How heartbreak and horror films led to the release of Mike McGraner's debut

Andy Downing
Mike McGraner

It’s clear just moments into Hearts Will Break: Part One that musician Mike McGraner has been shattered.

“Standing alone,” he sings, a wash of funereal keyboards making it sound as if he’s perched on the edge of existence, “I’ve lost someone.”

The songs that follow find McGraner reveling in despondence, regret and anger, singing: “Lost is how I felt/Two years of hell and loneliness”; “Our story ends with broken hearts”; “I gave you the best of me … and now there’s an empty space.”

“I was driving Fritz home one night, and Fritz is 84 years old,” said McGraner of Fritz the Nite Owl, for whom he has long served as a director and producer, “and he saw I was not myself and said something that kicked me in the chest. His wife had passed away, and he said, ‘The difference between what you’re grieving for and what I’m grieving for is my wife is gone and your ex is still alive, so it’s harder for you knowing … that they’re still here but they don’t want you in their life anymore.”

On the album, brief flashes of happiness arise only when the musician reflects on shared moments of joy with his former partner, which eventually couldn’t mask the poisonous nature of the short-but-intense, off-and-on relationship of two years. Even album closer “Anchors” introduces little in the way of hope, serving as an endpoint — “I’ll say goodbye to you” are the final words McGraner sings — and setting the stage for the more optimistic Part Two, which McGraner is currently recording.

Throughout, McGraner doesn’t shy from big emotions or big musical flourishes; he cites both Meatloaf collaborator Jim Steinman and 1980s power ballads as musical touchstones. And yet the release of Hearts Will Break — the first for McGraner, who has been writing songs since he was a teenager and is now in his 30s — was fraught with hesitation. The musician said were it not for a chance conversation with actress Adrienne King, who starred as Alice in the 1980 version of “Friday the 13th,” he might still be tinkering with this batch of songs.

“For Nite Owl, we did ‘Friday the 13th,’ and I flew in Adrienne King, and I was her wheels for four days,” said McGraner, who will serve a pair of “Twin Peaks” actors in a similar capacity this weekend, including Ray Wise, a native of Akron, Ohio. “We went to Yellow Springs and had time to talk and she said, ‘I see on Facebook you’re a musician. … Play me something.'”

After some brief hemming and hawing, McGraner queued up a batch of demos, including an early version of album track “The Last Night of Our Lives.”

“Which she really loved and said, ‘Can I take that home?’” McGraner said. “Two weeks later I get an email from a woman in Santa Monica, and it said, ‘I’ve been a music agent for 19 years. Adrienne’s my best friend and she played me this song. Send me more.’”

Within a matter of weeks, McGraner had inked a deal, and now the album is set to be released on Friday, July 19. (While there are no local concerts currently scheduled, McGraner said he hopes to put together a band to perform live in the coming months.)

Having completed Hearts Will Break, McGraner said he has finally moved beyond the despair that marked its creation. He’s also hopeful others will find similar solace in the music.

“Getting through this and finishing the album brought a joy back that hadn’t been there in a while. … It’s melodramatic, but it’s all very real. Exposing yourself feels like, ‘Am I going too far? Am I being too truthful? Is this too much?’” McGraner said. “But if there are other people out there going through the same thing, it’s important to me that somebody can at least go, ‘OK, I’m not alone.’”