Eitzel sings the blues

MARK EITZEL’S deep voice shakes with emotion.

“A lot of younger musicians tell me it’s a new world,” says the American singer-songwriter. “Well, I used to live in a world where artists got paid for their work. A world that took musicians about 40 years to get to.”

Rested up in a hotel in Belgrade, the 53-year-old is in the middle of a low-key rant (even when mad he cannot bring himself to shout).

The subject of his ire is Spotify, the music streaming service recently launched in Ireland. To Eitzel’s chagrin, Spotify offers full, no-strings access to much of his solo output, in addition to the acclaimed albums he released with his band American Music Club.

Eitzel feels he is not adequately remunerated and wants his songs taken down. “Streaming sites basically use your material for free,” he says. “They become millionaires, the musician gains nothing but exposure. And they won’t allow you simply give them a couple of songs. They want everything.”

The counter argument is that streaming services help artists reach a wider audience. Eitzel rolls his eyes. “They [streaming services] put music in a format people want to hear. However, it doesn’t do me much good. It’s not going to make me any more popular. It makes them richer, though. The day your record is released it goes up on those sites. Think about it, how many times do you listen to a record? Twenty times maybe? So instead of purchasing an LP and listening to it 20 times, nowadays people just stream it 20 times. What good is that to me?”

Money has been on his mind a great deal lately. In 2011, Eitzel wrote a batch of songs, for an American Music Club project. However, a planned reunion fell apart so he tried to persuade a record label to put the tracks out as a Mark Eitzel release.

Everybody said no, even Merge Records, which he had worked on and off with through his career.

“I couldn’t get a deal as Mark Eitzel. I could only get a deal as American Music Club. They want it to go out as American Music Club because, that way, they’ll sell more records. From their perspective it’s a no-brainer.”

He didn’t know where to turn until a friend of his manager won the Oregon Lottery and offered to cover recording costs for what would become his Don’t Be A Stranger album.

“Had that not happened there is no way this record would have been completed,” he says. “I didn’t have enough to finish it on my own. There was no other way for me to get the money.”

Eitzel sighs: “That’s how it works now. You do everything you can to get the money, knowing nobody is going to buy your music. With this album, I had done a lot of it on computer. Then we went into the studio and re-imagined it with real musicians. That takes investment.”

His career has followed a bittersweet trajectory. In the early 1990s, American Music Club were critics’ darlings personified. Reviewing 1992’s Everclear, Rolling Stone proclaimed Eitzel “America’s greatest living songwriter”. Around the same time, the single Johnny Mathis’ Feet was a cult hit in Ireland. With Nirvana bringing alternative music to the mainstream, big things seemed to await. Commercially, however, AMC never made good on that early promise. The record predicted to catapult them into the charts, 1994’s San Francisco, was dark and introverted.

Eitzel did not appear inclined to abandon his discursive mannerisms and pen an old fashioned hit (traditional verses and chorus structures have always struck him as redundant). He wasn’t that kind of songwriter; pandering was not in his vocabulary. The zeitgeist moved on and AMC found themselves back where they had started (the major record label to which the group was signed believed Eitzel coming out as gay had not helped and, indeed, pleaded with him to declare himself bisexual).

Eventually the group drifted apart. Eitzel enjoyed a somewhat successful solo career in the late 1990s and 2000s (1996’s West was produced by REM’s Peter Buck).

Looking back, though, does he feel working alone does not suit his emotive songwriting style? He needs others to rein him in, curb his flights of despondency and romanticism. Which is why he sought out Sheldon Gomberg (Ryan Adams, Warren Zevon) to oversee Don’t Be A Stranger.

“I like working with other people. Sheldon brings a level of irony and indifference to the process. He doesn’t try to blow smoke up my skirt. I appreciate that. He tells me, straight out, whether it succeeds on not.”

Eitzel has suffered poor health recently. At home in San Francisco two years ago, suddenly he felt “an elephant sitting on my chest”. He rang some friends. One happened to pick up and drove him straight to hospital.

It turned out the singer was having a heart attack.

This hasn’t diminished his tremendous work-rate. He is halfway through a trek around Europe and arrives in Ireland this month for a four-date tour.

He has complained in the past that the endless travelling musicians must engage in to earn a living can become a grind. This trip has had more mishaps than usual. For all that he is chipper.

“We’ve been on the road about a month. It’s not so bad. The first week I got a terrible flu and I left my passport in a city 70 miles away from where I was when I realised it was gone. It took six hours by train to retrieve it. Then our drummer fell over something and broke his hand. So that first week was really ‘ugh’. Getting my voice back has made its easier. If you’re a singer, nothing is worse than not being able to sing.”

* Mark Eitzel plays Workman’s Club, Dublin, Thursday, Feb 21; Cyprus Avenue Cork, Feb 22; Cleere’s Kilkenny, Feb 23; Róisín Dubh Galway, Feb 25.


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