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It's funny, I'm sitting here realizing that in the past month I've had possibly two of the most disparate musical experiences a person could have and both have left me scratching my head a bit.

Let me explain...

A couple of weeks ago I got to play in Nashville for the very first time and while I loved the town itself and the experiences I had there, soaking in some of the great (real) country music that has come from that bastion of the genre, I was also struck by the number of people so, so desperate to write number 1 (new) country hits. I have experienced this in New York too, people there to "Make it," particularly trying so hard to do what others have done to "get there." I can't lie and say that I've never been, at least to some degree, one of those people but now, watching others embark on a paint by numbers approach to an art form that's very dear to me, really cuts me to the bone. Again, I'll be honest, I did find myself alternating between, "OMG, I could churn out this stuff, to, "this is totally not what I ever want to do." 

I played a songwriter in the round thingy, with a guy who had just co-wrote a number 1 hit recently. I don't remember his name and I remember less about his music. I hate being judgmental about other people's work but that desperation, that scratching for that song that will pass what publishers refer to down there as, "The Bubba Test." ...it stirs something in me that is very uncomfortable. 

Maybe it's because I have kids to clothe and feed; It's human, I guess to want to do whatever we can to make the best for our children and let's face it, music is a tough row to hoe. So, yes, it's tempting, I think I could do it, if I put a little work into it, I think the same way about songwriting competitions. I will glance at a prize and think of what I could do with it but I think it would break my heart to do it. 

Perhaps I will go down in history (or obscurity) as the grumpy old man of songwriting, who, against his own best interests, sticks adamantly to his guns, sitting in the corner of a coffee shop, working on lyrics, working on intent, heartfelt stories, cinematic scenes, with no pick-up trucks in them (so far). Maybe I'm in denial that that's what the larger music audience really wants... that quick fix of sentimentality with not much more attached to it... Maybe it's not you... maybe it's me? But you see, I love what I do. I love the challenge of it and the sense of completion I get from it...I love to submerge myself into those depths. It's a beautiful thing to me and then I love to sing those songs for people. I have no wish to be in competition with any one else, the idea really galls me. I have to do my art and treat it with respect. It can't be about money, I mean I need to eat but it can't be strictly about money or it's... something else; A product, a vehicle for something else, not the thing itself.; Not the living thing I believe it to be. 

I breathed life into this creation. I have a responsibility to it. I have to steer it in the right direction, just like with my flesh and bone (and muck sometimes) kids. It has to be about the art for me... but to make that art pay and still have it be a work of real art... there's the real craft, in my humble opinion.

Which is not to say that I didn't also hear some great music in Nashville. I saw some stunning musicianship and there was a kid down there, Jordon Umbach, who, though quite young, seemed very much on the right track, writing for the genre but seeming to do it right. I met another young talented pair who called themselves Wilder and also a Polish girl by the name of Bela Konstancja Kawalec, with beautiful, beautiful songs. So, overall, it was a great trip and I'd like to go back again... sometime.

Then... I got back to Pittsburgh and went to the other extreme of the spectrum by seeing Straight Out of Compton and that kind of confounded me too... I will say that I love that the story about, insanely successful and influential Rap group NWA, is getting told. I think that whole scene is an extremely important one, even though, I'll be honest, Rap is a genre that I don't fully connect with, particularly what gets called Gangster Rap... but the movie did open my mind to the method behind the majestic madness and I felt a new appreciation for the form and what it was (initially at least) attempting to achieve; "Reality Rap," as Dr. Dre professed it to be, broke a mold and told a story desperately needing to be told. Big points for Art... 

Yet, throughout the movie I kept thinking to myself, how come all the women are such side kicks in this story, does the word Bitches, really tell this story and after doing a little reading about the background, I thought, how come none of the horrific altercations between Dr. Dre and the women in his life were ever even hinted at? Was he the only one?

If the story of "Reality Rap," is to be told... the story of speaking truth to power... then isn't it incumbent upon those telling the tale, to speak truth about the characters in it... the whole truth? It just felt very airbrushed... I enjoyed it a lot but it disappointed me on that, pretty important level. It could have been so, so much more, much deeper and that might of created an even bigger legacy...

