Songwriter Michael McLean is the man behind more than 40 albums of music, from beloved productions like “The Forgotten Carols” and “The Ark” to “You’re Not Alone” and “The Best Two Years” soundtrack.
He is also credited with persuading legendary actor Jimmy Stewart to star in “Mr. Krueger’s Christmas.”
But McLean doesn’t think of himself that way, looking back on what his work has become.
“I don’t think, ‘My, my, let’s look at what I have done,’” McLean told the Daily Herald. “My question is always, ‘Is there something I can learn from this? Is there some way that I can reshape it or reshare it?’ ”
We caught up with McLean ahead of his concerts this week at Orem’s SCERA Center for the Arts in a phone interview while he was preparing for a program in Phoenix, Arizona. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
SARAH HARRIS: How do you feel about these upcoming performances at the SCERA in Orem?
MICHAEL McLEAN: I’m excited. I haven’t performed there. (SCERA President and CEO) Adam Robertson would know when, but they gave me that cool award years ago and I became familiar with that, and then I’ve performed at the Shell there before, but I don’t think I’ve ever had a chance to just get onstage in that sweet little theater and tell stories and sing songs, so this will be a first for me for there, and I’m excited.
HARRIS: Is there anything unique about performing in that area or for that audience?
McLEAN: I live in Heber, so it’s not like it’s foreign, and a lot of these folks who come know me through “The Forgotten Carols,” but this is an opportunity to share some other stories and sing some other songs, and so yeah, I’m excited. It think it’ll be a fun way for me to reconnect. I haven’t performed there for a long time.
HARRIS: What are your plans for the shows that you’ll perform there?
McLEAN: That’s a good question. I don’t know how much I want to give away. One of the fun things about having over 40 albums and so many shows is I get the freedom to look over my career, and the songs that I had written years ago that I thought were about one thing or were addressing one particular topic, life just has a way of reshaping those things, and I’ve been making discoveries about what the songs that I thought were about one thing taught me about something else. And for those who come who have been fans and supported my work and have come to “The Forgotten Carols” for years, I think it’ll be really fun to hear those songs performed live, but I think it’ll be really even more interesting to share the aha moments that I have had since I wrote so many of these songs and then to sing some new ones and tell some new stories, and I think that’s the best part. Also, for those who’ve seen what I do, it’s pretty spontaneous in responding to what I hope will connect with the audience, and so I’m never exactly sure how it’s going to come out.
HARRIS: What are some things that you’ve been working on lately or your goals for the future right now?
McLEAN: First of all, I’m really excited about a couple of things. After 28 years of performing on my tour of “The Forgotten Carols” every year, I have completely reimagined that story and that show, and I’ve been in rehearsal since Labor Day because it’s so different. It’s amazing to me that I can tell this story that I’ve been telling based on my book and my songs — it was released in 1991 — it’s amazing that I could tell it so differently and yet have it feel more familiar than it has ever felt, so I’m really excited to present that. If you go to forgottencarols.com, you can see all the places that we’re going.
Second of all, I have a website that’s going to be launched right after our show at SCERA called “Songwriter Sunday School with Michael McLean,” and it’s going to be a subscription-based website where all things Michael McLean can be available. There’s going to be an app, and there’s weekly new things that are coming, and here’s “What’s New Wednesdays,” and here’s “Memory Lane with Michael McLean,” and it’s kind of like a place to get all of the stories that I want to have preserved about everything from when I produced a movie with Jimmy Stewart or when I had my musical off-Broadway or all the really interesting things there, and new songs as well, new ideas, new projects, new musicals, whatever, and that comes out next year. And along with that is coming a podcast that I’m doing. And I have just, for the last year or so, I have been working like crazy. For an old geezer like me, it’s kind of re-energizing.
HARRIS: What do you think people will take away in general from the work that you do?
McLEAN: I have a line that I use at the end of my podcasts that is, “Sometimes, a song can teach me the truth the only way my heart can hear it.” And one of the things that I hope folks who come take away from the experience is that they can hear something that’s true for them in a way that, because it’s a song, that that’s the way their heart can hear it. Because that’s kind of my language, that’s the way I learn stuff. And sometimes you can sing things and build friendships through music, but if you just said it, it wouldn’t work. You can sing things to people sometimes you can’t say to them and build connections.
This is kind of an interesting experience. When I was a kid, and my dad worked for a big oil company and we lived all over, and I went to my first couple years of high school in Chicago, and then my dad was transferred to New Jersey. And he cut my hair, and I never went to a barber till I left home to go to college. And so he would cut my hair, and depending on how much he wanted to talk to me or talk to me about depended on how short my haircut was that week or whatever. And I remember confessing to him how disappointed I was that I didn’t have a great singing voice and that I wasn’t gorgeous. I said, “Dad, why couldn’t God have just made me gorgeous and really handsome and a fantastic singer? Oh, man, I could be one of the great performers of all time because I know it’s in my bones, but I’m not handsome and I can’t sing.” And my dad laughed. He just laughed and he said, “Oh, man, Michael, if you looked like a million dollars and had a voice as great as Sammy Davis Jr.,” or whoever was the hot singer back in that day, he said, “It’d ruin you.” I said, “Ruin me? No, I could have this great career and I could help people and I could entertain them and be a positive influence in their life.” He said, “No, no, no, no, no. If you had what you claim you want, what you would do is you’d find a way to show off how pretty you were, and you’d either write songs or sing songs to show off how great your voice is, and it would be all about, ‘Me, me, me, me, me, me, me.’ But the gift of just being kind of an average-looking Joe and not being the greatest singer is instead of singing songs to show off how cool you are, you can sing songs that are about the people who are listening, so you can get out of the way. You can remove yourself from the process.”
At the time, I just didn’t get it, but as I’ve lived longer, one of the great blessings of not being what I thought I wanted was when I write a song, my focus is not on me, it’s on, “Well, what’s the truth here? I wonder if somebody else has ever felt this.” I became sort of famous because of my first album called “You’re Not Alone,” and I’ve been teased a lot that, “Oh, he just writes the same song over and over again,” and I try to do it in so many different genres, pop songs or country songs or theater songs or gospel songs or whatever, and I’ve really worked hard to not be just pigeonholed to one sound. But the truth is if I play a song and the person who hears it goes, “Boy, whoever wrote that song knows what I’m going through. I must not be alone.” Well, every time I’m able to do that, it’s kind of the same song over and over again, different subjects, different tunes, different melodies, but looking for a way to let people know, “You’re not the only one, that thing you’re struggling with or that hope you have or that celebration you want.” And so what I hope more than anything, because I don’t get to do it a lot, but at the SCERA, a beautiful little theater, I get a chance to sing the songs that have meant something to me in the hopes that somebody who comes can go away — because you asked earlier, “What do you want people to take away?” — I want them to go away saying, “I’m not the only one. I’m not alone. This guy knows my life.”