In early 2013, longtime Memphis musician Mark Edgar Stuart put the local scene on notice when he released his excellent debut solo album, Blues for Lou. The record — a loose concept piece about both Stuart's struggles with cancer and the passing of his father (the titular Lou) — was revered by peers and the media alike and firmly established Stuart as one of this city's most vital music-makers. It's shaping up to be an even bigger year for Stuart, as he just released a beautifully melancholy sophomore effort titled Trinity My Dear, and eventually will take his show on the road. Stuart, fresh off of a showcase appearance at the annual Folk Alliance Conference in Kansas City, spoke to the Flyer about the new album and more.
Flyer: How do you feel about Blues for Lou, now that you've had a couple of years to live with it?
Mark Edgar Stuart: Of course, I'm my own worst critic. It feels a bit green to me, but it was a moment in time. I'll always cherish it. I'd like to think that I have a better understanding of songwriting now, but I still have lots to learn. I wrote a ton of songs about my father but was never really happy with any of them. I was still waiting on that one song that said it all so I could turn the page. That song was "Remote Control." It was written and recorded toward the end of the session. It came fast — it was a gift from him. If I have to sing that song for the rest of my life, then I am totally okay with it.
Where you surprised by the overwhelmingly positive response to the record?
[I was] blown away. If somebody would have told me five years ago that I'd be doing this interview right now I'd say they were crazy. I just wish my dad was around to see it. He never got the chance to hear me sing it.
What was your process like for working on Trinity My Dear?
Some of those songs were already written, and I had already been performing them live. I liked the formula of the first record: simplicity and spontaneity. I didn't stray too far, and I hate getting too bogged down on the "techie stuff." I'm pretty sure I have ADD, so I can't dwell too long on one thing. Life at that given moment usually determines the theme of whatever it is I'm writing. Those new songs crept in and took the record in another direction.
Without getting too personal, what are some of the themes you're exploring on the new album?
Life, love, and disappointment. The title track and "Joe Is Enough" say it all. At the time, I had no intention of "Trinity My Dear" going on the record; I had just written it. It was the end of a late night session at Sun Studio. I just threw it out there to see if it would stick and it stuck. No one said a word in the control room — the mood of the evening had changed. We all packed up and called it a night. "Ms. America" touches on my cancer experience and health care. I tried to keep it fun without being too soap-boxy. I hate when folks do that.
Are you ever nervous or reluctant about being so transparent in your songwriting?
I never have been until now. I really put it out there on a few songs. That's just how it came out. It's just as much gut as it is heart.
Tell me about working with the late, legendary producer Roland Janes on the cut "We Were in Bloom."
Roland was amazing, a real treasure and a gentleman. I'm so glad I got up the nerve to call him that day. I had worked with him earlier that year on John Paul Keith's third record, and we had a connection. He was my father's age and [they were] both from the same part of Arkansas. Using just one of those big vintage mics, I spent an entire afternoon recording with Roland, just me and an acoustic guitar. He really liked that song and had me play it over and over until he felt it was the right take. I told him the song was about being young, and he said, "or about being old." That really resonated with me. He died a few months later, and that track was shelved for a year or so until I brought it to Jeff Powell [producer of Blues for Lou and Trinity My Dear]. He had a respect for Roland. He gave it his own special spit-shine. He took that one track solo recording and worked his magic: EQ-ing it, overdubbing, mixing it, etc. I love the finished product.
How is it to work with Powell again?
I love Powell. We share the same sick sense of humor. We've made two pretty emotional records, but you'd be surprised how much cutting-up and laughing was going on. He's like a referee and I needed that. I trust him with all the "techie stuff." He has great ears and instinct. I love his ideas.
You worked with a host of well-known local musicians on Trinity My Dear, including Al Gamble, Jim Spake, Kevin Cubbins, and Kait Lawson. How did you put such a talented group together?
I played most of the instruments on my first record. I was tired of hearing myself play half-assed. I wanted my more talented friends to be involved this time around.
This is your second release for Madjack Records. What is your working relationship like with the label?
I'm a charter member, I guess. I was there in the very beginning shortly after I moved to Memphis in the '90s. I was in a band called the Pawtuckets, and the label was launched as a platform to release our second record. The band broke up but the label kept going. It's like home. Mark McKinney and Ronny Russell believed in me when I didn't believe in myself. I'll keep it in the family as long as they will have me.
Do you have a favorite moment on Trinity My Dear?
The title track, as depressing as it is. Johnny's drumming is beautiful and sensual. He follows my lyrics. Only a best friend can know how. For those who don't think drums can be beautiful and sensual, check it out.
Do you think the record holds up to the high standard you set with Blues for Lou?
I'm very happy. It's a logical next step. It's a better record, though my first born will always have a special place with me.