John McAndrew


Singer/songwriter, piano player & storyteller


John McAndrew takes us on a musical journey from self-centeredness to humility, using stories and songs. This journey is a long and difficult one, and an important one in recovery.  His composition,”Like We Were Made Of Gold” was performed for the closing ceremony of the 2000 AA International in Mpls,Mn.  John’s music touches the heart, and then opens our eye’s and minds to the possibility’s in recovery.

John’s presentations have been a large part of many Conferences, Schools, and National Events across the Country.  The effects are long lasting and profound.

Here are some quotes about John’s Music:

“John McAndrew plays to the heart and soul of all of us”
William Moyers- Hazelden Foundation

“John McAndrew reminds me of the early days of Billy Joel, when people sat at the piano bar, putting bread into his jar, saying, “man, what are you doin’ here?!”- He is simply great at the piano, and has a voice that can light you up.”– Billy Powell (Keyboard Player, Lynyrd Skynyrd) Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee

“If You Can’t Forgive is a beautifully written song sung in a wonderfully jagged and soulful voice by a man who can make you believe in the redemptive power of music.” –John Hiatt


“Music and the Brain in Recovery”

There is excitement in the air, it is Wednesday afternoon at Cumberland Heights in Nashville,TN. I get to go there once a month and do a presentation called, “Spiritual Emphasis Day”. There are musical instruments up on the stage,and my piano and my guitar. There will be stories told today, and songs played , and of course some other wonderful things happening, There is buzz about the patients playing later today. They will have a chance to play, sing, recite poetry, tell jokes, laugh, cry, and love one another. It kind of a “Recovery Talent Show”

It all sounds like fun and games, but something spiritual and magical happens every time!

Music,and the creative Arts in general, do something very powerful to all people, but especially to those in Recovery. And when they get up in front of a crowd, and reach out to them, and the audience reaches back, something special happens. This is a chance for them to play for others and to stand with their friends and recover together. Fears are sometimes overcome, and dreams come true all in a few minutes.

So what is really happening?

Here is what we know, and what the science and research shows:

Music is able to create an incredibly pleasurable experience that can be described as “chills”. A scientific study in 2001 measured changes in cerebral blood flow while participants listened to music that they knew to give them the “chills” or any sort of intensely pleasant emotional response. They found that as these chills increase, many changes in cerebral blood flow are seen in brain regions such as the amygdala, orbitofrontal cortex, ventral striatum, midbrain, and the ventral medial prefrontal cortex.
Many of these areas appear to be linked to reward and motivation, emotion and arousal and are also activated in other pleasurable situations. All these parts of the brain are activated, and known to be involved in both music related emotions, as well as rhythmic timing. In other words contrary to older beliefs, the whole brain is stimulated, not just certain auditory receptors in the brain.
Emotions induced by music activate similar frontal brain regions compared to emotions elicited by other stimuli. Joyful and happy musical segments were associated with increases in left frontal EEG activity whereas fearful and sad musical segments were associated with increases in right frontal EEG activity. Additionally, the intensity of emotions was differentiated by the pattern of overall frontal EEG activity. Overall frontal region activity increased as affective musical stimuli became more intense.

All this science makes sense when we can see it and feel it. I’ve seen it happen on a daily basis in Recovery Settings. Days when recovering people laugh, cry, sings and dance all in one day. I firmly believe that music and spirituality are connected, and that perhaps the “God experience” happens as much in our brain as it does in our “heart and soul”.

The Journey

It was a lesson long in learning, but singer-songwriter John McAndrew eventually figured out to let the music lead him.  In the depths of his disease, before he found recovery, it was there. Through the ruined shows and blackout drives and performances that were not an accurate reflection of his immeasurable talent, it remained by his side. And when he emerged from the fog, determined to remain on the straight and narrow, it was with him still.  In fact, McAndrew said, every good thing about his music career followed in the wake of his decision to try a new way of life.

“I was several years on my new path, and I played for an international event in Minneapolis in 2000, I met a man named Ernie Larson, who heard me sing that day, and they were both life-changing events — singing there, and meeting Ernie, who started to mentor me and take me places. Both of those things really changed the trajectory of my career and really changed what I sang about.

“He started taking me to different events he spoke at, to sing and talk about God’s grace. Soon after, I got my first record and publishing deal with Muscle Shoals Studio’s in Alabama, and I started coming to Nashville more. I was eventually invited to come and sing at Cumberland Heights, and eventually, because of my work with other treatment centers and with other people on this journey, I was asked to come on board full time four years ago to help run the music therapy programs.  “It was just a natural fit,” he added. “I believe we’re given uniforms by a Higher Power to do what we’re supposed to do, and this is what I’m supposed to do.”

