Mario McLean has been a fixture of the Columbia music and arts scene since his first high school band in 2007. Through groups such as Full Color Footage, solo gigs, and projects including Pillars, his 2018 electro-pop release with Tyler Digital, his singular voice and commanding stage presence on both piano and guitar were well-known, combining pop sheen with emotional depth and stellar songwriting.
Last month, McLean moved to Chicago, a big step he says wasn’t done on a whim.
“I was ready to take a chance on a bigger city,” the 30-year-old tells Free Times. “I had been to Chicago before and really liked it. What I’m finding is that there are a lot of people here really interested in the arts and local performers of all kinds.”
It’s a much different scene than Columbia, he admits.
“What was cool about Columbia was that the circles of musicians are so small that once you get into a couple of them, everyone else is in the same circles,” McClean says. “People know what you do, and they find you. It’s a much bigger network here, and it is tough starting all over again.”
In Chicago, there are a lot more people — 2.7 million more, to be more specific — who can support art and artists, so his eventual goal of supporting himself playing music is much more attainable.
As for the colder weather in his famously windy new home, McLean has some history in northern states.
“My dad was in the army, he retired at Fort Jackson is how we wound up in South Carolina, but I lived in Colorado and New York as a kid,” he recalls. “I didn’t have to function there as an adult, though, so we’ll see how it goes this winter.”
McLean is continuing his long-standing food service and cafe work in Chicago while he dips his toes into the local music scene. At a recent open mic night appearance at a venue called Uncommon Ground, McLean tied for first place, much to his surprise.
“I didn’t know it was kind of a competition, honestly,” McLean says. “But it was a friendly one and a fun way to meet some music people.”
That optimism pushes McLean forward in this new adventure.
“The opportunities are out here, definitely,” McLean says. “Now it’s all about getting myself out there and seeing what happens.”
One thing he won’t be attempting in Chicago is theater, at least for now. In Columbia he participated in the stage production of The Restoration’s Constance at Trustus Theatre in 2018, and more recently was in the cast for the musical Memphis at Trustus back in July. But he’s hesitant to continue that pursuit in his new home.
“I love doing theater, but it was kind of an accident, something I was encouraged to do by others,” McLean says. “For now, music is going to be my only artistic focus.”
If his more recent recordings are any indication, he’ll make a mark up north, as well. McLean’s voice has always been there, but the newer songs on his 2019 EP LEARN, such as the now prescient “Restart,” are more adventurous with their production, echoing Seal or David Ryan Harris in texture and gravity.
McClean returns to Columbia this week to appear at the Downtown Musicfest at the Downtown Church, a place that was important in his musical life for several years, allowing him to play alongside musicians that were a big part of his artistic growth.
“I’ve been playing at Downtown Church off and on for the past five years at services.” McClean offers. “It’s a very open, accepting, progressive church family, and the house band they usually keep together includes talented musicians like Sean Thomson.
“I liked it because you’re always performing to a crowd that’s listening, and I was learning different songs every week that I’d never heard before. Plus, it beat trying to be heard in a crowded bar.”
What: Downtown Musicfest
Where: Downtown Church, 2030 Gregg St.
When: Friday, Sept. 27, 5:30-10 p.m.
With: The DTC Band with Mario McClean, Liver Puddin’, The Runout, Jordan Igoe