Tracking the Muse
Singer-songwriter Brian DeMarco on inspiration, creativity and being Don Quixote
Flagstaff LIVE! Cover Story By Ryan Heinsius
Brian DeMarco can be an intense guy—and also one of the warmest human beings on the planet. A prolific creator, DeMarco has logged a lot of time by himself, cranking out songs that take him deep into the recesses of his psyche. As an artist, he maintains a constant amazement with the vast mysteries of elusive inspiration all artists attempt to beguile into their corner during the moment of creation.
A veteran songwriter, singer, bandleader, guitarist and harmonica player, DeMarco logged several years as one of the hardest working musicians in Flagstaff. During his six years living in Flag, DeMarco performed nearly every night some weeks and fronted multiple bands including, most prominently, the bluegrass-folk-Americana band Second Harvest and the electrified-bluesy Joe Banks Band (named after Tom Hanks’ character in the movie “Joe vs. the Volcano”). He also played solo acoustic gigs in nearly every local venue, performing his numerous hyper-literate folky tunes that explore the outer reaches of human consciousness, mining the endless depths of broad subjects like love, life, freedom and gloriously aimless wandering to create a DeMarco-specific mix of Delta and Chicago blues styles, rambling hobo folk, occasional driving rock and a variety of experimental sounds. And then, in 2006, DeMarco hit the road troubadour style and stayed out for almost two years playing gigs all around the country and living out of an RV. He eventually landed in Austin, Texas, where he hung out with former Flagstaff guitarist and bandmate Clay McClinton, returning to Arizona a year later where he’s resided since.
This Saturday, DeMarco will release his eighth official album called Notes from the Underground. The 11-track disc is full of the sometimes-harshly self-effacing songwriting that DeMarco has made his trademark, but it has a more sophisticated and polished edge to it than much of his previously recorded material. Just off the heals of his 2009 album Solitary Bird, Notes will come out just as DeMarco has broken ground in the studio on yet another album, Portraits from Memory, slated for release next year. Recorded in Phoenix with producer Otto D’Agnolo at his Chaton Studios, DeMarco enlisted valley dweller and E Street Band guitarist Nils Lofgren to contribute accordion and six string to Notes, adding to the album’s unmistakable musical authenticity.
Catch Brian DeMarco live at a party celebrating the release of Notes from the Underground Sat, Nov. 20 at Charly’s, 23 N. Leroux. Playing with DeMarco will be Flagstaff guitarist and songwriter Dave Logan. The show starts at 9 p.m. and expect a to-be-announced cover at the door. For more info, call 779-1919 or see www.briandemarcomusic.com.
Ryan Heinsius: As a longtime artist, what has kept you going and wanting to continue your musical quest even though, for anyone, it’s a very difficult road?
Brian DeMarco: It’s like a strange, inexplicable compulsion. It’s like going down the rabbit hole, and it’s become a very personal journey, more so now than ever. It’s like a way to explore myself and my world. It’s a way of understanding that all of what’s happening inside is being reflected outside. So I guess I see it as some kind of spiritual journey, and I could no sooner function without music and expression any more than I could without food or water.
Taken this way the difficulties or challenges of this path simply become the experiences necessary for the exact growth required, and so are no longer difficulties, but rather exercises perfectly adapted to my needs.
You’ve always been a very prolific songwriter and crank out new material with great regularity. How do you edit down what you produce? Is there some sort of test you have to know whether a particular song will make it onto an album or the live rotation, or do you just put it all out there?
My editing process is primarily one of intuition. I just sort of feel my way through. One somehow taps into something greater than oneself. I don’t really understand it and I’m not sure it really can be understood. When I’m writing I don’t really know exactly what I’m looking for, but rather have a feeling about it. I just try and be the best possible conduit of the energy as possible, letting the creation come through me uninhibited. I also believe that a large part of writing is in the re-writing. I’ll have a guitar or the piano or something and get the basic structure of the music figured, and then I don’t necessarily need an instrument any more to work on the song. My mind will just naturally work on it throughout the day. As for whether I ever know if a song is good or will make the album or not—I don’t. I usually just gig the material and try to get a feeling from peoples’ reactions.
When do you know it’s time to sit down and flesh out a song? Does it sometimes come at inopportune times? How do you know when it’s time to take advantage of that mercurial artistic impulse?
The songs just seem to come when they want to, and yes at inopportune times, but I’ve learned to try and never turn my back on inspiration. If it means getting out of bed in the middle of the night, I will. If it means taking a moment amongst friends at a dinner party, I will. If it means pulling over to the side of the road to jot down and idea, I will. I will participate. Nothing is more important. Nothing takes precedent over writing for me. Everything else is secondary. The main thing is to participate in the process.
As you and I have talked about before, the whole concept of inspiration is quite mysterious and elusive. What’s your take? Can artists be masters of their destiny or are they at the mercy of some unexplainable force that comes and goes in a seemingly random fashion?
