Chosen One: Mark Fry
Interview with Mark Fry.
English singer-songwriter Mark Fry is best known for his psych-folk masterpiece ‘Dreaming With Alice’ released in 1972. In recent years the cult classic has received deserved recognition and universal acclaim, having been championed by the likes of Jim O’ Rourke and Four Tet’s Kieran Hebden. A new audience has been introduced to the awe-inspiring talent of a true artist. Some 39 years later, ‘I Lived In Trees’ was released last year on the Second Language label. This ethereal folk gem was the result of a collaboration between Mark Fry and The A. Lords (Michael Tanner and Nicholas Palmer), recorded in Dorset, Normandy and Oxfordshire. I was privileged to interview Mark Fry about his life and music, offering an insight into the creative mind of a painter and musician.
Words: Mark Carry, Painting: ‘Triple Counterpoint’, Mark Fry
‘I Lived In Trees’ is an album I hold very dear to my heart. Released last year on the Second Language label, the vinyl itself is a work of art. Illustrations of trees, birds, leaves, rivers, blue skies and a glowing moon lovingly grace the album’s sleeve, designed by renowned Italian illustrator Iker Spozio. The music, composed by the A. Lords (Nicholas Palmer and Michael Tanner) creates such beautiful and pastoral landscapes of sound, evoking dreams, childhood, loss and our very existence. The instrumentation of spanish guitar, piano, harmonium, accordion, bouzouki, clarinet, banjo, mellotron and bells creates a divine tapestry of sound, (courtesy of the A. Lords) that meanders like a river flowing into the sea. Gorgeous notes of harp (Aine O’ Dwyer), flute (Jess Sweetman) and strings (Steve Bentley-Klein) adds to the utterly timeless feel that flows throughout ‘I Lived In Trees’. The poetry of Mark Fry’s lyrics are painted on the A. Lords canvas of heavenly crafted sound. Mark Fry/The A. Lords is a collaboration of like minds from different generations. Palmer and Tanner would send Mark Fry some instrumental pieces they had composed and recorded in Dorset. Fry was taken aback by the beautifully constructed music and unusual arrangement, steeped in a feeling of loss. ‘I Lived In Trees’ was soon given its wings. Fry, alone in a little studio, would record the vocals at home in Normandy. This deep communication between artists ensued; a pathway formed between the English and French countryside. Working with the A. Lords, Mark Fry found his “inner musical voice again” and the resulting work ‘I Lived In Trees’ is a testament to the many creative minds that brought fleeting dreams to reality.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of Mark Fry’s debut album ‘Dreaming With Alice’, released with (tragically) little fanfare in ’72. The album is a psych-folk masterpiece that has transcended time and is today seen as one of the most enigmatic albums of all time. Similar to Linda Perhacs’ cosmic folk opus ‘Parallelograms’, the album has become a treasured gem, many years after the teenage Fry recorded his compelling batch of folk songs in Rome, Italy. For the years that followed, Mark Fry has been constantly immersed in art, through the mediums of paint and music. In the words of Mark Fry; “For me, painting and music have always walked hand in hand.” Years later, in 2006, ‘Dreaming With Alice’ was re-issued and introduced to a new generation of audiences, finally receiving its deserved recognition. Justice was done. This served as a catalyst for the songwriter and musician, giving him the encouragement to keep going. Several years later, ‘I Lived In Trees’ was shown the light of day-a haven of sounds, textures and feelings. Fry’s affecting lyrics painted on the A. Lords’ poignant dreamscapes. A collaboration made in heaven. Let your mind wander across “the mountain snow”, “the high streams” and “follow the moonbeams” that guide you home, “down to the lowlands.” Soon, you will be lost in the pools of you mind. A true masterpiece awaits you.
Congratulations Mark on your truly wonderful new album with The A. Lords ‘I Lived In Trees’. Several decades have passed since your classic psych-folk opus ‘Dreaming With Alice’ was released (back in ’72) and it’s a beautiful moment to see recently, a new body of work of yours given wings to see the light of day. It’s a real honour for me to have the opportunity to ask you a few questions about your life and music. Funnily enough, my first introduction to your music was only months ago, as opposed to years. In my local recordstore I saw the beautiful vinyl of ‘I Lived In Trees’ gracing the shelves and I immediately picked it up. Since then, your music has been played consistently, providing my daily soundtrack. The album is a thing of pure beauty, with words and music so utterly transcendent.
Tell me please first of all, about the making of the new album ‘I Lived In Trees’.
The making of I Lived In Trees was very much a collaborative work – Nicholas Palmer and Michael Tanner, aka the A.Lords, approached me in 2010 to see if I would be interested in working with them. They began by sending me some instrumental pieces they had recorded in Dorset. At first I thought the music was all too folky and slow for me – but I very quickly heard how beautifully constructed it was, and what unusual arrangements they had – they ached of a lost England, beautiful and evocative pastoral landscapes – I soon became hooked. I recorded the vocals at home in Normandy, alone in my little studio. And that’s where the process began, sending files to and fro – we worked like that for almost six months before we eventually met.
