An Interview With Musician MARK AARON JAMES About His Newest Album, ‘My Mighty MaJic Stick’ and More!
Posted On 15 May 2017
Accomplished indie-pop singer, songwriter, producer and musician Mark Aaron James recently released his newest album, My Mighty MAJic Stick on all music streaming platforms on May 9th. It is the first nationally distributed album on a USB flash drive instead of the traditional CD format.
With computers rarely incorporating CD drives anymore, and most consumers listening on digital players, it seemed a logical format to experiment with. It’s exciting to try something new. The album’s first single is the title song, “My Mighty MAJic Stick.”
Mark’s comic book inspired song “Aquaman’s Lament”, from the hit album “Just a Satellite”, went viral and has been streamed over a million and a half times across Spotify, Apple Music and YouTube.
His music is often described as quirky pop. Mark plays the guitar, along with a variety of other instruments, and self produced the new release in his New York home studio. The famous saxophonist, Phil Kenzie accompanied Mark on his newest single, My Mighty MAJic Sitck. James’ music has been featured on the popular cooking lifestyle series Jamie’s Kitchen and in the Dean Cain led feature Lost. He has also been featured on PBS’ series CD Highway. Mark has twice been voted Best Singer/Songwriters in Greenwich Village by UMO and Best Local songwriter two years in a row by the Nashville Scene’s Reader Poll. James’ longstanding career includes performing for two presidents (President Obama and President Trump) in addition to recording a live album in The White House. He also appeared on London’s West End with Alan Cumming in I Bought a Blue Car Today. The Cocoa Beach, Florida native has toured around the world and lived in some of liveliest cities including London and Nashville. He currently resides in New York City. The new album and previous albums are available for purchase via iTunes, Amazon, CD baby.com and markaaronjames.com
Learn more about Mark Aaron James in the following All Access interview:
Thanks for your time! How is 2017 treating you so far?
Nothing bad has happened to me yet. It was a lot of work finishing up this album, which dominated my time for the last few months, but it was work that I loved doing. So I can’t complain.
Did you approach the start of this year any differently then you did last year?
I only recently realized that I have a pretty regular pattern, year to year. I put out an album every two to three years. Then I spend a year touring. After that I spend a year writing and recording. This year was a little unique, since I had to also lay the groundwork for mass-producing an album on a USB stick, but it still fits into the crazy pattern of an artist’s existence that I’ve fallen into.
Growing up, did you always want to be a musician?
I didn’t know it was actually unusual to know your purpose until I saw friends struggling with what direction to go in. I have always known this is what I was meant to do. I was writing songs when I was 8. They weren’t very good, but I knew it was what I was supposed to do.
Can you recall your first musical memory? Could you see yourself doing anything else today?
I went to the same summer camp from 8 years old until I graduated from college. I’m not sure what my first musical memory was, but I know that my first writing and performing memories come from the campfires and song competitions at that camp. (Camp Blue Star, in Hendersonville, NC). Despite being a relatively geeky kid, everybody wanted me on their team, because the song contest at the end of the “Color War” was worth thousands of points. It definitely reinforced my love of songwriting, and made me feel valuable for being able to do it.
If I had to consider another job, it would have to stimulate that creative part of my brain. It would be too obvious to say I would be into writing a novel, or working in film, but if I had to think of a more “corporate” gig, I could see myself creating advertising campaigns, or something like that.
All of that said, I’m pretty happy where I’ve landed. I hope to dabble in other art forms throughout my life, but I’ll always be a musician.
Next month, you will release your album, “My Mighty MAJic Stick.” Can you talk about putting this collection together?
A couple of years ago I re-joined a writing collective that I had visited once or twice when I first moved to NYC. It’s called the Jack Hardy Songwriter Exchange. Basically, it’s a gathering of NYC songwriters, some pros, some amateurs, who write a song every week and then critique them in an open, usually constructive forum. For previous projects, I wrote my stuff haphazardly, when the inspiration hit me. The group put me in a much more regular pattern and also put a lot of pressure on me to come up with clever ideas and catchy melodies. Knowing a bunch of songwriters were going to hear and critique the songs, gave me really positive motivation. All of the songs on this album came from that process. I’m really proud of the writing and the instant accessibility of the songs on “My Mighty MAJic Stick.”
Where did the inspiration for these songs come from?
My inspiration for songs has always been varied and bizarre. The title song was inspired by the USB stick format that the album is on. So, that’s kind of “meta.” The second single was inspired by a cartoon of a unicorn, triumphantly pissing a rainbow, that my roommate emailed to me. I wrote another song in response to every day of the week having a signature song, except Thursday. So, now there is a Thursday song. I have one that was inspired by a racist guy over-sharing on social media. I don’t know why or how my brain decides there are songs in these random thoughts, but it does. It keeps me entertained. I’m just glad it entertains the people who hear them, as well.
Why did you decide to distribute this collection via USB format exclusively? Where did the idea come from? Do you think this might be the new norm in time?