Just to complete my list of musical juxtapositions here... while I finish writing this, I'm listening to Claude Debussy's Arabesqe No1. 

'tis a life of variety, is it not?

Here's a brand-spankin-new video of Mark performing a new song, "You Went To New York City," at Madison's Square Garden in Cincinnati, OH. The video was produced, directed, filmed, and edited by Matt Hoffman of Fieldhouse Collective (http://www.fieldhousecollective.com). Enjoy!

Mark Dignam | You Went To New York City | Field Sessions

Mark stops by KDKA studio for Pittsburgh Today Live - to talk about the upcoming Ameriserv Flood City Music Festival and performs a song. Watch right here (below).

We received the following message from Mark yesterday to share with you: "...Half way through the writing stage for another record. Will start demos of what I've got very soon... Will keep ye posted."

So, check back soon! If we're lucky he'll send us some audio or video.

Mark and Zoob perform "I Thought that Love Would Win" recently at The Scratcher Sessions in NYC.

I Thought That Love Would Win by Mark Dignam

Host a House Concert!, More Creative Juice (Wed, 03/25/2015)

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to have Mark sing in your very own home? There is a growing trend towards intimate music venues and a house gig is about as intimate of a performance as it gets. Here's what you need to know.

Glen Hansard Joins Mark in Pre-St. Patrick's Day Rock-Out at The Scratcher, New York Irish Arts (Wed, 03/18/2015)

Walking into see singer-songwriter Mark Dignam on Sunday night at The Scratcher Sessions, the author literally bumped into Glen Hansard who was there to cheer on his longtime musical co-hort. Being that it was the day before St. Patrick's Day surrounded by Irish musicians, you can only imagine what the crowd were in for.

The JuiceCast: Life In The Music Industry with Mark Dignam, The JuiceCast (Tue, 09/09/2014)

Mark shares his take on the music business with the Creative Juice - from his experiences being a musician for the past 30-odd years; the ups and downs, how he manages to make a living and stay creative in an extremely competitive and often grueling industry, and the surprising start to his musical career.

I’ve been on five tour buses in my life, the big kind that look like modern kitchens with marble-top counters mixed with the triple stacked sleeping quarters of a submarine, all squished into one rolling corridor. They belonged to Joan Armatrading, The Swell Season, Damien Rice, Donna The Buffalo and Ingrid Michelson. All stood completely stationary, not one of them moved an inch while I was on board, as I was merely visiting friends (or the opening act) while these rock n rolling hotels were parked outside the venue. Still, I enjoyed getting a glimpse of what it might be like to tour in that manner. I’ve been told the novelty wears off pretty quick but just like spending a Christmas in Southern California or Australia, with people singing carols in shorts and t-shirts, I like the idea of having the experience, at least once. The bottom line is that neither I, nor most of my other touring friends are on the road like that and that’s perfectly fine but even so, in my years of being the quintessential troubadour, traveling by public transport, in rented or borrowed cars and vans, I have still managed to have some pretty amazing and sometimes bizarre adventures. Here are some highlights:

In A Northern Industrial Town

In 1987 by all accounts, I was one of the first buskers in the wonderful walled city of Derry in Northern Ireland. The RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary- Northern Irish Police Force-) would glare at me with equal parts confusion and suspicion, hands firmly upon automatic weapons, in case I might incite a riot with a Republican Rebel Song or some other dirty Free-State infraction but after a time we each became reluctantly familiar and left one another to ply our respective trades.

