Mark Growden
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Mark Growden

San Francisco, California, United States | INDIE

San Francisco, California, United States | INDIE
Band Americana Folk


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"Compassion for saints and sinners - West Coast phenomenon Mark Growden plays El Monte Sagrado"

Mark Growden’s delivery is direct — powerful and precise as a street fighter. He doesn’t like to use a microphone. He simply knocks you out. The West Coast singer-songwriter is planning his first Taos appearance Sunday (Aug. 29), 7 p.m., in the Grand Bohemian Gallery at El Monte Sagrado Living Resort, 317 Kit Carson Road.

Gritty, soothing, mesmerizing, and exuberant, Growden’s musical style is other-worldly. Paradoxically sparse and grandiose, his music combines elements from classical jazz ensembles, New Orleans-style brass bands, cabaret fanfare, and circus troupes with the stark honesty of Appalachian folk ballads and African-American prison songs.

It sounds like America’s Great Depression took a trip to New Orleans, Broadway and Vegas and then tumbled into the post-industrial underground — swallowed in city sewers, scuffed under construction worker’s boots, pierced by punk rock attitude — to come out in an exquisite, visionary place. Strange, yet familiar, it’s a place you want to go.

Based in northern California, Growden has released several critically acclaimed albums and performed at venues such as the Fillmore and Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, and Tonic and The Knitting Factory in New York. He has composed original musical scores for dance and theater companies including Joe Goode Performance Group and “The Crucible.” His work with Alonzo King’s LINES Contemporary Ballet won the Isadora Duncan Award for Best Original Score for a New Dance Piece. He has also composed scores for films including 2005’s “Blood Tea and Red String,” which won Best Animation at the San Francisco Independent Film Festival and at the Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal.

Growden’s flair for the unusual has partnered him with famed artist John Law, one of the creators of the original Burning Man festivals. The two co-produce the San Francisco-based COVERT — a site-specific concert series that involves spontaneous, provocative productions. Audiences are escorted to mountain tops, caves and shorelines, serenaded by musicians along the way.

Growden had an early start as a composer and multi-instrumentalist who specialized in wind instruments, but, it wasn’t until the age of 24 that he began to sing and write songs. It literally happened overnight. Growden woke up one morning to find all of his instruments stolen in a strange twist of fate that left him empty-handed.

“I started singing that day. I didn’t play accordion or banjo before that. I found an accordion at the school I taught at, and a co-teacher gave me a banjo and I started writing songs and singing.” Growden added, “It was such a blessing.”

Indeed, it was. Now, his primary instruments are his voice, banjo, accordion and bicycle handles that he plays like a flute. Growden’s lyrics, inspired by Joni Mitchell, Townes van Zandt and Rumi, are honed into a well-crafted, poignant poetry that has been compared to Leonard Cohen and Kurt Weill.

Musical ensembles in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Tucson play with Growden in live concerts, as well as studio recordings. In Taos, a violinist will join him on songs from “Saint Judas,” released this spring by Porto Franco Records.

The album’s overarching theme is universal love. “The next layer beyond that is compassion for shadow — understanding and acceptance,” Growden said, “and moving through the difficult things.”

The title track reframes the biblical character of Judas Iscariot, one of the 12 disciples of Jesus. Growden, the son of a preacher, uses biblical metaphor as a reference point for social commentary. The way Growden sees it, both Judas and Jesus made enormous sacrifices, one was vilified, the other glorified. Yet, the sacrifice Judas made ultimately allowed Jesus to make his. “Saint Judas” is a nod to the shadowy side of human nature. The purpose it serves. And our common response to it.

“I relate to Judas because I had some wild years,” Growden said. “I can relate to the anti-hero in some ways. That song is a toast of compassion for Judas.”

Other biblical twists on the album include “Delilah,” written from the perspective of Samson. The song is about the “surrender of the ego to love,” Growden said.

He hinted that working through some of his own troubles inspired the music of “Saint Judas.”

“I’ve had to go through some really difficult stuff to get where I am. I’ve found this really deep, resonating joy beyond that.”

“Inside Every Bird,” is a simple, melodic testimony to that experience of joy, proclaiming, “Behind every word, there’s another word, spoken softer, and behind that word — the sound of laughter.”

At the beginning of our phone interview Growden interrupted the conversation to finish dishing up his son’s breakfast, calling out “Breakfast is ready.” After a brief pause, he added gently, with fatherly warmth, “It’s sunnier over here. If you want to, you can move over and sit in the sun.”

