Hey Mr Ferryman, the 12th solo album by American singer songwriter Mark Eitzel, emerged from a transient period in his life, when he was shuttling between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
He admits it took the experienced hands of Bernard Butler, former guitarist with the band Suede turned producer for the likes of Duffy, The Cribs and The Libertines, to knock the record into shape.
Not only did Butler take the producer’s chair, he also played all the electric guitar, bass and keyboard parts.
“Basically he made the record I wanted to make but I didn’t know how to find anyone to help me make a record like that,” says the 58-year-old former frontman of cult alt-rock band American Music Club.
“For me it was because I never knew him. I knew of Suede, but that was years ago, so [when the collaboration was suggested] I thought ‘OK, I’ll give it a shot’ and I’m glad I did.”
Butler’s involvement came about via a chance conversation with Eitzel’s English manager as they were collecting their children from nursery school (“They’re both house husbands,” the singer notes.) But the reason the project progressed beyond initial pleasantries, it seems, was very much down to Butler’s willingness to be hands-on.
When I lived in Colombus, Ohio when I just moved back to America I realised the only way to write something with teeth was to take it from real life.Mark Eitzel
“I’ve worked with people before who have famous names and they don’t really have any ideas whereas with Bernard I’d show up and say, ‘Here’s this song, this is what this song means’ and he’d say, ‘No, just play it’. So you play it and he looks at your guitar and says ‘Oh, I know exactly what you’re doing’ and he’ll play some piano and it’s great. It’s sort of like the less talk the better.
“I wrote this one song [Mr Humphries] about [John Inman character in the 70s sitcom] Are You Being Served? and I told him as we were in his studio and he said ‘What?’ Then the album came out and he wrote and said ‘I didn’t know you wrote a song about Mr Humphries, what the f***?’ I guess at a certain point the last thing you need is some artist waffling on and describing their art.”
Butler’s track record of working with artists from the realm of pop particularly appealed to Eitzel. “During American Music Club the whole discussion was ‘Would you make a Bryan Adams record if you could?’ and we were always like ‘Yes, we would’. There’s nothing wrong with pop music, I love pop music.”
Upon Hey Mr Ferryman’s release Eitzel said he thought it was an album for longtime fans of a career that stretches back to the 80s. “I was sort of working to my strengths and not trying to challenge the form too much. I could’ve made an electronic record or I could have done this or that, and I just thought, ‘No, just make a very traditional record’. The path of least resistance sometimes is the one to do.”
Like many of Eitzel’s best records, Hey Mr Ferryman showcases the lyricist’s eye for detail. Still, he reveals, his early musical inspirations were not chroniclers of smalltown life in blue collar America. “When I was a kid it was all about Joan Armatrading and Joni Mitchell and Yes. I was a very boring child,” he chuckles. “I also liked jazz and I loved David Bowie even though my mother had banned him from our house. So I wasn’t really knowledgeable.
“When I lived in Colombus, Ohio when I just moved back to America [after a spell on the English south coast] I realised the only way to write something with teeth was to take it from real life.
“I wrote a song called Somewhere People Are Living and it’s about this bar that was near my parents’ house in Colombus, in place called Lighthall, it’s in a strip mall, and you go into this bar and it’s all captain’s chairs – in America in a bar they have these enormous plush leather seats with wheels and when I sit in a captain’s chair, sitting still, going nowhere, I really like it – so I had to include the captain’s chairs and all the details of the bar. That’s pretty much how I started writing songs.”
Eitzel says he’s a regular note-taker in daily life. Some observations crop up in his songs. “It also keeps your mind focused on what you’re living for. I was in a bar with some old friend and he was like ‘Oh man, haven’t you given up this s*** yet? What is wrong with you?’” He smiles. “So, I haven’t.”
After years of writing confessional songs, Eitzel also recently said he was trying to create some ‘good karma’ by being more measured in his lyrics. He says he felt he had sometimes strayed too far in his writing. “If you think of songs as self-fulfilling prophecies, which I actually do, I imagine being in an old people’s home having somebody sing back to me some tragic song I wrote, I don’t want that to happen. Young and beautiful people can write really tragic s***, it makes so much sense that they do because they’re healthy. When you’re older you get an awful lot more compassion for people who aren’t healthy and aren’t happy, because you kind of have to. You hope others have compassion. So I’m deliberately writing hopeful, positive things.”
Suffering a heart attack in 2010 changed his perspective, he says. “When my parents died that changed me quite a bit,” he reflects. “The when I almost died it changed me quite a bit. Maybe not enough, but some.”
Naturally he is concerned by Donald Trump’s attempts to unravel Barack Obama’s health insurance provisions for America’s poorest citizens. “My health insurance before my heart attack I started buying it for $300 a month, by the time I had my heart attack it was $750 a month and I frankly did not have that much money so I hadn’t paid my bill for two months. As I was having my heart attack I was frantically trying to put money into my health insurance. I was on a website on my phone trying desperately just to put money in there. When Obamacare came in a year later it meant that I could keep my house and I could keep my life. It’s crazy.
“Well,” he adds tongue in cheek, “the rich really deserve our money more than we do, that’s the truth of it. They know what to do with our money better than we know what to do with it. You guys have austerity – why? So the rich can get richer, it’s so great.”
Mark Eitzel plays at Brudenell Social Club on Wednesday, November 8. www.markeitzel.com