You are both a renowned painter and musician. You have said “For me, painting and music have always walked hand in hand.” I can imagine your music must feed into your painting and how through the act of painting songs would come to you. I’d love to get an insight into this dichotomy of worlds and the creative process that lies therein.
Henry Moore once said that it is a mistake for an artist to talk very often about his job because it releases tension needed for the work – I sort of understand what he meant, the fear that some magical energy might escape, and get lost in the analysis. Painting and music have always felt very close for me, the only real difference between the two is the nature of the materials you are working with. For me, one is a chaotic process of wrestling with unruly paint, marble dust, chalk, beeswax and turps – the other like trying to tempt a flying bird out of a clear blue sky to come and land on your shoulder – they are just different ways of trying to tell a story.
There was a time in your life, maybe around ’77, when you focused your time on painting but importantly, you never stopped writing songs. Are the songs on ‘I Lived In Trees’ these very songs that you were writing all your life?
No, not really, but in a way yes. If you’re lucky, surrounding stimuli will bring to the surface things that have been lying dormant at the bottom of your creative well. My contribution to this album was triggered by the beautiful music The A.Lords sent me. It was my role to see if I could find a way into these instrumental pieces – find the song within the song, to let myself be carried away by the strong visual nature of the music, and hope I could return with a good lyric and a vocal line that would reinforce and give the music an added sense of place.
The nine songs on ‘I Lived In Trees’ are nine works of art. The words are sheer poetry. Do you write with the music in mind or are they both separate entities?
In this case I was responding solely to the music as a separate entity, but trying to melt into the poetry of the A.Lords musical language – sometimes it came very spontaneously, at other times it felt like walking in wet clay and took forever to find the narrative – the structures and metre of the pieces often felt like a secret garden I could not find the door to – but I was determined to discover what lay beyond.
Themes of life, memory and existence flow throughout ‘I Lived In Trees’. The music matches your lyrics, note-perfectly with this heavenly tapestry akin to dreams and memories. What are these songs about for you?
The music often suggested to me a sense of loss, and I tried to tap into that feeling – which sometimes lies in the hinterland between waking and sleep – it’s a space that holds a special kind of dimension for me. I often write music very late at night or early in the morning – if you’re lucky you can catch yourself unawares then.
Listening to ‘I Lived In Trees’ I can hear a painter’s voice. Beautifully rich metaphors are etched on the cosmic-folk canvas of sound. The words evoke such vivid imagery and worlds onto themselves. Nature metaphors are wonderfully embedded in your songcraft. I’d love to gain an insight into your mindset as a songwriter?
I see music in a very visual way – it has colours and shapes and smells. When I’m writing songs I am in a sense painting at the same time (not literally, but almost – there’s a lot of paint on my guitar!) The song will quickly transport me into a very vivid picture – almost like a technicolour film running in my head.
You have lived in Normandy, France for a lot of your life. What effect has living in this place had on your art?
I once thought that I would like to go on a spiritual retreat – then I said to myself ‘hey, you ARE on retreat’ It’s very quiet here, I live an almost monastic existence during the week. I need solitude to work successfully.
If we go back for a moment to 2006 when ‘Dreaming With Alice’ was reissued. You have said that this served as a catalyst which encouraged you to keep going. Tell me about your feelings and thoughts on firstly, your musical revival (commercial-wise) and secondly, your difficulty to keep going under (relatively) unknown commercial status? I mean, in terms of music there’s simply no justice at all that an album like ‘Alice’ was so long under the radar and the album has stood the test of time that conveys how utterly timeless the music is.
When Alice first reappeared in my life, I thought that if I just keep my head down the whole thing will blow over and I can quietly get on with painting. But it didn’t blow over, it just kept crunching along like a fairytale snowball. Eventually it seemed crazy to resist having another adventure with Alice, and to see where she would take me. It has taken me quite a long time to find my inner musical voice again – working with The A.Lords helped me greatly in getting back on that path.
I’d love to hear your memories of the early 70’s and the beginnings of ‘Dreaming With Alice’. In 1970, you set off to Italy to study painting but took your guitar with you and ended up recording ‘Alice’ in Rome. Please take me back!:)
I arrived in Italy in the summer of 1970 and enrolled at the Academia delle Belle Arti in Florence to study painting. Italy was in an anarchic frame of mind in the early seventies, nothing really worked (one of the first words I learnt in Italian was ‘sciopero’ which means strike) – the art school was often closed, and if it wasn’t on strike it was on holiday celebrating an obscure saint’s day – as students we were lucky to get a two-day week.
By early ’71 I began to feel I was wasting my time at the Academia and left. All during this time I had been writing a series of songs – Some Italian friends took me down to Rome and introduced me to RCA studios. I played some songs to some rather stiff looking A&R men in suits in an office, and I was offered a ten year contract. I signed on the dotted line, it felt like signing my life away.
There are similarities with your album ‘Dreaming With Alice’ and Linda Perhacs’ ‘Parallelograms’, another timeless psych folk gem from the 70’s. It’s a similar story shared too in the way both albums have taken on new significance as a new generation embrace the album.
What do you make of the music industry today and what are the differences between now and then?
