“Rapidly becoming a British national treasure.” Blues Blast Magazine
Mark Harrison’s sixth album, The Road to Liberty, showcases his adept story-telling and clever lyrics, his knack for composing a catchy tune, and his never-less-than-engaging performance as a singer and guitarist. He’s hard to pigeon-hole, not quite blues, but blues never far away, somewhere in the folk-blues-country continuum.
That’s not a bad thing, given the unique talent that he is, able to write songs that transport you to another place, to make you contemplate the world around and, as well as that – most importantly – to entertain you.
Harrison is an English singer songwriter, who plays a nifty acoustic guitar, who has been delighting audiences over the last ten years with his carefully crafted songs and witty banter. He was a late starter as a professional musician, not picking up a guitar and singing until his fifth decade, but he’s made up for lost time, touring the country and supporting such artists as The Holmes Brothers and Doug MacLeod, along with major festival and radio appearances. He’s also released now six albums, all of which have been eagerly received and critically acclaimed. If you haven’t come across him as yet – put that right straight away and grab yourself a CD or download.
You could start with The Road to Liberty, a double album of 21 songs, featuring Harrison and his two bandmates, Charles Benfield on double bass and Ben Welburn on drums and percussion.
I got chatting to Mark about the new album and his musical journey. His previous albums, he told me, had been the “standard studio procedure of layer upon layer,” but that the band had felt that this album ought to reflect much more Mark’s live performances – “this business of singing your songs, standing up in a booth with headphones on, when do you ever do that in real life?”
A double album is a little unusual these days, and I wondered how that had come about. Mark said that he’d a lot of songs in the bank, so to speak, and, although he thought they’d only choose the standard 12 or 13 songs, the band like the lot of them, “so we thought, well, let’s just record them all. So, I’ve actually cleaned out everything I’ve got now!”
I remarked on the quality of the album’s cover and artwork – so often you get flimsy, pared back packaging these days and you wonder why you didn’t just buy the download. The Road to Liberty, however, feels quite luxurious.
“Well, it’s Andy Hall, who’s done everything for me from the very beginning. He and Rick, his business partner, ran a website called Blues in London when I got started, which was a sort of central thing for the blues scene in London. That’s how I met them, doing jams down at the Green Note in Camden. So when it came to do my first album, they said they’d like to do the cover. And so, it’s gone on from there and Andy does really wonderful things that make everything look great.”
The album has more of a band feel about it than some of Harrison’s previous albums. Charles Benfield and Ben Welburn, Mark’s two band members, are very talented musicians, whom he met on the blues jam scene at the very beginning of his career. They’ve been playing as a settled trio since around 2017, and sound a very solid and tight little outfit.
Mark does some solo gigs as well, depending on the venue and the promoter’s budget, but increasingly, it’s the trio. “I’d say it’s more fun when it’s the three of us.”
The album’s title, The Road to Liberty, is intriguing and one reviewer rather poetically suggested that it describes a “set of observations set to the heartbeat of humanity which exemplify the struggle of narrative freedom being taken seriously.” The phrase occurs in the song Restless Mind, a clever, jaunty number, with the band in full flight, which takes an ironic look at what happens when you let your mind become too restless.
“Well, I always take a phrase from a song, not a song title. So all the albums have a phrase or a word that is in one of the songs as the title of the album. I felt that I wanted a title that reflected some upbeat message because, in my opinion, the music generally speaking has an upbeat message in the words, even if it might not appear that at first glance.”
For sure, the tunes in the album are very upbeat, very optimistic sounding. At times they almost seem to belie the lyrics, a deliberate ploy by Harrison: “I’ve always felt that the music itself is uplifting or is meant to be, so you have perhaps a contrast between what is often a jolly tune, with what might be called slightly acerbic lyrics. And I think that’s probably where I’m at.”
As you listen to the songs, you’ll find yourself in turns amused, intrigued and puzzled. I asked Mark about one song in particular, which is great fun and had piqued my curiosity, Don’t Let the Crazy Out of the Bag (Too Soon).
“A woman friend told me a little while ago that if she was in a successful relationship that was going well, she would often find that the worst possible thing she could say would pop into her mind. And yet knowing that, she would find herself saying it! And then there came a point where she got engaged. But later I noticed on social media that she was no longer engaged. So I asked her about it. And she wrote, ‘I think I let the crazy out of the bag too soon.’
“And that one does have a happy ending by the way! It’s like a lot of things, you come across a phrase and you think it has a much more general application perhaps than the context in which you’ve heard it. And so, as well as that being a bit of fun, I thought that was a suitable subject for a song.”
