By January 2020, The Maine had nearly a year on the road for their seventh album You Are OK (2019), and John O’Callaghan was well into writing the band’s eighth release. Working off a makeshift laptop, O’Callaghan wrote the first, and opening, track, “Sticky,” with the remaining tracks of XOXO: From Love and Anxiety in Real Time (8123, Photo Finish Records) completed and recorded by the Arizona rockers during the pandemic.
“For the first time ever, I was able to be inspired,” O’Callaghan tells American Songwriter, who says all the songs on the new album are new—nothing leftover from previous releases. “It just felt nice to kind of have a clean slate and to work basically from the ground up.”
Nowadays, O’Callaghan says he’s more non-committal to lyrics that he was in the past. “I used to commit to the lyrics and concept early on in the process,” he shares. “Now, I’m inspired by the composition of the music. Once I get a melody locked in to a place, then I start diving into lyrics.”
For XOXO, O’Callaghan built all the tracks around music first. “All the ideas were wordless,” he says. “So it was just like speaking in tongues and figuring out if I hear a word here there a couple months later.”
Working through the pandemic, O’Callaghan, along with guitarists Kennedy Brock and Jared Monaco, bassist Garrett Nickelsen, and drummer Pat Kirch began recording XOXO remotely from their respective homes.
XOXO: From Love and Anxiety in Real Time sorts through the varied waves of emotions, from open pop of “Sticky,” co-written with Andrew Goldstein (Maroon 5, Demi Lovato), leaping into mental health on the emotive “If Your Light Goes Out” or confronting the mind tricks on “Pretender,” through the the levity and fragility of love (“Lips,” “Dirty, Pretty, Beautiful”), all roaming around beguiling synth- and drum-dipped arrangements, from the under two-minute run of “Love in Real Time” and slightly longer (four-plus minute) guitar-laced “Anxiety in Real Time.” Mid-way through, “April 7” offers a softer threaded love song, named after the day O’Callaghan met his future wife at a San Francisco show around the release of band’s 2017 album Lovely Little Lonely.
“It’s about feeling things for the first time, but it’s also about seeing that specific someone for the first time,” shares O’Callaghan. “This song lived a demo form and didn’t have too many peaks, or valleys for us, but we kept circling back to it because of the way the track made us all feel. We couldn’t put our finger on why.
XOXO opens another portal for the band, and O’Callaghan, who says he has finally committed to the idea that he’s a songwriter. “Before, I would write songs and we would make records, but I didn’t have any time to commit to buying expensive software or anything like that,” he says. “I didn’t give myself time, or just found excuses. I found reasons to invest in myself as a songwriter and invest in our band. I don’t know why it took me so long, to be honest. I guess that’s part of growing up.”
Creating beds of sound that were comprehended by his bandmates was crucial as a jumping off point, and core of the conception of each track. “I started to batch ideas together that felt like they belonged and made a conscientious effort to make sure they made sense together,” says O’Callaghan. “Hopefully, the songs are strong enough on their own to sort of be digested however they will be.”
Pulling from life experiences over the past three or four years, O’Callaghan also wanted the songs to summon something deeper like those captured by songwriters like Neil Young, and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, and Tom Kelly, who penned The Pretenders’ “I’ll Stand By You” and Whitney Houston’s 1987 hit “So Emotional.”
“They take these concepts that are universally felt, and they apply what makes them artists, what makes them individuals and imbue that into the stories they are telling,” says O’Callaghan. “That’s what’s so beautiful about music… it’s just that relatable.”
O’Callaghan adds, “Even Bob Dylan of Ben Gibbard [Death Cab for Cutie], they’re singing about these universal concepts of love and loss and desire, and making them feel so specific, yet I can attach myself to those songs, and I can relate with my own personal experience. Hopefully, there’s the opportunity for people to attach themselves and their lives to this batch of songs.”