The Chicagoan prefers the former, partly he because he doesn’t define himself these days as a rocker. And he may not be as well known as childhood influences like Bob Dylan or Van Morrison, but clearly lots of people have heard of him after 20 years on the road and almost as many albums. Some will even have read his lyrics in the horror master’s books.
McDermott’s material, though, is drawn more directly from actual events than is King’s. In an interview, he paraphrased Jack Kerouac’s philosophy: “I believe in every story I write because every story I write I believe is true.”
“We have a great deal to stay,” he said of the Irish. “It’s what we do. We tell stories and what not.”
Not that it’s easy. “It’s much harder to write a story song that it is a poetic song,” he said.
His latest album, “Hey La Hey,” is hardly a departure from his well-established approach. “The Great American Novel,” “The Year it All Went Wrong,” and the others all have tales to tell. “The Ballad of Johnny Diversey,” gets its title from the nickname that his father had when he parked cars for “a Clark Street dive” in 1940s Chicago.
McDermott’s parents, now retired, both struggled to make a living selling insurance. “The first time I was on CNN, they were in my corner,” he said.
He was the youngest of their four children. “My father said I was an accident. I say I was destiny,” he said, with a laugh.
He began life as Michael Murphy, but working in a record store during his youth he came across the work of Michael Mark Murphy. So he adopted his maternal grandmother’s family name for the stage.
McDermott, first of all, formed a duo with his friend Paul Fitzpatrick: “We played some Irish stuff,” he recalled.
He quickly made a name for himself on the coffee house circuit. “Some guy in the Chicago Tribune wrote about me, and it got into the wrong guy’s hands and the next thing I knew I was signed when I was 20 years old to Warner Brothers,” he said.
Most accounts of his subsequent folk-rock career refer to the incorporation of Irish influences into his music. “I haven’t strayed far from my Irish lineage musically,” McDermott said, even if the tin whistle and bagpipes are less evident in his recent output.
Sometimes during the early days, his Irish-American identity could make him feel like he was a “man without a island.” His friends didn’t want to hang out with him much in Irish bars, but, once he was in them, the old-timers would give him the “so you think you’re Irish?” routine.
Religion has been a greater source of difficulty. He told the New York Times in a January 1994 article that he was “much too weak a person to be ever be a priest,” though he had once seriously considered that course. The then 25-year-old singer said in that feature about religion and rock music: “What is enlightenment in 1993? Kurt Loder on MTV? Or Eddie Vedder? Is that what people are looking for? I think people should start looking inside themselves as opposed to these false prophets.”
McDermott recalled about his album “Gethsemane,” which came out at that time: “The secular world thought it was too religious, and the religious world thought it was too secular.
“It’s that man without an island thing,” McDermott said. “In any one life, in any job, you just want to feel you belong. That’s been a cross to bear for my whole life, whether socially, musically or just economically. I’ve always felt like the man between. It hasn’t been easy.”
McDermott and his wife Heather Horton are attending classes together in preparation for her acceptance into the Catholic Church. He said of Horton, who sings with him and is releasing her first album in the spring: “She literally saved my life.”
He liked the idea of getting married in his ancestral homeland. “When I’m over there, there’s a heartbeat that I feel,” he said. Ultimately, though, the couple got married on May 3 during one of the band’s four trips to Italy in 2009.
McDermott did six shows in Ireland last September and hopes to get back in 2010. He also has a fan base in England and France.
“Touring is taxing in some ways, but there’s really nothing else I’d rather be doing,” he said.
Michael McDermott kicks off his tour on this coming Friday, Feb. 3, at Schuba’s in Chicago. His East Coast performances include: Friday, Feb. 19 at 8 p.m., The Middle East Club, Corner Bar Sessions, Cambridge, Mass.; Sunday, Feb. 21 at 3:00 p.m., Concerts In The Studio, Freehold, N.J.; Tuesday, Feb. 23 at 8 p.m., Sullivan Hall, New York; Thursday, Feb. 25 at 7:00 p.m., Kennett Flash, Kennett Square, Pa.; Friday, Feb. 26 at 8 p.m., Sellersville Theater, Sellersville, Pa.
For more information go to www.michael-mcdermott.com.