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Whispers of the Plains: Marcus Singletary

Marcus Singletary released the excellent “Smokin'” earlier in the summer which we loved here at HPM. We were able to get to chat with Marcus about the album and the processes behind it.

Congrats on the new album Smokin’. it has a really distinctive sound and vibe.  Now it’s done, how do you feel looking back on the journey making it?

One of my favorite activities in life is producing music, and I excel at it even though I would attribute the further enhancement of the music featured on the disc to its rhythm section – one comprised of bassist Cliff Starbuck from the Ohio-based jam band Ekoostik Hookah and former Doobie Brothers drummer Chet McCracken.  Both can be considered classic rockers, and they immediately understood the direction of the music I was writing at the time.

Tracking the horn section was difficult because the musicians seemed somewhat uncomfortable in what critics may classify as unfamiliar musical terrain.  Production expertise comes into play at such times, though, and there is musical merit in the results that were ultimately captured.  In reflection, Smokin’ is a by-product of discipline, dedication, and patience – as well as actual talent regarding everyone involved.

Has any music or genre in particular influenced your style?

Early on, I consciously sounded like the Rolling Stones because I tried to write songs that I thought were Stones soundalikes.  In particular, I always enjoyed Mick Taylor’s guitar playing, and I would spend hours learning his riffs from albums he appeared on such as Sticky Fingers.  Later, I started listening to Led Zeppelin and spent years contemplating Jimmy Page’s production techniques.  Presence, in particular, is one of my favorite albums.  I cite Sly Stone and the band Chicago’s guitarist, Terry Kath, as influential also.

When you’re writing a song do you have a particular writing process or do they just come and when?

I try to get into the head of the “average listener,” as the tunes that stick within society’s collective memory, regarding commercial appeal and popularity, impact everyone on a personal level and not just a single demographic.  I write lyrics and music separately and match them up once the frameworks for each are complete.  Afterwards, I’ll stop work on it and return to it later.  If I can play it through, at that time, without referring to the written notation, I keep it. The lone exception on Smokin’ is “Psychedelic People,” which was composed in fifteen minutes, total, as a challenge to myself to break free from my own self-established conventions.

How did you come across the fantastic vocal production that’s used on the album?

The result stems more from experience than from fortune, as each vocalist brought a unique set of experiences to the table cultivated long before this particular project was conceived.  Female vocalist Renee Yalley has previously performed on the Chicago blues scene, and Vincent Unto is notable for being the lead singer of the popular 1970s R&B group “Executive Suite.”

My main vocal influence is Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes, although I also enjoy listening to Marvin Gaye, Jim Morrison, and jazz singer Arthur Prysock, whose name rests in relative obscurity today.

Do you have any plans to play live and tour the album at all?

The CD release party was held at the Viper Room in Los Angeles on the same day that Smokin’ was released, and I’m returning to the club in August.  I’d love to play in the UK, though, as UK audiences can relate to music inspired by the greats of classic rock – many of whom hailed from that geographic area of the world.

If you could jam with any other musical artist from any time who would you choose to rock out with and why?

Ravi Shankar – the consummate musician, performer, and teacher – as he could very well be the best musician who ever lived.  As someone who improvises a significant amount, onstage, I have always appreciated Shankar’s virtuosity in the area of theoretical knowledge.

Another player on that list is Lolly Vegas, the founder of the first Indian rock band, Redbone.  Fortunately, I was able to make contact with him before he passed on, but many of their albums – especially Message From a Drum – are legendary for being filled with great examples of “outside-the-box” guitar playing that I’d recommend to anyone interested in such music.  From Smokin’, “Meditate” is a tribute to him as I perform the sitar line on guitar just like he used to on tracks like “Come and Get Your Love.”

I was largely influenced by my mother, a Native American and female fan of both of these artists.

If you could magically learn a new instrument overnight, which one would you choose and why?

I’d play the saxophone because of the instrument’s wide range of colorful, far-reaching tones.  Players such as John Coltrane and Charlie Parker created the blueprint for modern music with their use of indiscriminate power phrasing over atypical chord charts that may or may not utilize a particular time signature.  In rock music, groups like the Allman Brothers, the Grateful Dead, and Phish were the result of such musical innovations.

I recall writing, back in third grade, an essay on the complexity of Brubeck’s extended composition “Two-Part Contention,” stating that my goal, at the time, was to rearrange the track for audiences in a manner similar the psychedelic rock groups that incorporated jazz-based explorations into their music,  Perhaps I will revisit that concept again but, regarding Brubeck, “Take Five” became his “signature tune” but was written by Paul Desmond on saxophone.  The track is still considered a standard today, whereas most of Brubeck’s own compositions are long forgotten.  This helps prove the theory that the saxophone is one of the most important melodic instruments.

Other sax players I admire include Alto Reed, Bobby Keys, Clarence Clemons, Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, Jr. Walker, and Edgar Winter, who performs slippery sax lines on one of my favorite tunes, “Tell Me in a Whisper,” which was later covered by Sergio Mendes.  Check it out.

What’s coming up in the pipeline for Marcus Singletary?

My next studio project will take the form of a concept album inspired by projects such as The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, Tommy, and records by ELO including Out of the Blue – classic discs containing a wealth of material lush in orchestral variance that manages to give the fans the most for their money as the respective groups’ individual styles are expanded and reshaped by the addition of artistic flourishes and theatrics.  Stay tuned.

How are you going to unwind after the release whirlwind is over?

Robert Fripp once said, “Discipline is a vehicle for joy.”  Consistent discipline and motivation are the keys to finding success in life, as stagnation can easily kill a career.  I prefer staying busy and limiting my “rest and relaxation” periods.  Regardless of what I am doing, though, I am always giving one-hundred percent of my attention to it as my audience deserves nothing less.

We’d like to thank Marcus for taking part in a very insightful interview. Smokin’ is available from CDBaby for a physical copy, or on iTunes and Amazon for the digital release.

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