Mark Harrison’s songs typically address a wide variety of situations and snapshots of life – on this album, you’ll find a song about the life of Skip James, Skip’s Song, a song about working in a factory in an economic downturn, Toolmaker’s Blues, and one about a poor guy on trial before the judge, All Rise. As you listen to this set of all-original songs, you can’t help but pick up echoes of blues music. Harrison plays a National resonator and has a cool kind of bluesy, picking style. You might expect him to throw in a few old blues songs, but that tends not to be what he does.
Mark told me that when he first got started, he tried to work out a few old blues tunes on the guitar, but found he couldn’t do it. The second song on the album, Everybody Knows, is a nice guitar-driven song in a Mississippi John Hurt style, but Mark said it was actually the first song he wrote using the 12-string and he had thought at the time he was working out Blind Willie McTell’s Statesboro Blues. “So the short answer is, I don’t do covers of them because I’m not capable!” (Unlikely, Mark is an accomplished guitarist.)
Mark’s back story as a musician is a remarkable one. He’d played guitar seriously in his youth, but only returned to it much later in life, about eleven years ago.
“I got this guitar shortly before I started in 2010. And that transformed everything. I had absolutely no intentions at all of launching it into anything. I didn’t expect to make an album or do a gig, and so for a little while, I just went and played a little bit at jams and it was a social thing. But the London blues jam scene is pretty good – a bunch of really good people and very high standards. So then, I’d written some songs and I thought I’d commit them to posterity and that was the first album [the acclaimed Watching the Parade]. I had no inkling of what would happen. It sounded okay to me. I put it out there a little bit cautiously and I got a few gigs and it built from there. So it’s a rare case of something in life that’s just taken on its own momentum. And it hasn’t been a big struggle!
“One of the advantages of the changes in society in my lifetime is that it doesn’t matter what age you are with music. In fact, the acts most likely to sell tickets and do main stage at festivals probably have an average age that’s pushing 70! Most theatre listings of music and festivals are all about nostalgia. So, the idea that you couldn’t be doing this at a relatively older age, that doesn’t exist. Which is pretty good.
“And people with my musical background would tend to be what you call old school, which is that you’re not going to go out there and inflict yourself on people then unless you’ve worked out something that’s of a really high level professionally. So I carry that sort of attitude with me.”
We chatted a bit about the economics of being a musician and how embarking on a career or going out as a professional musician is a pretty uncertain enterprise.
“It’s pretty obvious to anyone involved that the demise of recorded music as a commercial enterprise has had an enormous effect. In the past you could shift a lot of albums, but by the time I got started, that ship had sailed. So you need to form your plans realistically with that in mind. I do really pretty well for someone that wasn’t established many years ago. But in terms of making money, nobody is.
“I used to listen to radio when there were a limited number of radio shows and I would buy albums straight off hearing people on, say, the Paul Jones show and others. Now I’ve been on those shows subsequently, and I think in the past, if you got played there, let alone did a session, like we have, that would have led to very significant sales of your albums. But these days it doesn’t. So there’s no point complaining about that. That had already kicked him by the time I got going. So it’s a question of understanding the environment you’re operating in and being realistic. There’s no point being in music if you’re going to complain about not being famous.
“For me, it’s going out and playing, the audiences, the people that come up and talk to you, the places that you go, the experiences that you have.”
Part of Mark’s story is acquiring a guitar previously owned by Eric Bibb, whom he admires a great deal.
“I started to listen to music again about 2000 after a long time of not listening to anything. I saw in the gig listing of one of the papers, “Eric Bibb, Sublime Bluesman.” I thought, I didn’t know there were any sublime bluesmen still alive. So, I went to see him several times and I thought what he was doing was great. And it showed you that you could get a really great big sound with a band that had an acoustic guitar leading it, not an electric guitar and someone pulling faces.
“Years later, I went to a shop in London – it doesn’t exist anymore – The London Resonator Centre and I thought I’d buy one of these guitars. They got me trying out some of the new Nationals, which are great. And then the guy running the shop said, ‘Ah, the way you play, you might like this that’s just come in.’ And he said that Eric Bibb had just brought it in. So I ended up getting that and subsequently I’ve met Eric numerous times, and he always hails me whenever I go to one of his gigs – “Mark!” from across the room.”
If you like acoustic blues music, you’re almost bound to appreciate Mark Harrison, even though his music can’t be pinned down to simply that genre.
“I think that I’m in the tradition of those guys that called themselves songsters. Back in the twenties and thirties, they would do a whole variety of stuff. I mean, if you listen to the full output of Robert Johnson, very little of it, actually, is what would now be called blues. Variety and entertainment were the key factors. So I’m in that tradition.
Entertainment is certainly what you get with a Mark Harrison performance and with a Mark Harrison album. But it’s not just entertainment. He’s a thoughtful artist who appraises life’s peaks and valleys and converts this into stories with wry and incisive lyrics, but never short of compassion. He’s a unique talent and one you ought to be familiar with.