Noise From Words, the new album from singer/songwriter Michael McDermott, is a candid song cycle of addiction and redemption—or more accurately, the struggle for redemption. The Chicago-based artist holds nothing back on this boldly autobiographical work, motivated by the same impulse that led him to the lecture circuit, where he speaks to troubled individuals who are battling the same demons McDermott has at long last managed to subdue—though he would assert that this battle is never over. “I do it not because I’m ‘fixed’ or healed,” he says of this impulse to lend a helping hand, “but because I’m broken.”
The album (Aug. 28, One Little Indian), primarily performed live in the studio using sparse instrumentation—at times paring things down to just his vocal and acoustic guitar—captures McDermott at his most intimate and most searingly honest, duplicating the cathartic experience of his solo live performances. “It’s fun to have your buds onstage and jump around in front of a band,” he says. “But when it comes down to the solo stuff, it’s very naked and much more difficult to pull off on an emotional level. After a solo set, I’m just drained, not because I’ve been jumping around, but because I’ve just turned myself inside out.”
It’s precisely this acute degree of psychological self-exposure that makes Noise From Words so powerful. McDermott retraces the path that led him to the very brink of the abyss and back again on such unforgettable songs as “Long Way From Heaven,” “My Father’s Son,” “Broken,” “Just a Little Blue” and “I Shall Be Healed.” These understated but urgent songs form the chapters in a sort of aural autobiography whose thematic range also encompasses relationships (“Still Ain’t Over You Yet,” “A Kind of Love Song,” “Tread Lightly,” “No Words,” “All My Love”) and belonging (“The American in Me”), forming a comprehensive view of contemporary existence at its extremes.
McDermott describes the cinematic opener “Mess of Things,” with its evocative tableau of acoustic, dobro, piano and pedal steel, as “the thematic cornerstone of the record. The genesis of this song came from a collage of images of how my past seems to follow me around. The line, ‘I’m on 23rd waitin’ on a friend’ is from my memory of living on 23rd Street in Manhattan and waiting on my dealer. It was one of those moments when you get the feeling that, no matter how bad a decision you’re about to make, there are forces at work beyond your control, like loving the wrong things and the wrong people—and when you reach the crossroads, which direction you ultimately go in.”
At the tender age of 20, McDermott broke out of the Irish Catholic neighborhood that had formed the boundaries of his world, signing a big-time record deal with Giant/Warner Bros. “My ship had come in, or so I thought,” he says with a rueful laugh. His debut album, 1991’s 620 W. Surf, introduced the artist’s spiritually inclined songs and expansive, rootsy sound—exemplified by the rock hit “A Wall I Must Climb”—generating critical hosannas and drawing the requisite Springsteen comparisons, as did his ’94 follow-up, Gethsemane. But McDermott’s ascending career brought with it an equal and opposite reaction, as the newcomer quickly got his introduction to temptation.
“On my first tour,” he recalls, “every night there was a bottle of Jack Daniel’s in the dressing room, and pretty ladies waiting at my door. In high school, I had read William Blake, who wrote that ‘The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom,’ and Arthur Rimbaud, who wrote that ‘In order to be a seer, you must have a rational disordering of the senses.’ Those two quotes became my mantras. I wanted to experience all that was in life—everything, the good and the bad. On my first trip out to L.A., as I was driving down Sunset, I said to a friend, Show me the gutter,’ because I really wanted to experience it. Years later, that same friend said to me, ‘I wish I had never shown you the gutter. I never knew you’d take it down this far.’”
Even while he was plumbing his personal depths, McDermott was writing and singing uplifting songs, and those who were listening closely found them inspiring—a situation he found wrenchingly ironic: “I had grown men come up to me and tell me that they had been atheists before hearing my music and through it found God”—to which I replied, ‘Tell him I said hi; he stopped returning my calls a long time ago.’ Throughout the years, I had continued to feel like I was on a mission of sorts singing spiritual songs but never really feeling good about the other elements of my life. I had become self-consumed, alcoholic and a drug addict, and still had the arrogance to think that God had enough time to worry about my record sales and to think he was hanging me out to dry. That how delusional I had become.”
After years of self-destructive behavior, McDermott had his moment of truth in November 2004, when he was arrested for possession of cocaine and was locked up in the Cook County Jail, which “is generally considered the toughest jail in all of Chicago, and maybe in the country,” he says. “I was in there with the lowest of the low, the worst of the worst.
“Though I considered myself a man of faith,” McDermott continues, “that first night in jail inspired some of my most fervent prayers, but in retrospect, I think they were ‘foxhole prayers,’ which was coined to describe what happens to atheists or agnostics in the heat of battle, when life and death are on the line—the kind of prayers that go, ‘Lord, outta this jam and I swear I’ll never…’ fill in the blank. It felt like I had found my bottom, like I had dug my hole as deep as it could go. It’s a funny thing to have your freedom taken from you, and as I sat there on the floor of the jail cell, I realized there was only one way to go—or at least that’s how it seemed at that moment. After much legal wrangling, I was able to avoid going to prison by attending a drug school. I was a free man.”
There was an ironic twist to McDermott’s incarceration. “My father had actually spent time in the same jail cell, a few years before me,” he explains. “It’s what inspired me to write ‘My Father’s Son.’ His bust was for a gun, mine was for drugs. The idea of my pop in there still kills me, and in some ways I think I almost felt compelled to do it because he did. I love the guy, and quite frankly, I’d be proud to be him when I grow up—if I grow up.”
The experience provided just the jolt of reality McDermott needed, enabling him to see how far he’d fallen, and he began to climb upward out of the deep hole he’d dug for himself. Noise From Words marks his first writing and recording since the dramatic turnaround in his life.
“It’s been amazing—a really interesting time in my life,” he marvels. “The fact that I got a record deal with One Little Indian is like a miracle in itself. These things do affect me and give me hope. I think this is almost like God is putting me in as a pinch hitter in the bottom of the ninth; we’ll see what happens.”