The National : January 2017
Mark W Georgsson was born and bred in Coatbridge, but his music reflects a love affair with Iceland
‘I WALK these streets alone at night/The stars shine black but I will shine bright/But now I know/I must move on/Without your love/I will break free.” Sounds like a straightforward break-up song, doesn’t it? Spare, unadorned and with just Mark W Georgsson accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, it’s about something as incapacitating; unrequited love. It has a youthful earnestness found elsewhere over the other 10 tracks on Georgsson’s intimate debut album Places And Faces, out later this month on Last Night From Glasgow. “It’s not about breaking up with someone,” says Georgsson, speaking before the festive break.
“It’s not about breaking up with someone,” says Georgsson, speaking before the festive break.
“It’s about realising that someone that you really, really like doesn’t feel the same way and you realise you have to accept it. That you will have to break free of that feeling of needing them because otherwise you can’t move on.”
Written 10 years ago when Georgsson was still in his teens, Break Free is oldest track on the album. Though unplanned, most recent track Söngur Hins Mædda Manns, an Icelandic version of previous single The Ballad Of The Nearly Man, closes the record, recorded by Roddy Woomble’s Idlewild compadre Rod Jones in Edinburgh’s Chamber Studio over a total of seven days.
Some were written during Mark’s time with The Velveteen Saints, his yearning, stripped-back songs not fitting with that band’s swaggering blues-rock. Look up the Ramones-smeared scuzz of their Rock n Roll is Dead to see Georgesson – or Mark Thomson as he was, and is – cutting a decidedly Paul Simonon figure on bass. Mark W Georgsson is a nod to the patronymic names of his beloved Iceland and a shout-out to his father.
That night, Mark was going to see Woomble’s Hootenany at Glasgow’s Hug and Pint for a now-traditional evening of solo songs, Idlewild classics and festive fun always better reviewed than that other festive Hootenany, still broadcast several years after it began its helter skelter into decline. Fiddle player Hannah Fisher and pianist Luciano Rossi accompanied Woomble, and both musicians feature amid the album’s cast of contributors which include drummer Richard Kass, a friend from the Velveteen Saints days, and traditional Americana pianist Daniel Meade. Double bassist Richard Anderson and violinist/mandolinist Dave Addison also appear, both of whom are in old-timey mysterons The Strange Blue Dreams. Their rock ‘n’ rollin’ alter egos (do keep up) The Shiverin’ Sheiks recently appeared in Martin Compston-starring ITV true crime drama In Plain Sight.
Elsewhere there’s a string quartet and on the rougher-hewn Rodeo – a track which recalls the shrugging, scuffed blues of Ryan Adams’ now classic solo debut Heartbreaker – a flourish of saxophone.
“A lot was very spur of the moment,” says Mark. “For Rodeo, I was like: ‘I can hear saxophone in this song’. And Rod knew a guy who literally lives around the corner from the studio. He came in, got a couple of passes through the music and it was like: ‘Let’s do it’.”
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“I had just contacted Rod on Twitter, through his manager,” he says. “I’ve always been a big fan of Idlewild. They had made that journey from indie punk to a more acoustic folk sound and it inspired me to get more folk records. I had thought about who I wanted to produce this record in an ideal world and it was Rod.”
Indeed, Jones was an ideal fit, his relaxed style, professionalism and bulging address book of talented contacts ably complementing Mark’s songs and giving the album what he describes as a feeling of “tight looseness”. Faces And Places is essentially an album that could be played with just Mark and his guitar. The songs, from the hazy bar-room blues of the title track to the dusty, affecting You’re Not Alone, could easily stand up on their own.
“What Rod brought were ideas and people who were outside my own box,” says Mark, noting that a couple of tracks, including the lush Stay, would have sounded completely different without Jones’s input.
“I had written Stay as a kind of country song, but it just wasn’t working. We got a string quartet in and when they came in and worked on the score it was amazing. Rod is from a classically-trained background, he can play the violin and read scores. So he was dictating stuff to them like a classically-trained producer would do. It was very laid back and so much fun too.”
The album’s centrepiece is The Ballad Of The Nearly Man, an intimate folk song featuring Mark’s friend Katie McArthur. With Mark’s own vocals seemingly taken down a register, McArthur’s own flutter around them, like the drying laundry of the sumptuous video filmed by Jamie Vincent Gillespie and photographer Brian Sweeney (who is also responsible for the album’s artwork) on location in the Outer Hebrides.
“It’s my attempt to write a traditional Scottish folk song,” Mark says. “I’m from Coatbridge, born and bred. And when you grow up in a working class town like that you meet people and you’d always hear stories like: ‘I was nearly a professional footballer’, ‘We nearly signed a record deal’. It’s a very Scottish thing: ‘We could have qualified for the World Cup, but we didn’t’. When people hark back to these stories, you still hear it and you’re like: ‘For goodness sake, you should have just done it.’ But it’s almost like they like that nearlyness.”
That sense of frustration no doubt feeds into Mark’s love of Iceland, a country he has visited for years, last travelling north to play the Icelandic Airwaves festival in November. “It’s a can-do culture there, maybe because the population is so small and everyone knows each other,” he says. “If you’re in a band and your friend opens a shop, you play it. If your friend makes clothes, they’ll make your band’s costumes, that sort of thing. It’s such a fantastic ethos.”
It was through an Icelandic friend that Söngur Hins Mædda Manns, the final “hidden” track on Faces and Places, took shape.
“His friend did the translation of The Ballad Of The Nearly Man, and I told him I was really into the Icelandic band Leaves. He was like: ‘I know Arnari from Leaves!’ He put me in contact and it turns out Arnari shares a room in the same studio in Rejavik as Sigur Ros. There were so many coincidences.”
Mark was also put in touch with Sigríður Thorlacius, who sings on the translation. A member of veteran indie group Hjaltalín, Thorlacius is responsible for re-popularising traditional Icelandic folk songs.
“My friend was like: ‘She’s really famous here’. When I went over, I realised how just massive she is in Iceland. She was great and said: ‘I really like the song, it’s beautiful and I’d love to sing it. I was like: ‘Wow’.”
The ad hoc approach to recording the album is similar to how Mark plays live. Rather than a fixed band, he calls on whoever is available and willing to play.
“It’s a revolving door,” he says. “I just ask people if they want to play. If they can, great, if they can’t, that’s fine. It keeps me interested, hearing all these different ways the songs can be played, whether it’s stripped back to acoustic guitars, or with piano, or maybe I’ll pick up the banjo.
“I’m very lucky to have a bunch of talented mates who also have talented mates. It’s maybe the classic Coatbridge lad in me: if you don’t ask, you don’t get. I’m just a dafty from the Iron Burgh winging his way along in life.”