Mark Bragg is a Canadian singer-songwriter, who went on tour in Germany some months ago, supporting "The Boss Hoss". His concerts as well as the music on his new album "Bear Music" are sort of trashy, very much into rock music. Bragg's most powerful inspiration is 'a vivid fantasy life'as he describes it in the interview. The result of this musical and textual world he represents are songs full of strange and colorful ideas and astounding imagination.
Here Mark Bragg explains wherefrom the album "Bear Music" got it's name and how his songs and lyrics are born.
Carina Prange did this interview with Mark Bragg via e-mail
Carina: Is there something typically Canadian about your songwriting, that sets it apart from, say, the US-American style?
Mark: I don't think so. There's a long tradition of story telling songs that comes from Newfoundland which is the province I'm from in Canada. I don't think that dark story songs are typically Canadian, or American, they're just a product of environment and imagination.
Carina: What peoplesongwriters, bands or musiciansdo you listen to? Where are your influences?
Mark: Lately I've been listening to a lot of Nick Cave, but I can't say he's an influence because he's a new discovery. As for songwriters, I think Neil Young, Tom Waits, and Bob Dylan are my biggest heroes. I tend to listen to a lot of country music too, like Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, but that doesn't make it into my own music very often.
Most of my influence comes from a vivid fantasy life, where you can open up and let yourself take on roles that are far removed from your real life. That's the power of writing fiction, and maybe part of the appeal of it too.
Carina: On "Bear Music", bears appear in several of the songs on the album. Is it a concept to connect the songs to each other, just a coincidence? Does "The Bear" stand for something? And what fascinates you in general about bears?
Mark: I often repeat themes and characters in my songs. On this album, "The Bear" represented a big dumb guy who was taken advantage of, and whisked into an unfortunate circumstance by "The Umpire". I was really picturing the bear as a 300 pound autistic amateur wrestler or street fighter, who was carted from town to town in a human cock fight. My brother is autistic, and stories about people like that being manipulated are particularily hard for me to take. I think that was part of the allure of writing a song where action was taken against this kind of behavior.
The second bear song "The Bridge" is a soft song which paints a picture of the bear as a child. I guess I called the album "bear music" as a round about way of making the album a tribute to my brother. I don't have a particular fascination with bears, but with all the animal world, and animalistic behavior in human characters. It's really fun to explore that side of your own self by writing fiction, because you can't very well go out and attack your neighbours for stealing your food or shit on your friends lawn without some kind of repercussions, can you?
Carina: The album was recorded in two different studios. Why? Do you generally try to sound "live" in a recording or would you say that studio and stage need completely different musical approaches?
Mark: I try to capture the energy of live music in the studio, but I haven't really been able to get it right, I think. I struggle with that. I'm not a fan of the studio, and usually have to put trust in others to make the call when I'm getting it "right".
Carina: You told Kevin Kelly (The Newfoundland Herald) that "The Bridge", the second track on "Bear Music" relates to personal experiences and that this was not the way you normally write. Do you prefer to keep yourself out of your songs?
Mark: I keep myself out of the songs in the way that I don't usually write about personal experience... "The Bridge" was a bit of an exception. There are definitely parts of me that wind up in my songs, but it's more to do with my fantasy world than my real life.
Carina: With other songs the story-telling seems to be important. How does this connection of inspiration and imagination work and what sparks your imagination?
Mark: It's easy to find a mood and get an idea when you begin writing. I could be playing the piano and a little phrase or chord progression comes out, and then I'll spurt a random image or idea over it. I'll keep doing that until I get some sense of what this song can be 'about', but that comes well into the process, and it continues to change until the very end.
The end story is less important during the writing process than getting the images and feelings out, but it certainly becomes the most important thing when it's time to wrap it up. I have to ask myself is this something, or nothing? I have a lot lines about nothing that may one day make it into a song about something, but I have no idea when or if they will for sure.
