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Mark Williams
Mark WilliamsMark Williams writes songs with haunting melodies and memorable lyrics. With his band, Blue Horse, these songs are full of energy and intensity, with improvised instrumental sections and heartfelt musicianship. Emotion is one thing Mark never leaves out of his songs. I've been playing bass with Mark for about a year and asked him a few questions about songwriting.

Roy: What is your songwriting process? When you sit down to write a song, what happens?

Mark: My process differs from song to song. When I was young, in my teens and early 20's, I would lock myself in my bedroom or garage and sit down and try to create. I remember writing 2 or three songs in one day during those sessions. Most of the songs weren't very good but the bad ones cleared the way for one or two songs that were pretty decent. It was a great learning process. Now, it's different. I sometimes just get a line or a melody pop in my head and I take it from there, allowing the songwriting gods to send it to me and then I craft it and work on it, sometimes for hours and sometimes for weeks or longer. It is really magical, the way songs come out of me. When writing you can sit down at noon and then a minute later look up at the clock and realize 4 or 5 hours have past and you have a song. Often though, I will work on the lyrics for weeks or try to find a little musical change that adds something to the song. And there have been times when I've awakened in the middle of the night from a dream in which I'm playing a song I've never heard. I usually run to my recorder, turn it on and try to remember what I was singing and playing in the dream.

Then there are those times I'll be listening to someone else's song and it will inspire me to write. That's how "Crawl Across the Holy Land" was written. I was in my car when Steely Dan was on the radio. I can't remember which of their songs was playing, but as I listened the phrase, "as I crawl across the holy land" kept popping into my head. I got home, went into my music room and wrote the whole song in less than an hour. It just poured out of me. Other times I'll just put chords together to improvise to and I end up liking the progression and slowly a melody will start to come to me, sometimes with a lyrical phrase. I never know how long the gestation period will take, could be hours or months before a song is born.

Roy: How much time do you generally spend on a song?

Mark: As much time as it takes. I have songs that have grown and morphed over the years. I have songs that have taken an hour to write and songs that have taken 2 years to write. Sometimes I take a lot longer on the lyrics, trying to get the right verb or adjective. Or I'll clean up the metaphor. Though sometimes I'll just use the words the way they've come to me. I feel as if there was a reason they came that way.

Roy: Has your songwriting process changed in any way over the years? What have you learned from previous songs you've written?

Mark: As I mentioned above, the process is always changing. Songs are gifts from the unknown and I'll take them anyway they come. But I always try to treat them with respect and give them all the attention I can to get them to the point were I'm proud enough of them to perform them in front of an audience. I've learned a lot over the years. I'll take my time to edit and choose the right words. I've even taken some of my oldest songs and redid most of the lyrics. I've done that with "Tonight I'm Trying to Make it Through". I'm glad too, it's a song that goes over really well at live shows.
And one of the main things I've learned is, keep it simple and edit.

Roy: Name a few of your favorite songwriters and why they are important to you. What have you learned from them?

Mark: John, Paul and George, Bruce, Neil, Bob Dylan, Steve Forbert, John Prine, Sufjan Stevens, Jackson Browne, these are some of the songwriters I love to listen to or grew up admiring. I also love Santana, Miles Davis, Mr. and Mrs. Coltrane, Beethoven, and so many others. I also love listening to music from other cultures and languages. If it's a great song you don't have to know the language, the emotion comes through and really speaks to you.

Roy: How do you deal with criticism?

Mark: Ahhh, criticism! I use to take it hard but I actually have learned a lot from it (depending on who it comes from). When I was writing songs in NYC I had two main critics, my future wife and my cousin. Both extremely talented artistic people who I have a lot of respect for. I would sometimes play one of them a song I'd just written and they would never hold back their opinions. They would rip a song to shreds if they didn't like it. They'd send me back to the drawing board to rewrite. And I'd be fuming mad, cursing to myself "Fuck them, what do they know". But ultimately I'd end up with a better song.

I'd written "Found Out in Brooklyn" back in those days and a New York newspaper had run an article on me using some of the lines from that song. My cousin read the article and said, "what a terrible choice, those lyrics suck. You can do better than that." So I rewrote the song. And I was so happy I did.

When my CD "Ghosts of Eden" was released at the end of 2004, I was very anxious about reviews. I would have been sick if the album got panned. Luckily the 3 or 4 publications that reviewed it gave it good to rave reviews.

Roy: Can a song change after you play it in front of people? Does playing a song in front of an audience influence your songwriting in any way?

Mark: I do rework songs after playing in front of an audience. If the response was tepid after playing a new song for an audience, I'll often rework it or drop it from the set list. But songs always change when performing live. When playing with my band we always improvise and jam so songs can change from one show to the next. Also depending on who is performing with me the songs can sound very different. I love hearing what other musicians do with my melodies and rhythms.

Roy: Do you ever deal with writer's block?

Mark: I try hard not to deal with it but sometimes I find it lurking at my door.

Roy: Your live shows feature a cellist. Were any of your songs written with cello in mind? How did you come about deciding to add that particular instrument into your overall sound?

Mark: Actually I have written songs with cello in mind. The opening for "Crawl Across the Holy Land" is an example. But I have also written instrumentals specifically to feature the cello. I love the warmth and soulfulness of the instrument. It gets to the heart of what I am feeling. I originally had a violin player for Blue Horse but when she left the band I rethought about what I wanted to fill the void. I didn't want a new violin player, it wasn't really the sound I was looking for, but the cello offered me a wide spectrum of sounds,  those dark, deep tones that can evoke the emotions I strife to convey. I was lucky in finding Linda Minke and also playing with Tahira Wittington and Victor Huls.

Roy: You write for film and theatrical productions--How is that different from songwriting? How do you prepare for that?

Mark: That creative process is inspired by the visuals of the film or play and the dialog. It is really an emotional understanding of what the script demands. You need to be subtle and work with the nuances of the film. It is also a very collaborative affair. I always discuss the music and moods and textures with the playwright or director. As a composer you try and capture their moods and hopefully surpass their expectations. Also what is different is the flow of music. The beginning, middle and end aren't based on verses and choruses but on the movement and characters of the film or play.

Roy: You also write a number of instrumentals. Is there a different process involved with writing an instrumental compared to a composition with lyrics?

Mark: I don't think the creative process is that different. I have to be inspired by something when I dream up a song. What can be different is the structure of the song the ebb and flow of it. Most of my instrumentals have come about from writing for plays or films, but some of them were written to capture a mood I was in. All my songs are created to capture a mood or a feeling, to release my thoughts and emotions (or as in film work: someone else's emotions) whether they're written with or without lyrics.

Roy: Any advice for someone new to songwriting?

Mark: When I was a kid just starting out, I recorded a cassette of song that I took with me to a Harry Chapin concert. I handed the cassette to a roadie who said he'd give it to Harry. A couple minutes later the roadie came out and told me Harry Chapin wanted to talk to me. I went back stage. Harry was tuning his guitar and asked me to sit down. We talked for a few minutes and he said, "be true to yourself, don't listen to the critics and if you really love it, don't give up." So I'll pass on that advice.

Roy: What do you have planned for the future?

Mark: I hope to get out a new CD soon and to keep writing and performing, and be true to myself, and as Harry advised "never give up."

For more info on Mark, to listen to some mp3s and for a calendar of where he's playing next, go to his MySpace page: http://www.myspace.com/markwilliamsandbluehorse

You can buy his CD at CD Baby right here: http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/williamsmark