It’s a bustling Tuesday lunchtime when I meet Mark Mathews – arguably the hardest working solo artist in the UK right now – for the first time in Camden, North London, the backdrop where Rachel Lipsitz will later take her portraits of Mark.
“Over there they used to do an open mic.“ he says gesturing to a stage with an abandoned drum kit. “I’d just moved to London and I played some of my first solo shows here!“ he says with a grin. Back then it was the Oh! Bar and now The Blues Kitchen, a restaurant/bar serving up a regular dose of blues. A reminder, perhaps, that venues may come and go and times change but our love for great music is irrevocable.
It’s great music that Mark is all about. The London-based singer-songwriter writes catchy, indie-pop tunes with a folk edge and his talent has been described as one that could ‘dethrone Oasis and The Verve’. Surely he’s pleased with that? “I’m massively pleased; I mean, what a bold statement!“ he laughs.
“My sound is quite eclectic, it covers a lot of different indie pop songs and genres. I’m all about the hooks and big choruses“ he explains. It’s this captivating, broad sound that led Metro readers to vote him one of the best artists in London. Championed by BBC Introducing, he has performed with the likes of Dodgy and Frank Turner and been nominated for two Indy Music Awards for Best Live Act. Hard grafting, he has numerous EPs under his belt and one album, 2016’s The Raging Sea, and tours and busks relentlessly.
Today we’re here to talk about, amongst other things, the most involved project of his career to date – #NewMusicEveryMonth. As the title suggests, a new track has been released on the last Friday of every month in 2017. The complete set of tracks will be split between two EPs; Feelings aren’t Facts was released in June 2017 and Carrier Bag Your Career is Over will be released in 2018.
From January’s Grape Juice through to November’s release Lost, Mark is taking a fresh approach to each track, creating different songs using varying styles, techniques and instruments never experimented with before.
With producer Andrea Lepori at the wheel (U2, Jack Savoretti) the result so far has been fascinating. Although creatively fulfilling, has it been challenging I wonder? “Although it’s been hectic and harder work than I thought, it’s allowed more freedom than having to put together an album or EP and great motivationally.“
There’s no doubt he’s serious about his craft. “The first few months were quite pressured. There were some songs I wish we could have spent more time on, but couldn’t because of the deadline“ he says thoughtfully. He confesses later to being a perfectionist and very self-critical and so in some ways this project has been a blessing. “You don’t scratch your chin for months on end about a guitar lick, you have to make very quick decisions. I will listen back to my material and find faults with it, but as soon as it’s done, it’s out there, nothing to do with me anymore. It’s unleashed! So, creatively it has been great“.
While successful, the project’s origins come from a darker place. Autumn 2016 was a difficult and uninspiring time for the musician. His group The Mark Mathews Late Night Players had disbanded, although with no bad blood. He was feeling disillusioned with music and hitting the bottle hard. What was going through his mind at the time? “I honestly thought that was it.“ he says earnestly. “I was going to release no more. There would be no more gigs, no more music recorded. I was adamant about that“.
Fortunately, he didn’t fulfil this promise. “Then I wrote a tune and, well that’s the problem with music, it just pulls you back in and there’s no getting away from it“. He retreated to his home in Kent, and stumbled across a keyboard which he taught himself to play. “I’m not reinventing music or anything, but for me it was different to anything I’d done and I started thinking about different songwriting angles. Up until that point I had a formula; I’d start strumming on my acoustic/electric, either coming up with a lead or a chord sequence. Then I’d create a melody, then lyrics. Here, I was coming at it differently. With Grape Juice, I wrote the baseline first. The Informer was written on a keyboard which I’d never played before. That’s when I started to get a bit excited again about music. I needed a shake up“.
It was a difficult but transformative experience for the musician. “I needed to go through that.“ Mark reflects. “I needed to get #NewMusicEveryMonth going because it’s given me freedom with what I can do and explore track-wise“. With eleven tracks released to date, and December’s waiting in the shadows, is there a favourite song for him personally? “I love Grape Juice and Oo La La, but Lost is my favourite. Musically, lyrically it’s very honest. It’s both sad and euphoric. Loads of people will probably disagree, but for me it’s one of the great songs that I’ve written“.
His first album, 2016’s The Raging Sea features standout tracks like Something to Steady Me and, the catalyst to the album, Bye Bye Me. It was written during his travels in Peru, and proceeded from a writing dry spell. He wrote most of the album in the jungle on a tiny acoustic guitar (aided by the spiritual properties of an entheogenic brew called ayahuasca!) and instrumental Breakfast @ The Moloca features sounds of the rainforest and the local children. Other notable work includes the single Someone (from 2014’s Misspent Future EP) whose cover artwork features a rousing black and white photograph of Mark’s family in their local pub. “Those kinds of shots tell a million stories. That’s why I chose it“ he shares.
I’m keen to explore what sparked his interest in music. Aged seven, he listened religiously to a mixtape called “Sixties Mania“ that came free with a packet of Kellogg’s cereal and featured the likes of Manfred Mann. Discovering his mother’s copy of The Beatles’ album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was also a turning point, helping him to understand song writing as was listening to Oasis which encouraged him to teach himself guitar. His love for music has never left; from hip hop to indie, The Avalanches to Royal Blood, Stormzy to Haim. “I’m a lover of music, and so it’s full scale“ he admits. “There’s not really much that I don’t at least give a try“. Currently he’s into Lucy Rose, and Kendrick Lamar and Catfish and The Bottlemen feature regularly on his playlists.
We have an in-depth chat about the perils vs. benefits of social media and busking as a great method to try out new material, plus being open to different genres and sounds and how this can reap creative rewards. Mark shares a interesting example. “Although I love David Bowie, even if I didn’t, in The Man Who Sold the World, he uses a güiro. It’s those little influences [that can make a difference]. I’ll be in the studio and you realise it’s missing something, like a güiro, and you wouldn’t have known that. You have to listen to everything“.
Sadly, it’s soon time to leave the warmth of The Blues Kitchen and head back to our respective commitments. Thanks to Mark’s receptiveness and an interesting life and career to draw experiences from, we’ve covered a heap of topics. From those timeless bands, the closing then resurrection of iconic London venues and having similar musical upbringings, it’s been a compelling interview.
The future is looking bright for Mark and there’s more music coming next year. He’s open to collaborations and has ideas for new EPs for 2018. Once Carrier Bag Your Career is Over is released he plans to get back into the studio and record. “Then I’ll let the universe decide on where it’s going to to lead. That’s the best way of doing it!“ he says brightly.
Carrier bags aside, Mark’s career is in no way over. It hasn’t yet begun.
Interview by Nicola Greenbrook, Portraits by Rachel Lipsitz.
Nicola is a freelance fashion, music and lifestyle writer and has her own website, Material Whirl
Rachel is a freelance portrait and music photographer and has her own website, Little Trousers