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Doing the Best He Can

His personal life and career have been invigorated by a new record label and a successful marriage.

October 04, 1998|Elysa Gardner | Elysa Gardner is a regular contributor to Calendar from New York

NEW YORK — At 46, John Mellencamp has been making albums longer than the Hanson brothers have been alive. But his latest effort, "John Mellencamp," marks a rebirth of sorts. For one thing, it's his first recording for Columbia Records--whose parent company, Sony Music, is headed by Mellencamp's former manager, Tommy Mottola. Mellencamp signed with Columbia earlier this year, ending a decade-long relationship with Mercury Records.

The singer-songwriter's new material also reflects more personal developments--including life with his third wife, model Elaine Irwin, with whom he has two sons, Hud, 4, and Speck, 3. (Mellencamp also has three daughters from his previous marriages.) The songs find Mellencamp blending his narrative gifts with introspection, and exploring the search for spiritual and carnal fulfillment with wistfulness and humor.

Mellencamp, who suffered a mild heart attack in 1994, recently discussed his new album and his new lease on life.

Question: Your songs seem to present a three-dimensional view of people, addressing struggles and weaknesses without preaching or whining. Is that something you strive to do?

Answer: I write songs to hopefully make people feel better--whether it's "Hurts So Good" or a more serious song. I've read many times that previous records I've made were "down," and I didn't know what they were talking about. I never thought that I was casting aspersions on life.

Q: On your last album, "Mr. Happy Go Lucky," you worked with dance-mixer Junior Vasquez. On the new album, there are contemporary touches, like tape loops. Do you try to keep experimenting with new sounds and textures?

A: In the mid-'80s, I realized it would be simple for me to just have the drummer go boom-boom-crack, with me screaming over the top. But that was boring to me. "The Lonesome Jubilee" [in 1987] actually sounded different for its time, with violins and accordions over rock guitars.

Q: The title "John Mellencamp" suggests a new beginning. Was that why you chose it?

A: Let me tell you, I am so happy to be at Columbia. If I hadn't been able to get out of [Mercury Records], I'd have never made another record. They had killed my interest.

At Sony, they're so proud of their artists. . . . I've never seen such enthusiasm. I don't care if they sell one record--at least they care enough to put on a show.

Q: Hasn't there also been a sense of renewal in your personal life?

A: Absolutely. I'll tell you, guys aren't worth a [expletive] until they turn 40. You reach a certain age, and your eyes get [expletive], and your mind goes, "Wow--I shouldn't be doing that!"

I used to be very cavalier. I was a terrible husband--a cliche. The real key to a successful marriage is that you've got to be with that person. Elaine and I have been married for seven years, and we've spent three nights apart.

Q: You've recorded 15 albums over the past 22 years. Do you consider yourself prolific?

A: I think a real success is a guy like Dylan, who has recorded 50-something albums, or Frank Zappa, who recorded, like, 63 or something.

Q: You'll probably start touring this fall. What are the rewards of performing after all this time?

A: Just being able to get up and do it! [Laughs] . . . In the '80s, I didn't appreciate all the good things that were happening to me. I was always thinking about the next thing. But that's changed. It's like I say in a song [on "John Mellencamp"]: "I'm not running anymore/But I'm on my way."

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