Saturday, November 1, 2014

INTERVIEW: Mark Rogers and Mary Byrne

(Photo by Shervin Lainez)

Coupled in life and in song, Mark Rogers and Mary Byrne create haunting and evocative Americana that is both archaic in instrumentation and utterly current in its concerns.  Mark and Mary were gracious enough to reach out via email from Brooklyn to share insight into their process and the darkness that lies beneath the surface of "I Line My Days Along Your Weight".

“I Line My Days Along Your Weight” is a quite beautiful album.  I understand that you recorded the basics for it live to 2” tape, which I have to imagine was a challenge.  Why forego the digital recording route?  Did the recording method influence the songwriting or was it a matter of that being the best choice for this batch of songs?

Thank you for the compliment!  Recording to tape was an easy choice because we knew we'd be laying down only a few elements, and tape would give us the best possible sound for them. The live part was the challenge -- it felt like jumping off the high board because, realistically, you can't do more than a few takes of each song. But the material seemed to call for this approach.  We were really eager to capture the interwoven sound of our instruments and reflect the vulnerability in the material -- and this meant recording everything all at once, standing a few feet apart and listening to what each other was playing.

The songs on your new album are very interesting…there seems to be a strong dichotomy between the quiet elegance of your guitar playing and Mary’s voice and some pretty dark lyrical subject matter.  Was that intentional?  What does your songwriting process typically look like?
Mary: I can't quite say that the dichotomy was intentional, but I can say that since the material covers serious emotional terrain, my instinct is to help it go down easy. It also intuitively makes sense to me that dark and light work together inextricably -- so the most honest expression of this material would involve this elegance you mention, working alongside and against the seriousness, and vice versa.

Mark: We bring ideas to a writing session, but then we spend a long, long time in a process of trial and error, trying to get each song to a place where we agree that it feels "done" - though the agreement is never discussed and the process is mysterious. No one ever says, "A few more turns of the screw and this song is done." Instead, we keep working it out until the thirty-seventh go-around sounds better than anything we've done before, and the thirty-eighth or thirty-ninth sometimes tells you that thirty-seven was good enough and you shouldn't keep tweaking. You know when the vessel has arrived; what's fun is then having something you feel good about and playing with it, getting to know it, exploring it.

I am always fascinated by artists who have a relationship outside of their creative partnership.  How do you find the balance between your domestic identities and your musical responsibilities?  Do they inform each other?

Mark: There is no balance between domestic and musical responsibilities. We write all of our songs in the kitchen and rehearse in the bedroom.

Mary: It's hard to talk about balance when it's a musical project we're embarking upon. The workload is intense and demanding, and not everyone is up for the kind of uncertainty that artistic work involves. I feel so lucky to be working with Mark.

What are some of your musical touchstones, those things that you heard and loved and go back to?  What influences your writing? 

Mary: I wasn't conscious of this at the time, but in hindsight I've heard in this recording the propulsiveness that I remember from my father's bluegrass band growing up. I was also listening a lot to a compilation of Spanish folk songs, including group songs, solo flamenco singing, and rhythms I couldn't figure out. And though not folk songs, I keep coming back to "Eleanor Rigby" and "A Day In the Life," perhaps because of how sorrowful they sound.

Mark: We were also listening to a lot of Louvin Brothers, Stanley Brothers, and Merle Haggard, and I just came off five years of intensely listening to Library of Congress recordings (Lomax, Asche, Harry Smith) and a lot of spooky mountain folk music. At the same time I was also studying the compositions and guitar arrangements of Skip James, whose influence shows up on "A Gracious Host."

I imagine your songs are like children – it’s tough to choose one above the others. But let’s say you are asked to make a “Sophie’s Choice”; is there one that you are particular proud to have written or one that is particularly special to you?

Mary: I especially like how "A Racing Heart" turned out. It began as a rather unbeautiful two-chord sketch, a little hard on the ears and the heart. But somehow, over the course of hours of working on it together, it unfolded into something much more open, warm and strange. That song really underwent a transformation on every level, even though the words and the chords remained the same.

Mark: "Walk With Me" is a real challenge to play.  Every time I play it--and play it well--it becomes the song I look forward to the most.  It requires a lot of listening and counting and demands my undivided attention every time I play it.  If I'm not completely immersed in the song, it will fall apart.  If I'm not listening to Mary's vocal phrasing, the call-and-response aspect of the song falls flat.  There are two cross-picked mandolin breaks that are exhilarating and woozy but as soon as they are done, I need to sober up and finish the song strong.

What’s on tap for you next? 

We just listened to the test pressings for the vinyl edition of this record, and are very excited about that.  It'll be out by the end of November.  We're on tour right now and are really happy with how it's going. So we'd like to tour again in early 2015, hopefully covering wider ground than the East Coast, South, and slightly Midwest that we're covering now -- and overseas if possible. We're starting to gather ideas for our next record, and don't want to wait too long before getting in the studio again.

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