Pints in DerryI was pulling out decent money as a novelty in the town and it was a very fun time, particularly as the price of beer was very, very cheap, especially in comparison to Dublin. On Saturday evenings I would arrive at the Gweedore Bar, throw all my change on the counter and tell the staff (who were delighted to have it, for the busy night ahead) to let me know when it was gone. I lived like a king or more pointedly, drank like a despot. A notorious local, spotting the extravagant Dubliner as a perfect mark, challenged me to race him, drinking our pints of Guinness, with the loser buying the next round. I laughed off the wise warnings of my friends and watched through the side of my own pint glass as my opponent opened his throat, swallowed the entire drink in one quick gulp, while I was still struggling half way through mine and stared me down with, “pay up” eyes. I was astounded and happily kept my end of the deal. Needless to say, it was a big night after that.

 

Closing time arrived like an airline emergency slide and soon enough we were poured out onto slanting Waterloo Street. I was propped precariously against a wall, looking like seaweed swishing in the undertow, while my friends went to get a cab back to Gobnasceal, a stark Catholic enclave in the middle of a stark Protestant housing estate on the city’s Waterside. The world appeared to be a blurry merry go round but the music still ringing in my ears, the slurred lights and warm summer breeze made it a very pleasant hedonistic experience.

Suddenly an even shorter than me, motorcycle jacketed twenty something appeared from the periphery and began raving in my ear, in a language I refer to as, ‘Drunken Northern Irish”, which contrary to local opinion, bears absolutely no resemblance to English whatsoever (Sober Northern Irish is a distant enough cousin). I was lambasted for nearly two minutes and as far as I can remember, I replied briefly, after which my fellow piece of swaying seaweed began to scream at me, outraged. Particular words began to come into clear focus through the universal translator of adrenalin; memorable words and phrases like, “Going to get my brothers,” “Guns,” and “Kneecaps.”

This went on loudly for a solid two minutes and it became apparent that I may have upset this young two bit James Dean. I straightened myself up as best I could, took a deep breath and responded calmly. My adversary paused, laid his hands on my shoulders, leaned his head against mine, took a deep breath and began to coo like a dove in my ear about what a great guy I was; what a great singer I was and that we should really get together to see some concerts in Dublin.

To this day I have absolutely no idea what I said to offend this guy or what diplomatic acrobatics I performed to appease him. He all but rolled on down the hill, passing my friends in zigzags as they returned with the cab, ping ponging off the parallel buildings their hollers of the colloquial, “What about ye mucker. Are Ye ready to go mucker?” To which I understatedly replied. “Yep.”

Go West Young Man

In Jan 1996 I was honored to be invited to perform at what was then, the Point Depot in Dublin. It was a sold out 10,000 seat show, for the tenth anniversary of the passing of Phil Lynott, of Thin Lizzy. I had a lovely conversation that night with Phil’s mother Philomena, after my well-received renditions of two of Lynott’s more obscure songs from earlier albums (Which ones, I can’t recall right now). I told her I was going to spend the summer with a friend in the Seattle area, at which one of Philomena’s friends chimed in excitedly that she had a sister in Seattle and could probably get me a slot on a “Social Conference,” while I was there. Contact info was exchanged and subsequently I was hired for the show.

The Pacific North West is a beautiful part of the world, a great mix of nature and culture, though Seattle was at the tail end of its grunge phase then, which made me feel completely naked without tattoos. I stayed on the trendy Capitol Hill with my old friend Devora, learning to play pool in the majority (but very tolerant) lesbian bar across the street and we drove highway 1 down the West Coast to LA (Where I played another Lynott tribute at the Palace in Hollywood). It was a momentous trip and endeared me greatly to Southern California and the West Coast in general.

The day of the Social Conference arrived and I made my way to the venue, a university setting a short drive from Seattle. I found my contact, a tall, slender, very friendly woman of about 50, who told me how delighted they were, that I could be a part of the day. I exclaimed with a broad smile myself, that I was equally delighted and told her it wouldn’t take me very long to set up my gear, if she would direct me to where the PA system was set up. My wonderful, warm, friendly contact replied, “PA, What’s that? I calmed myself and gently explained, it was the sound system through which I would be performing. Quizzically she replied, “Oh, we thought you were bringing that with you?” I held my spinning innards intact, wiped beads of sweat from my brow and replied that I was under the impression there were two to three other acts on the bill and that one of them would be providing the sound, to which my kind, very obviously benevolent and still serenely smiling contact replied, “Nope, it’s just you.” I looked past the door of the conference room to see 200-250 people buzzing around a couple of mini-bars. My contact (no idea of her name now), clearly used to making things happen in difficult circumstances, proposed that there was a fireplace at the end of the room with an extended hearth which rose about a foot above the floor and that I could just stand and perform there. I mentally tallied my fee and said a solid, “Sure!”