McAndrew taught himself to play the piano in the basement of his family’s Minnesota home, and by the time he was 20, he was adept enough at it — along with saxophone, harmonica, guitar and flute — that he earned a spot in a neighborhood band. When the singer’s voice gave out, he asked McAndrew to take over on vocals, and his time in the spotlight lit a fire within him, he said.  “I remember that I got up and sang one of his songs, and I looked up, and one of my older brother Emil was standing there with tears in his eyes,” he said. “I remember thinking, ‘This looks like a good way to get attention.’ That night kind of changed things.”

Shortly thereafter, a snowblower mishap injured his right hand, and the only instrument he could play now was the piano, which became his primary vehicle from that point forward. Music was in his genes; his father, after World War II, took his clarinet skills (in the Pacific theater, the elder McAndrew played alongside Hugh “Mr. Green Jeans” Brannum and the future music director for TV host Ed Sullivan) and later briefly joined jazzman Stan Kenton’s Orchestra, playing up and down the West Coast. McAndrew developed an ear for the jazz that was on the family turntable, and he remembers musician friends of his father always coming over to jam.  “And then my older brother played bass in a Country-rock band called “North Country” that was successful regionally, and those two influenced me a lot,” he said.

As a pianist, singer and budding songwriter, he enjoyed membership in regional country-rock bands for the next several years, working odd jobs during the day and performing at night.   “I didn’t practice very much at anything except drinking, though, and by the time I was 29, it all crumbled down,” McAndrew said.

McAndrew’s love affair with booze was immediate, from the time he first picked it up at 14. There was no slow buildup to full-blown alcoholism, he said, given his genetic background and his own proclivity for spirits.  “I immediately got really drunk every time I touched it,” he said. “It made me more comfortable to make a fool out of myself, which was the thing to do when you’re Irish and hanging around other people who drink. By the time I was 19, it was daily drinking, especially when I got out of high school and went to college.”

Around the same time, he was hospitalized and diagnosed with Type I Diabetes; concerned with the mild withdrawal symptoms he saw in his patient, McAndrew’s doctor suggested he cut back on his drinking. McAndrew had other ideas.  “I remember at that point thinking, ‘Screw it; I’m gonna die anyways, so I’m gonna go out in a blaze of glory,’” he said. “That lasted about 10 years, and then I found cocaine … there were needles around, because I was a diabetic … I did all of it.”  His music suffered because of it. Shows would become shambling train wrecks, with McAndrew showing up late, forgetting words to songs or walking off in the middle of a set.

One fateful night after a gig in South St. Paul, he remembers coming out of a blackout and wanting to and wanting to die.  “I got in my car, grabbed ahold of the steering wheel, closed my eyes and started driving across this freeway,” he said. “I did that all the way home, screaming and crying and hoping to get hit by something.”  He made it home, and when he walked into the kitchen, his wife made a simple observation: “You’re dying,” she said. ‘You’ve got to get some help. He remembers crying out, “God help me.” He picked up the phone, and made an appointment to talk to somebody.

“I went in and did the assessment, and I was going to have to wait a couple of months to get into a 21-day partial hospitalization program due to my work schedule” “The guy who did the assessment said, ‘Can you quit drinking by yourself until then?’ And I said, with all honesty and in my Minnesota accent, ‘You betcha!’   I stayed sober on my own for a very short period of time, but the last few weeks and months of my drinking were terrible,I got alcohol poisoning, I was suicidal, then I started my new journey.

As a musician, McAndrew has transitioned from playing late-night shows in bars to patrons asking for “Piano Man” for the sixth time that evening to playing solo piano in private clubs and listening rooms, and now to enthusiasts who appreciate the nuance of his abilities and his between-song storytelling.  His recovery-centric songwriting has led to an exclusive inspirational website, In This Hour; there are plans to add a podcast as well.

All along the way, music has continued to open doors put in place by his Higher Power. McAndrew has simply tried to get out of the way and follow that path.

“It’s an incredible journey,” he said. “In the rearview mirror, we start to see God working in our lives, even when we don’t know it.

John’s music and presentations have been featured regularly at many facilities, conferences, schools and national events across the country, including:

The Betty Ford Center , Palm Springs, Ca.
Hazelden, Center City, Mn.
Cumberland Heights, Nashville, Tn
The TASA Summit, Nashville,Tn.
Cirque Lodge, Sundance, Utah.

Visit John McAndrew Website for latest News, Events and Releases!

Leave a reply