Friday, September 26, 2014

Sharing a Six Pack with Mark Kirkland

As has been mentioned frequently by me on Twitter and I suppose a bit less frequently here on this blog, I truly enjoy the simple but brilliant concept that is Couch By Couchwest. The week-long, on-line, music festival yields me a year's worth of laughs and solid music.

Another tangible benefit from CXCW is the opportunity to have a conversation with many of the artists - whether they be part-time songwriters or full-time, seasoned road dogs. For me, those conversations have taken place via Twitter, email, texts and - most rewarding - face-to-face.

Mark Kirkland (website | Twitter) from Tuscaloosa, Alabama is one of those artists with whom I've enjoyed trading messages the last couple of years. As a songwriter, Kirkland manages to be creative and maintain a wider view of life ... despite being a Crimson Tide fan!

He has released two albums filled with his own material:

Guided Spirit released in 2013...

...and For Your aMUSEment released in mid-2014.

Mark accepted my invitation to share a six pack of questions, and our conversation went a little somethin' like this.

TMC: What motivated you to begin composing songs and then taking the step to record them?
MK: I've been writing and composing songs since I was 15 years old. I had always had a writing partner until around 2002. At that point my then-writing partner, Denny Hays, was preparing to move to Charlotte. He challenged me to start playing guitar. At the end of the first week I had written & composed my first solo song. I continued to play drums as a fill-in for bands up until about 2010. I didn't really do anything musically again until the summer of 2012. I started writing and playing a little bit around that time. In the spring of 2013, I stumbled upon Couch By Couchwest. I was intrigued by this wonderful venue for artists to submit songs for the world to hear and decided to submit a song. I met some incredible people by doing this, and they encouraged me to share my music. I decided to do a solo EP as a gift to myself for my 50th birthday in June 2013. I wrote, recorded and mixed Guided Spirit in a two-week time frame. I was very surprised by how much people liked its the rawness. It is a very unpolished release, but I am extremely proud of it.

TMC: Your latest album For Your aMUSEment opens with trumpets on the first track "Last Night" and organ on the second cut "Feelin' LIke I Been Here Before". Both were unexpected treats in listening through the songs. Did you play both on the recording? If not, who did you enlist to help?
MK: I wanted to show some growth from Guided Spirit to the full length release For Your aMUSEment. The Trumpets on "Last Night" were a surprise. I had originally envisioned having trumpets on the track "Gone For Good". But as we started preparing songs after the original mix, my producer Mark Skelton suggested that we write a trumpet line for "Last Night". Mark & I worked up the part, and then he and and one of his daughters played the trumpet part. Mark's other daughter played the flute part on "Wings". I should mention that these girls are twins and were first year band students at the time we recorded the parts. I think they did an amazing job. Ben Johnson from Arkansas did the organ & bass work on this project. His interpretations added a lot to the all of the songs. We actually have 2 versions of "Feelin Like I've Been Here Before". The version on the album is lovingly known as the lounge mix. The organ work helps bring out the mood of the original feeling of the song.

TMC: Both of your releases sound remarkably clean and well mixed. Those two descriptors don't always apply to self-produced music with limited funds for production. Your albums are well balanced with well lifted vocals, clear highs from your guitar, a steady but clear bass, etc. What process did you go though to mix all of your elements into a mastered production?
MK: The magic of production. I'm old school and think that when you record a song it should sound like you are playing it live. In other words, we keep it as simple as possible. We record the guitar and vocal work at the same time and typically do it in one take. After reviewing the initial raw mix, I may make some minor changes in lyrics or composition and then record the vocals and guitars again. Once we have all the parts done, my producer sends me the songs. I tell him what I want more of, less of or just gone.

TMC: Like many, you have a diverse musical interest though you are an unabashed Widespread Panic fan. Yet you don't parlay that fandom into a copycat songwriting style. Talk a bit about how you get the inspiration to write songs and any artists who influence your compositions.
MK: Unabashed Widespread Panic fan....I love that. I get a lot of inspiration musically from Widespread Panic. I do write a lot after attending their shows. I'm not sure exactly why. but I think it is the way their music reaches down and grabs your heart & soul. I go to a lot of live shows not just Widespread Panic. I write a good bit after shows, and I think it is from watching artists and their fans enjoy the beauty of music and the joy it elicits from one's soul. There are a lot of artists that inspire me. I am amazed by the songwriting of BloodKin (Danny & Eric), the late Vic Chestnut (everyone should listen to Vic), John Hiatt, John Prine, Neil Young, James McMurtry, Daniel Lanois, Kris Kristofferson, Keith Whitley, Jay Farrar, Jeff Tweedy, John Doe, Billy Joe Shaver, Guy Clark and (the Master) Bob Dylan.
TMC: Do you find yourself keeping a journal of couplets, refrains, riffs and such? Or do you generally have the majority of a song come to you in a single setting?
MK: I've tried many different ways of writing over the years. I used to keep a journal of ideas, phrases & words that interested me, but I explored a different formula on For Your aMUSEment. On aMUSEment I either came up with a melody or riff first and then built the song around it. I didn't write any of the lyrics down until after we recorded the rough mix. Then I went back and made some lyrical changes before we went back to record the songs that would be on the album. I am of the opinion that songs are never finished. I believe they always grow and that it is OK to change the lyrics as I please as I continue to play them. I made them up - if I wish to change them then I will. The only song I wrote in one sitting was "Wings".
TMC: As much as I dig so many forms of music, I'm completely ignorant of most of the gear used by musicians. Gibson, Fender, Martin. Tele, Strat, Les Paul, SG. This pedal, that fader, pick thickness, capos. "Acoustic" vs. dreadnought. Etc. Describe your guitars, how you went about choosing them, and why you are partial to them.
MK: I have three guitars that I work on the most. I have an Ibanez acoustic/ electric better known as Maggie, a Baby Taylor and an Ovation Celebrity. They all have different tones and all have supplied their share of songs. I used "Maggie" for all of the songs on Guided Spirit. I chose the Ovation for all of the songs on For Your aMUSEment except for "Couch Down the Hall"(I played Maggie on it) and "All About You" (played the Ovation & Taylor on this song). I bet you're wondering why the Ibanez has a name. This guitar was named after my wonderful bride Margaret Alice Kirkland. She gave me the guitar for my 40th birthday to replace my 2 pawn shop guitars.
Be sure to follow Mark on Twitter, and check out more of his music at his website. If you live in the greater Birmingham area, perhaps you'll even have the opportunity to hear him play live somewhere. I'm sure he'd enjoy your being there, having a conversation before or afterwards and accepting your tips and a purchased beer - even if you are an Auburn fan!