Andrew McMahon has gone through a lot. As leader of California punk-pop act Something Corporate, he experienced the highs of being a 20-year-old major-label wunderkind.
Next came Jack's Mannequin, a solo project whose debut album, Everything in Transit, had been out just a few months when the singer-songwriter was suddenly diagnosed with leukemia.
Ultimately, McMahon emerged stronger, sending his cancer into remission and his next two discs into the Top 10. Then in 2012, at the age of 30, he ended Jack's Mannequin with a farewell tour.
"It's been a creative journey these last couple years since I put Jack's to rest," explains McMahon. "I decided to step away from the business of music for a second and try to just enjoy myself. I came home, started a family, did these other sorts of life experiences."
One of those new experiences included taking a songwriting job for Smash, the NBC musical drama.
"Smash was the perfect thing for me at that moment, because I wasn't really in the place where I wanted to create new music," he says. "It was this perfect outlet, where I could get feedback and information on the kind of songs they were looking for and play into that. Almost put on a character's clothes and say, 'What would this character be thinking?'"
As Smash's season wound down last spring, McMahon released a four-song EP called The Pop Underground. It ran headlong into dreamier, synth-laden indie-tronic arrangements with a certain perky, plinky grace.
"It was a chance to sort of experiment with some new songs, and not spend too much time worrying [about] what I'd done in the past, but instead sort of project into the future," he says. "To see if I could enjoy myself playing with a new palette."
The break provided a much-necessary recharge after a decade on the road, and helped propel McMahon through the recording of his next full-length album. It's almost finished, and he's proud of it.
"There's virtually no guitars on the entire record. We made the conscious choice to leave them off in an effort to make more space for the vocals and piano. The synth elements are lusher — almost orchestral, with string and horn patches — rather than letting the synths take over the melodies."
McMahon's upbeat, almost anthemic hopefulness is the one thread that runs through all his releases. While he knows darkness and has sung of it, particularly during his cancer scare, he prefers to remain in the light.
"I just know for me personally," he says, "when I linger in the darkness for too long, that's when I need music to kind of pull me out of it."
Meanwhile, abandoning guitars shouldn't hurt his commercial prospects, since modern rock radio formats are less prevalent these days.
"Now you listen to alternative radio and listen to pop radio and you almost can't tell between them," says McMahon. "I hope it's something that will play out positively in the success of this record. In a way I feel the tide's shifted towards me."