benefit concert Mr. Mellencamp co-founded in 1985 with Willie Nelson and Neil Young. The organization’s mission is to “keep family farmers on their land” and it lobbies to expand access to affordable credit and to “ensure fair agricultural prices”, among other goals.

Farm Aid has raised funds and awareness for family farmers, but Mr Mellencamp is distressed that it is still needed almost 40 years later. “I’m surprised we’re still doing it,” he said. “We didn’t think it would still be necessary all these years later. Farm Aid has done a lot of good on a small level with individuals, but as far as government is concerned, I don’t think we’ve made the change we wanted.

No more confidential weekends

For Mr. Mellencamp, the drive to write hit records ended a long time ago, and he is now making more original and personal music. He also became increasingly involved in another art form, painting, a passionate hobby which he began to practice more professionally thanks to Bob Dylan, a musical inspiration and long-time friend. dated. In 1989, Mr. Mellencamp made a video for Mr. Dylan, who visited his studio, looked at countless paintings in various states of completion, and asked, “What are you going to do with all this?”

Mr. Mellencamp never thought of painting as a vocation, although he did so for most of his life. The day before our interview, he says, he spent 12 hours in the studio. Mr. Dylan asked why he didn’t sell his art, simply adding, “I sell mine.

“It gave me the idea that someone might want to buy these things, which really had never occurred to me,” Mr. Mellencamp says. He has since exhibited his work, primarily large-scale oil paintings and mixed media, in galleries and museums, including the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio, and the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville. He also painted several of his own album covers.

Over the years, Mr Mellencamp’s smoking habit has deepened his voice into Tom Waits territory, although he dismisses the comparison, joking: “I was thinking Nat King Cole. Years ago, he told an interviewer that he accepted that smoking killed him. But he’s not so fatalistic anymore and doesn’t seem to be in a rush to quit, even nearly 20 years after a heart attack. “I smoke right now,” he mentioned in our phone interview.

“I just had an MRI on my lungs, and they look like they’re from a teenager,” says Mellencamp. “I am not sedentary. I train every day. I lift weights and still do wind sprints at least once a week… I don’t know any other guys in their 70s who do wind sprints.

At the end of a long friendly conversation, Mr. Mellencamp concluded with a simple request: “Try not to make me look like an idiot.” So maybe he cares what other people think, at least a little.

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