Scott McCormick likes to talk about the time that Denver musician Sawmill Joe almost cut off his own finger.
“He had a big show opening for the Lumineers, and after the accident, he essentially re-taught himself to play,” he says. “He played three days after it happened, or so the legend goes.”
McCormick speaks of this incident not because gore fascinates him; instead, he likens it to his life and draws a parallel about how such incidents cannot stop someone’s creative drive.
“If what you do is being creative, nothing’s gonna stop you,” he says. “If it was as simple as me cutting my leg off, I would have inevitably found this path.”
For McCormick, the journey from being a touring musician in Boulder Acoustic Society to being an award-winning photographer and designer was not as simple as a severed limb. He essentially started over.
McCormick’s decision to switch art forms is surprising, given that he was groomed as a child to be a professional musician. Growing up in the suburb of Waukegan, Illinois, he found an early mentor in Chicago.
Tony Small, now the regional artistic director for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington, took a liking to McCormick at an early age.
“He started teaching me piano when I was ten years old,” McCormick says. “He’s maintained this really important role throughout my life. He’s always been a mentor and father figure.”
Small would teach songs to McCormick and occasionally invite him to sit in and play at a South Side church. One day, Small couldn’t make it, so the church asked McCormick to give it a go.
“I learned the tunes from him, and they loved them,” McCormick says. “They told me I could come back anytime, and Tony said that was good, because he didn’t want to play there anymore. He didn’t teach me any other songs, though, so I showed up the next week with the same songs. Luckily, they were a church, so they forgave me.”
McCormick began playing regular gigs with other musicians around Chicago as his desire to perform live grew. He was so entranced with the experience of playing and booking gigs that it would affect his ability to study music at the highest level.
He enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater in pursuit of a degree in music education. Still more interested in being a professional musician, he quickly found that he didn’t fit in.
“It wasn’t necessarily that I got bored with it. It was a mutual understanding that I didn’t belong there,” he recalls. “It wasn’t like they wanted me to leave, but if you talk to any teacher there, I really had no business there. I was too busy trying to learn how to gig and figure out the world. I don’t think that’s bad; some people just weren’t meant for school. I just couldn’t fake it anymore.”
While his time at Whitewater was sobering, it also proved beneficial, as he met future Boulder Acoustic Society bandmate Aaron Keim there.
“He was the first guy I met at orientation,” McCormick remembers. “I hated him. I thought he was a nerd.”
First impressions aside, the two bonded over their love of folk music and started playing together. Around the same time that McCormick was quitting school, Keim moved to Boulder. After a few months, he called McCormick and asked if he’d be willing to fly out and help his newly formed band, Boulder Acoustic Society, with some piano and accordion for a recording session.
“At the time, I wanted to get out of [Wisconsin] anyway, so later, when they asked me to join the band, I said, ‘Why the fuck not?’’’ he says.
In 2005, McCormick and his then-wife moved to Denver, where his initiation was short-lived: He soon found himself on the road with the band for upwards of 100 days a year.
“I loved playing in the band and touring,” he says. “But I was always uncomfortable with the performance aspect. To be in the limelight wasn’t something I craved. It made me so nervous that I most certainly drank too much.”
Boulder Acoustic Society went through a few different lineup changes, eventually adding drummer Scott Aller and bassist Neil McCormick (no relation) while continuing its fevered pace. The lifestyle wore on McCormick and his relationships; he and his wife soon separated.
“I started to feel like I was in a Georges Méliès movie,” he says, “like there were a couple of guys with a crank changing the set to make it seem like we were moving forward. Everything was just recycling itself. I wish I could have cherished more of that, but it always felt like the world was playing a trick on me.”
McCormick was reticent to explain his feelings to his bandmates, fearing he would disappoint them. Eventually, though, he learned that he wasn’t alone in his thoughts.
“Someone in the band brought up that maybe we should stop playing, and I think we were equally surprised that we were all feeling essentially the same way,” he says. “I was like, ‘I didn’t know we could do that!’”
McCormick tried to focus on fulfilling some songwriting work that he had picked up over the years, writing music for various companies including Toyota, ESPN and Disney. But with the dissolution of his band, the separation from his wife and the passing of his mother, he found it understandably difficult to focus on that task and instead began to “self-sabotage.”
“Every time I had to write for Disney, I would go to John Macy’s studio, and I just had to be drunk,” he remembers. “I couldn’t convince myself that I could do that kind of shit without being smashed. John was one of Denver’s finest engineers, and I would essentially just go in and spit on his floor. I felt the whole thing was disrespectful.”
After an argument with the powers-that-be over a Toyota contract valued at roughly six million dollars, McCormick was told that his services were no longer needed.
“The possibility of having that amount of money made me a nutcase,” he says. “I was just no good. I thought, ‘Is that what this is gonna end up being? I’m gonna be a weirdo that no one wants to be around for some stupid soundscapes and jingles?’ I tried real hard, and then I failed real hard.”
It was at this point that McCormick recoiled, shying away from most of his friends, packing up his belongings and living for a stretch in Cheesman Park. “The band begrudgingly let me have the van for a bit, even though they told me not to live in it,” he says. “I slept in it from time to time.”
Having his figurative musical leg cut off, he eventually decided it was time to refocus. While Boulder Acoustic Society was winding down, McCormick became fascinated with photography and design. He had always dabbled in those art forms, but now he decided to take them seriously. With no real home base, he would take his laptop to Tom’s Diner on Colfax, drink coffee and watch YouTube videos and tutorials about design. Teaching himself a new craft took time, but time was something he had in abundance.
While no longer playing in a band himself, McCormick still knew musicians and understood that band photos and album design were in high demand. He began to reach out to his musical community, doing pro bono and discounted work for artists like John Common, Glowing House and Coles Whalen.
His skills and client list both grew exponentially, until he was designing album covers and taking photos for such notable acts as Trout Steak Revival, Gregory Alan Isakov, Paper Bird and the Infamous Stringdusters. A cover he designed for the Stringdusters’ Ladies & Gentlemen album netted him an award for Best Graphic Design for Recorded Project in 2016 from the International Bluegrass Music Association.
McCormick’s focus on his new craft allowed him to reset his life and approach it with fervor and balance. He eventually moved away from the frigid air of Cheesman Park and recently bought a home with a design studio.
While he still looks back on his music days with fondness, he is excited about learning on his new path.
“When it came to music, my arrogance was exploding through every note I played,” he says. “I was trying to simplify something as magical as music, and that’s not fair to music. By the time I realized that, I was so far gone that I needed a break. With photography, I learn and explore every single day. You can look at the world or you can see the world. Seeing the world with photography brings you into a whole other realm of things that are directly in front of you.”
While he insists that he’s finished with music, it occasionally lures him back.
In May 2017, Boulder Acoustic Society decided to play a reunion show at Syntax Physic Opera. Reunited on stage with Aller, Neil McCormick and Keim, McCormick appeared relaxed and jovial, and he smiled throughout.
“The entire room naturally carried a light of remembrance that pulled the energy back in time some ten years,” he says. “I’m not sad or dismissive about the music I played. I loved playing music. Boulder Acoustic Society brought me every person I’ve met. It brought wonderful times; it’s really incredible. Every single step of that venture brought me this happiness.”
Learn more about Scott McCormick’s work at mccormickphotos.com.