Mark Geary: “Just See How It Moves You”

On Friday September 14th, songwriter and scorer Mark Geary takes to the back room of Coughlan’s for an intimate show, but for a man on his fifth long-player, intimacy is far from unfamiliar territory. Ahead of the gig, Mike McGrath-Bryan sits down for a chat about gigging with Jeff Buckley, changes in the label model, and the future for artists.

“I remember the morning I left Dublin, my mother wouldn’t speak, too upset, crying so much. It’s crazy how some details stay vivid.” Some people are just inherent storytellers, and with over twenty-five years of experience and five solo albums under his belt, Mark Geary more than has the experience on which to draw, answering in suitable fashion the question of his initial excursion to New York in the early nineties, to pursue his craft. He continues:  “I had a bag I had sold two guitars, both of which were gifts, to make the flight money, which broke my heart. Also, that it was a one way ticket: those desperate moments, where choices are limited. I had no job and no prospects of one. I had a beautiful girlfriend, who protected me from some of the darker moments in my life. I had an address and $100 in my pocket, that got me two days and then I would have to find work. I had been playing guitar for a little band in Leixlip. Great people, I learned so much. I had played most of the venues in and around Dublin. At the Dublin was broke, broke and broken. I didn’t know anyone who wasn’t on the dole and being creative. Please don’t think that was some creative utopia, it absolutely wasn’t.”

At nineteen years of age, then, the culture-shock of landing in New York and being immediately situated at the centre of folk music and singer-songwriters at the time must have been terrifying, but if the goal was to improve, being plonked alongside the like of legendary troubadour Jeff Buckley in the Sin-é venue at such a tender age was an excellent way of getting one’s mettle tested. “New York completely made me. Almost like it gave me armour. The speed of the place, the people, the posturing, the grandeur. And the brutality and how violent it could be. The lightning bolt of realization of what I didn’t know, couldn’t know and wasn’t able… and I learned that the list of things I wasn’t able to do had better be addressed, and fast. The Sin-é cafe, my brother Karl’s place along with Shane Doyle, the coffee house scenes of the East Village and the Lower East Side. You could hustle a show in these places for tips. The trick was to get songs together and get my shit together, to be on the stage. It may sound odd but the greatest help I was ever given, was that I was offered no help whatsoever. ‘You wanna play here ? How many people can you bring!?’ ‘Oh I don’t know anyone.’ ‘Well, you better start getting to know people who might wanna come hear you.’ And really, that’s how it began. Just playing and playing.”

Playing regularly at the venue, as well as clubs around the city, rapidly sharpened Geary’s wits and skills, working with the likes of Buckley and an all-star cast of musicians that passed the venue’s doors. “Sin-é was in full swing, I just happened to land at that moment. I would wake up. And go straight to the cafe, sometimes opening up the place. I always remember how there was always something coming up – a band on the way and an event to go to, it felt like it was the center of the universe. All young people believe in such things… it became clear to me that I needed to go and get beat up (laughs)! Musically speaking, what I mean by that is, that I just hadn’t played in front of audiences, and really had a few songs. So I needed to grab as many gigs, and learn and learn, and fucking die a death on stage, and then go out after work and do it again.”

Geary revisited his roots thereafter, with a 2003 live album recorded in New York City – what was it like to see that whole time in the rear view mirror, so to speak? “It finally started to feel like a  ‘home game’. I had to leave Ireland in order to learn how to play, and to have lived a bit, in order to write about what I had seen. So returning to New York, I guess I was attempting to showcase what these ‘lullabies’ had become. A thousand gigs later, I had become just enough comfortable to be able to be present and at ease. And my friends were there to witness it, and to share the moment with me.”

Geary’s debut solo album was the starting point for SonaBLAST! Records out of Kentucky – at square one not only for a relatively busy indie label, but taking that risk right as labels had the change in business model thrust upon them by technological advances. That must have been quite something. “I was actually bartending at the time the label was founded. Gill Holland, the label’s founder and my lifelong friend, basically on a wing and a prayer, and a book called ‘Record Labels for Dummies’, set up the label so I could record my first album. I had four songs recorded just on my own and Gill funded the rest. No plan, no contract, just a handshake at 4am over eggs and bacon. I remember people I knew getting very serious record deals, lots of money advances, etc. Those bands have broken up and even those labels. But I’ve continued to make music, movie soundtracks etc., the odd movie role along the way. That’s crazy, right? So, I think that’s the way forward. Be everything. Be creative in everything, make art, make coffee, make food, make shapes.”

Newest album ‘The Fool’ released last year, Geary’s fifth studio album in all. With the finished product now done and dusted, he muses on the protracted process of the record. “This one took a while – three years in the writing. I’ve been playing in lots of places, new audiences etc. Such a shot in the arm for me. So I was only interested in the new sounds and songs, as they came. You go to the guitar and you see how you’re feeling, see if there’s anything that’s been left by the song fairies (laughs). A little phrase, a chord you hadn’t heard that way before. That’s how you do it. Few weeks with Karl Odlum and Dave Hingerty on drums, making noise and playing with ideas. What starts to happen is I start to join the dots, like there’s a pressure to finish. I work better with a gun to my head. During the recording I wrote three songs in one morning/early afternoon. By evening we had tracked them. Amazing, really. You start to commit to the lyrics and scribble as you go.”

Also renowned for his scoring work, including the like of Sons of Perdition, Geary is unusually brief on the process of scoring, and how it differs from the usual vagaries of songwriting for one’s self. “Totally different animal, which I love. You learn how to serve the movie as opposed to serving the song. It’s wonderful to sit with notes on the film and just see what moves you.”

Geary is playing Coughlan’s next month on Friday 14th, as part of his latest round of homebound touring. He’s drawn to the Leeside city by familiar names and faces. “It’s always been special, it’s always been important, and if you don’t know that – someone in Cork will tell you fast enough (laughs). I’ve been traveling for gigs for years now. The Lobby, the Half Moon, Crane Lane. Coughlan’s has become the go-to place – the people there, the kindness and appreciation shown has always been such a balm to me.”

As if to leave on the storytelling note he came in on, Geary finishes the conversation on a story, as closely told as to an old friend. “The story from the Lobby, when I was just starting to play back in Ireland, we made a deal of it, but it was really quiet. We’d pull the gig, but if more than five people came then we’d go ahead with the show. There were four payers on the night, actually, two couples, which was great. We waited and waited, and still no one, until this guy fell up the stairs and kinda slumped in the corner. Neither at the gig nor out – so he officially made five, and the show went ahead (laughs).”

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