From the first to the final track on Justin McMahon’s new album “Worth the Wait,” the listener is assailed by a pleasant package of in-your-face folk. Though some songs at first appear to be light, McMahon says, “None of these songs are fluffy.”
All of the songs are true, all are inspired by McMahon’s life and not a single one of them lets the listener off easy. He confesses that most of the songs were written about one person, and, “Yes, she knows,” he says. “I hope she’s thick-skinned.”
McMahon, 26 years old, has been playing guitar for 11 years. He started on piano, but for Christmas one year received a guitar. Though originally pissed that it wasn’t the video game he really wanted, years later, he’s an accomplished singer and songwriter, teaches guitar lessons and can’t imagine life without the instrument.
McMahon’s musical inspirations come from Paul Simon, whose lyrical storytelling continues to influence his writing; Dave Matthews, who showed him that it was “cool” to play acoustic guitar; and most recently, the mad musical ramblings of Tom Waits. The end result? As one listener put it, “He has the lyrical genius of Jack Johnson and the dark moodiness of Damien Rice.”
Wearing a worn suede jacket, leather sandals and blue jeans, McMahon describes the making of “Worth the Wait,” his first studio album. Previously he had recorded an EP of live performances, but had never sat down to track songs out for a real album. To balance out his inexperience, he recruited friends, some of the most-seasoned musical pros in Reno: Joel Ackerson, Seth Horan, Tony Cataldo and Jason Thomas. The songs where McMahon played solo, guitar and voice were tracked in his living room with the help of another local musician, Kent Miura. The rest of the tracks were recorded at Ackerson’s True Story Records.
The album starts out with a sweet, percussive acoustic rhythm that is followed quickly by disheartening lyrics that, for some, might strike close to home: “Ain’t nothing real in this world, ain’t nothing time won’t change,” he sings. Though McMahon tries to avoid “light and strumming” guitar work at all costs” some of his songs twinkle with gentle fingerwork, such as “Lullaby.” But like many of Motown’s best, a happy sounding tune only serves as a counterpoint to moving, emotional lyrics.
McMahon admits that he has very little control over his songwriting. He first lays down his guitar idea, then finds a melody, and with that melody perhaps a glimmer of a lyric, and then later finishes the lyrics to flesh out the song.
In any artistic endeavor it can be difficult to simply let go and let the art, the emotion, tell the story. But McMahon seems to accomplish this, gripping the listener from track to track with engaging storytelling that doesn’t let go. His voice rasps like autumn leaves raked across a parking lot, but there’s power in lines that cut through all the bullshit in a painful and tender love song: “Love cannot keep still for long, it’s a reflection on the water, always bending with the tide, and all the walls we build, ah, they never stand that strong. And I knew in the end I’d fall.”