After unpacking my guitar, positioning myself on my perch, I began to pour out my introspective, socio-economic, family politics laden, Christianity examining, original works. I was two songs in when I realized that all but two of the crowd were women. On a break, in what was to be a two-hour show, I asked what kind of Social Conference we were all attending and was told, “We’re an order of Nuns! We’re here making decisions about what endeavors we will focus our attentions on in the coming years. I almost passed out. I was playing, solo, acoustically for two hundred or so, plain clothes Nuns. Lovely! I asked who the two guys were and feared that I already knew the answer and yes, of course, they were local Priests...

I trembled back to my lonely spot on the hearth, while my contact, Sister Benevolent (I am making that up) corralled a number of other nuns closer, obviously in an attempt to make me feel better about the constant chatter from the more distant Sisters ensconced at the mini bars. My “audience,” which now numbered ten out of the two hundred, consisted of two Nuns who very obviously hated everything I was singing about and clearly resented being co-opted into this misadventure. Sat beside them, were two or three others who were willing to give me the benefit of the doubt and were just really game for anything and anyone who made an effort (God bless them…). Three more were perhaps part of a radical fringe, which seemed really into it. They hung onto almost every word. The radical fringe were bookended by a solitary overly excitable Nun who seemed really ecstatic about everything I did, pretty much everything, though after talking to her later, I realized, it was more because I was a just, you know?!.. a guy. It seemed that any guy in this sea of X chromosomes, was a shining star in her mind. I excused myself for a fake toilet trip.

I sang myself almost hoarse to get above the din, I squirmed, I sweated profusely through my performance, eventually getting to wearily pack my gear, collect my fee and return stunned to the car to make a bemused trek back to Seattle and shook my head in wonder.
   
And Now For Something Completely Different

Lastly - one of the first gigs I did in the US after haphazardly moving here in 2000 was a county fair in Pennsylvania. I was scrambling to put together whatever paying performances I could muster, as my visa only entitled me to work as a musician (Long story). A friend dropped the gig in my lap and I was very thankful for it and so, I sang from the back of a truck trailer in a large field, to a trickle of passing people. Afterward I sat myself down with a growing crowd of onlookers, on the hillside opposite the stage. I actually experienced a warm glow about my new life as a working musician in the United States, just as the next act arrived. A rotund gentleman sauntered on stage, causing my jaw to drop as he lead three large llamas to center stage and readied them to do various tricks. Yes, my friends, one of the first gigs I did in the US, gave a pack of llamas, top billing. Ah, the glamour.

So perhaps I’ll never get to do the whole rock n roll tour bus routine, I’ll never get to throw a TV set out a hotel window (Not my style anyway and I don’t actually know anyone who has). I may never have great riches bestowed upon me for my work but I have to say, I am happy enough with being a working musician with at the very least, a wealth of stories to tell.

A long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away - Okay, in Dublin about 1986 - I used to listen to a lot of what I now consider to be very bad music. Posters of Hard Rock and Metal bands adorned my bedroom walls and the stereo was frequently cranked. Around the same time I also stumbled upon Simon and Garfunkel’s seminal, “Concert In Central Park,” which aired on Irish TV a few years after the fact. I recorded it and upon listening back a couple of times, there was a definite shift for me and I struggled with where my loyalties lay.

