It was spring 2020 when Andrew McMahon revealed he was writing a memoir. With lockdown just begun, it was the perfect opportunity for him to write not songs, but a book. A longtime fan of his, I was thrilled when he announced the finished memoir – Three Pianos – earlier this year. I pre-ordered it right away, eager to learn more about one of my favorite musicians.
|Three Pianos by Andrew McMahon|
|Number of Pages||239|
|Format I Read||Hardcover|
|Original Publication Date||October 26, 2021|
From beloved indie musician Andrew McMahon comes a searingly honest and beautifully written memoir about the challenges and triumphs of his life and career, as seen through the lens of his personal connection to three pianos.
Andrew McMahon grew up in sunny Southern California as a child prodigy, learning to play piano and write songs at a very early age, stunning schoolmates and teachers alike with his gift for performing and his unique ability to emotionally connect with audiences. McMahon would go on to become the lead singer and songwriter for Something Corporate and Jack’s Mannequin, and to release his debut solo album, Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness, in 2014.
But behind this seemingly optimistic and quintessentially American story of big dreams come true lies a backdrop of overwhelming challenges that McMahon has faced—from a childhood defined by his father’s struggle with addiction to his very public battle with leukemia in 2005 at the age of twenty-three, as chronicled in the intensely personal documentary Dear Jack.
Overcoming those odds, McMahon has found solace and hope in the things that matter most, including family, the healing power of music and the one instrument he’s always turned to: his piano. Three Pianos takes readers on a beautifully rendered and bitter- sweet American journey, one filled with inspiration, heartbreak, and an unwavering commitment to shedding our past in order to create a better future.
Andrew McMahon has been one of my favorite musicians for many years now. I discovered him when he was performing with Jack’s Mannequin (“The Mixed Tape” was my entry point), and I soon went back to collect his music with Something Corporate, too. When he started performing under his own moniker – Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness – I faithfully followed him into his next musical journey. For about 15 years, I’ve enjoyed his albums, but I was intrigued to learn more about the man behind the music.
Three Pianos shows Andrew opening up like never before, even more than he does in his songs. The memoir outlines his life, from his childhood lived across various parts in the United States to his battle with leukemia when he was 22 to the music that has reached so many fans.
One thing that struck me about Three Pianos is just how beautifully written it is. Andrew McMahon’s song lyrics have always been marvelous – heartfelt and candid yet vividly descriptive and metaphorical – so it should come as no surprise that his prose is equally poetic. However, writing doesn’t always come out the same way in different mediums. I’ve read two other musicians’ memoirs this year: Sounds Like Me: My Life (So Far) in Song by Sara Bareilles and More Myself: A Journey by Alicia Keys. (Incidentally, all three of these musicians are pianists. I listen to non-pianists, too, I swear it! But apparently they’re not writing memoirs… yet.) They’re equally skilled lyricists, but both of their books were much more straightforward, like they’re in their living room chatting with you, or like you’re reading their diary entries. In Three Pianos, Andrew’s writing is honest yet retains that lyrical, even dreamlike feeling.
In his songs, Andrew often talks about California – its landmarks, its year-round summery weather – but he’s not originally from the West Coast. As he describes in Three Pianos, Andrew and his family moved around a lot when he was young, from New Jersey to Illinois to California, then back east to Ohio before returning to California. He also talks about his father’s addiction to pain killers and what it was like to grow up as the child of an addicted parent. As the daughter of an alcoholic father, I can relate all too well. Andrew offers an honest account of the turmoil his father’s addiction brought, not just on himself, but on the whole family.
I enjoyed learning about Andrew’s music, from its earliest beginnings to the career it developed into. He started playing piano and writing songs as a child, honed his skills through high school, and started a punk band as a teenager. But Andrew also honestly reveals how he tore it all down – twice. First he broke up Something Corporate, and later he’d repeat that destruction with Jack’s Mannequin. He’s open about what was going on in his mind both times and, moreover, how that affected his bandmates.
Perhaps the biggest event here is Andrew’s battle with leukemia when he was 22. This has been documented before, notably in the film Dear Jack, as well as in the songs he wrote in the aftermath, but in Three Pianos we get a full account of it: the early days when he got sick, how he almost died of pneumonia, the shingles and addiction that came after, and the impact on his emotional state for years to come. It’s harrowing and raw, and some of the passages brought me to tears. He’s also forthcoming about how it affected his relationships, particularly with his wife, Kelly.
Three Pianos is divided into three parts, one for each piano, each one a pillar during a particular time in his life. Throughout the memoir, Andrew inserts numerous passages that are written to those pianos, treating them as characters, as the secret audience of this book. These passages offer extra insight into Andrew’s mind and the companionable role music and his instruments have played in his life.
Interestingly, Andrew only references a few songs by name here, and only quotes the lyrics of two. In some instances he makes subtler references to songs without naming them; only hardcore fans will know to what he refers. It’s another notable contrast to the other memoirs mentioned previously. (Also notable is that the book ends with the release of his first Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness album in 2014; it doesn’t extend to his two more recent albums.) No matter, though: The setlist of his recent Three Pianos Tour may give extra insight into the songs that gave shape to his life and this memoir.
Three Pianos is an excellently written memoir, at once beautiful and candid and emotionally connective. It’s brought me renewed love for Andrew McMahon’s music, and it’s something fans of his are sure to treasure. I read the physical book, but in the future I plan to reread it as an audiobook: Andrew narrates it himself, so it will be a treat to hear his story in his own voice. (I did that earlier this year with Sara Bareilles’s memoir, and I plan to do the same with Alicia Keys.)
If you’re a fan of Andrew McMahon (or Something Corporate or Jack’s Mannequin), if you love music, if you’re interested in cancer survivors or the power of starting over, Three Pianos is an incredible read. It’s an impactful memoir, and it leaves me eager to hear what’s next from Andrew McMahon.
About the Author
Raised on the East Coast and in the Midwest, McMahon began writing songs at age nine, drawing inspiration from singer/songwriter/pianists such as Elton John and Billy Joel. While still in high school, McMahon co-founded an early incarnation of pop-punk band Something Corporate, whose 2002 major-label debut hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Heatseekers Chart. In 2004, he formed Jack’s Mannequin and then on the cusp of releasing the band’s 2005 debut was diagnosed with leukemia at age 22. Eventually fully recovered, McMahon went on to release two more studio albums with Jack’s Mannequin and established The Dear Jack Foundation, one of the first Adolescent and Young Adult (AYA) specific cancer foundations which advocates for and supports initiatives that benefit AYAs diagnosed with cancer. In addition, McMahon composed songs for the NBC series Smash which earned him an Emmy Award nomination. In 2014, he released Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness which featured the gold certified single “Cecilia and the Satellite.” He has performed on the Today Show, Conan, Jimmy Kimmel Live and more. McMahon lives in Los Angeles with his wife of 14 years Kelly and their daughter Cecilia, for whom the hit song was penned.