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Roan Yellowthorn’s Jackie McLean wrote much of the New York indie-pop duo’s new album, Another Life, as a reflection on a childhood marked by frequent mental and emotional abuse that led to debilitating OCD by age 7 and an eating disorder at 13. Abuse that continued into young adulthood, often causing her to question her own reality and sense of self-worth.
“When you're subjected to mental and emotional abuse, just hearing that person's name can make your heart pound and body start sweating,” explains McLean. “Psychological warfare. Mind games. Coercive control. Harassment. These elements of fear-based control can make you feel like you have no freedom and like your life is not your own.”
Throughout the forthcoming 11-song set, McLean channels her healing process and the rebuilding of her individual identity through laid-back '80s era synths and airy, often bright, dream-pop sounds. With production by John Agnello (Kurt Vile, Waxahatchee, Alvvays), McLean’s lush keyboards and keening, incisive vocals are joined by the intricate drums of her partner Shawn Strack, as well as additional keys by Andy Burton, gentle guitar flourishes from Emil Amos, Mary Lattimore’s dreamy harp sounds, and haunting basslines from Jesske Hume. “In a song and arrangement sense, I marvel at how the songs build naturally throughout, how choruses open up and become grander,” Agnello offers. “And then when you put Jackie’s beautiful melodies and voice on top, it’s the total package.”
Most of the music was composed during the summer of 2019 when McLean decided to set aside a few weeks to spend every day writing on her porch. "I didn’t listen to the radio and didn’t read the newspapers," she says. "I put myself in a sensory deprivation situation so that I could just really meditate on my feelings and what I had inside of me and try to transform everything I could into music."
This hyper-focused writing time helped her come up with introspective, soul-searching songs full of vivid details, which serve as a nod to McLean's background: McLean studied literature in college, and writes lyrics as poems first. "There’s definitely a wide range of songs that are all about different things but, for me, the unifying theme is the idea of other lives," she says. "Lives that are imagined, or remembered, or that are parallel to your own life—or other lives within the one you have."
This idea is particularly evident in "Stranger," which was inspired by McLean's fascination with Australian artist Alex Cameron. "I love observing someone and then writing about them—trying to enter into their world by writing about what I see in them," she says. "It’s an ode to this stranger that I don’t know, but that I feel like I have a connection to." Elsewhere, "Unkind” is about the experience of falling in love with a stranger—or at least the idea of a stranger—with McLean singing, “If I’ve learned anything / nothing’s what it seems / I’d only disappoint you / another shattered dream.”
Another Life often reflects on emotional turbulence and how personal relationships impact someone's path in the world. "Acid Trip" was spawned by a solo car trip that sent McLean into a philosophical mood about life's ebbs and flows and the lasting effects of the abuse she has suffered. “Vampire” describes how helpless she has felt at times while trying to escape her abuser’s control, and "Bloodline" details her family's struggle with mental health. The tender "Little Love" explores the nuanced emotions surrounding a terminated pregnancy she experienced when she was 20, and how the experience still lingers today.
Writing and recording an album with such harrowing themes was cathartic for McLean — allowing the songwriter to funnel her pain into her art. “Sharing my experiences was the scariest thing I’ve ever done. But the response has been mind-blowing. People from far and wide have reached out to me, and I’ve realized that I am not alone in the experiences I’ve had. None of us are. Once we start to talk about what we’ve lived through, it’s clear - the only thing that isolates us is silence.”