Hailing from Ann Arbor Michigan, Mark Jewett has been recording country-tinged roots rock since 2008. Describing his latest album, The Lucky One, as a “product of gratitude,” Jewett expresses profound and humble affection for everyone he’s met over the course of his life – “family and friends, two- and four-legged, living and passed” on every track. On the whole, the album balances on the razor’s edge between wistfulness and sentimentality, fondly looking back on the past without getting mired in it. Strong musicianship and an honest, earthy vocal delivery make The Lucky One an album worthy of multiple listens.
You’ve been recording music for a while. On Bandcamp, your earliest release dates to 2008. What got you into music, and what has your musical journey looked like?
The 2008 release is from the last band I was in before I started writing. I didn’t write any of the songs, but I played bass, sang harmonies and was involved in developing some of the arrangements. It was never released on any digital streaming platforms. We had the chance to work with a really good producer, who consequently produced my first two solo releases. I learned a lot from him.
What got me into music? I’ve been interested in music for as long as I can remember. In 4th grade, I wanted to play drums, but my mother vetoed the idea and I took up trombone. When I got to high school, I wanted to do something more widely applicable and started playing bass.
My musical journey… One might say it’s been a long, strange trip. That, or a series of shorter trips, each with their own beginning and end. I joined my first band while I was in college to have fun and to make a little extra money to live on. I left home at 18 when I went to school for electrical engineering, so you might say the extra money wasn’t really so “extra.” I chose that field because I was strong in math and science and it seemed like it was adjacent to development of musical electronics. I actually wanted to go into recording engineering, but in 1974 there really weren’t any schools for that. All the labels I contacted recommended finding an internship in New York or L.A., but I didn’t have any contacts, so I followed the EE path.
The first couple of bands I was in were made up entirely of friends I knew in high school. They were strictly cover bands, but they chose a lot of great, lesser known covers. I liked that. We did a lot of free form jamming in the early days too. Someone would play some chords and everyone would follow (or not!) It was interesting and challenging. Often it was garbage, but every so often something amazing and beautiful would spill out. I think that’s where my desire to create started.
Eventually, an opportunity came up when a couple of my friends had teamed up with a songwriter in the area. They were recording some of the writer’s originals and got to the point where they needed a bass player who also sang, so they called me. That took off as a side project that turned into a working band. We work a lot for a few years. Eventually, the band unravelled and the wheels were falling off. It’s a lot of work keeping it together and I was ready to move on.
In 1981, as the band was showing signs of deterioration, a friend of mine called me about an engineering job that aligned nicely with my background. I applied, interviewed, and got the job. I also met the apple of my eye in that workplace. I found a better paying job, got married, we bought a fixer-upper house, fixed it up and had a couple of kids. All the while, I was unintentionally drifting away from playing music. Before I knew it, about 25 years had passed. Long story, short version: I got re-involved in playing and attended a songwriter retreat in 2008. The whole process really felt like a calling and life has been different and better ever since. I’ve now recorded and released an EP and two full length records of my own songs and I jump on just about every reasonable performing opportunity that arises.
The tagline on your Bandcamp page reads “music without boundaries.” What kinds boundaries are you thinking about here, and why do you eschew them?
Well… That’s a pretty old tag line, but it still applies. I often see genres as have boundaries and I don’t fit entirely or cleanly into any one of them. Some people land in a genre and you can pretty much count on their creations to fit within it. I do not. The ideas I feel worth pursuing are all over the map, just like my favorite music over the years. Sometimes I write relaxed, mid-tempo ballads. Sometimes I write rowdy novelty blues numbers. Most recently, I stepped outside of those categories into progressive rock arrangements that might be reminiscent of Pink Floyd or Evanescence. I think I have other itches I haven’t scratched yet, so we’ll have to see what develops.
The subtitle to The Lucky One is “(the album).” Is there another component?
“The Lucky One” is also a single, so the subtitle is just there to make a distinction for publishing and distribution. I don’t really have any other follow-up components planned.
You’re also in the middle of a live video project. Can you say a little about that?
The first thing I can say is, the video project is overdue, largely due to the pandemic. The band on the latest records is fantastic. We want to perform together and I have reached out to many venues and festivals for bookings. The recordings are really solid, but we are unknown and no one is gambling on unknowns coming out of the entertainment industry-crushing pandemic. If they don’t know you, everyone wants to see video before booking, so I booked a rehearsal day and a recording day and we shot live video of four songs. It’s just us playing entire old school live takes. The footage is in the hands of the videographer now. Hopefully, it will satisfy enough talent buyers to get us out in front of more audiences.
I love that you mention both “two- and four-legged” friends in your description of the album. How do the four-legged friends show up in your work?