Listening to Growden’s lyrics, you get the feeling he wants t - The Taos News

"Mark Growden"

Mark Growden has been incessantly touring all year in support of his 9th studio effort, the acclaimed and wildly popular Saint Judas. Yet in between rousing gigs in historical theaters from Austin, to New York and Seattle, he found time to record not only a live version of Saint Judas' stirring ballads, rousing narratives of love and loss, and raucous marches for accordion, guitar, and handlebar-flute; but a whole new disc of fresh material. The new album, Lose Me in the Sand (Porto Franco Records) features more of Growden's trademark vocal caprice and darkly poetic musicality. One highlight to watch for is a banjo-based cover of Bruce Springsteen's "I'm on Fire" that is heart-breaking, crazy, and wickedly smart. Also, a Janis Joplin puzzle that's a joy to unravel in its own right. - Shana Nys Dambrot - Flavorpill Los Angeles

"Musician Mark Growden finds his bearings"

Last month, Mark Growden released the best album of his life. At 40, he has grown into the big compositions and important subjects that have always compelled him. "Saint Judas" is a rich vision of American music brought to fruition, eleven songs graced by Growden's rich baritone and revelatory point of view.

Released in March on Porto Franco Records, the album, recorded almost entirely live in Oakland, is carefully arranged by Growden and features some of the best players in California, including bassist Seth Ford-Young and guitarist Myles Boisen, both of whom have also played with Tom Waits, to whom Growden has been recently compared.

Coming as he does from a classical and jazz background — Growden cites some major influences as contemporary classical composers Steve Reich, Arvo Part and Henryk Mikolaj Górecki, as well as jazz great Charles Mingus, Growden has carefully crafted every note on the album, but leaves room for some improvisatory bursts in the arrangements.

Also a visual artist, Growden's process here was that of an oil painter; the album was composed over several years, as the songs were reworked with deliberation. Every element feels intentional, every measure carefully wrought.

Most musicians poised on the cusp of potential financial success predicated on an album would plan to repeat the experience as soon as possible, and would do their best to recreate the site of that recording as precisely as possible. Not Growden.

The next Mark Growden recording will be done here in Tucson at Loveland Studios with Golden Boots bassist/engineer Nathan Sabatino. Growden plans to play banjo on all the tracks, most of which are new, with a few older songs receiving the treatment of a new ensemble of Tucson musicians hand-picked for the project.

For half of his set this weekend at The Screening Room this weekend, Growden will be joined by his new Tucson band, which includes Clay Koweek on acoustic guitar, Ian Stapp on upright bass, Tim O'Connor on fiddle, Connor Gallaher on dobro and lap steel and Tom Walbank on harmonica. Add to the mix Growden's banjo, which he describes as "very meaty and very low," and one has a spin on an old-time front porch band, a completely different sort of ensemble than the jazz- and classical-influenced players on "Saint Judas."

And that is precisely the point. Growden sees his project in a series of albums, each radically different from the last. After his Tucson album, Growden will work with Ford-Young and others in LA on his "City of Lost Angels" album, which will employ two upright basses, two tenor saxophones and a drummer. Growden will abandon the banjo for the accordion and his original instrument, the saxophone. Even more site-specific recording projects are in the works, including an album to be recorded with lots of string instruments at the Rothko chapel in Houston.

The decision to keep changing locales and ensembles may seem the result of mere wanderlust, but Growden insists that his vision of each endeavor is so different that it requires him to completely reconfigure his process and his orchestration. "My biggest influences are my instruments," he says. "The banjo wants certain things to come out of it. The accordion wants certain things.

"For now, my banjo songs come to Tucson to be recorded. I'd like to come back and do one album each winter for three winters, to get deeper and deeper into that."

Like several other American independent singer-songwriters of his generation, among them Richard Buckner and Chuck Prophet, both of whom, coincidentally, have both Tucson and Bay Area ties, Growden finds himself in the position of troubadour and not superstar. Touring constantly and relocating frequently (Prophet being the exception), these men constantly reinvent themselves in exciting ways, arguably precisely because they have yet to find the kind of commercial success so many of their peers have.

Perhaps it is this very lack of the need to plan stadium tours and press junkets, or to headline the rash of indie festivals that dot the American musical landscape, that allows the kind of immersive, deliberate process necessary to create a record like "Saint Judas." With each listen, the songs reveal more about their relation to each other, to the musical lexicon to which they respond, and to Growden's larger vision of what music does. "The message is simply compassion. And love — all the different types of love."

Mark Growden's official reading list
John Steinbeck "East of Eden"
Milan Kundera "The Book of Laughter and Forgetting"
Eckhart Tolle "A New Earth"
Roget's Thesaurus ("I love any books of quotations, any reference books")
'Saint Judas'
The album opens with the raw electric guitar and plaintive moan of "Undertaker." Borrowing the form of the prison worksong "Rosie," recorded by Alan Lomax in 1947, the song is dark, and love is an "undertaker" and a "thief." Growden's voice is striking both for its rich tone and expres - Tucson Sentinel