Carina: In most of your lyrics, you work with pictures and metaphors that need some deciphering: Can the subconscious process of writing be seen as a conversation with oneself, something that in the end only the songwriter himself can understand?
Mark: That's actually a really good way to describe it. However I try always to make it something that an audience can understand in the end, because that gives the work a lot more power. If it's irrelevant to people it has a lot less meaning to them.
Carina: Do you always like what you find out about yourself when you're writing?
Mark: I do. It's fun. Again, it's fantasy land, not the real world, so you can be as dark or as cool or as ugly as you want to be in writing fiction, and in performing, too.
Carina: To use language as a medium in itself for criticism, for expressing oneself with words, was that your aim from the beginning? Do you always try to put a message in your songs?
Mark: I'm not sure I completely understand the first question, but I certainly am not trying to be critical in my songs. In fact, I hate preachiness in music, and generally don't like music mixed with politics either. Some songwriters can do it really well, but most don't. Either way its really a matter of taste. As for me putting a message in my songs, I don't try to do that, I just try to convey a mood or image or something, or tell a good story. Stories without morals.
Carina: Are you also interested in a sort of cineastic or soundtrack orientated attitude? How important is "sound" for you?
Mark: I guess I have a bit of that attitute by default, it's not something I work towards. Using sounds effectively is just another means of setting the "scene" in a story, so I try to do that. Sound is important just like framing is important in visual art, but they have to support the story or the song, that's what's most important.
Carina: Your "Black Wedding Band", does it still exist? And what about the band with Adam Staple, Luke and Brad Power? You moved away from Toronto, what impact did that have on your work?
Mark: I have a lot of musicians I call on for various things, in various parts of the country. I like to mix it up a bit. I've been playing in my hometown a lot more with the same guys, but the "Black Wedding Band" was just a moniker for my supporting cast at a particular time and place. Right now the boys I'm using are calling themselves "The Butchers"... do you like that? I havn't decided yet.
Moving out of Toronto was more of a personal choice than a professional one, but it certainly helped me see things more clearly. I felt grounded when I got back to St. John's, and that's the best place to start anew. I needed to do a lot of professional style thinking at that time, and I was able to do that when I got home. Right now I'm in writing mode, and it's working well. I love being in Newfoundland.
Carina: As people do attest you a very powerful show, would you consider yourself a "stage-personality"? How important is the band?
Mark: The stage personality is basically whatever character is narrating in the song. If a performer really gets into his work, I think that comes off. It's a natural treatment. The band is extremely important because they have to give the performance the energy. As long as I have players on stage that are digging in and blowing my mind night after night, I can put their energy into my own performance.
The audience is a big part of that too. That's the coolest part about playing in a band... when it's working right everyone is feeding off each other... musicians, singer, audience, everyone. It's great.
Carina: When you were on tour as support for "The Boss Hoss", how did that work? Did you go on stage alone with your guitar? How did you experience it?
Mark: No, I had a great band with me... drummer Brad Kilpatrick, bass player Jon Hynes, and Brad and Luke Power who you mentioned earlier. I was lucky to have them there, because as a support act you're not exactly preaching to the converted like I do at home, and you don't always have that crowd energy to feed off. We had some incredible shows though... and some not so incredible ones. I think that's par for the course.
Carina: Are there already plans for a new album or a European tour?
Mark: I'm working on the new album right now. As for another European tour, we're hoping to tour Germany again in the spring of this year.
Carina: Do you have a sort of philosophy for life?
Mark: Nope, I just try to work hard, make good music when I can, and try not to be a bum. Oh, and always be nice to people.
CD: Mark Bragg - "Bear Music" (Bellwether / Skalde Musik / H'art)
Mark Bragg im Internet: www.markbragg.com
Skalde Musik im Internet: www.skalde.com
Fotos: Mat Dunlap
Mehr bei Jazzdimensions:
Mark Bragg - "Bear Music" - Review (erschienen: 5.10.2006)