Musician Mark Growden finds his bearings
Growden and his Tucson band play The Screening Room this weekend
Last month, Mark Growden released the best album of his life. At 40, he has grown into the big compositions and important subjects that have always compelled him. "Saint Judas" is a rich vision of American music brought to fruition, eleven songs graced by Growden's rich baritone and revelatory point of view.
Released in March on Porto Franco Records, the album, recorded almost entirely live in Oakland, is carefully arranged by Growden and features some of the best players in California, including bassist Seth Ford-Young and guitarist Myles Boisen, both of whom have also played with Tom Waits, to whom Growden has been recently compared.
Coming as he does from a classical and jazz background — Growden cites some major influences as contemporary classical composers Steve Reich, Arvo Part and Henryk Mikołaj Górecki, as well as jazz great Charles Mingus, Growden has carefully crafted every note on the album, but leaves room for some improvisatory bursts in the arrangements.
Also a visual artist, Growden's process here was that of an oil painter; the album was composed over several years, as the songs were reworked with deliberation. Every element feels intentional, every measure carefully wrought.
Most musicians poised on the cusp of potential financial success predicated on an album would plan to repeat the experience as soon as possible, and would do their best to recreate the site of that recording as precisely as possible. Not Growden.
The next Mark Growden recording will be done here in Tucson at Loveland Studios with Golden Boots bassist/engineer Nathan Sabatino. Growden plans to play banjo on all the tracks, most of which are new, with a few older songs receiving the treatment of a new ensemble of Tucson musicians hand-picked for the project.
For half of his set this weekend at The Screening Room this weekend, Growden will be joined by his new Tucson band, which includes Clay Koweek on acoustic guitar, Ian Stapp on upright bass, Tim O'Connor on fiddle, Connor Gallaher on dobro and lap steel and Tom Walbank on harmonica. Add to the mix Growden's banjo, which he describes as "very meaty and very low," and one has a spin on an old-time front porch band, a completely different sort of ensemble than the jazz- and classical-influenced players on "Saint Judas."
And that is precisely the point. Growden sees his project in a series of albums, each radically different from the last. After his Tucson album, Growden will work with Ford-Young and others in LA on his "City of Lost Angels" album, which will employ two upright basses, two tenor saxophones and a drummer. Growden will abandon the banjo for the accordion and his original instrument, the saxophone. Even more site-specific recording projects are in the works, including an album to be recorded with lots of string instruments at the Rothko chapel in Houston.
The decision to keep changing locales and ensembles may seem the result of mere wanderlust, but Growden insists that his vision of each endeavor is so different that it requires him to completely reconfigure his process and his orchestration. "My biggest influences are my instruments," he says. "The banjo wants certain things to come out of it. The accordion wants certain things.
"For now, my banjo songs come to Tucson to be recorded. I'd like to come back and do one album each winter for three winters, to get deeper and deeper into that."
Like several other American independent singer-songwriters of his generation, among them Richard Buckner and Chuck Prophet, both of whom, coincidentally, have both Tucson and Bay Area ties, Growden finds himself in the position of troubadour and not superstar. Touring constantly and relocating frequently (Prophet being the exception), these men constantly reinvent themselves in exciting ways, arguably precisely because they have yet to find the kind of commercial success so many of their peers have.
Perhaps it is this very lack of the need to plan stadium tours and press junkets, or to headline the rash of indie festivals that dot the American musical landscape, that allows the kind of immersive, deliberate process necessary to create a record like "Saint Judas." With each listen, the songs reveal more about their relation to each other, to the musical lexicon to which they respond, and to Growden's larger vision of what music does. "The message is simply compassion. And love — all the different types of love."
Mark Growden's official reading list
- John Steinbeck "East of Eden"
- Milan Kundera "The Book of Laughter and Forgetting"
- Eckhart Tolle "A New Earth"
- Roget's Thesaurus ("I love any books of quotations, any reference books")
The album opens with the raw electric guitar and plaintive moan of "Undertaker." Borrowing the form of the prison worksong "Rosie," recorded by Alan Lomax in 1947, the song is dark, and love is an "undertaker" and a "thief." Growden's voice is striking both for its rich tone and expressiveness. Despite the fact that Growden came to singing late and, if one is to believe the apocryphal anecdote, wholly by accident when his instruments were stolen, the vocals stand out from the first bars.
Growden taught himself to sing from early- and mid-20th century recordings of singers from Georgia's Sea Islands. The remote islands were abandoned by whites before the Civil War, and developed a distinct Creole culture known as Gullah or Geechee. Recording historian Alan Lomax and others captured the islands' rich and unique music before it was lost to the resort construction ubiquitous on the coast of Georgia and the Carolinas.