It was a tough time for me. I was a lonely, isolated teenager, probably going through a bout of depression, looking for something from music that I didn’t feel I had around me. Maybe it was camaraderie, a sense of belonging that I couldn’t seem to find locally?! I had a deep hole that needed filling and loud, fast and furious music was doing the job. But the songs of Paul Simon seemed to say things in a more nuanced way. There seemed to be more colors on the palette, cinematic landscapes that were deeper, more sophisticated than what I’d found with the rockers -though I still stand by a lot of Phil Lynott’s output with Thin Lizzy, a master of the genre-.

I bought “Sounds of Silence” and played that record to death. I learned every word and harmony I could reach and began figuring out the harmonies that weren’t there, the notes in between. It was as if a gate had been opened and I was a one-boy stampede, into a Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory of melody and rich story telling. I went on to discover Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Ani DiFranco, Billy Bragg and many others and have hovered in between the folk and rock worlds ever since.

My parents had bought me an acoustic guitar when I was 16 and after putting aside dreams of being Angus Young, playing little convoluted riffs here and there, I started learning my first real, whole song, Neil Young’s “Sugar Mountain,” struggling to strum and sing at the same time. A kid named Glen ended up at my house. He practically brought Bob Dylan along with him and a few other songwriting icons and we bonded over our fascination with these characters, these amazing songs and our craving to get out of neighborhoods that didn’t seem to have a clue what we were talking about, perhaps seeing us as a threat on some level and at times being threatening towards us. We began to rip songs apart and talked a great deal about what a great song was, what it should do, and how it should be performed.

We migrated from the suburbs to Henry Street in the city center and started busking. I think we knew about six songs that we could play all the way through. I believe “Tangled Up In Blue,” was the first song we played on the street one night, then the wholly inappropriate for busking, “Needle and the Damage Done.” “The Boxer,” did the job though.

Henry Street wasn’t great and we got the hint that Grafton Street on the Southside was the place to go. That turned into a few years of amazing adventures with many amazing people.

What I value most from those days - and many late nights - was that we seemed to be unwittingly apprenticed together to this mysterious trade. There were people around us imparting advice, dissecting our songs with us, pointing us in directions that illuminated things we were lacking in our approach -Pete Short take a bow-. We were glad of it and eager to learn. It was never exclusive, no-one ever had a door shut on them - though I know there were some that felt that way - but in this “club,” with Mic Christopher, Kila, Miriam Ingram and others, moving our way up through Dave Murphy’s songwriter nights at The Bailey, McDaid’s and The International Bar, we continually talked about songs and songwriting and performing, we critiqued each other, we supported each other, we changed strings for each other at respective shows. We were young, idealistic and hungry but not hungry enough to eat each other. Each of us wanted the others to succeed. That was a beautiful thing in a beautiful time.

It’s a long way around to talking about my own process today but I think it’s actually an important part of it. I have been very determined to hold on to that history just like my Irish accent. I’ve held onto all of it stubbornly, even though I’ve lived in the US for nearly fifteen years now. I think it’s important to keep an eye on new sounds and ideas but I can never jettison who I am, where I’ve come from. I believe it’s a pre-requisite for an “Original” songwriter, to carry the things unique to them and lay them out on the workbench like the contents of a tool bag when they come to write.

I will always bring some of that busking energy with me to some songs and then on others, hark back to the intimacy of the many late night parties we went to; small and sometimes not so small get-togethers, where we would sing soft songs in kitchens, as dawn popped her head over the old Georgian roofs and spires of a rapidly modernizing Dublin, or the lush green fields of whatever other Irish town, by hook or by crook we’d found ourselves in. I always bring the “Come-all-ye,” the “Singsong” as it was called, into my work, trying to recreate the childhood memories of Christmas and New Year’s Eve parties in the neighbor’s houses in Finglas; where everyone sang something, no instruments, just songs tumbling out, a cultural gift that probably seeped in through the walls and the floors of those council houses, urbanized, Dublinized descendants of our “Sean Nós” past; every person sang at least one song and every other person would sing with them. So, that’s where I start today, bringing a reverence for my past and that old and not so old culture of mine, to what otherwise seems a blank canvas.