The music industry as we knew it then has completely imploded – but some wonderful and innovative labels have sprung up to give artists a new home, like Second Language, who released I Lived In Trees. They are doing all the things that a big label could never do. Their beautiful and creative approach to packaging is quite stunning, and there is a real ethos at Second Language which is inspiring for the artists involved. The big difference between now and then, is that ‘then’ it was almost impossible to get your music recorded and released without the infamous ‘deal’ but now (for better or for worse) almost anyone can record in their kitchen and put it out there.
Staying for a moment with ‘Alice’. ‘Dreaming With Alice’ flows throughout the record, in the form of verses, scattered across ten tracks. I’m intrigued to know how you came about to record ‘Alice’ in this way?
The chopping up of the verses of the title track and splicing them between the songs was a post editing job – I received a phone call back in England long after I had finished recording the album from the producer in Rome, saying they had this idea in mind, and would I give them clearance to go ahead – I thought it sounded like a great idea, and it worked very well, although the edits are quite rough.
Forward to 2011, I love the title track and opening song, ‘I Lived In Trees’. The music is dream-like, matching the nostalgic feeling of childhood memories etched in your lyrics. The opening verse so perfectly captures childhood; the innocence and freedom one feels as a child. Was this the first of the songs that shaped the new album?
Yes, it was one of the first songs that came to a happy resolution. I had a scrap of a lyric lying around from a song of mine that wasn’t quite working ‘When I was a boy I lived in trees’ it was a little germ of an idea. I spent a lot of my childhood up the top of trees dreaming on my own. Anyway, I tried singing this line to the instrumentation and it felt like the lines had always belonged – the music became a tree and I was in it, all I had to do then was peer through the branches and the rest came swiftly – it was a very special moment.
Tell me please about the gorgeous musical interlude closing the song ‘All Day Long’? The spanish guitar lead melody evokes spring and new beginnings for me. The piece builds with layers of bells, percussion, strings and flute that is very touching.
I agree, it’s a beautiful and mesmerising passage – Nick Palmer wrote and played all the instruments on that section (except for a little bit of harp by Aine – and the strings were added later by Steve Bentley-Klein in London). It’s one of my favourite moments on the album too, it takes you on a wonderful meandering journey.
A lyric “lost in these mirrors of time” is sung on ‘All Day Long’. The song itself has the slow-feel of a stream’s trickling flow, reflected in the lyrics:
“I gaze down the stream, of what might have been.” The song is reminiscent of ‘Time’ by Tom Waits. Tell me please about this song.
When I heard this piece it immediately conjured up for me a slow, lazy river, weaving its way through water meadows. When I wasn’t dreaming in the tops of trees, I was wading up and down rivers when I was a boy – fishing for trout, searching for hidden moorhen nests, playing ducks and drakes – I closed my eyes and remembered those days, a man looking back at his life in the reflections of water – through the fractured prism of time.
My favourite song at the moment is ‘We All Fall Down’. Your vocal delivery is sublime. Your voice just melts into the sonic canvas. This song feels it was done in one take, such is its directness and immediacy. Was it a straight-forward process to record?
Nick Palmer, Michael Tanner and Aine O’Dwyer (who plays harp) recorded this song in Michael’s kitchen in Dorset, and then they sent it over to me and I put the vocal on. At first I found it one of the most difficult pieces to find my way into – I wrestled with it for months. At about the same time I was listening to a lot of Kurt Cobain, and had his song ‘Something In The Way’ on my mind. At some point I found myself turning that line around, to ‘There’s nothing in the way at all’ suddenly a door opened – it was the key to finding a path into the song, and then I found myself in a surreal, baroque landscape of kings, fireworks and wandering minstrels.
The album closer ‘Taking Wing’ is awe-inspiring. Simply to read the words alone is so rewarding. What does this song represent for you?
Every spring the swallows arrive on the farm in Normandy to breed in the barns, and every year they bring with them the mystery and magic of their secret migratory journey – they reunite you again with the sky in a wonderful and joyous way after the long winter months – and yet there is a great sorrow in their voyage.
What inspires you today to make your art; to write songs and to paint?
I think inspiration is really a by-product that comes from the act of working – which is an engagement with life. If I didn’t work and pursue the things I hope I’m good at, I wouldn’t have much to offer – a longing to ‘make’ something is part of that desire to give something – it’s the fundamental root of the creative process, the thing that keeps you going.
What are your current plans and future projects, Mark?
I’m working towards a show of my paintings next year in London, and playing some gigs in Tokyo next spring. I’m also working on The Dreaming With Alice Songbook with illustrations by Iker Spozio who did the wonderful artwork for I Lived In Trees – the book should be out in the new year. And I’m recording again…
Are there more collaborations with The A. Lords on the horizon?
Nothing’s planned with The A.Lords for the time being.
Thanks very much for your time, Mark. Best wishes, Mark.
It was my pleasure!
The painting Mark Fry very kindly let us use with this interview is titled ‘Triple Counterpoint’, which Mark describes as ‘one that follows a musical theme I’ve been working on for some years.’
‘I Lived In Trees’ is out now on Second Language Music. For information on Mark Fry’s music and paintings, please visit: http://www.markfry.co.uk