The song "Been in the Storm So Long" was adapted from a Gullah melody by Growden, who changed the lyrics to fit his vision. Intended or not, the song cannot help but reflect the current cultural moment as well as the history of the region; in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, the vision of a people wholly at the mercy of natural forces is not merely a historical spiritual, but a contemporary American folk song.
Another spiritual provides the foundation for "Everybody Holds a Piece of the Sun," which removes the more ancient religious images to allow for Growden's more inclusive vision of love in a contemporary setting. Thus, "Keep your lamps trimmed and burning" becomes "Keep the fire burning." The song bears the musical trace of its antecedent, but is itself a new thing, a new song. "With folk music, updating is what you do, to make it universal," says Growden.
The most powerfully emotional song on "Saint Judas," from the first notes, doubled on accordion and cello by Growden and cellist Alex Kelly, is a retelling of a Bible story, "Delilah." Along with Judas, another Biblical villain, Delilah is restored here as a human figure, and as the object of true love. "It's good to get to the underbellies of those stories. 'Delilah' comes out of the moment when [Samson] has been asked 3 times already, and he tells her what his secret is — it's that moment when he says yes, he tells her the truth. And he chose it. He chose it. The way I am looking at that story is that he commits suicide via love. It's so poetic."
'like the crescent moon slices the sea'
"And then there's the metaphor —the death of the ego. A song about transcendence through the dissolution of the ego." In fact, Samson pleads with Delilah in the song to "send me back to the tailor who fashioned me." The mortal coil is thrust off like a garment, a husk. Again, the most powerful vocal moments are wordless. Growden's voice becomes the most naked and muscular of wind instruments as he recreates Samson's surrender.
The title track is, quite simply, a perfectly written pop song. Listening to "Saint Judas" makes it clearer where the comparisons to any number of great songwriters like Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits all the more apt. In a metaphor worthy of inclusion in any great songbook, Judas "likes his whiskey neat as a military sheet." And in addition to the neat rhymes and cleverness, Growden gives the Judas figure a three-dimensional and empathetic treatment.
In a "movie where the good guys are bad and the bad guys are good," any black-and-white morality is troubled, and ultimately, the figure of the worst of betrayers is seen as fallible, but human and necessary. The "saint of the sinners" is celebrated with flourishes of rollicking accordion and trumpet: "bottoms up to you buddy, 'cause somebody had to take the blame."
Growden is currently planning to stage a performance he reluctantly calls an "opera" based on the two key figures of the record. "It's Delilah and Saint Judas in the afterlife. Two bad guys in limbo," he explains. He is currently composing the libretto with Paget Norton, another Bay Area compadre.
'I'll wear a mask for you'
Growden also bravely takes on a Leonard Cohen composition on the record. His "I'm Your Man" is wholly unfaithful to the original by design. "When I cover a song, it's because someone asks me to. I had never heard 'I'm Your Man.' I heard it, I said okay, I'll do it, but I'm not doing it like that. I changed the tempo and time. I put it in 3/4 time, I changed the chords, I changed the melody. I try to bring out the emotion in the words."
The result is a more tender version of the song's personage than the vaudevillian villain rendered by Cohen himself, or by Nick Cave on the recent tribute album "I'm Your Man: The Songs of Leonard Cohen." The seduction is not nefarious, but sweet, if a bit dark and dangerous.
Near the end of the album is the epic, nine-minute medley of "The Gates" leading into Growden's version of "Take Me to the Water." Again, one cannot help but think of Katrina hearing "The water is slowly rising/ The water it just keeps rising" as rendered in Growden's upper register. "The Gates'" slow waltz time is both funereal and urgent; percussionist Jenya Chernoff's roiling rhythm and sensitive dynamics add to the drama of the song, which then gives way via Growden's wink of an accordion riff to a reveling in chaos and rubble via another reworked spiritual, "Take Me to the Water."
Live, "The Gates'" wordless refrain becomes a singalong, and frequently brings audience members to tears. (The backing vocals on the recording are by Bela, Growden's elder daughter.) The desire to have an audience participate seems integral to Growden's project, which is nothing if not inclusive.
In "Saint Judas," Growden refers to both David, "the saint of the poets" and Julian, "the saint of the clowns." If there is something of the circus tent in the orchestration of the album, there is too a sense of the revival tent, especially here, as Growden and band find joy in dislocation, and love despite suffering.