Mark Growden - In Velvet (to be released in 2012)
Mark Growden - Saint Judas Solo (to be released in 2012)
Mark Growden - Lose me in the Sand (to be released February 2011)
Mark Growden - Saint Judas (2010)
Mark Growden - Island of the Gondoliers (soon to be released)
Mark Growden – Blood Tea and Red String (2005)
Mark Growden – Live at the Casbah – San Diego (2004)
Mark Growden - Live at the Odeon (2003)
Mark Growden’s Electric Pinata - Inside Beneath Behind (2001)
Mark Growden - Downstairs Karaoke (1999)
Mark Growden - This Piggy (1997)
Mark Growden - Don’t Wanna Go Back (1996)


Tock - Tock (1996)
Big Butter - From the Udder (1990)
Big Butter - Step In and Do a Certain Something (1988)
E is for Elephant - Uncle Grapefruit (1988)


The Crux - Now Ferment (2009)
Splatter Trio - Splatter Trio + n (2007)
Six Eye Columbia - Frowny Frown (2001)
Six Eye Columbia - A Million Six (2001)
Ray’s Vast Basement - On the Banks of Time (2000)
Steve August - Happiness the Hero (1999)
Lori B - Hurricane Child (1998)
Alonzo King’s Lines Contemporary Ballet - Sacred Text (1996)
Bob Weir (Grateful Dead) - Baru Bay (1995)



Recurring themes in Mark Growden’s intensely personal new album Saint Judas include love and loss, sin and faith, perseverance, compassion, and, most significantly, redemption. There is a darkness that haunts Saint Judas, though not without an undercurrent of hope. Growden explains that, for him, the resurrection theme that surfaces throughout the work isn’t of the magical rise-from-the-dead variety, but rather that, “it takes some grieving to get through to the joy.”
Growden is captivated with old American music, mainly African-American, recorded by ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax in the 1930s and 1940s; several tracks on Saint Judas are reworkings of these songs. Album opener “Undertaker,” based on a Lomax field recording of the prison work song “Rosie,” introduces the theme of resurrection. “Dig me a grave, in the open plain. Lower me down, and pull me up again,” sings Growden, over a howling guitar and trumpet. And the closing banjo-and-voice only “All the Pretty Little Horses” is a version of an old spiritual Growden calls “one of his favorite songs ever” which was written, according to legend, by a woman watching horses pull her child’s hearse through the streets.
The title track on Saint Judas – a cabaret rocker with its refrain of “bottoms up to you, buddy, ’cause somebody had to take the blame” – honors the biblical “Saint of Sinners” often vilified as the traitor who turned on Jesus. The song is a call to acknowledge and accept the worst that lies within everyone while finding the strength to forgive and carry on.
The biblical references that pile up throughout the album are no accident – Growden’s father was a preacher in the northern Sierra Nevada town of Pinetown, California, where he was raised. But Growden is less interested in religious iconography than he is in seeing biblical stories as universal themes. As an example, “Delilah,” with its plaintive accordion and cello, references the story of Samson and Delilah, but as a metaphor, he says, “of the death of ego, of the illusion of yourself, for love.”
In perhaps the most moving piece on the album, “The Gates/Take Me To the Water,” Growden asserts that “every soul is welcome,” in a line that sums up the overarching theme of Saint Judas, “be you a virgin, a whore, a sinner or a saint.” This adaptation of an old spiritual delicately builds from a percussive accordion-heavy opening to a rousing choir-fed climax before launching into a rollicking New Orleans-style version of the traditional song. “Everyone assumes that it’s about Katrina, says Growden of the track, “but it was written before Katrina. It’s about walking in Oakland and seeing the pain in people’s eyes.”
As a composer and performer, Growden has released several critically acclaimed albums and performed at venues such as the Fillmore and Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, and Tonic and The Knitting Factory in New York. He has performed and collaborated with a wide range of musicians and artists including members of The San Francisco Opera, Bob Weir, Hamza el Din, Kid Congo Powers, John Santos, Omar Sosa, Remy Charlip, Faun Fables, and Stan Ridgeway. He has composed original musical scores for a number of dance and theater companies including Joe Goode Performance Group, The Crucible, and Alonzo King’s LINES Contemporary Ballet with whom he and his collaborators won the Isadora Duncan Award for Best Original Score for a New Dance Piece. He has scored several films including 2005’s Blood Tea and Red String, which won Best Animation at the San Francisco Independent Film Festival and at the Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal. Growden also co-produces San Francisco-based COVERT – a site-specific concert series with famed artist John Law.
After initially establishing himself as a jazz/new music winds player and composer in the mid-1990s, Growden began playing accordion and banjo when all his other instruments were stolen from a theater where he was accompanying a dance performance. He is currently writing an opera based on Saint Judas, is working on an educational film about how the harmonic series works, and leads singing workshops in various cities. In October 2009, Growden and Porto Franco Records signed the recording deal for Saint Judas. The team is now getting ready to produce two more albums to be recorded with his Los Angeles and Tucson ensembles, in those cities, respectively.