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Interview: Jon McLaughlin

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Growing up in Anderson, Indiana, Jon McLaughlin only wanted to be one thing: a piano man. Following his siblings’ footsteps and starting lessons at the age of four, he set his standards for musical excellence pretty high.

“I always wanted to be Billy Joel,” he confesses. “I listened to a lot of his music when I was a kid and I remember just always wanting to be him. I also listened to a lot of Harry Connick, Jr., and obviously Elton John. After I first heard Ben Folds, I guess it was about 10 years ago now, I’ve been listening to him like every day.”

Now at 24, McLaughlin is living the dream. Last month, his first major-label release, Indiana, ranked No. 6 on Billboard’s Digital Album chart, the No 1. Pop Album and the No. 7 Album overall on the iTunes Store. McLaughlin is breaking new ground for digital album sales while his debut single, “Beautiful Disaster,” is climbing the AC charts.

But a few months ago, McLaughlin wouldn’t have known it. His friends would text him, write on his MySpace page, call him. “Hey, I just heard your tune!” No such luck for McLaughlin.

“People were telling me they’ve heard it in an airport or at a theatre, and for months, I’m like I swear these people are lying to me,” he said.

When it finally did happen, though, it was a total shock. He and his band were in Boston this past March, driving down some random road when a local station spun his disk.

“It was obviously one of those times when you remember what time it is and where you were and all that,” he said. “I wrote a blog about it and it was great. It’s like seeing a celebrity in a restaurant and you stare at them and you’re like, ‘That’s what they really look like.’”

So has McLaughlin really become the piano man he envisioned as a child? You bet. Listen to the first track on his album, Indiana, and you’ll hear just where his musical roots are: vibrant piano mixed with a little southern flare (Connick), lyrics filled with emotion and poignant insight (Joel), a poppy undercurrent (John) and just a hint of grit (Folds). 

He describes the album as a compromise, though, but for the better.

“Me being a huge Ben Folds fan, I wanted the album to be this dirty, terrible, like crappy-sounding piano. I wanted to go real dirty, real rootsy and I think [my producer] Jamie Houston had more of an idea that that wouldn’t fit these songs best. So we compromised sonically and stylistically, and it came out a lot better, I think.”

Over the last year or so, McLaughlin has been sharing his music nonstop on the road, sharing the stage with such varied artists as Sister Hazel, O.A.R., Live, Susan Tedeschi and Marc Broussard.

But he’s still found time to expand his repertoire to the screen as well. “Beautiful Disaster” was featured in the Jane Fonda/Lindsay Lohan film Georgia Rule; “Another Layer” was included on the Bridge to Terabithia soundtrack; “Human” was played in an episode of Scrubs; and McLaughlin makes his on-screen debut this fall in Disney’s animated-and-live comedy Enchanted.

So what’s next? Whatever it is, McLaughlin is likely to stick with what he knows best: his heart.

“I just want to keep writing songs about my life and my beliefs and just be honest,” he said. “I want to keep writing songs about how I feel. I want to do that and stay true to that. And hopefully people will relate to how I’m feeling and learn things about themselves from what they hear—and hopefully, some good, positive experiences will come out of that.” 

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About Robin Kavanagh