“Country artists are writing songs about me now,” John Mellencamp said with something close to bewilderment. “Are you kidding me? You can’t find anything better to write about?”
When the singer-songwriter began his recording career in 1976 as Johnny Cougar — a pseudonym imposed by a manager who thought Mellencamp was too unwieldy for anyone to remember — he was written off as a Springsteen imitator, or a generic voice of dated heartland rock.
Over the decades, there was an evolution in his music, which became warmer and more personal, and in his name, from Johnny Cougar to John Cougar Mellencamp and finally, in 1991, to John Mellencamp. Along the way, he amassed a catalog of hits (21 have reached the Billboard Top 40) and became a cultural influence and touchstone. Two recent country smashes, Keith Urban’s “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16,” and Jake Owen’s “I Was Jack (You Were Diane),” evoke his name and music in the context of innocence, rebellion and nostalgia for youth. He’s more surprised than any of his critics to still be remembered, never mind active.
Mellencamp’s new album, “Orpheus Descending,” will be released on June 16, and it has a Dust Bowl flintiness to it, not only in its mostly acoustic music, which relies heavily on Lisa Germano’s violin, but also in its scornful look at economic disparity, corruption, gun violence and other aspects of American life in “this land of plenty, where nothing gets done,” as he sings in “The Eyes of Portland.”
After decades of cigarettes — he once told an interviewer that he smoked even in the shower and during sex — his voice has dropped from a combative tenor down into a jagged baritone. Mellencamp, 71, is a great-grandfather, and a self-mocking ease balances his well-known irascibility.
During a recent hourlong video interview from the gleaming white kitchen of his home in Indiana, he wore a black Henley shirt and black industrial eyeglasses, and reflected on panic attacks, getting into fistfights and why he won’t play arenas anymore. “I had a bunch of hit records when I was a kid, but I’m not for everybody,” he warned.
These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Your new album has a pretty grim tone. Does that resonate with you?
People have been saying that about my records since I started. I’m an observer. This is my 29th album, or something like that. I’m just not interesting enough that I can write that many songs about myself. I don’t even really know what I’m writing about half the time.
I’ll give you a good example. I had a hit record decades ago called “Hurts So Good.” I quit playing it 25 years ago, but I’ve been playing it on this tour, and it has a whole new meaning to me. [Sings] “When I was a young boy, I said, ‘Put away those young boy ways.’” I was a kid when I wrote it, but as an older gentleman, it makes sense.
What does the song mean to you now?
I’m not a nostalgic person, but I can tell when I play it for the audience that they are. I could do a whole show of hits if I wanted to, but I don’t. That’s one reason I quit playing arenas and playing outdoors. It wasn’t about music — it was about being a human jukebox.
What you’re observing and describing in these songs seems to be a decaying idea of America, especially in “The Eyes of Portland.”
That song is a true story. I was in Portland six or seven years ago, having lunch at a fancy restaurant. There was a 25-year-old girl walking manically back and forth, outside the restaurant. She told me that nobody wanted her back home, because she was too much trouble. I gave her some money, and she said, “Do I have to have sex with you for this money?” I said no, and she took off running. I don’t know if that girl made it home, so I wrote a song about her.
The first song on your first album was called “American Dream.” For your second album, you wrote “American Son.” Jack and Diane are “two American kids,” and the hook to “Pink Houses” is “Ain’t that America.” Is it fair to say that regardless of the era, you’re always singing about America?
I’m going to quote Bob Dylan to you. Bob and I were painting together one day, and I asked him how he wrote so many great songs. In all seriousness, he said, “John, I’ve written the same four [expletive] songs a million times.” I’m going to get in line with Bob on that. It’s always the same song, just more mature or with a different angle.
Why has your singing voice changed so much?
Because I still smoke. My grandmother lived to be 100. I’m pretty sure I won’t make it that long, because I started smoking when I was 10. When you start smoking, you have to want to. But now it’s the only thing that I do well, so I don’t mess with it.
Whether we choose to deal with it or not, death is with all of us, all the time, throughout our entire lives. Plus, I’ve suffered from panic disorder since I was a kid. When you have panic disorder, you go straight to death.
You mean in any situation, you start thinking about death?
Yes. I’m good friends with Stephen King. I said, “Steve, why are we such hypochondriacs?” He said it’s because we make stuff up — a song, a story, a painting — and when we’re not doing that, we turn it on ourselves. You think, “Oh, I can’t breathe.” And even though you were breathing fine, all of a sudden you can’t, because you focused on it.
Last year, you had a new album, “Strictly a One-Eyed Jack.” The last time you released records in consecutive years was 2007 and 2008. Has writing been coming more easily?
I have quit the music business so many times. This tour I’m on now, I’m like, “I’m never doing this again. I can see a young guy doing this, but I’m too old to do this [expletive].”
When I was very popular amongst the general public, I had a heart attack and had to quit for three years. Then there was a time when I made a bunch of records that I didn’t care about. My contract said I had to make an album every 18 months. Now, I don’t ever think, “I need to write a new song.” I’ll be painting, and a voice in my head will say, “Write down these words.” I don’t want to do that — I’m painting! But the voice wins. When I find the piece of paper a couple days later, I think, “When did I write this?”
One of your first bands was called Snakepit Banana Barn, which is a very psychedelic name. What did the music sound like?
I was 14 years old. We had a little horn section. Here’s the real question though: Who today would allow their 14-year-old son to get in a car with a bunch of 22-year-old guys and play in a bar?
Probably the same people who would allow their 10-year-old to smoke cigarettes.
They didn’t allow it! They didn’t know. Listen, my dad was busy. I know most people think I grew up in a house trailer, but my family was very comfortable. My dad was vice president of one of the biggest electrical companies in the United States. I had my own car, had my own motorcycle.
When you were young, you took a trip to New York to visit an art school, and almost on a whim, you hand delivered a demo tape to Tony DeFries, who managed Lou Reed and David Bowie. DeFries signed you. What did he see in you?
The truth of the matter is, the girl at the reception desk was from Indiana, like me. DeFries just happened to walk by and he saw me. Really, he signed me because of the way I looked. I don’t think he even listened to the tape.
What did you look like?
Not like everybody else. I had a greasy ducktail, and a T-shirt and jeans. I wasn’t as ugly as I am now.
Toward the start of your career, you got kicked off a tour opening for Rainbow. You also got kicked off a Kiss tour —
And an REO Speedwagon tour. I got kicked off every tour I was on.
My band and I were terrible, but we were better than Kiss. I was a young kid, full of energy, and the reviews said, “John Cougar blew the place up last night.” Gene Simmons would look at me like he wanted to kill me.
One of the distinctive qualities of your music is the snare drum sound. Is that because of how the snare is tuned? How it’s mixed?
If you listen to an Eagles record it’s like [makes a thin tapping sound], and we didn’t want that. I built my own studio in Indiana because I couldn’t get along with anyone in the multiplex. I punched the blond-haired singer of the Cars. I fought all the time, and lost all the time.
What kind of a dad are you?
I get along great with my kids, and I talk to each of them three or four times a week. But I told them all kinds of crazy [expletive]. I told them I invented skateboarding. My youngest, Speck, was skateboarding at school and a kid said, “You’re really good.” Speck said, “I should be. My dad invented it.” The kid goes, “Your dad didn’t invent skateboarding!” So Speck hit him.