And so began Michael McDermott's rise from local coffee house hero to critically acclaimed troubadour. "A Wall I Must Climb" was quickly embraced by radio and MTV alike and McDermott found himself among an elite group of singer/songwriters who were hailed by critics as the new voices in a genre steeped with tradition. And just as quickly as critics were able to pin the "new Dylan" kiss of death on McDermott, the 21 year old prodigy showed observers he was no mere copycat with a blistering live rock show that drew the attention of critics, industry folks and music fans alike. It was just the beginning of a performing and recording career that would continually prove McDermott had a voice that demanded to be heard.
Where the Don Gehman (R.E.M., John Mellancamp, Hootie And The Blowfish, Nanci Griffith, Bruce Hornsby, Tracy Chapman) produced 620 W. Surf (1991, Giant Records) blurred the line between folk and rock, Michael's second release shattered all illusions about Michael being of the same ilk as those that had emerged from the singer/songwriter scene in Chicago before him. With Don Dixon (James McMurtry, The Smithereens) behind the wheel as producer, McDermott delivered a collection of cinematic visions that took even his biggest fans by surprise. His second release seemed to compliment both sides of his artistic personality - the axe wielding rocker and the introspective poet. Full of the religious imagery that both illuminated and haunted McDermott's youth, Gethsemane (1993, EMI Records) found Michael tapping into a whole new audience. Music critics especially seemed to take notice and word spread that McDermott was a songwriter to keep an eye on. One writer even dubbed the nine minute masterpiece "The Idler, The Prophet and A Girl Called Rain" as the "Born To Run" of his generation. It seemed it would only be a matter of time before Michael would break through to the size audience that still eluded him. Patiently McDermott continued to hone his literate and passionate musings as radio and industry alike pandered to the Seattle sound that would dominate the alternative rock genre for the next few years.
Over the next three years Michael continued to build his audience strictly as a word of mouth artist with little label or radio support. McDermott and his band crisscrossed the country both as headlining act and as opener for a plethora of acts that included Richard Thompson, Joe Cocker, Seal, The BoDeans, Toad The Wet Sprocket, Jars of Clay, The Bottle Rockets, The Cowboy Junkies, Blue Rodeo and The Jeff Healy Band. McDermott continued to write songs during the tour lays offs and was anxious to get into the studio once again.
Michael's 1996 self-titled release, produced by Joe Hardy (The Replacements, Steve Earle, ZZ Top, Tom Cochran), found him once again drawing comparisons to his undeniable influences (The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, the Lanois produced U2, as well as poets Charles Bukowski and Walt Whitman.) On Michael McDermott (1996, EMI Records) the songwriter appeared to have found his voice somewhere between his sparse debut and anthem heavy follow-up. In these 12 tracks McDermott seemed to create, as one critic called it, "a world unto itself ... where his characters illuminate their surroundings with moral choice and actions." McDermott himself would say he was more interested in "facing reality, with all of its contradiction" than returning to the innocence of his first two releases. Michael also wore the hat of multi-instrumentalist on Michael McDermott as he played nearly every instrument during the four month recording of this album, his second release on EMI Records. A special guest appearance by author Stephen King (he wrote the liner notes this time around) is one of the few spots on the album that McDermott does not handle himself.
AAA and AOR radio embraced McDermott's compelling new direction and an appearance on Late Night with Conan O'Brien was one of many highlights of the months following the record's release. The first single, "Summer Days", was well received and Michael was tagged the emerging AAA radio's "poster boy" by one trade magazine. Alas, there would be no second single off McDermott's third major label release. And, when EMI's North American operations shut their doors that next year, Michael found himself with the freedom to redefine his career.
No longer restrained by the label's vision of what kind of artist he should be, McDermott began a period of creativity that will surely be looked at years from now as one of the most prolific of his career. Clearly with a story still to tell, McDermott assembled an all-star band of Chicago club musicians and began booking gigs under the pseudonym Pawnshop. Word quickly spread around the windy city as McDermott and his band put on a series of concerts that would rival the best of his career. Soon Pawnshop was drawing impressive numbers to the same clubs that Michael had cut his teeth at years before as a solo artist. Excitement began to build among his legion of fans that a new record was on the horizon. Speculation as to which songs would make it on the next album became the among McDermott's internet group. A special release of live songs and demos (In A Godless Night) made available only through his fan club merely whet their appetite for what was sure to come.
McDermott then headed back into the studio with producer Chris Shepard, culling 12 of the best songs together to create his first album in three years and his first as an independent artist. This led to the release on July 20, 1999, of his fourth album, the independently produced Bourbon Blue. Once again, Michael delved into themes of darkness and light, redemption and transgression, hope and despair, and the result was a stunning achievement. With fan favorites like "Junkie Girl" and new material like the first single "20 Miles South of Nowhere", Bourbon Blue will surely be remembered as a major turning point in the artist's career.
Promoted entirely via Internet, Bourbon Blue reached Michael's old fans and won him new ones -- and when word got to independent record label Koch Records, they sent the young artist to Memphis and reteamed him with producer Joe Hardy to make a fifth album, Last Chance Lounge released October 10th, 2000.
Confident that the story he is telling has just begun, McDermott has embarked on his sixth album and the first in three years, titled Ashes. Ashes is slated to be released here on cdbaby in April/May 2004.
The opening verse from "Gettin' Off the Dime", one of McDermott's most powerful new songs, captures the songwriter's optimistic outlook for the future...
My feet were firmly planted, or at least I thought they were.
I tipped the cups of morning light. So many things I wasn't sure of.
Blowing through the pages of a burning book I found,
the beauty was revealed by design.
So come on babe... we're getting off the dime.
From "Gettin' Off the Dime" (1997).