There’s so much to be said about Jon McCormack’s impending release, “Paintbox.” It in no way lacks color, that’s for sure. This is evident right out of the gate with the opening prelude of “Deep Earth,” featuring the spacey Isaac Hayes-y vocal call-in from Stu Dias paired with the hip hop-ian delivery of McCormack’s prose steeped in a thick, properly mixed can of funk. This record is gold. There’s a little bit of everything when you jump around from room to room (track to track). Concepted from the bowels of the hardware store – taking paint colors and riffing and writing tunes with the colors in mind, “Paintbox” is a marvel – and that’s only the beginning.
EDGE caught up with McCormack to discuss the project in full. There’s a listening party slated for Dec. 8 at Flight in Dover, a release party on Dec. 29 at Fury’s in Dover, and a full-on theatrical production taking place at The Players Ring for three weekends starting on March 8. Read on.
EDGE: Let’s talk “Paintbox”! Give us the back story on where the idea for this project came from.
McCormack: This project started in the aisle of a hardware store. I was looking to paint a room in my house and came across a color called French Chocolate. I didn’t care for the color, but the name stuck with me. When I got home, I wrote the song “French Chocolate” in about two hours. A few days later I was back, still looking for the right color, and I came across Gypsy Teal. I could already hear it in my head, at which point, I knew I was onto something. I grabbed all the colors I could and pretty soon I had the beginnings of 16 to 18 songs based on these color names. It was very freeing – I didn’t care if they sounded alike stylistically or if they sounded like anything else I’d ever done. I just followed my nose and did whatever the name inspired. I made some demos myself and then brought in my trusty co-pilot and co-producer Rick Habib to play drums and help me shape them. He’s such a great guy to work with, excellent sensibilities, tons of talent and no ego. He just wants to listen and do what’s right for the song. This from a drummer!? (laughs).
EDGE: What were your initial “first steps” in pulling this idea or collection of ideas together? From my understanding, it started as a series of songs, but has morphed into much more. (More on that in a moment ...)
McCormack: At first, I thought it was just a random fit of inspiration and a totally eclectic, unrelated set of songs in different styles. Then my wife pointed out that one of the songs, “Sweet Annie Pepperberry,” actually reminded her a bit of herself. That’s when I started to zoom out and look at the larger project as a whole. I began to realize that the songs actually were related and there was a central character (Annie) as well as side characters and a rough story line. It wasn’t as eclectic or unrelated as I thought so I then set about finding ways to connect the songs and build the story. Nicki became integral which was very cool because we had never collaborated in that way. She helped shape the story and the characters and became my sounding board and in many ways the inspiration. That’s when it morphed into a concept album which follows the life of Sweet Annie Pepperberry. She’s a talented painter, but life and all its distractions, pitfalls, and discouragements keep her from sharing her art with the world until ... well, I don’t want to give the whole story away but it’s about what we do and make and what we leave behind after our short time on earth. It’s about overcoming all the obstacles and detractors and issues that get in the way of creating and the central idea is that it’s never too late to create something beautiful and share it no matter what your age or what you’ve been through.
EDGE: What did you enjoy about recording this album? What sort of elements did you bring in to add color to the mix?
McCormack: I took my time and there was no real deadline or pressure. I recorded it with Chris Chase at The Noise Floor and really gave him carte blanche to give his input which also became an integral part of the whole thing. Chris is a super-talented guy and the album couldn’t have happened without him. It was a studio collaboration. I brought in a lot of different players (22 to be exact), but I really wasn’t looking to just get people in because they were friends or for the sake of having guests, I chose people that I felt were the right player for the particular part on the particular song. So most of them just play one or two parts on one or two songs, but the sum total is an amazing array of talent that really brought the right colors to each song in my opinion.
EDGE: When did you decide "Hey, I should turn this into a theatrical production"?
McCormack: I have to thank Billy Butler for that. He hired me in 2008 to be in his show "Gay Bride of Frankenstein." I had never done any kind of theater and that show kind of blew up, which opened my eyes. We’ve done it in various forms now for a decade and I’ve also worked with Billy on his other shows "Bitter Pill" and "The Brechtones," which are also fantastic. Seeing it from the inside, I had a sense of the possibilities and what I might be able to do visually with this concept album and story. I’ve been in a lot of original bands and released a lot of original music over the years and I also loved the idea of doing something different that would give this album another dimension and also challenge me to not just do the same things again. It’s like moving from 2-D to 3-D, there’s another whole dimension to the music and the story. Billy encouraged me to pitch the show so I created a synopsis of the story, took it to The Player’s Ring in Portsmouth and we are now working on a theatrical production based on the album that will run in March of 2019 with Tomer Oz directing!
EDGE: Were there challenges in turning it into a theater piece? What experiences did you pull from to bring the idea to fruition?
