At a recent concert outside Detroit, rock 'n' roll singer-songwriter John Mellencamp marveled about releasing his 23rd album, "Life Death Love and Freedom."
"When I was a kid," he told the crowd, "I just wanted to make a record. That was it. I really had no vision I would be 56 years old and make 23 albums."
But now the Indiana rocker, once called Johnny Cougar, finds himself 32 years into a still-potent career. For his new album (released July 15 on Hear Music) Mellencamp collaborated with producer T Bone Burnett not only on the record's austere and textured sound but also on CODE, a high-definition sound process developed by Burnett that's featured on the DVD version of the album.
Mellencamp is still basking in the glow of his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in March, but he's hardly resting on his laurels.
Q: As you've said, "Life Death Love and Freedom" is not "a sing-along album." It handles some big and serious issues and questions. What was the creative charge or mission you felt as you set out to make this?
John Mellencamp: All of these songs were written in a 15-day period. I had no intention of writing songs for a record; (they) just sort of happened. One would be making an error to personalize these songs too much. (They) were written in the American Songbook tradition.
Q: What led you to work with T Bone Burnett for this album, and what did he bring to the party that led to what we hear on "Life Death Love and Freedom," thematically and sonically?
Mellencamp: I've known T Bone for about 10 years ... T Bone Burnett knows more about music from 1960 backwards than anyone I have ever met. Regardless of how the record turned out, he and I became very good friends. Our friendship became more important than the record. It's very rare that you make a musical friend.
Q: How would you describe the path you've taken during these 23 albums? I would contend there's been a thread through them all, that the landscape on "Life Death Love and Freedom" is indeed the same world "Jack & Diane" inhabited, only 26 years later. How do you see it?
Mellencamp: All of these records are the same to me. The songwriting all comes from the same place. But it's how we choose to use the band that changes. I have been fortunate enough to go from being a young man to an old man.
Q: How does CODE allow you to present your music in a way that's more satisfying as an artist?
Mellencamp: Digital technology was sold by the record companies as a better sound. But us guys who make the records always knew different. CODE gives a wider band range to allow the sound to be captured in a more analog way, if that makes any sense to you at all.
Q: Musicians, including yourself, played an active role in the 2004 presidential election. What impact do you think you had, and what do you see as your role, if any, in this year's campaign?
Mellencamp: Slowly but surely, this country changes by the men that we elect and admire. If my music can help change the culture in any small way, then let the change be near.
Q: What made Hear Music a good fit for this album? Are you on a record-to-record deal with it?
Mellencamp: Hear Music is strictly a logo now. This record is being worked by Concord Records. I was with PolyGram for 25 years, (so) I have no desire or need for any long-term record contracts.