By Daniel Ford
Music is constantly being shared back and forth at Writer’s Bone.
The common themes that tie together all of the artists and genres we listen to are honesty and originality. After recently devouring his album “Nowhere to Land,” I can definitely say that it doesn’t get more honest and original than singer/songwriter Mark Whitaker.
Whitaker, armed with a banjo and a voice as smooth as a single malt, tackles heartbreak and the human experience in his beautiful album, which has been on repeat more often than not in my office.
“Forgive me for trying to love you the best I can,” he sings. “Cuz I’ve been flying around for a lifetime with nowhere to land.”
I think I can speak for most of the Writer’s Bone crew when I say, “Amen!”
Whitaker graciously took some time from planning his upcoming tour to answer a few of my questions about his early influences, the inspiration behind “Nowhere to Land,” and the art of songwriting.
Daniel Ford: When did you realize you wanted to be a musician?
Mark Whitaker: It’s hard to say. There’s no distinct moment in my life where I consciously decided to become a musician. I’ve just always been active with music in one form or another since my early childhood. My current situation feels the same. I’m writing songs and seeking opportunities to perform, but I still tend to think of myself as just a guy who likes playing music, rather than a bonafide musician.
DF: Tell me a little about your love for the banjo. When did you start playing it? Did you have posters of Steve Martin on your walls as a kid?
MW: I started playing banjo around 2002. My friend’s mother gave me an old banjo she never played and I immediately fell in love with the sound. It had a sharp, metallic texture, but also a warmth that seemed to scratch an itch I didn’t realize I had. No Steve Martin posters, but I had plenty of his movies on VHS.
DF: Who are some of the artists that influenced you early on?
MW: My earliest music influences were Michael Jackson, The Beatles, George Winston, Danny Elfman, and Brahms. I also had a good amount of Andrew Lloyd Webber drilled into me because my dad would cue up the “Phantom of the Opera” soundtrack for dinner each night, which contained some oddly frenetic pieces for dinner music.
DF: You lived in a couple parts of the country and now make your home in Boston. Why did you make the decision to move here and how has the city influenced your music?
MW: After I graduated from Earlham College in Indiana, some friends and I took a road trip along the East Coast looking for cities to potentially live in. We were looking for a decent-size city with a rich music scene. We settled on Boston, and it has been home ever since. The Boston music scene has had a huge influence on me. No matter what style of music I’m interested in, there seems to be a surplus of musicians to connect with and learn from. I feel both grateful and spoiled.
DF: You’ve played in a variety of groups, but have focused more of your energy on writing and solo work the past couple of years. What are the advantages and disadvantages of both?
MW: The advantage of being a sideman in someone else’s group is that you get to show up and play music without the burden of writing the songs, booking the gigs, coordinating rehearsals, etc. And if you pick projects with music and people you enjoy then there isn’t much of a downside. Leading your own project is more work, but in return you get to realize your own musical ideas.
DF: You sell your album “Nowhere to Land” directly from your website. Why did you decide to distribute it yourself rather than going through more traditional channels?
MW: You can purchase my album through places like iTunes and Amazon, but I decided to make it available from my website as well and to direct people there first. I figure if people are considering downloading it, then why not cut out the middleman. There’s something simple and sensible about buying music directly from the musician, especially now that technology makes selling directly more convenient. But this is all an experiment for me and may not be the most effective way to share my music.
DF: Speaking of “Nowhere to Land,” I had that song on repeat for most of a recent Friday afternoon. What was the inspiration for the song?
MW: I’m so glad you like it! “Nowhere to Land” is meant to capture the sense in which life is a constantly changing process. We strive for stability in our careers, our relationships, our identities, etc., and it’s perfectly reasonable to do so. But no matter how stable our lives become, time doesn’t stop for us. We’re still always going somewhere. It’s just a strange feature of our circumstance and “Nowhere to Land” is my way of acknowledging it.
DF: If you had to pick one of your songs that defined you forever, which one would you choose and why?
MW: My first instinct was to pick “Nowhere to Land,” but I think I’ll go with “Nightlight.” I like that it’s simple, straightforward, and perhaps more widely relatable. It’s basically just a song about having a tough time and finding consolation in loved ones.
DF: What advice would you give to up-and-coming writers and singer/songwriters?
MW: I think it’s important to find your own relationship to songwriting. Many people have strong opinions on how to write good songs. Some have strict views on third-person narrative versus first-person songs, whether to show versus tell, coherence of lyrics, etc. Some think you should always be writing songs to keep the writing muscles in shape. These are all ideas worth exploring, but your own creative instincts should be the driving force for your own music. If you like writing intermittently, that’s fine. If a certain tense speaks to you more than others, that’s fine too. Be willing to follow your instincts even if it parts ways with conventional wisdom. You never know what interesting things you might discover.
DF: Name one random fact about yourself.
MW: I have an irrational fear of frogs.