Inspiration comes from the other world and so it is mysterious and mystical by nature, but it is possible that it is always available to us if we can (be) open to it. Perhaps the songs are floating all around us all the time, and it is really just a matter of tuning in to the right frequency, like on a radio dial. Still, it can be difficult to find that frequency and when that happens my opinion is to get into what someone else is doing and get inspired by them—whether it be reading a writer you like, or going to see a band you dig, or looking at some paintings that move you, or whatever. I also think it is helpful to try and get to a place of selfless service to others. In any seemingly mundane moment of one’s life, if one can find a way to have useful purpose, and be of help to another, that can grease the wheels of inspiration as well. And of course a willingness and enthusiasm to participate. I think when we are children we are very limber, both in mind and body. As we get older we tend to become more rigid and that rigidity works against creativity and the spirit of exploration. In this way children are much brighter and more effective than adults. Remaining childlike is very important. Perhaps that is why so many artists are considered eccentric, when really they are just being childlike. If a child does something odd or different we just chalk it up to youthfulness, but when a grown person pushes the boundaries, ignoring the box, they are often considered strange or eccentric. No, I say be childlike. See the world new whenever possible. And feel. Don’t be afraid to feel.
You’ve mentioned that you have a superstitious view of creating art. Where did that come from? Did it develop over the many years you’ve played music or have you always had a sense of the fragility of the process? Do you have certain things you repetitively do to coax that muse out of hiding?
I am definitely superstitious about creating art. A quote from the fine film “Joe vs. the Volcano” sums it up by saying, “You have to understand something about art. It comes from someplace.” I believe this is true and have always been a little apprehensive to think too much about it for fear of jinxing it. I don’t remember why I tried to write a song a long time ago. And I don’t know why I’ve chosen to write so many more. I don’t know why my life has developed to where I serve songwriting above all other things. And I’m not sure I want to know. And I fear that if I examine it too microscopically it might disappear. As for the last part of the question, I’ll do anything to coax the muse out of hiding. It’s one constant process of coaxing the muse out of hiding. Everything is directed towards that one goal, and not just with songwriting, but with life. I want to be inspired. Who doesn’t? I should wear a T-shirt that says, “Please inspire me” on it. Maybe that would help.
It seems that Notes from the Underground is a much more focused and more intricately composed and arranged recording than you’ve possibly ever done—dare I say more highly produced? Did you change your perspective or was there something different that occurred in the writing and recording process of this one?
I mostly never know what I’m doing. I used to see this as a weakness in days past, but now I see it as a strength. I am open to the idea that each new endeavor has endless possibilities, if I can just get myself and my preconceived notions and expectations out of the way. I do try to have an general, overall intention for what I think I’m creating, that way I’m not committed to any specifics prematurely and the creation can take shape naturally, organically. I believe music wants to exist, it wants to come alive. Songs want to be written, and given a little attention and encouragement will blossom, just a like a person. It is also extremely helpful to have great people involved and I’ve been very lucky to have had the privilege of working with some very talented folks. Otto D’Agnolo recorded, engineered and co-produced the project, and I think his contribution is fantastic—and a lot of really amazing musicians. After all they are the ones that actually play the music.
E Street Band guitarist Nils Lofgren plays on Notes. How exactly did that come about and how did his presence on guitar and accordion affect the album in general?
Yes! A very rewarding experience. We needed some accordion on a few tracks and Otto, my producer suggested Nils, having already developed a working relationship with him. Nils was actually a very accomplished accordion player as a child, before becoming a world class rock ‘n’ roll guitarist. He lives in the valley and was in town. I don’t think he gets the opportunity to play accordion on sessions all that much and so he agreed to do it. For me it was a personal thrill having followed his playing from his early work on Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night and After the Gold Rush. He was super gracious and unbelievably generous with his time and talent. We hired him to play accordion not guitar, but we had this one track, “House Of Cards,” that needed electric guitar, but no one seemed to be able to really lay it down with the intensity it needed. When Nils finished the accordion tracks, which he did superbly, he mentioned that it was still pretty early and was there something I might want him to play guitar on. What a guy! So Otto brought up the song and Nils went out into the main room and killed it. He didn’t have his own rig, just a studio guitar and amp! And I’m telling you, I’ve seen great players before in concert, but there is nothing like seeing a guy of that caliber ripping it up right before your eyes. One of the highest moments of my collaborative experiences to date for sure. What an amazing gift.
A few years ago you left Flagstaff and more or less lived on the road for more than a year. For you, how did traveling so much for music change your life and musical consciousness?
Traveling taught me a lot of good lessons reinforcing the need for the application of practice, patience and perseverance. Sometimes adversity can inspire a person to be all the more resolute in their purpose.
What’s the overall goal for you in creating and playing music? Are you looking to go out on the road again at some point or have you altered the way you want to do things in the future?
Well, there’s two different discussions here. One is ethereal and concerns the music and the path of the artist, the other is material and concerns a “career.” I’ve become pretty comfortable with the realization that artistically there is nowhere to arrive at. It’s just about the process and the ever evolving expression. So my goals with that parallel my goals as a person—to be impeccable with my thoughts, words and actions. As for my career goals. Hmmm. That’s a tough one. I don’t really have a career as of yet. I guess then my goal would be to get a career in music. How exactly does one do that?
