We had the opportunity to interview with singer, Jackie McLean (JM) as she shared her story of what spark her attention to pursue music and and finding her own sound.
Who or what first inspired you to pursue a career in music?
JM – I’ve been musical my whole life and I’ve secretly always wanted music to be my career, but it took some time for me to be able to acknowledge that. It was a big part of my identity growing up, and I think that for a long time I put too much pressure on myself and was worried that I wouldn͛t measure up somehow. So at some point I turned away from the idea, even though it was painful. I really ran from music throughout college, trying to figure myself out and trying to see what else was out there. And then I reached a point after college where I felt an emptiness inside. And enough time had passed that I felt like there wasn͛t the same kind of pressure on me to do anything. I had kind of resigned myself by that point to the idea of not doing anything, musically. And as soon as I let go of the dream, it started happening really quickly. I learned piano, not because I thought I should, but because I felt hungry for music, and because I needed it. And then the songs came flowing out. Something loosened up for me, creatively, once there was no more pressure to do anything. It was incredibly liberating. All of a sudden, I was doing it because of the way it made me feel to be doing it. I felt like I had discovered something for the first time, the way everything just clicked together. All of the things that I loved to do were finally in one place. It was an epiphany when I wrote my first song, and it still feels like an epiphany every time.
What have you learned about music and this industry from your father Don McLean? What is the best advice he has ever given you?
JM – I have found that the best advice is the advice you give to yourself. You just have to listen. I think I’ve had to figure out a lot on my own by listening to my own instincts and guiding voice. I can hear that voice more clearly the older I get. I’ve definitely learned the most about myself and my surroundings since I’ve left home and created my own life.
What was it like growing up within such a musical family? Any pros or cons?
JM – It was hard for me to find my own voice growing up, for a variety of reasons. My father’s fame played a part in that, but so did other circumstances specific to my upbringing. There was a lot going on, and it set me up to really want to create my own sphere, and to really value that process of carving out my own place.
Why do you use the moniker Roan Yellowthorn? What does the name mean to you and where did it originate?
JM – I’ve wanted to change my name for a long time. It comes from wanting to own myself, to claim myself, to be closer to myself, if that makes sense. Roan Yellowthorn is the name that I christened myself with. It came to me on the train one day and it felt right. When I started to write songs and after I had just started to perform, I realized that I needed an alter ego. Or, rather, I realized that it didn’t feel right being so honest and vulnerable under my given name. It just felt wrong. I had my true name all ready to go and it was just the obvious choice. For me, it was really freeing.
Your music has a unique sound to it— a mix of folk, pop, indie, and even country. How have you developed your sound? How would you define your musical style?
JM – It’s hard to describe my sound because it’s such a sincere, uncontrived form of self-expression. I’m so in it, I guess, that it͛s hard for me to hear it objectively. I don’t ever try to get a particular sound. I’m not writing with an audience in mind. What comes out must be a result of listening to lots of different kinds of music and loving certain things. The part of me that loves what it loves, I think that’s just in me. Certain chord progressions get to me. I love double entendres and plays on words. I really enjoy over-emotional musical theater songs. I am inspired by bad pop music, classic country, so many things. That’s the wonderful thing about making my own music— I can draw from all of the things I love and pull them into something that͛s my own.
You describe your music as literary pop. How would you personally define this term?
JM – I’m definitely open to other suggestions. But I notice that there is a literary theme in some of my songs. I wouldn’t want to typecast myself, though, I value the freedom to write about anything that moves me. You not only are passionate about music, but also literature; you wrote a novel and book of poetry.
How does your love of history and literature connect with your music?
JM – Writing a song, for me, is like writing a very condensed piece of literature. A novel/poem hybrid. It’s distilling a strong feeling into a short form, having a set of guidelines and a structure, but an incredible amount of freedom within those guidelines. When I write a song, there are many factors that I can use to get the feeling across. There are the words, there is the music, there is my voice. It’s a full-body/spirit exercise, kind of. It’s a way for me to express myself, and that overlaps with what I love about literature; when you read a wonderful piece of literature, you’re reveling in someone else’s expression, and you feel like you’re creating just by experiencing their creation.
Where do you find inspiration behind your songwriting?
JM – I find inspiration everywhere. It sounds cliché, but it really can be anywhere. Anything that makes me feel strongly is fair game. It can be anything from a situation in a TV show (one of my songs is about Teen Mom, which is the best show ever), to something I͛m working through in a real-life circumstance, to a passage in a book. Songwriting is a way for me to work through my feelings. It͛s really therapy.
You also taught yourself to play piano. How did you learn to play piano?
JM – I always wanted to play piano but my parents didn’t let me take lessons growing up. I don’t really know why. So last year I decided enough was enough and I learned through YouTube! I’ve always had the ear so I do everything by ear, I don͛t know how to read music, but YouTube gave me the motivation to practice and learn the basics. I have a friend who’s like, ‘What do you mean you learned on YouTube? No one learns on YouTube!’ But it really helped me. Thanks, Andrew Furmanczyk! Your lessons were sick.
Most of your songs pay homage to various works of literature, such as “Lie With Me” to a Shakespearian sonnet and “Fragment” to a Sappho poem. What inspired you to incorporate literature into your songs?
JM – I think it͛s just that literature inspires me! It makes me feel. When I first read Sappho͛s “Fragment 31,” I felt gutted by it. It was before I had started writing songs, but I remember thinking to myself, this would be the most amazing song. So when I started writing music, I was like, ‘Yeah. I know what I͛m going to write a song about.’ And, bam. It was really satisfying to get it out. That song had been floating around in me for a while!
What messages do you want your listeners to get from your music?
JM – I want anyone who listens to feel inspired. I want them to feel moved. I want them to feel alive. I want them to feel stimulated. I want the music to be something that they can interact with, and for that interaction to have an effect. Action at a distance, so to speak.
You will be celebrating the release of your EP at Rockwood Music Hall in NYC. Do you have any pre-show rituals? Any nerves before going onstage?
JM – I definitely get nervous. I do have rituals, but I can͛t say them out loud! You gotta keep the rituals sacred.
What are your goals for 2016? What should fans look out for?
JM – I just want to keep doing what I͛m doing. Keep writing, keep performing, perform at summer festivals, collaborate with other artists, record a full-length album. I have the songs all ready to go. I’ve discovered my passion and that͛s something I’ll always have. Everything else is a beautiful adventure.