AUSTIN — He's up at 5 every weekday morning, talking politics on national TV. But Joe Scarborough has spent many recent nights working on a different dream altogether.
The host of the cable newser's Morning Joe program strummed and sang during two weekend showcases at South by Southwest with his surprisingly expansive 8-piece band. Dubbed Morning Joe Music for maximum recognition value, the group made its Austin debut Friday night before a few hundred folks at ACL Live at Moody Theater. Scarborough's MSNBC co-host, Mika Brzezinski, stood front-row center, FaceTiming the show to friends and cheering on her TV partner at every turn.
After the set, I checked in with the man of the hour, an outspoken and often polarizing political commentator who previously served seven years in the U.S. House of Representatives for Florida's 1st District. Donning a t-shirt, sipping sweet tea and grinning from ear to ear, Scarborough jokingly acknowledged the "vanity project" label slapped on many celebrity bands.
"The thing is, there's no upside for me. I can only get my head kicked in," Scarborough said. "I mean, John McEnroe has a band. Everybody has a band.
"But I've been writing songs since I was 13 or 14, and music has been in my life forever."
Indeed, the 52-year-old remembers falling hard for tunes by the Beach Boys and Elton John as a kid. And once he discovered the Beatles' body of work in middle school — the "Blue" 1967-70 compilation to be exact — he was hooked.
"Until freshman year in college, I just bought Beatles records and bootlegs, whatever I could find."
He wrote songs hoping to emulate his role models, expanding his tastes to provocateurs like Elvis Costello and David Bowie. The Bowie love could be detected at the show on Friday, in Scarborough's lower-register vocal stylings.
"I talked to my son, who is also a huge Bowie fan, after Bowie died. I said to him about our regular Upper West Side gig, 'It's a shame I can't sing Bowie songs as a tribute — I think there's a law in New York State that if you are a Republican, you can't do 'Space Oddity.'
"My son said, 'Dad, he's the only f---in' rock star who is a baritone! He's the first person you should be covering!'"
So he added "Space Oddity" to Morning Joe Music's New York residency set list, otherwise made up of songs Scarborough had penned himself over the years.
His self-described "midlife crisis" began with a moment of clarity after turning 50.
"I'd always just worked, worked, worked, and turned 50, and realized [music] was all I'd ever wanted to do my whole life," he said.
"I'd been a football coach, I'd been in Congress, I'd done TV, I'd done all these jobs that most people would be happy about. But I always considered myself a loser because I never, at 17, threw it all in a van and went across the country."
He did some self recording on Pro Tools, playing all the instruments except drums.
"After about 12 songs I was like, "This is sounding great and I'm loving it, but I want to play with a band. It's kind of a bummer to finish a song and not have anybody go, 'Ahhh, it sounds pretty good!'"
Scarborough said his bandmates' skill has made his experience unexpectedly smooth.
"A band is more complicated than a marriage. There can be no power moves, nobody can step on anybody or it ruins the whole thing," he said. "But with this, everybody loves everybody. It's like nothing I've ever seen. There are no egos."
It's interesting to witness the post-show afterglow vibes from a TV personality often under fire for his brash confidence and forcefulness when debating issues. But just as he knows a muscular band can boost his tunes, he knows heated back-and-forth makes for great TV.
Take his often misunderstood relationship with Brzezinski. "Mika and I have this partnership where, on TV, a lot of times people ask why we're being so hard on each other," Scarborough said. "But we're basically each other's producer in everything. I know after playing a show if it went well or if it didn't. Mika will tell me."
They've covered and been enmeshed in plenty of turmoil in an increasingly discourteous Presidential election cycle. Scarborough says he's feeling somewhat fatigued by it all. He's as disappointed with where the national conversation has moved as anyone.
"This year is so ugly," he said. "When Obama ran — I'm a Republican, but that was still uplifting. Obama and Hillary had this remarkable run. Republican side, pretty good race too. But you could tell it was history, it was uplifting."
"This year has been so depressing, I just love getting to play and practice music, just getting away from it all."
That doesn't mean Scarborough is anywhere near hanging up his Morning Joe hat. He will be back at the table with Brzezinski after his SXSW spring break.
Morning Joe Music might not achieve the cultural ubiquity or influence of Scarborough's childhood rock heroes, but it gives him a respite. Even if it wrecks his sleeping schedule.