Anyone in the music industry is well aware that physical album sales are dwindling and we are heading into a “streaming culture.” Like any music lover, I have stacks and stacks of CDs lying around my house, serving no further purpose, now that the music has been uploaded to a listening device and the cloud. Younger listeners don’t even bother with CDs; they just download the content. That said, when I tour, people want to have something to take away from the show. So, when it came time to record, I just started brainstorming. “If I’m going to do this again, how can I make a physical album that still matters.” The album is on a 2 gig USB drive that is shaped like a credit card. Even after the music is delivered, it’s a really useful device that continues to serve a real purpose. It also allows me to included a 20 song double album of “Greatest Hits” from my previous CDs, only available on the physical stick. So, I can tour without carrying my entire back catalogue, and give people a couple of bonuses for buying the physical product.
I don’t think anything is going to stop the transition to a streaming culture, but I do think that this format has “legs.” If it’s embraced. It could make the physical album a viable commodity again. There aren’t even CD drives on new computers, but everything has a USB or USB compatible input, and it’s always handy to have 2Gs of extra mobile storage. When you buy this album, you get a 2G data drive, 20 songs from my past, and 13 really good, (if I say so myself), new songs. Even if you only stream and download normally, I think it’s a win, win.
I would love to know more about you recording a live album in The White House. What was that like and why did it happen in the first place?
Every year the White House does a series of Christmas concerts throughout December. Each branch of the White House staff gets to put together a short list of artists they want to perform. I have a song on a previous CD called “Aquaman’s Lament,” about a jealous Aquaman drunkenly trying to steal Batman’s girlfriend. A fan of my music made a viral video for that song using the Worlds of Warcraft video game. So, the song became really popular among comic book & video game geeks. Geeks are my people. They also happen to be White House interns. So, the interns put me on their list. When I first got the invitation, it was via my junk email account, so I really didn’t take it very seriously. I always assumed that if the White House wanted to speak to you, they would send guys in dark sunglasses to your door. It was only after I checked the address it came from via Wikipedia that I realized it was legit. I copied and pasted it from the Wikipedia page, instead of just clicking on “reply,” just to be sure. I still got a reply from “The Office of the President.” I honestly wasn’t 100% sure that it wasn’t a con until they let us in and had dogs sniffing our instruments. It was a real honor to perform there. I have the “Thank You” letter from Michelle Obama hanging in my apartment. It blows my mind that it actually happened.
How do you think you’ve grown as a musician since you first started making music? How do you think your music has grown?
I was really lucky, knowing that I wanted to pursue music before I ever looked at schools. I got into Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, TN. While Vanderbilt gave me a great traditional education, Nashville really taught me the craft of songwriting. Everyone thinks of Nashville as a country town, but throughout the late ‘90s and early 2000s, it really was a great place to learn songwriting for any genre. It’s still the only city where, if you’re a songwriter or musician, you’re doing “THE” job of that town. When I started, I was just an inspired kid writing with passion. Nashville took that passion and really taught me how to focus it. Add to that, when you’re playing shows with up and comers like Ryan Adams, David Mead and Owsley along with the “old school” writers of some of the most well crafted songs in history, you either grow, and get better, or you fall away. Most of the copies of my first CD are now in a box, buried in the back yard of my old Nashville house. I realized early on that it didn’t represent what I was capable of. When you are surrounded by great writers and artists, you learn that good isn’t good enough. I’ll never stop listening, and I’ll never stop learning. That said, Nashville brought me to a place where I really like the songs write, and I really enjoy the process of recording them well. I’m proud of the work I do now. That’s a real gift.
What artists have continued to inspire you and your music? Who would you absolutely love to work with in the future?
When I was a kid, Billy Joel was the first artist that really got to me. Hearing his stuff in the back of my parents’ car was the first time I understood that somebody wrote the songs, had their own sound, and that I could try to do that. Since then, my influences have really come from all over the place. The Beatles, Jellyfish, Barenaked Ladies, Elvis Costello, Joe Cocker, Van Halen, Indigo Girls, Ben Folds, Del Amitri and James Taylor all jump to mind.
Naturally, I’d love to collaborate with any of them, (the ones that are still around, anyway). That kid who worshiped Billy Joel would love to bring it full circle and work with him. Paul McCartney is probably the pinnacle of living music greats. So, it would be a dream to write with him. Of the current chart toppers, I would love to work with David Grohl, Pharrell Williams, Jack White, Pink or Sara Bareilles.
I also love it when two music cultures interact. So, if I could accomplish one of those weird Bing Crosby/ David Bowie, kind of mash ups, that would be really cool. I would jump at the chance to record something contemporary with Dolly Parton, Johnny Mathis, Barbara Streisand, Lyle Lovett, Gladys Knight or anyone iconic like that, but outside of my box.
At the end of the day, what do you hope your fans take away from your music? What do you hope is the message of your songs?
My goal is always to catch one of those familiar feelings, and express in in a new, entertaining way. Perhaps it’s trite to say, but I’m just another one of those artists hoping that I can make people feel things. I’m searching for that connection, be it funny, ironic, joyful or sympathetic. I find it so rewarding when I identify with someone else’s art. I hope I can do that for the people who hear my songs.
Is there anything else that you would like to share with our readers about yourself or your music?
I’m insanely lucky. I love what I do and I work my ass off doing it. Music, on the whole, is SO subjective, but, if you’re into quirky power pop, and singer/songwriters, I like to think you’re going to enjoy this album. I can’t wait to take My Mighty MAJic Stick out there and play these songs for people. Even without the novelty of the new USB format, it’s an enjoyable collection of songs. Come find me online and see a show. I look forward to seeing everyone out there.