Zen and the art of making music
Irish emigrant Mark Geary discusses his apprenticeship on New York's mean streets, competing for an audience with a homeless man, and the reaction he received when he returned to Dublin.
2003 will be a year that Mark Geary will probably never forget. The release of his critically acclaimed album, "33 1/3 Grand Street" confirmed that not only has Mark Geary joined the list of talented Irish singer/songwriters, he is now one of the master craftsmen.
Born in 1974 in a pretty packed house in Dublin, Mark was the youngest of eight children. "It was madness, kill or be killed kind of thing." Like a lot of us who lived through the difficult '80s, it must have been more so in such a big family "Yeah, it was a case of first up, best dressed, I mean if you got a pair of socks you were lucky. I divided my time between school and seven hours of football a day playing in the dark, my brothers were lovely footballers."
And like so many other young Irish people, Mark joined the exodus to America with a green card a one-way ticket and little else "at the time, it was like the graffiti on the wall - Would the last person out of Ireland please turn off the lights!! I wanted and needed to get away because I wasn't strong academic. It's funny because it was only until after I left school that my propensity for learning, reading and knowledge for knowledge's sake consumed me."
While living in Dublin, Mark started to develop his talent, practising for hours in his bedroom listening to music greats like Bob Dylan on the radio; teaching himself cords, finger styles, harmonies, but, in New York, Mark found himself surrounded by master musicians. "I was bombarded with all these serious players, it was amazing, bluegrass, 3-part harmonies, but it all felt familiar to me very doable, that's when I started writing."
Listening to his lyrics, it becomes obvious that Mark is a natural writer and his play on words is brilliant to say the least. He quickly became a big favourite on the coffeehouse scene in the East Village and played regularly in Sin É, owned by his brother. "I realised that Sin É was only going to be open to me if I could really do it. The proof is only in the standing in front of the audience drawing your line in the sand and not dying a death, I didn't want to play there and for it to be mediocre."
Although Mark established himself, his first gig didn't go according to plan, losing his crowd to a legend on the streets of New York. "It was horrendous, Tree Man, this homeless guy who walks around the streets with a huge piece of foliage, came in to Sin É and everyone was like 'hey there's Tree Man'. I would lose my crowd and the money for the tip jar and I didn't know how to win the crowd back."
Despite the best attempts of Tree Man to destroy his career in its infancy, Mark Geary has since moved on. Along the way, he found himself playing with the likes of Jeff Buckley, Elvis Costello, Coldplay, and Billy Bragg. But it was with fellow singer/songwriter, Josh Ritter, that Mark did his first major tour in the States. "I had heard of him and he heard of me and I went to see him. I mean Josh is such a sweetheart, we hit it off and he asked me to go on tour with him, I couldn't say no."
The tour also took Josh and Mark to Ireland and it was here that, looking around the audience, it was quite clear he was making a big impact. "I couldn't stop smiling, it was like 'holy shit people are screaming and I'm the support'." Playing with the Coen-ish Ritter, the two became close friends and this performance was one of the highlights of the 2002 music calendar. Mark insists though that there is no master plan. "But I always thought I had a chance playing with Josh, in that the audience were there to listen to the beauty of the melodies and the lyrics and, to be honest, if I have a crowd like that, I am laughing."
He also counts Glen Hansard as one of his closest friends. "With Glen, it's different, the more I hang out with him the deeper it gets, I notice when people see me with Glen, it's like - who the fuck are you to be with Glen, because, let's be honest, he's a fucking legend."
"33 1/3 Grand Street" is Geary's debut album here. It is a very mellow, acoustic mix of love, loss, happiness, and sometimes morbidity, but there is no doubting that it is a collection great songs. The title, apart from being a record by George Harrison, was also the location where five of the songs off the album were recorded. Three of these, the wonderfully named 'Obi's Chair', my favourite 'Adam & Eve' and probably the next single (after the radio single 'Suzanne') 'Gingerman', are simply great songs. "I love it, I think it's a great record. I went for something organic and it's not as left of centre as I thought it was."
Lyrics such as "down on the floor you realise, that caterpillar crawls and butterflies" from 'Gingerman', and "God doesn't know me, or answer my calls, he don't know me from Adam, or Eve at all" show Geary's writing ability. "For all my songs, especially 'Adam & Eve' and 'Volunteer', it was almost like a mantra that wouldn't leave me until I wrote the song."
The album itself though is not only made up of a few great songs and then the rest, it is an album of good and great, full of personal thoughts, reflection, and sadness. "I am an emotional person and have emotions in me under wraps, so this music is like my pressure valve that I can tap into and say things that, at times, I can't say the way I should. There is something kinda odd about a guy who can reveal in front of an audience something you would have difficulty saying to a family member."
It is clear Mark is a very emotional person. Having played at the Twin Towers a week before the atrocity of 11th September 2001 on the Summer Stages in Central Park, Mark teamed up with Denis Leary, whom he has know for a few years, and put on a benefit concert in Arlene's Bakery. "I was about 20 blocks away when it happened and we thought it was a movie set. There is a huge amount of Irish involved in the firefighters in New York and I knew people that died. I wanted to do something and this was the answer to the riddle in my head of what I should do as a New Yorker. America went to war then, but New York was still grieving, I am horrified by the Bush Administration and what's happening now scares the hell out of me."
Since his tour here in February and the release of the album, things haven't slowed down. He's been working on the new single and video and touring in the States and Barbados and toured Ireland "I signed up for this 100%, blood and bones, but it's lovely; it's all great. As a singer/songwriter, you do two things, play and write and it's something I just love doing." Mark still finds time to relax "I watch a lot of football, love reading, I'm very zen, it's funny actually, because my favourite way to relax is to write and play music, it was always my saviour, my drug of choice and when I go there I am happy, content."
by Greg Hughes
Mark Geary plays Witnness on Saturday 12th July.