Above Mark Growden performs “I’m Your Man” (a Leonard Cohen cover) from his new, as-yet-to-be-released album Saint Judas. This just released video playing live with his quartet was recorded in July at The Red Poppy Art House in San Francisco.
He’s been a fixture in the San Francisco music scene for more than a decade, who has shown his musical versatility as a singer/composer who plays banjo, guitar, accordion, sax, and just about anything else he decides to pick up.
With his upcoming album, assisted by his long time band and a top notch producer, plus a renewed focus on touring, Mark looks set to increase his national reputation in the very near future.
I talked to Mark recently about his new CD, the show he’s playing this Friday to celebrate its release, his influences, his instruments, and how & when he writes songs.
A lot of great stuff, click the link below for the whole interview.
photo by Helena Price
Q: For those who aren’t familiar with your work, maybe you can give some reference points: who are some of your musical heroes? Who inspires you to do what you do?
They are completely different styles, from completely different contexts, but all have a similarity that I like to call “beastly transcendence” (I stole that term from Leonard Bernstein – I heard him refer to Le Sacre du Printemp that way). All three musics have an aspect of a deep ugliness and soulful, raw, and visceral expression to them, but at the same time they are jaw-droppingly transcendent and stunningly beautiful. They have informed my basic expressionistic approach to music. But I’ll add, that over the past few years I’ve really mellowed and I’ve gotten deeper into artists who tend to be more understated like Debussy, Ravel, and Miles Davis.
My musical heroes. Here’s the big list (in addition to those above): Claude Debussy, Eric Dolphy, Miles Davis, Maurice Ravel, Charles Mingus, Amalia Rodriguez, Diamanda Galas, Erik Satie, Aaron Copeland, Meredith Monk, Al Green, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, David Bowie, Howlin’ Wolf, Joni Mitchell, Elizabeth Fraser, Tom Waits, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Hildegard von Bingen, and Steve Reich.
All these musicians have had a tremendous impact on the way I make music.
But who or what inspires me to do what I do? Really, I do it because it’s what I do. I feel called to do it. It’s a service thing. It’s my duty. I tried stopping for a few years, but it became absolutely clear that I needed to use my gifts in music to serve the bigger picture.
photo by William N.
Q: Your music is dramatic, pulling in a wide range of musical styles from song to song, but not limited by any of those influences. Is there a shorthand description when you are describing your music to others?
You know, I’ve had a really difficult time with this over the years but I’ve been working on it recently. It’s difficult to fit into the traditional “iTunes” genres. The best I can do there is something like “Americana Cabaret.” But recently I’ve called it “Soulful, nuanced, and deep americana noir.” A fan recently called it “Bar stool spirituals and carnal hymns.” I like that.
Q: Your new album is called Saint Judas. It seems like a major breakthrough for you. First of all, are you pleased with how the album came out?
Yes. Very much so. I think it’s my best work to date by a long shot.
Q: Do you feel like you are reaching some new levels as an artist?
Definitely. I feel like I’ve come into my own. I’m comfortable in my skin now. I wasn’t before. There was a period where I think my relationship to my work was clouded by lots of outside factors and influences. Now I’m more clear about why I do it and how I like to do it. I play music because I’m called to play music rather than out of ambition.
Q: Many of the shows I’ve seen you perform were in small theaters or in warehouse art spaces. I know you’ve also played the likes of The Fillmore in the past, but for many fans it may be the first time they’ve seen you in a well-appointed theater like The Cowell.
This concert is going to be really special. There is a set designer, a lighting designer, and it’s a gorgeous theater. And hopefully we’re going to sell out.
[fyi: buy tickets here]
Q: In contrast to the small venue solo shows, you’ll have a full band. It’s the same band as on the record?
I’ve been working with most of the musicians in my ensemble for over a decade and we are like family. We are all good friends and we have a great time together. There is a lot of love between us and I think that is apparent on the new album. They are incredible musicians and I’m blessed to work with them.
Also the co-producer and engineer is Oz Fritz. He’s well known for his work with Tom Waits, Henry Threadgill and Bill Laswell. It is an honor to work with him. Actually, he’ll be doing the sound for the CD release concert as well.
