Songfacts interviews Mark Addison, December 13, 2011

According to ASCAP, Mark Addison has written or co-written 187 songs. One of them, “Mercy Bound,” was recorded by the folk legend Joan Baez for her album Gone From Danger. The song was then recorded as the title track for an album by singer-songwriter Edwin McCain. It’s the song that keeps on giving.

At his Austin studio, The Aerie, Mark has racked up recording and production credits by the fistful. He’s worked with Honeybrowne, Hanson, Guy Forsyth, and Platinum Irish musician Mundy — and that’s just scratching the surface.

Mark had a taste for fame, but found the recognition wasn’t worth the industry sleaze. The creative side is his sweet spot: helping other artists achieve their musical goals is his passion, which means more creativity and a lot less hype.

The Creative Side with Mark Addison

Nick Tozier (Songfacts): Thanks for talking to us, Mark. How’d you first get involved with music, and how’d that lead you to open The Aerie?

Mark Addison: I started piano lessons at the age of 6 at the insistence of my father who was an orchestral and ballet conductor, opera teacher and director. I had just moved from England to NYC with my family and piano lessons didn’t do much to ease the culture shock… I hated them, and the theory lessons at the Cleveland Institute of Music that followed (we had moved to Cleveland when my father was asked to start the Opera Department at CIM).

I played in rock bands from the age of about 17, which was to be my partial salvation, as I would have otherwise been destined to be a friendless, odd foreign kid. As it was, I took to it like a fish to water, and joined Buzzy Linhart’s band soon after high school, a band that was destined to become The Generators – an early ’80s institution in Cleveland, and the model for “The Barbusters” in Paul Shrader’s movie Light of Day. Sometime around 1977 I got my first production gig, producing an EP for local Cleveland folksinger Ken Metz.

I floated through bands in Cleveland until I moved to Los Angeles in 1989, where I continued my fledgeling production career and eventually formed the group The Borrowers, which lead to a publishing contract with Rondor/Crossfire and a record deal with an EMI label. I co-wrote with a number of people including Maia Sharp (daughter of Randy Sharp) during her early years which led to the occasional album cut (Cher, Paul Thorne, Maia and a few others).

The Borrowers seemed to be playing in Austin, Texas quite a bit, and I eventually moved there. Still writing, and producing more and more frequently. Eventually I disbanded the Borrowers when I realized I liked being behind the scenes much better than being an “artist.”

I had been recording in the basement of a huge old ranch house on 93 acres just south of Austin. When that was sold to make way for a housing development in 1999, I found my current place. I recorded in the new house for a few years before I was able to construct the Aerie tracking room in about 2004. My studio and house sit high on a hill near Austin, with a 360 view of the surrounding countryside and downtown Austin, hence the name “Aerie” – the nest of an eagle, a house built high on a hill.

The control room, with the 1979 Quad Eight Pacifica console, occupies the master bedroom at the rear of my house and is hard-wired to the tracking room. In the 15 years I’ve been in Austin I’ve produced well over 100 records for local/regional/semi-national artists such as Will Sexton, Matt the Electrician, Sara Hickman, Carrie Elkin, The Band of Heathens, Guy Forsyth and Bob Schneider, along with albums by Mundy and Noellie MacDonnel from Ireland and a few others who drifted in. I also wrote and recorded a few records with my (former) partner Nina Singh under the name Kitty Gordon, of which one song ended up on a Gene Simmons solo record. I’m currently wrapping up the new record by Jess Klein, who moved here from New York City two years ago. This will be my second record with her, and I’m very excited about it.

Songfacts: You’ve got 187 songs to your credit, according to ASCAP, with cuts from some very visible names like Joan Baez. It’s clear you’re not just an instrumentalist; you’re also very good at writing lyrics and putting well-crafted songs together. How is writing alone different from co-writing? What’s it like writing with different personalities and skill sets; what do you bring to the table in different situations?

Mark: No, I’m not just an instrumentalist although I do play a lot of them. I was a writer before I was ever in a band – I think I wrote my first song at about the age of 14. I rarely write by myself anymore because I’m not that into the “listen to me, because I’m an artist and I have something to say” mindset – not to disparage that at all, sometimes I wish I still felt that way, but for me, there were a lot more song ideas when I was in my twenties than there are in my fifties.

Having said that, I’m quite good at helping a songwriter realize a song, and I frequently write with artists I’m producing. In fact, writing sessions often lead to the production gig – it just makes sense. I have one co-write on Jess Klein’s new record, and generally write a lot with Fred Andrews from Honeybrowne when I’m working with him. I just wrote a song with a young artist I co-produced with Fred, her name’s Caitie Taylor, and I think she’ll do well.

