“What I really want to know/Are you with me/All the way?” “All the Way”
He’s humble, self-effacing and soft-spoken. But once L.A. native Aaron McLain straps on his electric guitar and takes the stage, suddenly he’s a god, a true rock & roll hero, channeling some of his favorite influences—Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eddie Van Halen—singing soulfully like John Mayer, David Bowie or Seal.
It’s an amazing transformation for someone who has traveled the world playing guitar for the likes of Marc Anthony—his current gig—as well as Tears for Fears singer Oleta Adams, Patti LaBelle and Ronnie Laws, among others.
“Music is a way of expressing my deepest self,” says McLain, who started playing guitar when he was eight. “I feel I can let people see who I really am more through a song. Especially when I’m performing it. That’s like the inner core coming out. And if I don’t let it all out, it’s not real. That requires me to be vulnerable.”
In songs like the yearning “Annaka,” the urgent “Pictures,” the Bowie-like “It’s Not Your Fault,” or the anguished “Wish,” Aaron’s a heightened romantic who lets his guitar do the talking, carving out a sacred space where he bypasses the brain to touch the heart.
“Playing guitar and making music is when I’m most comfortable,” he says. “I try to paint a perfect picture, an idealized situation.”
McLain has been working to create that sacred space since he was a youngster being raised by his mom, and grandparents in the desert of L.A.’s Antelope Valley, hearing the strains of K.C. & the Sunshine Band and Sly & the Family Stone coming out of his grandmother’s backyard radio.
“I remember my cousin had this old Fender guitar with maybe one string on it,” he reminisces. “I got some wire from the garage and made it into a makeshift strap. Everytime I saw a guitar, I would gravitate toward it.”
His father, living in Arizona at the time, gave his brother an acoustic guitar and Aaron a camera. “My brother was so cool,” laughs Aaron. “He told dad that I always wanted to play guitar and gave me his.”
McLain proceeded to teach himself how to play, using a Mel Bay instructional booklet before taking lessons. When he was 12, he played his first gig at a Boy Scouts ceremony with his brother on bass, covering a couple of Van Halen tunes. He’s already shows his allegiance to his favorite music by dressing up one Halloween as Kiss’ Ace Frehley.
“I was just drawn to rock, because of the guitar,” he explains. “I was into Zeppelin, Bowie, Queen, AC/DC, things like that. Of course, being an African-American, it was a little strange. But I stuck to my guns. I was into skateboarding, boogie-boarding and rock & roll and I wasn’t turning back, no matter what anyone said.”
After graduating high school, Aaron enrolled in the famed Dick Grove School of Music, where he got a quick education into what it took to make a living as a musician.
“I quickly realized I was in over my head, but I wanted to get as much knowledge as I could,” he says. “I met some really cool cats who helped me out quite a bit.”
He immediately became a sought-after session guitarist playing with much more experienced colleagues, which put even more pressure on him.
Realizing early on, if he wanted to make it on his own, he’d need his own home studio, he gradually built up his recording facilities until he now has a 32-channel digital board, several PCs, a number of keyboards and 25 guitars.
“When I do other people’s gigs, I feel a little torn,” Aaron admits. “I try to do my job well, but knowing I have so much more to offer, that I have these songs, gives me this drive to make this happen for my own sanity, happiness and sense of fulfillment.”
Aaron’s music is about that place where he has complete creative freedom. In “It’s Not Your Fault,” he calls out, “As I reach my hand out/Can you please understand me?,” a sentiment that could be directed at a lover… or his audience. In the acoustic intro to “Wish,” he calls out, “Wish I could be like you/Wish I could say I don’t care/But you’ve got the advantage on me/Because you know I do.” That emotion emerges in a wrenching, climactic guitar solo that reflects Aaron’s own sense of heightened passion.
“I write from my own experience, and hope people can relate to where I’m coming from,” he says. “The solos aren’t just running off a bunch of notes. They’re just as important as the words, and always tied in to the melody. And live, I like to take it to another level, burn it up.”
As unassuming as he is away from the spotlight, when Aaron McLain hits the stage, his music slams you like a punch to the solar plexis. “I believe my music is universal, and my goal right now is to get out there and play in front of as many people as will have me. I’m looking for the place where I can put my two feet on the ground and say, ‘I like it here!’”
“Music is completely color-blind for me,” he says. “When you close your eyes, you can’t see who’s playing. When you hear my songs, you can’t tell if I’m black or white. It doesn’t matter, it shouldn’t matter and it never should have mattered.”
Although he has played for 20,000 in Madison Square Garden with Marc Anthony, Aaron McLain is every bit as intense in front of a crowd of 100 at one of his local club gigs. “He lets me do my own thing and not many people would,” says Aaron of the Latin star. “He can bring tears to your eyes when he’s doing salsa. I’ve been blessed to play with some people with real talent, who don’t hide behind any gimmicks.”
As he sings, with a Prince-like falsetto and a churning guitar in “Passing By”: “I’m just passing by/To see if I could get close to you.”
Get next to Aaron McLain now. It’s going to get pretty crowded around him soon.
Written by Roy Trakin