“I’m a pretty sentimental guy,” says Andrew Neil Maternick as he settles in to a rust-colored tweed recliner that belonged to his grandmother. With a gentle hand and a look of delight on his broad face, he lifts up the woolly fabric of the armrest to show off the retro design of the chair’s buttons and dials. “Pretty cool, huh?”
He loves this chair, he says. Maybe he’ll write a jingle about it for La-Z-Boy. He’d like to write a jingle for any company, really—“Beautiful Mess,” a song from his new album, Merry Go Round, might work for Swiffer, or maybe Bounty, he jokes. The song is about seeking out beauty in an increasingly messy world, but it could apply to paper towels too, he says with a grin. “Why not?”
Maternick, 30, knows how to write a catchy song, but he’s not quite sure how he got so good. Growing up in Northern Virginia, he took a handful of guitar lessons, but his interest in the instrument was a fleeting one. Though he occasionally made up songs with his younger brother, Kyle, music was hardly Maternick’s focus—a highly competitive athlete, he was recruited by West Point to play Division I lacrosse. Even after withdrawing from the academy to deal with some mental health issues, he still planned on a career in the U.S. Marine Corps.
In April 2009, a car accident resulting in a traumatic brain injury derailed that dream. “A lot of doors…closed,” Maternick says about that period in his life. He’d been struggling with anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder.
Not long after the accident, he started writing songs. At first, he composed on a keyboard, then picked up a guitar again in spring 2010. He spent a lot of time filling spiral-bound notebooks with poetry and sleeping on the floor.
“I vividly remember that,” says Maternick’s father, Ray. “I was really upset.” Ray kept telling his son to “get a real job,” and he would look at him and say, “But, I’m an artist.”
“Are you kidding me? You’re not a musician; you’re not an artist. You never trained for this,” Ray would retort, refusing to listen to the songs.
Over the next few years, Maternick had a number of psychotic episodes. During one in July 2013, he stabbed Kyle in the forearm with a kitchen knife, “thinking he was an impostor in an armored suit,” Maternick writes in the liner notes to his 2017 album, Code Purple. “I wanted to cut him out.”
His mother called the police, and he was charged with malicious wounding, resisting arrest, and assault on a police officer. After a short hospitalization at Western State Hospital in Staunton, Maternick spent a few months in a jail cell before he was found not guilty by reason of insanity, and committed to Western State for a three-year stay.
While at Western State, Maternick, who is an entirely self-taught musician and doesn’t compose using standard chords, continued writing songs, tracking them to an old battery-powered TASCAM tape recorder. He gave them to his parents when they visited.
From those recordings, Ray, who had long resisted both listening to his son’s music and acknowledging his mental illness, began to hear what Maternick had to say in his lyrics.
“He changed me,” says Ray. “I used to be slightly to the right of Genghis Khan. And he made me see things that I never saw before. He made me begin to see compassion. He made me begin to see what value people have, no matter what they’re thinking, what their color is, anything. He ingrained that in me with his music.”
The music also helped his son find himself, to rediscover his identity after thinking it gone for so long. “It’s truth flowing out of me,” Maternick says.
He left Western State in spring 2017, and around the same time released his debut record, Code Purple. The songs confront isolation and loneliness, mental illness and recovery, pain and ugliness, and how important it is to see that as a truth that people experience.
Since then, Maternick’s moved into a group house and has become a regular at The Local restaurant’s open mic night. He’s written hundreds more songs, some of which made it on to his second record and first studio album, Merry Go Round, released earlier this month.
The new songs are happy-go-lucky (“In the Air”), political (“Divide and Conquer”), contemplative (“Sorry Kyle”), encouraging (“Merry Go Round”). Maternick says that every feeling is a different type of ink that wells in the heart, and he used a wider variety of inks on the new record. Code Purple was mostly written in the ink of pain, and the contrast between the two albums is palpable.
Maternick chalks it up to the fact that Code Purple was very much a solo effort, and Merry Go Round, produced at Ravensworth studios in Scottsville by Andy Waldeck, features a full band comprised of Waldeck on bass and electric guitar, Nathan Brown on drums, Gina Sobel on flute, and Jack Sheehan on saxophone. The songs are Maternick’s, but he no longer played them alone.
“I wish you could know me now that I know me,” he sings on “I Wish.” The song outlines what Maternick considers his next big step: “I’ve got to be brave enough to make connections again with those people, to let them know me again,” he says, “It takes bravery, reaching out, loving people, reaching out again.”
Maternick says that music saved his life, mended his relationship with his family, gave him “a dream to pursue, and a way to contribute,” and he’s eager to see where it leads him.
A while back, he wrote the lyric, “Music makes a difference in this Jell-O world,” insisting that through music, we can find community in an uncertain, shaky place.
“I definitely believe in some sort of fate,” Maternick says. “It was very painful, my life. But I’m very happy that this has been the result of some of it. Some of the most beautiful trees are the ones that have been hit by lightning and they still manage to grow back.”
Andrew Neil Maternick celebrates his new album, Merry Go Round, with a show at The Front Porch on Friday, October 19.