You mention online that you don’t accept money for your music. Why?
Well that’s not exactly true. I do get paid to play gigs. And I have occasionally sold a CD (my mom says I have to place a value on it or no one else will). But I have made the albums available for free download at the Web site and have been known to give CDs away for free quite often. I think the main reason for this that it’s so much nicer to make something a gift rather than a transaction. Don’t you think?
You spent many years as one of the most visible musicians in Flagstaff playing with Second Harvest, the Monday Night Blues Project at Charly’s and the Joe Banks Band. What did you learn from those hardworking years spent in Flag?
I learned to value my friendships and relationships. I learned that you are only as great as those you surround yourself with. Oh, and I learned how to play in time—most of the time.
Do you really see yourself as a Don Quixote figure, as you sing in your song “I Am Don Quixote” from the new record?
Absolutely. 100 percent. I mean, to some degree aren’t we all? If one is passionate and unrelenting about their creation, they are bound to be misunderstood at some point, and maybe laughed at or ridiculed. I don’t mind being perceived as a broke-down old man riding an old worn-out horse with a bucket on my head. I know my own truth. And like Bob said, “What one believes about oneself, will come true.”
Additional photos for this story:
A True Troubadour
Brian DeMarco on Music, Process and What Makes a Great Song
By Seth Muller for Northern Arizona’s Mountain Living Magazine
Brian DeMarco, a long-time fixture on the Flagstaff music scene, as solo and in bands such as Second Harvest. He released a number of albums, included the recent Solitary Bird, which came out late summer last year. Even though DeMarco relocated a few hours’ drive to the south, he continues to play in Flagstaff, and often. Sometimes, he appears three or four times in a month. The hardworking musician, known for gigging often and even putting in a multi-month tour, is still at it. So, we took the time to ask him a few questions. Listen to some of his music and learn about his upcoming shows at www.myspace.com/briandemarcomusic.
1. For the people who have never had a chance to listen to your music, how do you describe it?
I’ve used the term ‘original acoustic roots music’ over the years to describe the music as it is brief and easy to absorb, but it probably falls short of a true description. I tend to explore the different styles that encompass the roots genre, so there are elements of blues, rock, country, folk and bluegrass. I do think I fall under the category of singer-songwriter and I’ve been told I am a ‘songwriter’s songwriter,’ perhaps because of the more non-commercial aspects of my lyrical approach. In the end, I guess I would describe it as poetic and parable-like language set to simple, pretty melodies delivered within the framework of a decidedly honest and vulnerable expression.
2. How do you approach the songwriting process? Do you come up with the music and then work in the lyrics? Vice-versa? Do songs usually come together fairly quickly or is there a longer revision time?
For a long time now I’ve believed that the songs don’t belong to me and come from the other world; the world of the spirit. I consider myself a simple conduit—a kind of midwife to the expression. It’s as if there is a certain frequency that one tunes into, and once vibrating there, can receive the songs. I’ve learned that it is necessary to organize my life so that I can be consistently open to receiving the songs. That being said I am open to the songs being delivered in any form whatsoever. Sometimes, I wake up with a melody in my head and that starts the process, and other times some words will appear in my mind that I think are powerful and expressive. And yet other times I’ll hear both at the same time.
3. Who among the musical greats do you count as your influences?
Definitely Neil Young. I’ve always been inspired by his creativity with sound. He’s so beautifully melodic and so honest in his expression. He really knows how to play sound rather than licks. I like how his art is in large part about capturing a moment—like Bob Dylan, who is another big influence. Dylan’s got a real genius for making the whole far exceed the sum of the parts … I have also learned a great deal from John Lennon. His melodies are just gorgeous and, as a craftsman, his songs are first-rate.
4. It seems like you and some other Flagstaff singer-songwriters have moved to create more “listener shows,” which put the music at the forefront and present the songs in a less traditional bar-scene atmosphere. How important have these kind of shows become for you?
Very important. I enjoy both kinds of shows. The bars are fun and exciting in their own way because you get to participate in bringing a soundtrack to people’s lives as they enjoy themselves blowing off a little steam, but the concert style listening room allows the artists to present the songs in a way that can be very powerful. Some songs just aren’t meant for the bar. Some songs are soft and pretty and thoughtful, requiring a certain atmosphere to come alive.
5. In the end, what do you think makes a great song? How do you know when you have written one?
Man that’s a tough one. I don’t know. I suppose it’s somewhat subjective. It’s quite mysterious and that’s what’s so cool about it. I think people like songs for all kinds of reasons—a great lyric, a great melody, a great beat. Some great songs are thoughtful and contemplative, some are just rocking and fun. I suppose it depends on the person and what the song is bringing them in the moment that the connection is made. I try not to think about that and just diligently serve the muse, taking care to try and make every song as good as it can be believing that the expression of each song will find a home with someone in the moment that they are ready to receive it.