When Greg Mahan mentions that eight years have passed since his solo debut, shock and disbelief seem to follow.
"I'll talk to other musicians and friends, and they're like, 'Has it been eight years? No way!' " Mahan says over lunch at the West Chester Izzy's. "They can't imagine it. It's probably because I've been playing the same songs from the record."
When pressed on the obvious question of why his new album, Thirty-Five-Cent Daydream, took so long, he looks slightly chagrined during his explanation.
"I wish I had a better story, but it's just time and money," Mahan says, laughing.
Perhaps just as importantly, the overwhelmingly positive response to Mahan's eponymous 2000 debut album — including impressive reviews, lots of local/regional gigs, consistent airplay on WNKU and three CEA nominations — had an unintended effect on his plans.
"I just rode the wave," Mahan says.
"I was rolling with the relative success of the album. I was getting invited to do gigs instead of trying to book my own, and I didn't even consider doing something new for a couple of years."
Mahan's ideas were plentiful when he and longtime recording accomplice Brian Lovely finally reconvened to begin work on Thirty-Five-Cent Daydream in 2004. After the breaks resulting from the birth of Mahan's children and Lovely's return to school for his master's degree, the album's tone changed as Lovely reviewed some of Mahan's newer songs. Founded on a basic rhythm section of drummer/percussionist Teddy Wilburn and Mahan's brother Brian on bass (with additional assistance from drummer Don Novy and Lovely on bass), the songs began to morph into something more layered, nuanced and elaborate.
"We started with the idea that we would do everything live and we did three songs that way," Mahan says. "We didn't do anything for awhile, then we changed directions. Brian heard the songs I wanted to record and he realized another approach would be better. We started the more old-fashioned, stacking the tracks kind of thing."
As a result, Thirty-Five-Cent Daydream evokes the baroque efforts of Randy Newman and Van Dyke Parks, with a rootsy singer/songwriter Folk heart and quiet swashes of Beatlesque Pop, and reflects Mahan's artistic maturation in a number of ways.
"I'm hopefully a better lyricist," Mahan says. "Some of the old stuff, I look at now like I was hiding behind some bad poetry. I could make it sound pretty neat but sometimes I think the meaning was lost. And toward the end of the last record, I started getting into alternate tunings. Ever since then, it's become my musical addiction."
Mahan grew up in Finneytown in a musical environment; his father played guitar and his neighborhood was seemingly made up of similar families. In fact, one of Mahan's first vocal experiences came at age 8 when his babysitter's Rock band gave him a shot during their basement rehearsal.
"I remember them lowering the mic stand and letting me sing 'Still Crazy After All These Years,' " Mahan says. "I thought my childhood was really normal and all the music around me was how it was for most people, but now I know that's not the case at all."
A college roommate exposed Mahan to polyrhythmic World music, and in his post-college years he and brother Brian formed the rootsy Banjo and put out a cassette, which was well received.
"We had the second best non-CD release of 1994, according to Everybody's News," Mahan says, laughing.
Mahan had met Lovely, who was then fronting the acclaimed Secret, at the open mic songwriter night he was hosting and he agreed to produce a follow-up Banjo release but the band dissolved. The aborted Banjo sessions ultimately led Lovely to work on Mahan's solo debut instead.
While Mahan's work and family responsibilities have increased, he wants to do some limited touring for Thirty-Five-Cent Daydream. He did regional and East Coast roadwork with the first album, he's continued to play sporadic club gigs and opening slots and would love to do the same now for his new release, of which he is admittedly and rightfully proud.
"I think this one is more cohesive," Mahan says. "I'm definitely a big fan of the 'album.' I have a soft spot for the era of the Rock album, like Rubber Soul through the early '70s. I was going for the same thing on both records, but I think I was more successful on the second one. Every song is in its place. The first song is the first song for a reason and the last song is there for a reason."
GREG MAHAN plays Northside Tavern on Tuesday. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.