suggestioni musicali a cura di raffaello russo
After becoming an involontary psych-folk cult in early 70’s, Mark Fry took over three decades to get back to songs. Now that – after the recent release of “South Wind, Clear Sky” – it seems that he’s keeping on in songwriting, he can look back to his continuous relation with art and music. Here is his peculiar point of view after having crossed different times, spaces and artistic languages.
You released music in two distant and very different moments; do you feel any difference in your approach to music and songwriting between the 70’s and nowadays?
I think there’s a big difference between writing songs when you’re young and writing them when you’re older. You have a different perspective on time, so when you’re young you’re often writing about the present and the future, and when you’re older, in my case at least, you’re looking back and more reflective. But my approach to music is the same because I’m trying to tell a story in a short space of time. In that sense I’ve always been an old-fashioned songwriter. I like telling stories.
Over the years, you’ve been (and you are) are both a musician and a painter. How do you realize that your inspiration will turn out in a song or in a painting?
On some days I can play a chord on the guitar and not hear anything, and on other days I pick up the guitar and I can hear a song. It’s the same with painting. Sometimes I can make a mark on paper and doesn’t mean a thing, but at other times it’s suddenly full of life and you can take it in all directions.
Talking about music and painting, I’ve been quite impressed by a couple of quotes on the “life” section of your site, in particular “Through the act of painting, songs began to come to me again”. Can you explain the creative process that lead you back to songs and did you explain yourself why it took you so much to go back to songs?
Looking back to the 1970s, I think I was probably more disillusioned by things not working out the way I thought they might than I realized at the time. It was a big blow to my confidence. I never completely stopped writing songs but I didn’t try to do anything with them. Also, before digital technology and home recording came along, it was incredibly expensive to record anything – you really couldn’t do it unless you had a record label who would pay for it. When I began to have some success as a painter, that made me feel more relaxed, and when “Dreaming With Alice” was re-released by Sunbeam in 2006 that was the encouragement I needed to go back to music and try to do something with my songs again.
Generally speaking, what does your inspiration usually come from?
It comes from the work itself. Sometimes I hear a line or a phrase and I jot it down, but that’s not inspiration, it’s raw material. The best ideas often evolve out of the act of painting or writing. I don’t know until I start what a painting or a song is going to be about. The creative process is a continuous mystery. It feels like I have to do it.
You have a long perspective on two forms of art: how do you think that music and painting world (and business) have developed over the last 40 years?
Every artist I know has got a horror story to tell about being ripped off in both worlds, and I think that’s always happened. The art market has changed hugely in the last 40 years. The value of a painting today is perceived primarily in terms of money – how much it can be sold for, and whether it represents a good investment. People who buy paintings because they love them and want to live with them are now much rarer than they used to be. It’s as though people have lost confidence in their own feelings, and need to have their judgment confirmed by an “expert”, which is sad.
One of the most important developments in the music world (and in the wider art world too) is digitalization. I can see it’s freed up a whole generation and made it possible for many more musicians and artists to do their own thing, but at the same time it feels as though there’s almost too much music – it can be difficult to find something really good in the snowstorm.
You probably said everything about “Dreaming With Alice”…but I’d like to know just how it was the artistic life in Italy in the early 70’s and how do you relate to that album after so long time?
From my own perspective, living in Italy in 1971, it felt as though the main current of exciting, experimental artistic work was happening in film. Pasolini, Fellini, Antonioni, Olmi and more – their work was very innovative. In terms of music, it seemed that the focus then was on commercial pop, but there were some good people at the time, like Lucio Dalla, who was a real inspiration to me. Lucio became a good friend. I was a very shy and unconfident teenager and he gave me a lot of help and encouragement. But at that time I thought the music scene was happening in London rather than in Italy, which is why I returned to the UK after making “Dreaming with Alice”. Listening to the album now takes me straight back to Florence in the 1970s, it’s immediate, I can almost taste it. It was a very happy time for me, so I love playing the songs in concerts today.
As a listener, what music do you usually like to hear nowadays?
I don’t listen to music all the time as I’m often trying to write it and it can almost get in the way of doing so. The artist I’ve been listening to most recently is Bill Callahan. He’s a wonderful songwriter – like Leonard Cohen, he’s a poet – and he’s a beautiful singer too. That combination is rare. I also like listening to West African music, especially to kora players like Toumani Diabate or Ballaké Sissoko, and to Ali Farka Touré. Their music takes me back to the magical time I spent in Africa.
You released “I Lived In Trees” and the new “South Wind, Clear Sky” on Second Language, the label run also by Glen Johnson. How did you first get in touch by them?
I was introduced to Second Language by Michael Tanner of The A. Lords. He had been releasing music with them and I think he initially played them something that we were working on together. I feel very fortunate that Glen also wants to release “South Wind, Clear Sky” – I know I am in good hands.
What do you think of the label’s philosophy and of the “collective” of people sharing a somehow common style that’s quickly gathered around it?
Working with Second Language is a very good experience because you have complete artistic freedom. Glen is an exceptionally talented musician himself and he is very sensitive to what you’re trying to do. He brings huge attention to detail that you just wouldn’t get from a big label. And lot of care goes into the look and feel of the physical object – Second Language have been leaders in that respect, and imitated by others.