Q: You are a true multi-instrumentalist; I’ve seen you make music on a guitar, banjo, accordion, baritone sax, even the handlebars of a bicycle. What was your first instrument?
According to my parents, my first instrument was percussion. They said that they kept a cupboard full of pots, pans and tupperware that I would play with wooden spoons. Apparently it was a favorite pastime of mine. But my first “real” instruments were lap dulcimer and recorder as a small child. I’ve always been a multi-instrumentalist.
photo by Steve Rhodes
Q: And then you had classical training, right?
Yes, I was trained classically on saxophone, flute, clarinet and percussion (especially timpani). I also started playing bass guitar in punk bands in the 80’s when I was in my teens. After that, I studied jazz improvisation and composing in college. After college, I went on to study Irish music (tin whistle and flute), Northern Indian classical music (bansuri), and Ghanaian drumming. Then when I was 24, all my wind instruments got stolen so I started singing. Soon after that I picked up accordion and banjo and began writing songs. If you had told me then that I’d have a number of albums out and be touring nationally as a singer/accordionist/banjo picker, I’d think you were crazy.
Q: How many instruments do you play?
Honestly… I don’t know.
Q: What is the most recent new instrument that you’ve added to your repetoire?
Piano. I’ve toyed around with piano since I was a child. But I’ve dedicated 2009 to studying classical piano. I love it.
Q: And does what instrument you write a song on influence its arrangement?
Absolutely. When people ask who my biggest influences are I generally tell them, “My instruments and the moment.” Each instrument brings out different qualities.
photo by durasoul
Q: Do you go through phases where you are intensely focused on writing new songs?
I do. But recently my priority is getting “Saint Judas” out. So I haven’t been writing much. Actually, let me clarify, I have gone through the inspiration/creative phase of writing on numerous new songs, but I haven’t sat down to craft and edit them. It’s just not a priority right now. Plus, beyond this album, I have enough material for another 2 albums already written.
But believe me, I’m looking forward to my next writing phase.
Q: Tell us a little about your approach to songwriting. Are your song ideas driven by musical ideas or by lyric or thematic ideas?
All of the above. Sometimes it’s words first, sometimes music. No set system. But I will say this, I try to keep the creative/inspiration phase separate from the crafting/editing phase. I treat a song like a brainstorm for a while, trying lots of ideas. Then I begin the editing and crafting. I enjoy both processes very much.
Q: I know that you’ve been on the road recently. How have the shows been?
The work has been received well. I’m returning to touring after a four year break and I was concerned that I maybe I had lost my fan base and would need to start over. But these last tours have been great for reconnecting with venues, fans, friends, radio stations, and musicians in cities I used to play on a regular basis. I’m happy to say that the fan base is still there.
Q: Where are you going in the near future?
A Northwest tour in mid/late November then down to L.A. for three months. And from L.A. I’ll tour the Southwest a couple of times. After that, I plan on doing residencies in various cities throughout the next year. People can always find out where I’m playing via the In Concert page on my website.
photo by Judith
Q: What are some things that will be different at the Fort Mason show, especially for folks who have seen you mostly solo and in small venues?
This show will feature my work in its full expression in an environment where it can really shine. The body of work on this album was written for a theater setting. And this is the most important show of my career to date. The SF arts community that Laughing Squid and I are part of knows this and has shown up in an incredible way. Lots of people are pitching in. Also, I’ll be joined on stage by my children Bela and Blue who will be singing backup on a couple of songs. Come on, that’s super special for me.
Q: And the CD is on sale at the show? But I understand that it won’t yet be available nationally, right? Can you give us those details?
Yes. The CD will be for sale at the show. This is what the label is calling a “narrow release”. It’s mainly to share my album with my local fans. “Saint Judas” will come out nationally in March (on Porto Franco Records). That’s when we’ll do our big national media push and when it will be available in stores and on iTunes and other digital outlets.
I hope to see both old and new faces at the show this Friday. I can’t wait for the San Francisco community to participate in what is such a special night for me.
photo by Eli Crews John