Mark Schirmacher Interview
SBS: Mark! Thanks for chattin’ with us brother-man! I’ve known about you and your music for a while now…but I’m plugged right into the independent scene of course, and not everyone out there is in that same boat I am. So for those out there that aren’t familiar with you and your music yet – what would you say the defining attributes of your material are Mark? What is it about what you create, what you write about, the way you approach music, and the results that set you apart from the rest of the crowd?
Mark: I am very intentional about cultivating a sense of space in my music. I try to keep the sound and the silence balanced. One of my musical heroes is Miles Davis. As a trumpet player and especially as a band leader, he used space – the places where no sound is heard – to build tension, express his emotions, and create a soundscape that was very unique to the musical story he was trying to tell. I learn from him constantly in that regard, always trying to strip my lyrics, my singing, my guitar playing, and my recorded arrangements down their minimum so my sound can bear the weight of the space. As far as how I approach music or what I write about, I tend to write about things that affect me personally. I’m not a topical songwriter, tackling global warming or injustices – though I have those songs in my library, I just haven’t spent the time to develop them. I write about the human heart and all the complexities that come with love, trying to love, trying to be loved, all that jazz. Sounds a little cliche’, so…what I’m trying to say is…I love nature. I love my wife and my kids and my dad and mom, my sisters and aunts and uncles – but these relationships and the cost of that love is not easy or painless. And it’s from within those points of cost that my songs are born. For example, when I notice the dogwood tree by the lake blooming in late summer, I am filled with hope and wonder and it forms a pain in my chest. First, because of the sheer beauty of the flower that grows from this ridiculous plant, and second, because I know that the summer is almost over and then fall will come, followed by 6 months of dark, cold winter. A mixed emotion, for sure. Those juxtapositions fascinate me and that’s where my work starts. Same with love – very complicated thing. But if I take a frustrating or complicated incident or feeling, turn it over in my heart, brain, and on the page, then I start to understand it. Writing a song has a healing and revelatory process to it. Ok. I said too much. Next…
SBS: How do you feel you’ve evolved as a songwriter/artist between the songs you put out on your previous record Bird In Your Tree from last year, and the new one that just came out in September of 2019 called Losing Things? Do you spend any time self-reflecting on your growth as an artist? In what ways do you feel like you challenged yourself to be even better in your writing & recording to make Losing Things more rewarding for people to listen to, and more rewarding for yourself as a musician?
Mark: Hmmm. I was very intentional about the songs I placed on the “Losing Things” record, and that in itself was an evolution for me. I’ve always been intentional about putting an album together, getting the right songs to balance each other out, the right sonic palates to play nice together, the overall feel of the record. But with this project, I had the advantage of working with Christian Andrews in the producer’s chair, helping me pick and choose which tunes might live well together. I think letting go of some of that control was an evolution for me, and it created a more objective approach to making a record. That is in direct contrast with the “Bird In Your Tree” album, where I chose the songs, assembled my band, booked the studio, made all the tough calls myself – a lot of roles on my plate. Which gives that album a really streamlined and focused feel to it. Nothing wrong with that. But “Losing Things” was more collaborative, which made it more fun. Also, the most obvious evolution for me as an artist on this record was the fact that I played with SO MANY amazing and diverse musicians. We had two songs that were arranged and performed with the incredible Laurels String Quartet (“Tomorrow” and “It’s a Dream”), I worked with local – to Minneapolis/St.Paul – old time music scholar Adam Keisling for some banjo and dobro work on a few songs, and I enlisted the help of my dear friend Carrie Boberg on some tracks, including “4 Walls.” I’ve never collaborated with so many gifted musicians on single project before this, and I think it makes the record so damn interesting to listen to. Tenor sax, trumpet, fiddle, drums, congas, piano, didgeridoo, mandolin – these instruments transformed the record from what was gonna be a guitar/voice/harmonica thing to a full-blown masterpiece of sonic cheese…In my opinion.