Now that everyone can listen to nearly all the music from the web, what role can play a record label to keep the physical format alive? Generally speaking, what do you think about the way music nowadays spreads through the web?
One of the extraordinary things about digital technology is that you can easily send music to the other side of the world and collaborate with other artists at a distance. It opens up a whole new way of working. That’s how “I Lived In Trees” evolved, and it also meant I could work with Ken Matsutani of Captain Trip Records in Tokyo on the production of the album “Live In Japan”.
As for physical formats, I think the physical CD in its conventional form will soon be a thing of the past. But the revival of vinyl is interesting. Every time I put on a vinyl disc I am reminded of the special quality of its sound. From that point of view, things are getting better – in the early days of digital recording you would play an album and it often sounded cold and hard, whereas the aim of recording today seems to be to get an “almost analogue” sound by putting everything through valves. It’s a bit like the Sistine Chapel. Before cleaning, it had a wonderful patina, and now it’s all clean and bright. It’s fascinating to see the strong, vivacious colours that Michelangelo used, but the patina of age and a certain softness has gone.
One of the good things about vinyl is that, as well as its particular sound, you also have an opportunity for proper artwork. There are some great artists and designers working at the moment, for example Iker Spozio, who created the beautiful cover for “I Lived In Trees” as well as for many other recordings by Colleen, Hauschka and other musicians.
In “I Lived In Trees” you’ve been accompanied by Michael Tanner and The A. Lords and you recently took part to the Silver Servants collective record: how’s been working with them?
It’s been a great privilege to work with such talented, young musicians – and it’s lovely working with other musicians anyway, because it’s a total contrast to the solitude of my painting studio. As for the Silver Servants album, I’m very pleased to be part of it. The collective approach has produced a sort of kaleidoscope, a realization of the Second Language ethos, where apparently disparate parts merge into a cohesive whole.
Has the creative process for the new album been different than the one for “I Lived In Trees”?
Yes, it was very different. “I Lived In Trees” developed very slowly, over two years. It started when Michael Tanner and Nicholas Palmer sent me some instrumental pieces and I tried to sing to them and find the narrative within. I sent them something back and then we tried the process again with more music. We worked like this for about six months before we even met. Then, as our work evolved into a series of songs, they came over to France and we started playing together, recording more music and rehearsing so that we could play a few concerts in France and in England.
With “South Wind, Clear Sky” I wanted to make a record like we used to do, in a short time and in a concentrated way. I wrote all the music and the songs, and recorded most of the vocals and guitars in my own little studio at home – I think I sing better in private. Then I took the result to producer Guy Fixsen in London, where we spent ten days recording additional instruments – French horn, double bass, piano, some strings – to get the result we wanted.
It seems that folk music (in its different shapes) is growing and spreading widely among independent artists in the recent years: what do you think about this return to simplicity and to folk languages?
Folk music is about storytelling and there’s something eternal about it. It can be endlessly reinterpreted by new generations of musicians – I’m thinking of Kurt Cobain’s powerful version of “In The Pines” which was sung by Leadbelly but also by many musicians before him. The first songs I learned to play on the guitar were also American folk songs, often ones made famous by Woody Guthrie or Leadbelly, partly because they were easy to play but also because they told a story. Today, people are also more interested in traditional instruments and the way in which they evoke the connection between people and place. Folk music is personal and reflective, and that seems to resonate with lots of people in our times.
You also lived in Africa for some time. How did that experience influence your artistic personality?
I was living in what was then a very wild part of Mali, south of Timbuktu, in the Inner Niger delta. Half of the year it was flooded and you could only travel about in pirogues steered by fishermen. It was a mysterious landscape in which the water and the sky seemed to melt into one. There was an extraordinary quality to the sound, too: it travelled far across the water and you could hear a person calling from miles away. The colours of clothes and boats were incredibly vivid – you would see a splash of blue in a deserted landscape and it looked quite abstract. All of these things have fed into my painting and my music.
Italy is surely an important part of your artistic biography. Can you tell us about your relation with our country over the years and nowadays?
My parents had a small house on the Monte Argentario which they built themselves in the 1950s and so a lot of my childhood was spent in Italy. When I left school in England Italy was the first place I went to. I spent a little while at the Accademia delle Belle Arti in Florence, but Italy was politically an unhappy place at the time and a lot of things weren’t really functioning, including the art school. That’s why I turned to music. I got to see a lot of Italy when I went on tour with Lucio – we started in Rimini and ended up in Trapani. In the 1980s my wife and I thought of going to live in the Puglia but we couldn’t see how we were going to make it work economically. I sometimes wonder what our lives would have been like if we had done so. My experience has been that Italians have a sophisticated and poetic sensibility and a huge respect for artists in all domains. People seem to be strongly connected to all of their senses, not just of sight, sound, taste, smell and touch but also the sense of humour and the sense of time passing. I think this feeds into a philosophical approach to life that really appeals to me. Finally, whenever I look at a painting by Giovanni Bellini, I feel that Italy is my spiritual home.
(full English version of the interview published on Rockerilla magazine, issue no. 401, October 2014 – Italian translation)