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Mark Mackay interview

The rising star talks Trials & Tribulations, relentless touring and more.

Mark Mackay
Credit: Mark Mackay

Southern Californian country-rock musician Mark Mackay is beginning to turn heads at live shows and across the airwaves.

His new eight-track album, Trials & Tribulations, is an exciting step forward for the artist who performed 230 shows in the past year.

He’s also had the opportunity to open for country stars including, Frankie Ballard, Eli Young Band, Cole Swindell, Tracy Lawrence and Old Dominion, plus legendary rockers The Marshall Tucker Band, 38 Special, Bon Jovi’s Richie Sambora and Orianthi.

Mackay spoke with me about the album, recording in Hollywood and his relentless touring schedule.

Trials & Tribulations was released in May, what reaction and feedback have you had from fans now it’s out there?

The reaction has been really positive, especially at shows, a lot of people have been coming up to me and been really excited about some of the songs on it and I think there’s just a genuineness on it that people connect with. It’s been all good feedback.

You’ve produced two EPs already, why did you decide to do an 8-track album this time around?

Well, those EPs, they were more like songwriter demos that I cut as I was writing and we sold at shows, but now we have a fanbase going and we’ve been playing a lot, so it was time to put together a collection.

I also really wanted to do an album that felt like an album; that people can put in and listen to from start to finish.

How did it all come together? Did you have a clear direction in your mind of what you wanted it to sound like?

About a year ago, I had a handful of songs that I was planning on releasing as an album, but I scrapped it at the last minute, because I had some other songs that I wanted to write that I thought were going to be some pretty good tunes. And, I felt like there wasn’t a totally cohesive feel with it, so I went back and cut a few songs and put together this eight-track collection and it feels natural.

Settle for a Small Town was one of those songs that I wanted to do, and I really felt I needed to record, and I’m glad I did because it’s become a staple for listeners, so far.

They take on their meaning as they go.

Who did you collaborate with during the writing process?

I’ve Already Won was with a really cool writer in Los Angeles named Debra Gussin. And, I Can’t Stop You, Jeffery Steele, had written and released a long time ago and I just felt that was a song that needed recreating, and sounded like the kinda song I would want to write; the whole storyline.

And then, Without Me was with Beau Garner. That was cool, there’s almost a moment in there where you think you’re having a Pink Floyd guitar solo moment.

It was supposed to be a good balance of storytelling-type songs that I write, mixed with some outside stuff.

The writing was literally all over the map. There were times we got together for a writing session and wrote something and then some stuff, it just comes to you instantly, you know?

I distinctly remember writing Settle for a Small Town. I’d had the idea for a long time and then it took me about six minutes to write it. The clarity of it came so fast, same as Road to Mustang. Good songs, you practically wake up singing them.

Do you know in that moment that you’ve written a song that will connect with your audience and will be great to play live?

Yeah, I would say so. There’s some songwriters that enjoy being metaphorical and some that enjoy being literal and I’m probably more of a literal person.

I write very direct lyrics and I feel like, just touring and playing, and the culture change of every city and country, I feel like you kind of get that through these songs. There’s a genuineness to them.

Mark Mackay

Credit: Mark Mackay

I read you performed 230 shows in the past year alone – how do you manage such a schedule?

It was a rallying year. We’re on track to do a lot of shows this year. I don’t think it will be 230, but it will be up there, that’s for sure.

Do you notice being out there on the road and playing that many shows really translates to a growing fanbase?

Yeah, I feel like that’s the only way I know how to do it. I just hammer the road and try to put on the best live shows. It’s interesting, for me, my favourite part of music is going to concerts. I love listening to music, I love studying it, I love playing it, but going to concerts, seeing the final show, the lights and the energy and the adrenaline, I get off on that stuff. So, for me, that’s what I’m always shooting for. I’m always looking forward to going into new towns, putting together a great show, so you have something to go home with, you know? And in exchange of that, you’re always excited to be on the road; you’re always excited to try something new.

You’ve opened for some amazing acts, what have you learnt from performing with such big names?

It’s so much more about watching and learning from these guys. To see where they put their efforts and their time and how they communicate with their fanbase and stuff like that, that’s what I take from it. Just how they interact with their tour manager, what their needs are, what do they like to do right before they go on stage, that’s the stuff that I just trip out on watching.

(But with touring) you’re kind of in the grind, you wake up in a new city, you sound check, you try to eat something healthy and maybe get a workout in, then you play the show and you go onto the next one.

Where did you decide to record Trials & Tribulations?

I recorded it at my producer’s studio in Los Angeles, which is in Hollywood, right behind the Dolby Theatre which is where they do the Oscars. It was really cool, an inspiring place, there’s a lot of energy there.

It was produced by Phil Dixon who is a fulltime album producer and radio DJ and he is sensational. He’s a real producer; he doesn’t tell me what I want to hear, he does what he thinks is the right thing for the song. Sometimes you think you don’t agree with it, but then you see what it turns out as and it all makes sense.

Was there a temptation to record in Nashville, or did you know you could produce an authentic country album in LA?

Here’s my deal with Nashville, I think it’s the coolest city in the world. I think it’s a great place, it’s fun and it’s good balance of city and country life and I just think it’s cool, but I’ve never doubted that it can’t be done from California. Country music is country music. I don’t really care where you live or what you do, if you resonate with music, and you like it, then you’re entitled to that. I just want to be where I want to be. I now split my time between the two. Southern California is certainly home, but I’m spending a lot more time in Nashville and probably will be spending a lot more time in Nashville. I love it here.

So, what do you have planned next?

Really just touring, touring, touring. I’m so excited to have an album that I’m happy with. It’s taken a long time to write it, produce it and get it out the way I wanted to do it, so I’m glad it’s done. Now, it’s about going out, hammering the road and developing new markets and getting it out there.

And, my dad was born in Newcastle, and have family out there, so I’m trying to figure out the correct moment to do that (perform in the UK). It’s in the plans.

Mark Mackay’s album Trials & Tribulations is available now.

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