SBS: We reviewed the lead-single “Tomorrow” back in mid-summer this year before the album came out – what’s something people might not know about what occurs in the time in between then & the official release? Were there any obstacles you faced during the creation of Losing Things that held up the process along the way? How did you overcome them? I’d imagine there can be a million roadblocks in between the beginning of starting into creating a new album and the final stages – what would you say is the key to not getting frustrated by the obstacles in the way and finding success with your art?
Mark: Yeah, thanks for the review! I really liked your take on “Tomorrow.” In fact, you were the only journalist to call into question my artistic choices on that track, and honestly, I appreciate that. I heard everything you were saying and I had those exact same thoughts, but as you know, went my own direction with it. That’s how we do, right? Um,…obstacles. Yeah, every project has them. Mine are almost always self-inflicted and not as big a deal as I think they are at the time. I’d say #1 Budget, #2 Scheduling of band members and session dates, #3 Faith in the project. There’s a point in every project I’ve ever made where I come home from the studio one night and say, ‘This is complete crap.’ Why am I doing this? The songs are no good, I’m shooting in the dark, nobody is going to want to listen to this…” And being the stubborn dreamer that I am, I eventually ignore this negative self-talk and remember that the exact thing happened during the last project, and that one turned out okay, right? Right? …anyway. So, I’m learning. Also, not judging myself has been helpful. Everybody else will be in line to do that, so leave it to them. Embrace the joy of the moment, the frustration and hard work of recording, the immense blessing of uniting with other musicians’ hearts and minds for a brief moment in space and time, and create something cool. Or at least something that I think is cool.
SBS: Straight-up my friend, I’m loving the new single “4 Walls” and think it’s brilliantly poetic. And like many of the best songs out there, I think there’s a largely interpretive aspect within the writing that could very well mean a whole bunch of different things to different listeners out there. For myself, I looked at this song like…almost something like you expressing a need or desire to leave everything behind…to go off into the woods and find a way to commune with nature and just keep on a-livin.’ You seemed to contrast that with the need for “4 Walls” – which I’d imagine represents the security of modern life in these giant boxes we call homes where we put all our stuff. There’s a question in here somewhere…I know there is…hang on a moment. I suppose what I’m wondering is – what are the parallels between the songwriting and the songwriter here…how much of the sentiment, imagery, and the overall meaning of this single from Losing Things would you say is applicable to your own life Mark?
Mark: Thank you for the love on “4 Walls”! I did not expect this song to get any attention at all. It’s been doing really well on Spotify and the various streaming platforms out there, and for real, it is baffling to me. People really connect with this song. And you know what? It was this close to not making the album. The only reason it’s on there is because another song got booted after some failed attempts. I was left with 9 songs, and I did not want a 9 song LP, so Christian and I went back to the pile of songs we started with at the beginning of the project and dusted this one off. It was actually the quickest one to record. Done in a few hours, start to finish, with the exception of Ms. Carrie Boberg’s divine vocal part. She came in later to lay her sweetness down. But, your question,…a connection between me and the song, its imagery, sentiment,…I’m totally connected to this song. I am the singer here, but I’m saying something that I think everybody has felt. This need to walk to the water, notice the beauty and magic of the blooming plants, the silent dominance of water, the absolutism of flying birds and swimming ducks, and decide, what next? Do I stay in this world and abide by the strictures of houses and jobs and external obligations or do I check out somehow, join the birds and the bees and the symphony of the earth….I struggle with this a lot. Some folks walk to the water and decide to walk in and not breathe anymore. That guy is in this song. But there’s other guys in this song as well, and I think that’s what listeners might be picking up on. The hope amidst the apparent despair and heartache. I will never purposely create something that bears no light of hope. But I’m not shying away from those feelings – my Minnesota upbringing might have taught me otherwise, but I gotta say it, sing it, make it real. ‘Cuz then it doesn’t seem so bad.
