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INTERVIEW: Mark Schirmacher

Hi Mark, welcome to VENTS! How have you been?

I’ve been wonderful! Thanks for asking-

Can you talk to us more about your latest single “Tomorrow”?

Well, It was the ‘song that almost wasn’t.’ I had the seed of it when we went into the recording dates, but it wasn’t really fully finished. It was missing a verse and the narrative was a little patchy because of that. My producer, Christian Andrews, asked me to go back to my notebook and see what I could come up with. I read and re-read my verses, and felt like there was a missing piece there, a sort of ‘next step’ the narrator would have taken, and I made him/her search “by the mountain streams and the dive bars, too.” This gave the character’s journey more momentum and gives the listener a setting to imagine. From there, we were off to the races.

Did any event in particular inspire you to write this song?

It’s a combination of a relationship piece and a spiritual thing. Bono says of Bob Dylan that he often confuses God and women. This song is sort of that way. In “Tomorrow,” the searcher is remembering a former devotion, a loyalty that has since gone cool. But the funny thing is, he’s in no hurry to reclaim it. He keeps putting it off until ‘tomorrow.’ But the drive and confusion and conflicted passions are very real, day to day, and the singer in the song is part shepherd looking for the lost sheep and part emotional bounty hunter burning to collect his prize. I don’t know. To be completely honest, the different verses reflect different aspects of my life and it’s about numerous people and places. We all have people, experiences, or ideologies that we’re looking for, either again or for the first time. I think this song gives the listener permission to not be sure about what he has and to question things.

How was the filming process and experience behind the video?

I left the concept in the hands of my wife, an award-winning filmmaker who’s got a gift for visualizing the abstract. I can remember a song I played 30 years ago, chord for chord, note for note, but have absolutely no talent in 3D visualization or spatial stuff. She’s a natural at taking the most abstract concept – a song – and creating a visual artifact that expresses and compliments the artist’s vision. With her ideas and experience behind the lens and our good friend Lance Bailey’s camera work, we hit the fields and dales of Minnesota’s backcountry to start piecing it together. After a trip to the surrounding areas of the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport (a hyper congested and stifling part of town), Freya had enough footage to tell a compelling story. It was fun for me, because I literally did whatever they told me to do – ‘go here, stand there, sing part of your song, ok now, start walking’ – and I got to just do it. By the end of the shooting schedule, everybody was in their groove. Very cool.

The single comes off your new album Losing Things – what’s the story behind the title?

The song “Losing Things” took 30 years and 30 minutes to write. My grandfather died of Alzheimer’s Disease at 71 years old, and for the last 8-10 years of his life, we watched him gradually lose his bearings, his memories, his bonds to loved ones, and eventually, his health and life. Not a great way to go. I’m not sure there is, I suppose. So for the last 30 years (almost exactly), I’ve been processing what I saw as a teenager and occasionally trying to fit things into a song. As a way to manage my junk. But it never worked. I was close, but the feeling was never right. Then one morning, the house was empty and I had that feeling of something coming on, I sat down with my guitar and got out my notebook and began strumming the opening chords. Dm (the saddest of all keys, thank you Mr. Tufnel) to F. The words that I had been grasping for the past 30 years came literally flowing out of me, onto the page, all in rhythm and metre to what I was strumming. And in about 20 minutes, the thing was done. The simplest song – structurally and lyrically – I’ve written, maybe ever. 30 years I had to wait, and because I listened to that little muse inside of me, I was given the wonderful gift of emotional closure and a little nugget I’m very  proud of.

How was the recording and writing process?

I partnered with a brilliant producer named Christian Andrews for this record. We worked together at the tail end of my last album, with Christian coming on as mixing engineer about ½ way through. From the beginning of the Losing Things project, I wanted his input, his creativity, and his touch. I sent him @25 songs to listen to – simple iPhone demos of stuff I wanted to record – and he chose @15 to move forward with. He recommended we start with a formal demoing process, and despite my aversion to it, it proved to be a very worthwhile and edifying experience. We’d work on the song at his house, he’d contribute ideas for intros, outros, instruments, or areas he felt needed more work on the writing end, and we’d nail down a demo version that would be ready to take into the studio. Then, we’d rehearse the songs with the band and get the best version ready for studio day. I don’t like to rehearse too much, it’s gotta be loose. But to keep this independent project rolling timewise and budgetwise, we had to have a good idea going into each recording day what we wanted to get done. And I work well that way, too – under pressure. In the end, the band knew the songs, but there was still enough unfamiliarity and “newness” to the tune that each take was exploratory. We gotta discover the music as we go or it feels stale and rote.

Would you call this a departure from your previous records or rather a continuation of sorts?

I describe it as this: My last record (Bird In Your Tree) fell asleep and dreamt of Losing Things. A definite continuation, not a departure.

You brought some rare instruments on this record – what the selection process like?