On the more tangible side, I usually start with lyrics. I definitely lean toward the more poetic songwriters. Scouring lyric sheets has always been an integral part of getting into other artists for me and to capture an idea or a turn of phrase and wrestle it into form, poetically, sociologically or cinematically, is one of the most exciting things in my life, I kid you not.

My process then and now is to go out in the world, to parks, coffee shops, ride buses, trains and planes and just watch you all. I always have a notebook and pen with me. These are the most basic tools of our trade. I firmly believe that before one touches any technology to create music, one should learn to write a story. Sure there are all those pop lyrics out there that don’t make much sense but my belief is, that the songs that do make sense are the ones that really stick around, at least for me, though admittedly that maybe more relevant for the purer folk genre.

I’m a believer in making space for the muse, looking in the other direction to allow an idea to sneak up but being ready to nab it when it does. I’m the guy on the park bench looking off into nothing – working! Another trick of mine was to sit playing guitar watching TV with the sound off, again anything to distract the conscious mind, anything to coax that subconscious story. In that nebulous space, often empty of language, is actually where the words come to me; I would just jam things out on the guitar, anything, nothing, while allowing stories to coalesce from the wanderings through the day or the week. I’d take what comes; the cloud with the strongest emotions attached to it and then wrestle it to the ground, calling it a theme and making sure all my characters were standing in the right places and saying the right things to illuminate the whole. I’d hack away at it all, first with a machete, outlining, then whittling it all down with an X-Acto knife, making every word and syllable count, zooming out to see if it made sense; are the images reflecting the underlying theme of the song? The theme is always the anchor for me, though I will allow it to change and go in a different direction, sometimes becoming a completely different song/idea. I will always continuously ask myself, “What am I trying to say?” Where is this going?

Sometimes I will use particular motifs running through the song, to paint the scene, ocean images, forests, cities, particular tools, colors etc, whatever might give the story context, whatever will make you see the picture.

Rhythmic flow in my lyrics is very important to me. I always try to make the sentences and syllables dance, at times with alliteration, word choices and rhymes here and there - but sparingly. I don’t want to draw too much attention to the devices but always want my lyrics to sound really good even if they are just read aloud, without the music.

As esoteric as some of this might sound, my belief is, it’s not a gift, it’s a muscle I’ve been motivated to strengthen, and it’s a tangible process, to be able to find this intangible space. It takes practice. Putting time into it, is part of the craft of getting to the art, to one’s real voice. It’s been important for me to create time to create, to carve out a space in the day where I shout to the ether, “it’s X O’clock, I’m here, bring it on.” If I don’t write every day, I at least read. I look at language and I try to be conscious of how stories are told.

I’ll be honest, early on the musical aspect of what I do was somewhat secondary. I learned enough chords to bang out popular songs on the streets and at sing-along’s but after delving a bit into music theory - do it, you won’t regret it-, I’ve now got a richer, more colorful palette to use for backing my storylines. Knowing just a little about how to construct different chords and chord progressions has really opened up the musical world for me and made it much more satisfying. But I also try never to overuse these tools either. I believe wholeheartedly in simple songs, particularly those with stories in them. I will only ever give the song what I feel it’s asking for. My maxim is, that one should be able to sing the song on the way home from the pub on a Sat night; avoiding obvious complication that might get in the way of that scenario is what I’m always aiming for. I will throw the odd little twist into a song but am conscious never to have it be a distraction from the overall feel.

So this winter I’m going to sit and begin writing a whole new album, concentrating, more on chord progressions and melodies as my starting point this time and perhaps gently pushing against the more diatonic frame I’ve become used to up to now, but the sound it creates will be applied with a light brush, with the anchor of simplicity at the heart of it. I’ll be listening to what the song wants, what the story requires. It will be a tightrope walk for sure, to make it all work, to make it all sound good, make sense and have you all want to sing it. I’ll be going out of my comfort zone a little this year but that’s the craft of it. Hell, that’s the fun of it.

Photos from Ireland...

A Celtic Utility Cover:

The iconic Cliffs of Moher (click on photo for larger image):

The Prayer Tree, Fore, Co. Westmeath:

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