McCormack: Working on Billy’s shows is really my only experience, but I also discovered that I really like writing dialogue and stories. I always have, but choose to try and channel that into the format of songwriting only – this is broader. I’m still currently writing and shaping the script and we’re in the middle of auditions so there are plenty of challenges ahead but I can see it taking shape. My wife has been a key sounding board and collaborator, and Tomer is super enthusiastic and talented so he makes me feel like I can actually pull this off.
EDGE: In general, why music? Why do you seek it? Why do you create it?
McCormack: It would be easy to give up and there have been times when I felt I should because it just it didn’t feel rewarding anymore. Then suddenly 16 songs drop out of my head because I was shopping for paint ... I don’t even know where that comes from. I’ve just gotten good at getting out of the way so I can get ideas far enough out into the world that I can then shape them and recognize what they can be. Then to step back and see a larger story emerge from those ideas ... again without even consciously setting out to create such a thing. ... I have to recognize that there’s something special there and I should go with it rather than ignore it. Having an inspiration is 33 percent. Letting it happen is another 33 percent and then working to get it to the finish line is 33 percent. The other 1 percent is mostly water. Also, it beats working in a coal mine.
EDGE: Is it easy or difficult to paint with a guitar? Did you have to put down any painter's tape at any point during the creative process?
McCormack: No painter's tape! I didn’t literally paint with the guitar, but figuratively I find it easy. It’s funny, I grew up wanting to be a shredder, but playing scales and solos and exercises gets a bit one-dimensional at a certain point. Still, if I hadn’t practiced for all those years from hair metal to jazz, rock and funk, I don’t know that I would have the skill and comfort with the instrument to write interesting things on guitar. I guess I’ll use the paint analogy since it’s apropos, the more colors you have on your palette, the more you have to work with ... but you still have to use them creatively to make something interesting. That said, I am no guitar "shredder" compared to real virtuoso players, I just know enough to feel comfortable using the guitar as a songwriting tool in different genres.
EDGE: I’m going to keep riffing on the paint theme because, hey, why wouldn’t we? You’ve been involved in many different musical projects over the years – jumping around from genre to genre, and, sometimes even creating music that is genre-less. What do you appreciate about the different colors you can create with your music?
McCormack: My dad used to say that “variety is the spice of life.” It’s a cliché, I guess, but it’s so true. I think we all have favorite colors and favorite meals and favorite people, but life is just more interesting when you mix it up and have variety. I also like to learn and each time I tackle a new genre or play with new musicians I feel personal growth. Perhaps from a marketing or branding standpoint, it would be better to have a single focus and just do one thing, to try and become the most well-known for doing that particular thing, but I just don’t think I’m wired that way. I have a pretty wide scope of colors that I like (bringing it back to paint!), and within that color palette, it’s fun to have variety.
EDGE: Tell us about the impending events surrounding the release. You’ve got a listening party, a rock show, and a theatrical run all set up ready to go, right? What can folks expect?
McCormack: On Saturday, Dec. 8, I’m doing a listening party at Flight Coffee in Dover from 7 to 9 p.m. It’ll be a very chill event, just show up, no cover charge. Hang out, listen to the album, chat with me and buy an advance copy if you’d like. (Also, they serve beer!) On Saturday, Dec. 29, we’re doing an album release show at Fury’s in Dover with special guests Martin England & The Reconstructed and Gretchen & The Pickpockets. The band will also be performing at The Dance Hall in Kittery on Jan. 19, the Press Room on Feb. 8, and then we roll into the theatrical production at The Players' Ring for three weekends starting on March 8th.
EDGE: What have you taken away from piecing this concept together? Has the experience been rewarding?
McCormack: It’s been one of the most, if not the most rewarding thing I’ve done musically – and it’s not even released yet! It’s been a challenge in every way, but to stay with it and watch it slowly take shape, bit by bit, like something emerging from a thick fog, that has been very gratifying because if you had asked before I started, I wouldn’t have thought I was capable. It’s been stressful at times but my daughter Kaley, who is very wise, reminded me to enjoy it along the way. She’s right. Who knows if inspiration will ever strike again and whether this thing turns out great or it’s junk, whether people like or not, what’s the point if you don’t enjoy the process along the way?
EDGE: What’s next? Lunchbox?
McCormack: Maybe a Japanese Bento Box? Sounds delicious to me!
For more information and to check out (and purchase) the record, visit www.paintbox1.bandcamp.com.
Go & Do
What: 'Paintbox' Listening Party with Jon McCormack
When: 7 to 9 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 8
Where: Flight Coffee Co., 478 Central Ave., Dover
More info: Call 603 (842-5325
What: 'Paintbox' Release Party with Jon McCormack, Martin England & The Reconstructed and Gretchen & The Pickpockets
When: Saturday, Dec. 29
Where: Fury's Publick House, 1 Washington St., Dover
What: 'Paintbox' (the play)
When: March 8 to 24, Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m.
Where: The Players' Ring, 105 Marcy St., Portsmouth
Tickets: $18, adults; $14, seniors, students and adult Ring members; $12, senior and student members; tickets available at www.playersring.org
More info: Visit www.playersring.org