Yes – I am beyond thrilled and a little amazed that all the additional artists I worked with could make it to recording day AND show up with such incredible music flowing through them. During the demoing process, we’d sort of make a dream list of what we hear on each song. We knew we wanted this to be a strong band album, but also some quieter songs that showcase the simpler sound of acoustic guitar and harmonica. “4 Walls” and “Crazy Fool” are the only songs that come close to just me and my guitar, and I think they work really well as counter pieces or anchors to the rest of the diversity on the record. A few musicians I just brought in on recording day and others Christian and I planned from the get-go. The strings on “Tomorrow” and “It’s a Dream” were conceived almost from the beginning, and the Laurels String Quartet play an absolutely stunning string quartet part that their cellist, Cory Grossman wrote. We met together a few months before the session and I told him what I was hoping for, and the first thing he asks me is, ‘do you like Nick Drake?’ I’m a huge fan of Nick’s songwriting and string arrangements and between that and the Beatles’ George Martin’s arrangements as master templates, Cory came up with some really dynamic and powerful stuff. The songs just breathe. As for other musicians on the rest of the record, each song kind of knew what it needed and we just had to follow the thread. I brought in a tenor sax and trumpet player for “It Won’t Last,” a violin/fiddle player on “Study of Love,” and a singer named Carrie Boberg on a few songs. Her work on “Sleep” is part harmonizing and part lead melody, and she sort of steals the show. She’s a deep-in-her-bones singer and we’ve known each other and sung together for the past 25 years. But this album is the first time we recorded together. She’s brilliant.

How did you go on balancing and using these gears?

Each song has its own character, its own vibe, and needed different tools to express itself. I heard certain instruments on certain songs, and I’m a risk-taker, so we’d invite people in the studio to play along with a track and go from there. I should say, that 90% of Losing Things was recorded live – live drums, live vocals, live guitar – and I used overdubs as sparingly as possible. I’m a huge fan of the moment and the creativity that musicians produce when they’re working together to express something. The pressure of performance is real and I worked very hard to preserve the freshness and fragility of that modus operandi. But, as we forged onward, we’d hear an additional instrument here and there and that’s when I’d make a phone call.

How has Elvis Presley and Neil Young influenced your writing?

Whoa! I can’t answer that, except to say that Neil Young is one of my favorite songwriters out there. So prolific, so honest, so heartfelt. If I ever get limited in my sense of what a song can be or where a song can come from, I check in with Uncle Neil. And talk about guitar and harmonica breakdown potential, wow. Every single song on this record came from me and my guitar. I will happily perform these songs alone whenever the opportunity should present itself. I think they hold up really well that way – and I get a lot of that from Neil Young. If a song can’t stand up with an acoustic guitar and harmonica, then something’s wrong. As for Elvis, his singing is superb. One of the first stylised singers, I think. He was almost pretending to be Elvis before people did that. Not in a hoky or insincere way, but in the sense that his natural gift for melody, expression, and raw emotion was elevated and honed by his ability to get out there and sell the crap out of it. To convince the unbeliever, to raise the dead. He was a gifted singer and my favorite recordings of his showed that. “Love Me Tender,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Can’t Help Falling In Love.” These are epic performances – done live! Wow.

What aspect of love and relationships did you get to explore on this record?

The emotional centerpiece of the record is the song “Losing Things,” which is me grappling with my grandfather’s demise, but directly in step with that is “Sleep,” which is a kind of “death-bed lullabye.” Something I wanted to write to console my dearest family members, starting with my mother. She lost her brother (my grandfather’s son – full circle here) in a plane crash in the Peruvian mountains before I was born. This life event rocked and forever changed the lives of my mom’s family, and personally, I feel that my uncle’s plane crash contributed to the sorrow and loss my grandfather carried unresolved for so many years. And ironically, the sorrow and loss that Alzheimer’s cruelly helped to alleviate. These people are addressed directly and indirectly on the record, and they’re also sung about. Their losses, desires, wanderings, and questions are the threads that bind these songs together. Actually, the whole record can be listened to as the journey of a man as he carefully recounts his life’s memories before he loses them all to age-related memory loss. That’s why “Losing Things” is at the end of the record. The listener finally has the final piece to the puzzle – the character that so many of the songs are about. And the instrumental at the end of the album – “Tomorrow (reprise)” – is the peace and resolution of what he was looking for in the beginning of the record. Perhaps.

Where else did you find the inspiration for the songs and lyrics?

Marriage, fatherhood, and my journey with cancer. I’m a survivor, so much of my current thinking is framed by the reality that we’re only here for a brief moment. Way too short for many of us. So that philosophy comes out in lines like, “We may not have tomorrow, so destroy me with your love tonight” from cut 2, “Never Gonna Let You Go (that easily tonight).” I don’t want to waste a single moment, a single chance to love or be loved, or a single risk that may or may not pay off. Screw it. Any moment my time could come so I’m gonna dig in and go.

Any plans to hit the road?

Yessiree. I’m hoping to swing through the East/South East in the Fall. Milwaukee, West Virginia, Kalamazoo, Pennsylvania. Maybe a trip to Nashville soon to start writing on some new stuff. I’m ready to go.

What else is happening next in Mark Schirmacher’s world?

Losing Things drops on September 13, and I’m blown away by the response it’s gotten so far. I’m planning on doing some live playing, some co-writing, and gonna keep telling my story. And as always, I’m filling up notebook pages. A few years ago when my mind was going a little dark and I didn’t know what was coming next, the faucet of song got turned on full blast. I promised that I wouldn’t turn it off for anything and that’s where I’m gonna stay. The songs are flowing so I just keep putting buckets underneath to catch ‘em. Losing Things is my latest bucket full and I’m really looking forward to sharing it with everyone. Thanks for having me and I’ll see you in the future.

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About RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

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