SBS: Now…don’t get me wrong here pal…I’m not one of those people that thinks every video in the world needs to be gleaned from the exact theme or meanings found within the writing. That being said – you had a tremendous opportunity to take the video for “4 Walls” right out into nature and make this single’s visuals correspond to the words didn’t you? I mean, we’re not talking about special-effects and sci-fi elements here that would be hella expensive to produce or create – we’re talking about a song with fairly accessible things that could be found in nature simply by venturing beyond your “4 Walls.” Yet, as you know, that’s not the route you chose at all – you went with an animated video to support your latest single instead, thereby obviously making this much more involved, complex, and complicated than just grabbing a camera and heading outdoors, wouldn’t ya say? The question of course, is why? With all the imagery of nature in “4 Walls” – what was it that made you choose to go animated with it and ultimately, why did you feel like an animated video would suit this song better than live-action?
Mark: Good point. You’d think that grabbing a camera and heading outside to capture nature would be really easy. And maybe for some folks it is. But with the stellar camera work and directing that we used for my last 2 videos (“Sleep” and “Tomorrow”), I knew I would have to engage the same level of professionalism or polish or whatever if I were to make “4 Walls” that way. So I didn’t really want to compete with those other videos. I wanted something completely different. Also, the bigger reason is – I am entirely too impatient and wanted to do something handmade, one-of-a-kind, and spontaneous feeling. No deep meanings, no 6 week production schedule, just a simple, stream-of-consciousness animated project that a man with absolutely no talent as an animator should be making. Very DIY. So yes, opportunity lost. But risk taken and I’m pretty happy with it. My 12 year old son created the character in the video and then quickly lost interest, so he taught me how to use the program on his iPad and I made the rest of the video myself. Pixar Studios, lookout.
SBS: As we head towards 2020, what would you say is the biggest accomplishment you’ve made over this past decade with your music Mark? What’s do you feel is the most important thing you’ve learned so far that will help the next decade be even more successful for your career, and why is it so pivotal?
Mark: Pivotal? That’s an awfully big word. In regards to what I’ve learned that will help me in the future, I’d say that not taking things too personally has helped so far. I mean, there are literally thousands – if not hundreds of thousands – of songwriters out there that are vying for the same spaces in print, streaming, media grabs, you name it, as I am. And working to distinguish myself is exhausting. End of the day, I have to be myself and not take things too personally. I am who I am and folks will either hear something to identify with in my voice, my songs, or they won’t. Not up to me. Also, from a more pragmatic standpoint, I’m learning what makes a better song or a better recording these days. I’m getting better at editing my songs down, for example, making them more honest, minimalist, emotionally relevant to me, and hopefully to my listeners. My end goal is connection. Can I connect with other human beings while we’re here together? Can I express something out loud and in the context of a 3 minute song that I know you have thought, too? If so, then I’m satisfied. I’ve done all I can do. Now we can sigh together, cry together, blow it off together, not take that big walk-into-the-water together and get on with things. I would love to amass a body of listeners over the next decade that embraces the indefatigable power of creation and love, so we can share our experiences and comfort one another. This life can be really tough, and nobody should be on their own here. That’s what my music’s about, I think. I’ve felt this and that emotion, and I bet you have, too. It’s okay. Is that cheesy? Maybe. Oh well.
SBS: My friend, interviews can take us just about everywhere and nowhere all at the same time – we could have talked about anything at all with you today in the short time we’ve got with ya, yet there’s next to no chance we could have covered everything in the process. So we’ve got this here open-floor for ya to bring up anything else you want the people to know, or say anything else at all that you’d like to say. It’s been a sincere pleasure listening to your music and learning about you Mark – and I look forward to more over the years to follow. Thank-you for your time my friend – the floor is yours!
Mark: Back to you, sir. Thanks for the space in your pages and I sincerely appreciate the opportunity to wax poetic on this world of music I’m creating. And I feel like that’s the coolest part about music these days, is that the curtain is lifting. You’ve given me the chance to talk about the creative process, the obstacles, the baby triumphs, the day-to-day decisions that make up a life of creative pursuits, and I think that’s the coolest part. There is no traveling salesman back here pulling levers and casting voices, just a guitar player who’s written some words and melodies to light his path in this world, and a guy lucky enough to go to bed every night as a free man. Thanks for the freedom to speak my mind here, my friend. And if your readers would like to see me perform live, I’ve got some upcoming dates in Minnesota. Checkout my website for dates and venues: http://www.markschirmacher.com. Cheers!
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