10 Quick Ones with MARK AARON JAMES – May 2017

Billed as “THE KING OF QUIRKY POP FOR INTELLIGENT PEOPLE,” Mark’s most recent project is the first nationally distributed album only physically available on a USB Stick, (It is also available at all regular digital retailers). “My Mighty MAJic Stick” was released in May of 2017. We get MArk to answer our 10 Quick Ones about the recent release and more…

1. Tell us a little about your latest release.  What might a fan or listener not grab the first or second time they listen through?  Are there any hidden nuggets the band put in the material or that only diehard fans might find?

I’m so psyched for this question, because there are SO many “nuggets” involved with this project. First of all, since it’s the first nationally distributed album on a USB drive, there is so much space for bonus material. So, if you get the physical, credit card shaped, USB stick, it comes with a double album of 20 songs from my previous releases. It also has a Word file with liner notes and all the lyrics for the new album. Also, throughout the album are musical quotes from other famous songs. I won’t give them all away, some being more hidden than others, but there are lyric and music references to songs by Billy Joel, Louis Armstrong, Sting, Alanis Morissette, Van Morrison, The Beatles, Frank Sinatra, John Lee Hooker, Leonard Cohen and probably a few more that I’ve forgotten. And, one more really impossible to discover “Easter Egg,” for real music geeks, is in the song “Meet Me at 7.” All of these songs were written for a weekly songwriter collective I’m a part of called “The Jack Hardy Songwriter Exchange.” Since I was always on a deadline and the songs were going to be reviewed by fellow songwriters, I gave myself some weird and complex writing assignments. While this song stands on it’s own, about being frustrated that someone is always late, it also has a completely hidden secret meaning. When I mention the word “seven,” the chord is a 7th chord. In fact any number mentioned in the lyric refers to the chord under it. When I say the word “bar,” “major” or “minor,” it’s the only bar chord in the song, or a major or minor chord, etc. So, without hurting the song’s surface story, the entire lyric is also referring to the song’s structure. I doubt anyone would ever pick up on it, but it made writing it an interesting puzzle.

2. What got you into music, and can you tell us about the moment you realized you wanted to be a musician?

I went to a summer camp, Camp Blue Star, in Hendersonville, NC, from age 8 years old until I graduated from college. My dad had started teaching me guitar just before my first summer there. Little did I know, the kid who plays guitar at summer camp is a valuable commodity. There is a competitive song festival every year and a big “color war” that always ends with a song contest. Add to that, just the general joy of campfire singing. The camp also put out an album every year. So, as a teenager, I got to hear other people singing songs that I wrote. It really reinforced my confidence and gave me a sense of purpose. I knew I wanted to do this from age 8 because of those summer camp experiences.

3. Who would be your main five musical influences?

Hearing Billy Joel songs in the back of my parents’ car was the first time I understood that someone wrote songs and had “a sound.” He was the first artist that really influenced me. After that it’s really a mash up of a lot of things. The 70s/80s singer/songwriters were a big factor. I got really into power pop, alt folk and geek rock in college. So Jellyfish and Barenaked Ladies were just as big as James Taylor and the Indigo Girls in my mind. Ask me again in 10 minutes and I’ll have a different 4 to add to Billy Joel. There definitely has to be an honourable mentions to soul greats like Bill Withers and Gladys Knight. The Nashville songwriter scene in the late 90s also had a HUGE effect on my writing.

4. If you could call in any one collaborator to do a song with, who would it be?

I think of the Beatles as the Shakespeares of our time. If I could only collaborate with one person, despite my childhood obsession with Billy Joel, it would have to be Paul McCartney. I think I’d go for Keith Richards second, and Billy third. There are tons of contemporary artists that I’d love to work with, but if I’m forced to narrow it down to one, which I’ve done very poorly here, I’d have to go with McCartney.

5. How would you describe your music to someone who’d never listened to you before?

I don’t remember who came up with it, but I loved a description I got in a review years ago, “Quirky pop for intelligent people.” I’ve also heard it called “Geek Rock.” It’s so hard to describe music with words, but I think those two phrases give an accurate idea of what I do.

