Jon McLaughlin hasn’t always been so successful at drawing a crowd.
The first time the pop rock singer-songwriter came to Cambridge was to play a set at the All Asia Bar in 2005. “We played for 30 minutes. No one was there. We packed up and left,” he said.
During his most recent visit to Cambridge on Thursday, though, students filled every seat in the Lowell House Junior Common Room to listen to him speak. McLaughlin’s visit was the first in a new series of programs called “Conversations with Harvard,” a university-wide expansion of the former house program Conversations with Kirkland.
McLaughlin has come quite a long way in six years, from playing empty venues to playing the Oscars. He has released three albums and performed songs written by Alan Menken and Steven Schwartz for the Disney film “Enchanted.” McLaughlin has also collaborated and toured with a constellation of stars, including Sara Bareilles, Demi Lovato, Jason Mraz, O.A.R., and Kelly Clarkson.
Like so many singer-songwriters, McLaughlin had humble beginnings. While an undergraduate at Anderson University in Indiana, he and his bandmates would go to classes during the week and travel to different towns to perform on the weekends.
However, McLaughlin insists that it wasn’t the consistent touring that launched his career as a recording artist. “I wouldn’t have gotten signed without Myspace,” he said. He contends that it was his significant online presence that eventually got him noticed by Island Records, a subdivision of Universal Music Group.
After getting signed by Island in 2006, though, McLaughlin began to realize that recording professionally required him to make concessions he never thought he would have to make. Responding to a question from an audience member about whether his songwriting changed after signing, he said, “You quickly get thrown into the factory that is a major pop label.” According to him, Island put its profits first when it considered what songs to include on an album and what songs to throw out. For McLaughlin, who chooses to record the songs that he feels express his emotions best, this was difficult to accept. “When [my songs] get tossed aside, that’s really tough,” he said.
Despite these grievances, McLaughlin stayed with Island Records long enough to produce two albums: “Indiana” in 2007 and “OK Now” in 2008. By the time “OK Now” was released, though, McLaughlin had had enough of recording with a major label. Half of the tracks on “OK Now,” McLaughlin said, represented the kind of heartfelt music he wanted to be writing, but “the other half, quite frankly, was—songs.” So he left Island and in September of this year released “Forever If Ever” independently.
After discussing his time in the recording industry, McLaughlin shifted to talking about his songwriting process. “You can’t write songs when you’re happy,” he said, only half joking. “I need to be depressed or really angry.” This approach manifests itself in his emotionally charged lyrics. One of his most famous songs, “Indiana,” was written while he was homesick and disillusioned in Los Angeles. “So it’s probably best I stay in Indiana, / Just dreaming of the world as it should be, / Where every day is a battle to convince myself / I’m glad she never fell in love with me,” he sings.
Near the end, the intimate talk in Lowell JCR developed into an intimate performance. To the delight of the audience, he sat down at the grand piano and played “I’ll Follow You,” an uncharacteristically lighthearted love song from “Forever If Ever.” His classical piano training was evident in the song’s intricate melodies and rich chords, and his voice was just as clear and mellifluous as a pop singer’s should be. The engrossed students recorded his performance on their phones and closed their eyes in contentment as the music filled the room.
“I think it went extraordinarily well,” said Peter V. Emerson, the creator of Conversations with Kirkland. His goal for the new program is to attract a wider audience for speakers he plans to invite in the future, as well as to allow for more flexibility in scheduling. Additionally, said Emerson, “A more diverse audience will benefit the guest as well.” And Conversations with Harvard, he says, will encourage undergraduate participation in producing the events; by the end of Thursday’s talk, five students had already volunteered to lend their time to the new program.
Student attendees were clearly enthusiastic about both Conversations with Harvard and McLaughlin himself. Kristina F. Latino ’13 had been a fan of McLaughlin for a few years, since her a cappella group The Harvard Callbacks performed one of his songs. “I loved the intimacy,” she said. “You always have these questions you want to ask of entertainers, and this really provided an avenue to ask those.”
“I got a really great impression of [McLaughlin],” added Kayci E. Baldwin ’14, also a member of the a cappella group. “He really stayed true to himself.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction.
CORRECTION: OCT. 24, 2011
The Oct. 18 article "Jon McLaughlin On the Recording Industry" identified Peter V. Emerson, the founder of Conversations at Harvard, as a resident tutor at Kirkland House. He has never been a resident tutor nor does he live at Kirkland House.