At Work: John Mailander

Larson Sutton on July 6, 2021
At Work: John Mailander

photo credit: Michelle L Stone

In July 2020, when John Mailander’s Forecast entered Nashville’s Sound Wave to record their latest album, Look Closer, the band’s namesake wondered how the uncertain conditions outside the studio would affect the improvisations within. The ensemble initially gathered only four months into the global pandemic and, at the time, the CDC’s safety guidelines were foreboding, if still somewhat nebulous. “I imagined [the music] being a bit darker, more reflective of the time— a very serious work,” Mailander says.

Mailander’s Nashville collective, which is essentially comprised of his friends and colleagues, is a fluid unit; an open lineup known for welcoming guests onto its musical carousel. The musicians first coalesced in 2019, issuing Forecast, then adopted the album’s title as their own for a series of monthly appearances at an East Nashville club. The performances were very well received and inspiring, motivating Mailander to consider a follow-up release.

The fiddler always envisioned Forecast as a good “hang.” The San Diego native pulled up stakes after college, moving to Music City and becoming a highly prized fiddler and mandolin player. Mailander’s varied professional experiences, both on stage and in the studio, helped him foster numerous deep, musical connections—and gave him the confidence that those friendships could eventually grow into a more formal ensemble.

Mailander conceptualized a batch of new songs that largely touch down in the more experimental outlands of bluegrass, Americana and folk, though Look Closer’s title track nods to his affection for modern jazz, especially Pat Metheny Group’s breakthrough album, 80/81. He distributed demos of the emerging compositions as homework for the collective, then booked time over Independence Day weekend to lay down those new tracks. Despite being masked up, and with plastic dividers between them, the assembled musicians immediately found a liberating groove.

“The minute we were all in the room, there was a joyful feeling,” Mailander says. “That’s what made it onto the record more than anything.”

Though he’s worked with many marquee acoustic players— including Billy Strings, Molly Tuttle and Sierra Hull— Mailander’s highest profile gig is with Bruce Hornsby’s Noisemakers. He admits that his tenure with Hornsby has led him to reconsider something he found quite intimidating— leading a group of his own. “Anything that scary is probably worth doing.”

Produced by Mailander and engineered and mixed by Daniel Rice, Look Closer is a mostly instrumental, multi[1]genre journey. Segueing between pieces, the album seductively induces the feel of a live show, equally balancing conspicuous arrangements with a palpable freedom of expression. “We tried to make an environment where anyone could suggest an idea and we were game to give it a try,” Mailander says. “Everybody in the group had an impact.”