This one is pretty simple. Hopefully, we all have two-legged friends that mark our lives better. Regarding the four-legged friends, my wife and I love dogs. Always have. Always will. We’ve had 1, 2, or 3 of them at a time for nearly the entirety of our almost 39 year marriage. On holidays, with family around, we’ve had as many as 7 of them in the house. Every one of them has been a great companion and friend. When I was writing “The Lucky One,” it was borne out of gratitude for a few very special friends that have really made a positive difference in my life. Coincidentally, one of our dogs, Max, was fighting a battle with kidney failure that was taking its toll on him. We didn’t know how long he could fight it. It turns out about 3 years was all he could handle with treatments. One night, at around 4 am, I had to let him outside. As I stood on the porch, in the moonlight, waiting for him, I felt awful about what he was going through, but I remembered that we’d had about 12 great years together. I knew he was grateful because he showed it every day. It struck me that it was important for me to have gratitude for those years too. From that moment on, the gratitude has been with me and it’s spreading into the rest of my life. The 4 paws on the CD and case represent Hector, Comet, Max, and Toby.
I find the track “Warren Zevon’s Birthday” to be particularly moving. It caught my eye, of course, because I love Zevon’s music, but the first verse, in which (spoiler alert) you relate the fact that your father died on the musician’s birthday really moved me. I’m also struck by the fact that your reaction to that coincidence isn’t to turn it into a “life-lesson,” per se, but to remark that you don’t know what it means. Which, I suppose, speaks to your approach to the album as a whole. You seem comfortable with uncertainty and allowing the mysteries of life to go unsolved. Is that a fair assessment?
I too, love Warren’s music. Both he and my dad passed in 2003, but Warren was still alive on his own birthday, January 24th. As an aside, I think his last appearance on Late Night with David Letterman, when he was acutely aware of his imminent demise, is the most powerful display of the human spirit I have ever watched on television. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend watching. I digress, so back to our discussion… After Warren’s passing, I made it a habit or a ritual to listen to his music on his birthday. I kept it on my calendar. Concurrently, as one might expect, my family always remembered the day of my dad’s passing. After many years of sharing the date with memories of each, it struck me. My father died on Warren Zevon’s birthday. Once I said those words to myself, I wondered if it meant anything. I didn’t know and I still don’t know, but that’s okay. They both existed in the same time, though my dad was 25 years older. My mind went to examining their similarities and differences and that’s the song.
When you stated that I seem comfortable with uncertainty and allowing the mysteries of life to go unsolved, you hit the nail on the head. I feel strongly that this is the key to my inner peace. It applies to so many facets of life, including spirituality. If I’m meant to know or if I’m given the tools to figure things out, fine. If not, that’s fine too. Humanity spends far too much time arguing and fighting over what individuals or groups of people believe to be true.
The Lucky One came out in 2021 and features a number of musicians. How did you record it? Was COVID an issue?
The Lucky One took two and a half years to record, much longer than planned, largely due to the pandemic. The latter stages of recording were done in permissibly smaller subgroups, when vaccines became available and between pandemic surges.
Billy Harrington, Amy Petty, and Dale Grisa were already friends of mine and are highly sought after super talents in my part of the world, so I asked them to join me. Billy is a producer as well as a very good drummer. He and I had lunch and talked about my project. I asked him to produce it and he said yes! We collaborated extensively, but it seems like we were on the same page 99.5% of the time. He brought in Michael Harrington on steel and other guitars and Ken Pesick on bass, knowing their skill sets and tastes. They fit the project perfectly. I made an 11th hour decision to scrap the last song on the record and wrote a new one, Voices. As soon as I had a demo in the can that demonstrated the vibe, it begged for violin. Through an unlikely sequence of events, I was reminded of Sonia Lee. I reached out, sent her a demo and asked if she would play on the track. She agreed and I love the result. She’s quite literally amazing.
One thing I like about the album is that it feels intimate—like it’s just you and a guitar—yet you’re playing with a full band. How do you find that balance?
Billy Harrington and I, along with the recording engineer, Geoff Michael, made a conscious effort to “keep the main thing the main thing.” All of the tunes started with my guitar and voice and I think we preserved that feeling. It’s also important to recognize that all of the players have excellent taste and discretion. They instinctively know what and when to play and when not to play. Thanks for noticing!
I know that you play with different lineups—ranging from a six-piece band to solo work. How do you approach playing with the different configurations? What dictates how you play?
The lineups I enjoy the most are duo and full band. These are like the bookends of my creative outlet desires. Almost everything I write (I feel) is better with some vocal harmony. Amy Petty is a sensational singer and writer. I’m not exaggerating. We co-wrote Guilty, which was a really exciting recording adventure. We have great chemistry and great fun together, on and off stage and we have an unbelievably large overlap of interests and tastes in music, life, and food. Especially cheese! She is one of those special friends I alluded to earlier. We accompany each other and have a blast playing duo shows together.
Full band performances are more like an amazing dream, creating sounds I could only vaguely imagine when I wrote each piece, only better. I regularly get chills when I hear what everyone contributes. Unfortunately, band performances that compensate everyone fairly for their time and talents are harder to find. I hope to improve our odds with the videos we discussed earlier. On top of that, each of the core band members, who I collectively refer to as “The Strategic Advisors”, is in high demand and usually booked well into the future on weekends. Amy is an active solo artist too, with a band of her own. I recommend listening to and buying her music! (amypettymusic.com)
What’s on the horizon?
On my horizon, I see more booking, more attempting to build a following, more writing, more recording, more woodshedding and hopefully, more personal growth!