Mark Aaron James – My Mighty MAJic Stick
By: Jamie Steinberg
Q) How would you describe your sound?
A) It’s always tricky trying to describe music. I usually call it “quirky pop for smart people” or I’ve heard it called “geek pop.” I’m never aiming at a specific genre when I write, other than “good.” That said, I’m really happy that it all ends up sounding like me.
Q) Who are some of your musical influences?
A) I was a HUGE fan of Billy Joel when I was a kid. Hearing his stuff in the back of my parents’ car was the first time I understood somebody wrote the songs, had their own sound and that I could try to do that as well. Then, when I grew up I went crazy with a diverse collection of artists. Jellyfish, Barenaked Ladies, Elvis Costello, Van Halen, Indigo Girls, Ben Folds, Del Amitri and James Taylor all jump to mind.
Q) Talk about the story behind your new song “My Mighty MAJic Stick.”
A) That song is really unusual because I wrote it about the album format, after I decided to put my next project on a USB stick. I have this useless stack of CDs that I’ve already imported into various players. When I came up with the idea of releasing this album on a USB stick, instead of a CD, I started experimenting with writing a title song for it. I love alliteration in lyrics, and “My Mighty MAJic Stick” just begged for some funny puns and suggestive lyrics. I also love funk and horn sections, but rarely get to incorporate those into my sound. When I wrote it, I was dancing around my kitchen. I figured that was a good sign.
Q) What do you think it is about the song that fans will connect to?
A) It’s a funky, groovy, three minute, extended stick metaphor with lots of sexual innuendos added in for fun. If you can’t connect to that, what good are ya? Kidding. It’s a fun song with a catchy, clever lyric. I love to sing it. I hope it’s just as fun to hear.
Q) This will be the first nationally distributed album sold via USB flash drive. What does that mean to you?
A) So many musicians complain about the state of the current industry, me included. Still, I try to approach every problem with “How can I be a part of the solution.” I think using a USB stick adds a utility to the physical product that was lacking. New computers don’t even come with a CD drive. It’s always exciting to put new music out. Potentially being a part of “what’s next” just adds to that excitement. We are moving into a streaming culture and there is no way to change that, but this could be the new way people buy physical albums. I’m psyched if I can be a part of that change. I’m really proud of the music on this album and now I’m also proud of the technical side. How often does a musician get to attempt pioneering something? I know the music works. I can’t wait to see if the format works, as well.
Q) Which track off your new album My Mighty MAJic Stick means the most to you and why?
A) The closing song of the album, “Cut That Part Away,” was inspired when I was diagnosed with a rare type of skin cancer. It turned out to be easily treated and not life threatening, but I was really traumatized by having something deadly, on me, that needed to be removed. It made me think of all the friends and family who have had to grapple with cancer and that fear. I also noticed that we all so rarely talk about our weaknesses and what scares us. This song puts that out there. I’m also making a video for it, where cancer survivors offer advice to those newly diagnosed. We have made so many strides treating cancer, so I wanted to approach it from a position of hope. It’s a lot to ask of a song. So, that one means the most to me…
Q) What is your song writing process? Do you need music before you can create lyrics?
A) I usually start with a concept, an idea I’ve had in the shower, or walking down the street and then put into my phone. Then I sit down with my guitar and, usually, come up with the opening lyric, melody line and music all at once. Once the verse and chorus structures have come together, I work on the lyrics separately. I’m really picky about lyrics. I’ve had songs come to me music first, and lyric first, but usually, it’s concept, music and lyric together, then fine tuning the lyric.
Q) How much of hand do you have in the production of your music?
A) For this album, I did ALL of the production. For most of my previous CDs I worked with a really talented producer/musician named Rick Altizer. His work has really shaped my mentality and approach when working in the studio. I also get a lot of ideas from the experimenting that my guitarist, Miles Aubrey, does when he first hears the songs. I have him take multiple takes, in different styles, and then I follow the lead of what sounds best to me. Sometimes I weave them together. This is only the second time in my career that I’ve produced an album on my own. It’s remarkable what the new technology allows artists to accomplish.
Q) What can fans expect from a live Mark Aaron James performance?
A) My live shows have evolved into something pretty unique. While I still do the occasional full band show, that recreates the album sound, I’m more often solo, on an acoustic guitar, using a loop pedal to recreate production sounds and harmonies. Nothing is prerecorded. It’s all looped live. It makes for a dynamic show to see the songs come together via beat boxing, banging on the guitar, and multi-layered vocals. I also incorporate a lot of stories and comedy into my shows. Along with dabbling in standup, I went to school in Nashville, TN, and often participate in the folk music scene so the tradition of storytelling while performing has really stayed with me. I like people to leave a show feeling like they had a really funny conversation with a friend, while sharing some music.
Q) What songs off My Mighty MAJic Stick are you most looking forward to performing live?
A) The song “Badass Unicorn” is a great combination of funny, funky and clever. I end up dancing around like a crazy person when I play it.
Q) Who would you most like to collaborate with on a song in the future?
A) I’m always imagining collaborations. While there is only one co-write on this album, I’ve gotten to write with some amazingly talented people in the past. That kid who worshiped Billy Joel would love to bring it full circle and work with him. Paul McCartney is probably the pinnacle of living music greats so that’s a pipe dream I’ve always had. Of the current chart toppers, I would love to work with David Grohl, Pharrell Williams, Jack White, Pink or Sara Bareilles. I also love it when two music cultures interact. So, if I could accomplish one of those weird parings like Bing Crosby/David Bowie, Johnny Cash/Rick Rubin, Tony Bennett/Lady Gaga, that would be really cool. In that vein, I would jump at the chance to record something contemporary with Dolly Parton, Johnny Mathis, Barbara Striesand, Lyle Lovett, Gladys Knight or anyone who does remarkable work, outside of my box.
Q) You are a part of social media. Why is that such an important way for you to connect with your fans?
A) Honestly, considering its importance, I feel like I’m not doing nearly enough. As I said earlier, I want my shows to feel like a funny conversation with a friend. Social media really helps fans connect personally with the artist. I love that. I’m looking forward to expanding my connections on social media this year. I’m making music specifically to communicate with people. Social media is another way to make that connection.
Q) Is there anything else you want to be sure fans know about your music and album?
A) For this particular album, there’s one cool bonus if you order the physical product, instead of just downloading. (Not that there’s anything wrong with downloading it). Not only do you get a reusable 2G USB stick, the USB stick also comes with a double album of “Greatest Hits” from my previous releases. Also, I’m going to be touring all year and I love to combine my venue shows with more personal house concerts and smaller venues. Reach out if it’s something you might be interested it. I’m psyched to see you guys out there!