6. What’s the best thing about being a musician?

I love that my job is truly an expression of who I am. I know SO many people who do a job just so they can afford to be themselves when they aren’t at work. Being an artist is, absolutely, a struggle. But, I get paid to express myself. I am annoyingly happy about that. I also like being able to sleep in. I am a firm believer that nothing worthwhile happens before 11 AM.

7. When the band are all hanging out together, who cooks; who gets the drinks in; and who is first to crack out the acoustic guitars for a singalong?

While I do “get the band back together” occasionally, for big shows, these days, I’m usually performing solo, with just my acoustic guitar and a loop pedal. So, I’m doing the cooking and the drinking. The sing-alongs are just the audience and me. Fortunately, I eat, drink and sing enough for 4 or 5 people.

8. If you weren’t a musician, what would be your dream job?

I guess the obvious answer would be some other art form; movie director, novelist, actor, etc. My dream jobs always involve some way to say something relevant. But, assuming you’re asking a more of a “what if” question, going in a completely different direction from the arts…I love to travel, so it would be cool to be a pilot, despite being a nervous flyer. I could also see myself on the creative side of a corporate job, like putting together ad campaigns.

9. Looking back over your career, is there a single moment or situation you feel was a misstep or you would like to have a “do over”?

As I mentioned before, I started writing songs when I was just a kid, for summer camp. By the time I graduated from college, I had a ton of original songs. That said, I really hadn’t studied the craft of writing yet. It’s pretty rare for a young writer to hit the ground running with perfectly formed, commercially viable, artistically relevant songs, and I was no exception. Inevitably, young artists aren’t self aware enough to know how much they still need to learn. Young writers are so emotional about every song and the personal stories behind them. So, there I was, emotionally attached to a batch of songs that were…ok. Now I know that ok is just not good enough. I wanted to make an album. So, I did. You never get a second chance to make a first impression. Getting over the mediocrity of that first album took a LONG time, particularly since I was living in Nashville, where amazing albums were being released every day. I often give advice to new artists. Learn the craft of writing and give yourself some time before you record. It’s great to play new songs out. It’s cool to share them with friends, but I wish I had waited to release an album until I had worked on the craft side of things more. Passion is important, but it needs to be focussed. One bit of redemption, that first album is pretty hard to find now. I got rid of most of them. Some crazy person has a copy of it up for sale on Ebay for $65. (I don’t think it will sell, but more power to him, and condolences to whoever ends up with it).

10. If you could magically go back in time and be a part of the recording sessions for any one record in history, which would you choose – and what does that record mean to you?

This is such a hard question. Back to choosing that one collaborator; to be in the room, participating on any of the Beatles albums would be mind blowing. Just to see George Martin coming up with some of the recording techniques that we all take for granted, would be thrilling. Honestly, any album by someone on the list of influences above would be a dream, but I think the Beatles are sort of the ground zero for all pop music. To be honest, I don’t even listen to them that often, but I am well aware that they are my idols’ idols. I think those albums will stand the test of time, so, to be ON one would guarantee a place in music history. Hearing the first songs with distortion, orchestral instruments on rock music, reversed recordings, spoken background tracks, and all of the crazy things that the Beatles and George Martin accomplished in the studio, makes me strive for innovation and originality in my own work. I just put out the first album on a USB drive, and I really love this album. Perhaps that will be my mark. Of course, as John Lennon said, “Life is what happens while you’re making other plans.”

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10 Quick Ones with MARK AARON JAMES - May 2017

Filed Under: Interviews

About the Author: ToddStar - that's me... just a rocking accountant who had dreams of being a rock star. I get to do the next best thing to rocking the globe - I get to take pictures of the lucky ones that do. I love to shoot all genres of music and different types of performers. If it is related to music, I love to photograph it. I get to shoot and hang with not only some of my friends and idols, but some of the coolest people around today.

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