I guess at this point I’m a craftsman more than anything else; I don’t have any ego to feed when it comes to writing, so I’m able to be quite helpful and productive. I can contribute musical and arrangement ideas if that’s what a song needs, or I contribute lyrics if that’s what’s called for. At some point, writing, arranging and producing seem to blur together, which is fine with me.

Songfacts: Do you gravitate toward any particular instrument while writing your own songs? You’re not advertising yourself as a bouzouki player, but I spotted a bouzouki credit or two…

Mark: As I’m co-writing most of the time, we’re using whatever instrument the artist plays. Again, at this point, I’m there to fill in the blanks. There are a couple of exceptions – I came up with the hook for Guy Forsyth’s “Long Long Time” one night, straight out of the blue. I taught it to him the following day, gave him a piece of paper and a pencil and said, “you have half an hour to bitch about anything and everything you want.” That became the verse lyrics, which weren’t sung as much as spoken. The single was wildly successful on a local level and got some important recognition.

I am a collector of musical toys; toy pianos, air organs, stringed instruments such as dulcimer, balalaika, bouzouki as well as various whistles, flutes and percussion thingies. I love to hand an artist some instrument they’ve never played or maybe even seen before and say “play it on this.” You have to inject creativity from time to time and I find this is a great way to do it.

Songfacts: You’re big in Ireland. What was it like working with Mundy?

Mark: It was great, Mundy is everything I like in a singer and songwriter. I would love to work with him again. I was very pleased when the album went platinum in Ireland.

Songfacts: We’d love to hear about how you wrote “Mercy Bound.” What inspired you? Did you draw from imagination, memory, both..? Where were you when you wrote the song, and what was the process like?

Mark: I wrote “Mercy Bound” soon after I moved to LA. I was struck by how rich and poor lived almost side by side. The distance between the super rich and the unbelievably poor was never so obviously wide even though they lived within blocks of each other. It changed the way I looked at life forever. And the runaways, the homeless were so much a part of the scenery. I think I borrowed the opening melody from a Joan Jett song – can’t remember which one. That song was the cornerstone of The Borrowers only album, although it wasn’t much like the rest of the record. Maia Sharp sang with me on the demo and the studio version.

A year or so later, I was lucky enough to be in the good graces of my friend Brendan Okrent at ASCAP when Joan Baez was looking for a final song for an album, and gratified when she chose “Mercy Bound.” I joined her tour for a day or two and found myself onstage with her at the Newport Folk Festival that year, which was a blast. I am equally jazzed that Maia Sharp turned Edwin McCain onto the song. First time I’ve had a title track!

Songfacts: I see that you cowrote “I Need This to Be Love” with Maia Sharp. That’s an unusually realistic and honest lyric.

Mark: Maia is a very detail-oriented songwriter; everything has to be logical and make sense, yet she has a penchant for finding twists and turns, and loves playing with phrases and finding new ways to say things. I love writing with her, because it brings that side of me to the forefront and reminds me how cool it is to be a really disciplined lyricist. And I have a wild side that seems to dovetail with her craftsmanship. It’s a great team.

Songfacts: “Somebody Beautiful” is a brilliant character sketch. How about that one; what was the process of writing that one with Nina Singh? How’d it end up in Gene Simmons’s hands?

Mark: Nina played a gig in Dallas and told me about this guy/girl she met, and it seemed to touch her. I think we were sitting on my porch in Austin and just talking about it, and… there it was. We wrote the song in about 4 minutes. I’ve produced and co-written with tons of people and one of my clients sent this song to Gene Simmons. Gene was cutting a solo record and reaching out to young independent songwriters for material. He came out to the Aerie to cut a vocal on the client’s track, and I gave him the Kitty Gordon record. A week later he called me, asked to purchase the tracks for “Somebody Beautiful,” and put his vocal on it in LA. Haven’t heard from him since, but he’s a really smart and interesting guy, although his directness would offend anybody. We had a photographer on hand who took a photo of Gene sitting on the toilet, giving us the finger. Unfortunately, the photographer was a freak, and refused to give us the pics. A loss for the world.

Songfacts: What are the advantages of being a behind-the-scenes craftsman as opposed to an artist? What aspects of being a performer didn’t fit well?

Mark: I realized after some years in the industry that I wasn’t equipped to be the sort of self-promoter that most successful artists are. I hated the game, the schmoozing, the politics and the cloud of hype, narcissism and desperation that seemed to permeate the industry. It made the music seem an afterthought. I have nothing but respect for those artists that are successful at this – it requires nerves of steel and a streak of self-confidence and determination, and a love of the game.

To tell the truth – I also got bored quickly – playing the same songs every night, dealing with touring etc. I realized that the only part of the whole process I really liked was the creative side – making records.

I tell people now – “this is the perfect life – I work out of my house, and I get to join a new band every month!” Things rarely get stale this way.