It’s hard to tell a story about someone who can tell it so much better himself. The task becomes more like that of a transcriptionist, a biographer simply typing the parade of words that spill forth and trying to catch up.
This is kind of a third installment in a 22-year-long series that began when Michael McDermott and I first met to talk about his debut album, 620 W. Surf, back in 1990 for an IE cover story. He was a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed young musician who was enthralled and inspired by everyone and everything around him – a kind-hearted guy who had a deep faith yet wasn’t quite “religious” (his music would never classify as “Christian” music). We met at Harrington’s – an Irish-owned watering hole in Lakeview that has probably long ago been replaced by a hipper, updated college bar. Our next meeting would take place at yet another drinking establishment, this time in Roscoe Village. That was in ’07 for the release of Noise From Words, which was a grittier, soulful plating of the neo-folk he’d come to embody. He recounted stories of stalking preachers and drinking and drugs and money. It was all so wild, yet all so real and all too perfect for songwriting fodder.
Now on this day five years later, the setting is different (coffee shop instead of a bar), the stories are new (but no less colorful), and so are the changes in the man and the artist. Three major milestones dropped into his path since we last spoke: he got married, he had a child, and his mother passed away. All play prominent roles lyrically on his new record, Hit Me Back, released on Sept. 25. He also has a new manager and a new record label.
On meeting his wife, Heather Horton, and getting locked into the friend zone for a few years before tying the knot: “It was like I was frantically searching for something, but I said, ‘Just fucking take a deep breath!’ And it was like, ‘Oh! You’re fucking right here!’ Yeah, it was like a revelation.” Heather is also a musician, and they had been playing together for a while before romance blossomed. “She says, ‘You were pretty disgusting [back then]!’ I was a drug addict, womanizer . . . She dusted me off.” They got hitched in Italy while on tour. “We had 13 shows in 14 days so we figured why not squeeze in one more thing to do?” he quips. “We got married at the Church of Miracles in Ferrara, which was my joke, that it was a miracle I was getting married. We really didn’t know anybody out there. One friend of mine came, but no family. It was kind of nice – like eloping. Then we did a show that night. What better way to celebrate?”
Italy has been the scene of many of McDermott’s stories and adventures since our last meeting. He first traveled there a few years ago to open for Eileen Rose. “I got off the plane in Italy in the middle of the night and it was raining and I didn’t have a hotel booked; I didn’t really know where the gig was,” he recalls. “So I went to like three hotels pulling a bag and a guitar. And I thought it would be like in the movies and they’d all speak English. But, they don’t speak very good English. It was a nightmare. But, I finally found one with a room, put down a credit card, and went upstairs since I was wrecked. Then [the] front desk called because the credit card was denied. I either had to get out or . . . So, I called my parents back home and I asked for help. So, it worked out.
“The next day I still didn’t know where to go. I get to the town, which is very small. I find a pub and start drinking early. I see where the show was going to be, but the gates are closed. So I stay in the pub, and I’m just drinking . . . And I see the gates [of the venue] open and thought I’d go do a soundcheck. So I start walking there, and as I’m walking by there’s this kid sitting on the steps of this theater and he’s writing something in English on a big board to hold up, and it’s a song of mine! I said, ‘Hey!’ And he looked up and started crying, ‘Michael!’ and I was freaked out, like ‘How many beers have I had?'”
He was pleasantly surprised to find he had Italian fans. “They all had 620 W. Surf. And they were like, ‘What took you 17 years to get here?’ I’ve toured there like seven times in the last three years. There are worse places to be popular!”
— Penelope Biver
For the full feature, click on the issue cover or grab a copy of Illinois Entertainer, available free throughout Chicagoland.