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Arlo McKinley On Heartbreak And Hope In His New Album, 'Die Midwestern'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A singer-songwriter takes the stage, performs a set. In the audience, a star is wowed by the musician and signs him to his label. We've all seen that movie, but it actually happened last year in Nashville. The star was John Prine; the singer-songwriter, Arlo McKinley.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIE MIDWESTERN")

ARLO MCKINLEY: (Singing) There's nothing left to say and nothing to do. This house is lonely. Now I'm here without you. So I sit and I wait for the sun.

SIMON: Arlo McKinley was the last artist that John Prine signed to his record label, Oh Boy Records. And his first album on that label, "Die Midwestern," is out now.

Arlo McKinley, thanks so much for being with us.

MCKINLEY: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: We're certainly going to get to what's behind that title in a moment, but we want to talk about John Prine, of course, who left us in April of complications from COVID. What did his music, his songs, his writing mean to you?

MCKINLEY: To me, it was always - it showed that almost simple songwriting and honest songwriting without trying to put too much flair behind things or - he just could catch your attention with wordplay. And I always felt that you were hearing something real out of him. And I think that was always the appeal of John to me.

SIMON: I gather you were playing in punk bands and with folk groups, and then you had a solo album in 2014. What is there about country that speaks to you?

MCKINLEY: It was just music that was always around. I grew up in a music-filled home. I was the youngest of three brothers, and they had, like, the punk records. And my dad always had obscure bluegrass and country and folk - something about just the storytelling of it - just simple storytelling that, you know, you believe. And I just thought that was the best way to tell my story as well.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GONE FOR GOOD")

MCKINLEY: (Singing) The cracks out in the sidewalk hold the memories I keep. Your name is on my finger where a wedding band could be.

SIMON: A song like "Gone For Good" - is there a story there, or are there a thousand stories there?

MCKINLEY: There's one main story there, but there's a few in there. The main story there is kind of a ending-a-relationship-type song, but it's actually the moving on part from it and kind of just realizing that you didn't do what you probably could or should have done during the time and sort of an apology song about you feeling like you've wasted, you know, someone's time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GONE FOR GOOD")

MCKINLEY: (Singing) I'm sorry that I stole from you so many of those years. I swear I'd give them back, girl, if I could.

SIMON: Did they accept it?

MCKINLEY: You know, I...

(LAUGHTER)

MCKINLEY: That - you know, I honestly - I do not know. That's a good question (laughter).

SIMON: I've got to ask you, Mr. McKinley - and it's none of my business - but have you ever been involved with someone who says, and just don't turn me into a damn song?

MCKINLEY: (Laughter) Yeah. But actually, the opposite happens much more often, actually.

SIMON: Yeah. At least make this a good song.

MCKINLEY: Right. That's sort of the way that it'll go. But yeah, there's definitely been people who didn't want songs written about them or didn't want to know if I - and then I usually won't. I usually won't.

SIMON: Got to ask now about "Bag Of Pills."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAG OF PILLS")

MCKINLEY: (Singing) You want it. I can feel it. Got a bag of pills I've been dealing so I can take you drinking.

SIMON: So it sounds like you've seen a lot of this - opioids.

MCKINLEY: Yeah, more than I ever thought I would.

SIMON: Can you tell us?

MCKINLEY: Yeah. That's the oldest song on the record, and I've had that song for over 10 years. It was first written when the opioid - you know, that came into the Midwest and Cincinnati really heavily. It took the lives of many people that I care about and also just made people hopeless. And it just got out of hand really close to home.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAG OF PILLS")

MCKINLEY: (Singing) And life, I don't want it.

SIMON: There's a particularly piercing lyric - life, I don't want it if it's so easy to die.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAG OF PILLS")

MCKINLEY: (Singing) To die.

Yeah. I changed that lyric after one of my best friends, Patrick Cammack, who - I dedicate the album to him. It was one of those situations where I was with him a week before. And then, all of a sudden, a week later, he's gone. So at the time, my headspace was, is all this worth trying to do if it can be taken away so quickly?

SIMON: And now?

MCKINLEY: You know, now it's live day to day. You know, it's - I'm in a much better, you know, spot than that. Now it's just trying to make the best of every day.

SIMON: I am a very loyal Midwesterner.

MCKINLEY: Nice.

SIMON: And I got to tell you I had a complicated reaction to the title "Die Midwestern." I mean, I - first, let me just note that I guess when that day comes for me, I will.

MCKINLEY: Right.

SIMON: But it's not a cheery title, is it?

MCKINLEY: It's not necessarily a cheery title, but the narrative of the entire album is figuring things out - where you're going to go, if you're going to leave where you're at. You know, I'm 40 years old now, and I've lived in Cincinnati my entire life. So no matter where I go, I will also die Midwestern just because it's what I know. That's how I was...

SIMON: Yeah.

MCKINLEY: That's more of what the title means. It's about, you can kind of get away from things, but you're always going to be, I think, who you are at a certain point.

SIMON: Yeah. I mean, even if you wind up in Beverly Hills, your...

MCKINLEY: Right.

SIMON: ...Basic emotional DNA is Ohio and Cincinnati.

MCKINLEY: Yes. Right. And that's what the title actually to me meant.

SIMON: But you love the place, don't you?

MCKINLEY: Oh, 100%. Yeah, I do. I always say that I have, like, a love-hate relationship with Cincinnati.

SIMON: But it's given you a lot of songs with resonance to reach people.

MCKINLEY: Yeah. Yeah, 100%. It'll always be home to me. And yeah, it's given me my best friends. It's given me everything I am, everything I have. It's made me who I am.

SIMON: Arlo McKinley - his first album with John Prine's Oh Boy Records is called "Die Midwestern." It's out now.

Thanks so much for being with us.

MCKINLEY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHATEVER YOU WANT")

MCKINLEY: (Singing) Whatever you want me to be, then that's what I'll be. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.