We first interviewed Mark Croft in the April 2006 of Rick’s Cafe. he had just won his first awards at the Third Annual Madison Area Music Awards. Re-reading that article amde me realize how far things have come for Croft since then. In the interview he sounds like a relative newcomer, which he was. Croft has lost none of his humility and congeniality since then but it is clear he’s travelled a road that seems much longet than four-and-a-half years. Having just released his fourth CD, Evening Flood (read the review here), and making substantial changes to his methodologies both musical and businesswise, we felt it was time to catch up with Croft.
LS: How do you feel having your own record label benefit you?
Croft: I talked to more than a few industry professionals including some former A&R reps, and even consulted my former label before making this decision, and they all essentially said the same thing; “Don’t bother with a label. Put it out yourself, do the work, and continue to build on your own.” I’ve had my brushes with some major labels in the recent past but never found a deal that was going to be really beneficial to me. The music industry is in a state of transition, and the internet has opened up the industry to the point that being signed to a record label means less and less and is riskier than it used to be. Much of what they used to do for artists can be achieved with a little extra legwork on the artist’s end and some savvy internet use. This being my fourth CD, I felt like I gained enough experience from the past three releases that if I could take what I learned and continued to build my following with a great product, I’d have more ammunition to take to a label if and when I decided that was the right move. There’s definitely some risk with this kind of model, but retaining the rights to the masters and having the freedom to decide what direction I take was worth it at this point.
LS: How will you achieve distribution?
Croft: My main concentration for distribution is through the web. Evening Flood is available through iTunes, Amazon, Napster, and many of the most popular digital delivery sites, and you can order physical copies through my website (MarkCroftMusic.com), at CDBaby.com as well as Amazon.com. I’m looking into a few “physical” distribution companies at the moment but haven’t made a decision about that yet. That being said, as always, it seems to best way for indie musicians to get you’re music out there is to be performing regularly, connecting with the audience, and selling CDs personally at shows.
LS: Can you give a brief recap of who the musicians are on the album and how you found them?
Croft: By and large, the musicians who played on this record were brought on board by producer Anthony JW Benson. Most of them were based out of the Minneapolis area where he has close ties to the music scene, having lived and worked in the area for several years previously. I had 16 different musicians lend their talents to the project, which is a new record for me. It was quite a change from my last record where I used a more stripped down approach and kept it to five musicians, including myself.
The main band was comprised of Chicago-based guitarist Nicholas Markos, who played lead on most of the tracks, bassist Cody McKinney, Jason Craft, who’s an absolute monster on the keyboards, and drummer Noah Levy, who’s been touring with The BoDeans for a number of years. Noah’s also toured with Five For Fighting, and played on Brian Setzer’s latest CD shortly after mine. Jennifer Grimm lent her huge voice to the backing vocals on several tracks, as did Andra Suchy, Stacey K, and Aaron Keith Stewart, and former Minneapolis artist of year, Mary Jane Alm, sang the harmonies on “Good Enough.” I was also fortunate enough to have violinist Jim Price and slide guitarist Randy Casey sit in on a few tunes.
I was really excited about having Tom Tucker mix this record. Tom has worked in the business as an engineer and producer for decades. Back in the day he headed up Prince’s studio Paisley Park, mixing several of his records, and over the years has worked with artists like Sting, Bonnie Raitt, and Shaka Khan. He also won a Grammy for his work with Lucinda Williams. Watching him mix and listening to him share stories was one of the highlights of the experience. All in all it was an incredibly talented group of artists and I was fortunate to have them all on the project.
LS: These musicians are not the players you’ve used on previous recordings or for performance. How does all this sit with your Madison band members?
Croft: Yeah, it was a really tough decision not to use my Madison band members. I spoke with all of them before making that choice and explained what I was trying to accomplish. Thankfully, they were all really supportive and felt that it was the right move. I’ve been playing with them for years and they’ve always done a fantastic job playing with me live and in the studio. They’re a really talented and professional group of musicians and I’m fortunate to be able make music with them. The producer felt strongly that it would best serve the project to use musicians that could take a fresh approach to my songs and that he knew and trusted. He also emphasized that getting me out of my comfort zone would force me to rise to the occasion, escape the distractions of home, and give a performance that would match the level of the talent he was bringing in. From the beginning the goal in bringing on a producer was to end up with record that was a step up from anything I’d done before, and I hoped that taking his recommendation would benefit the recordings. I think we definitely accomplished that goal and it gave me a chance to meet and work with some really talented musicians.
LS: How much influence did Benson have on the proceedings and the music? Was he more than a producer?
Croft: I think Anthony did a good job of staying in the “producer” role. He arranged for the studio and musicians and handled negotiations on that end, and arranged a pretty tight recording schedule…recording and mixing ten songs in six days. We recorded at Masters Recording Studio in Edina, which is part of the Minneapolis Media Institute and was the former site of the famed Flyte Tyme Studios. It’s now primarily a teaching facility and they don’t open it up for private recording projects that often, so we were really fortunate to be there, working with a first class staff and having the students to pop in from time to time to take a listen to the mixes.
Anthony also helped me sift through the songs I had already finished or was still in the process of writing. I had about 20 songs I was initially considering for the record but we quickly shaved them down to 10 or 11. His goal for me was to create a cohesive group of songs that could all fit on a record together and would showcase the songwriting and my performance. We had also been considering recording a cover tune for this CD and after a week of deliberation we decided on Peter Gabriel’s “Washing of the Water.” I’ve been a fan of his for a long time and was glad to that I could cover a song that I resonated with musically and thematically. I got word back a couple weeks ago that Peter Gabriel had gotten a chance to hear it himself and liked my version, which is quite an honor.
Once we were in the studio he took the reins and kept us on schedule. I’ve played a ‘co-producer’ role on all my previous CDs so it was definitely difficult handing over my songs to a producer and saying, “Here you go.” There were some moments of terror and frustration during the recording process, but once Tom got his hands on the tracks and I could hear the mixes I was really happy with what we had laid down. We had some moments of “butting-heads” but I think they were beneficial to the project and a good learning experience. I knew that I would have final say in the end, but I was really pleased with the job Anthony did.
LS: There seems to be more religious references on this album. For instance, the opening track’s reference to Seven Revolutions (what exactly does that mean anyway?) and the frequent references to being saved, as well as the track “Amen & Hallelujah.” Are you becoming more of a religious person and is this becoming a bigger part of your music?
Croft: You’re not the first person to ask me that question, so I guess those themes must be prevalent in these songs. But, no, I’m not becoming more religious, and I don’t consider myself a religious person at all. I’ve certainly become a more spiritual person in the last decade and I’ve been more concerned with finding purpose and making the most of my life. But, I was raised Catholic and went to parochial school as a kid, so I have that religious background to go off of. I think that’s where a lot of those references come from, and I think it’s also in knowing that they’re very relatable ideas to a lot of people. Most people have at least some idea what “Amen” and “Hallelujah” mean and can pretty easily figure out how I’m using them in the context of the song. Oddly enough, that song doesn’t have any religious meaning behind it other than the words in the title. They’re used more to express a feeling of relief or exasperation than anything else.
Being saved does seem to be a continuing theme in a lot of my songs. I’m not sure if that’s something in my sub-conscious that keeps rising to the surface when I write, or something that I just think makes a compelling theme…probably some combination of the two. In some ways we’re all looking to connect with something bigger than ourselves as a way to escape the difficulties of life or to find an expanded view of reality. So it’s also a reflection of me wanting to make the most of this life and having a new and changing view of what “God” might be.
LS: Can you explain a little bit about how this album was funded through the Chipin In campaign? This is pretty unique!
Croft: When I was trying to figure out a good way to help fund this project, Anthony mentioned that he knew some artists that had success with this type of campaign. It was a scary proposition, and I really felt like I was hanging it all out there and taking a big chance on it. What I did was to start a campaign where fans and friends could contribute, through PayPal, whatever they could to help me make the record. I created various levels of donation for people to choose from and each level had different kickbacks, like free copies of the new CD, free T-shirts, or a private house concert. In addition, I donated a percentage of the contributions to two charities I believed in strongly. The earthquake in Haiti had just happened, so I donated a portion to the Red Cross Haitian Relief Fund and another portion to help fund cancer research through the UW Carbone Cancer Center. My sister is a nurse there and I’d played a couple benefit shows for them as well. It definitely felt like a good thing raising some money for these charitable causes and I think the contributors appreciated it. In the end I raised over three thousand dollars toward the record, which was a big help. People really stepped up, and the outpouring of support for me and these causes was really inspiring, and I continue to be grateful for their support.
LS: I was curious about your song “In My Defense.” Is this a reaction to your reception from the Madison music community? And how strong do you feel the Madison music community is and what do you see lacking for artists such as yourself?
Croft: “In My Defense” was a song that I had started writing in early 2009 but never got more than a verse and a chorus finished before I forgot about it. I remember that when I started writing it, I was in a pretty low place and was feeling really worn out personally and professionally. When I started working on new songs for this record I found the lyrics in a folder on my computer and, thankfully, remembered the melody I had started with. I wasn’t prepared to step back into those old feelings that inspired the song, but I knew it was definitely worth finishing. The song expresses such a sense of frustration and hopelessness, and I know that in this day and age there’s a lot of that going around, so I felt that people could relate to it. So that’s what the song is really about.
I didn’t consider how I was being or had been received in the Madison music community when I wrote the song. I’ve always tried to be true to myself and write what I’m inspired to. Hopefully you find the people that are going to like what you’re doing and be able to connect with them in some way. People are going to like what they’re going to like and whether or not EVERYONE likes my stuff is less of a concern to me than making those connections and trying to stay true to myself. I’ve been at this full time since 2005 and have been grateful to make a living doing it. It hasn’t always been easy, but I guess that’s the nature of the business. Madison obviously has a strong music community for a city its size, and there are a ton of talented artists here. I only wish more people knew that. I’d love for Madison to become “The Austin of the North” with live music venues lining State Street, and it would be great if there was a larger industry presence here, but that’s probably wishful thinking right now. Maybe we’ll get there but even if we don’t, I’m confident Madison will keep pumping out talented musicians.
LS: What’s next for you – are you expanding your touring – what else?
Croft: So much of my time and energy over the last year went into making this record so I’m looking forward to getting out there and performing these new tunes. Right now my concentration is on continuing to expand my touring base and making travel a larger focus. Being a musician full time, I always have to find a balance between being able to pay the bills and being out on the road, which can be a challenging place to make a living. I’ve been working with my booking agent for about a year, and now that the record is done, we’re working on hitting the road more in 2011. I’m finalizing dates for a trip to the west coast early next year where I’ll be touring with LA based singer/songwriter Holly Long.
We both made records this summer at the same studio with Anthony and many of the same musicians. We also did a short Midwest tour together in September, so this time I’ll be heading out there for what should be a cool trip Aside from that, I’m continuing to hone my skills on the performance side. This record has really helped me find my focus and gotten me inspired to continue playing music. I knew when I started, that making music was what I loved doing more than anything and that continues to be case. I’m really proud of this record and hopefully big things are on the horizon.