Take this waltz
S.F. singer/songwriter Mark Growden returns with new disc and new commitment to music
It started as just a name about four years ago, one that I kept hearing after the fact: “Mark Growden was amazing last night at the Crux.” It was always at the Crux—some last-minute show or loose party performance at the now-defunct art gallery. And I missed them all.
I eventually did catch Growden’s act, one December night in 2006, at the 1078 Gallery. When it was his turn to play, he just stood up in the center of the big, dimly lit room with his accordion—no amplification—and proceeded to growl his way through a moving set of moody tunes that seemed to be extracted from the grayness of the late-fall night.
Today, I count the San Francisco singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist, who will be performing and debuting his brand new CD Saint Judas at The Frame tonight, Nov. 19, as one of my favorite songwriters.
I didn’t know it then, but as I searched the Internet for elusive recordings by the mysterious performer, it turned out that Growden’s background went much deeper than a series of mostly anonymous Chico art gallery shows. He is no newcomer.
From the early 1990s through 2005, Growden was a fixture in the Bay Area, starting with playing art music with a who’s who of experimental musicians in various ensembles before eventually moving on to singing and songwriting. He has scored a dozen films and videos, composed music for plays and dance performances, and he even puts on underground site-specific performances as part of the COVERT series he co-produces along with John Law of the loose-knit Cacophony Society.
Once he put on the songwriting hat, though, his profile began to elevate. He strapped on an accordion and surrounded himself with some of the Bay Area’s best players—including guitarist Myles Boisen and trumpet player Chris Grady, both of whom have worked with Tom Waits, among others—and created an act that caused writers to gush: “Torrid lyricism and fierce accordion rascality”; “An avatar of bohemian weirdness on a par with Tom Waits or Joe Henry.”
Then, he burned out. He quit music, moved away to Westwood, his childhood home in the foothills of Lassen Peak, and switched to painting.
“I toured a lot and started to get some fame and I didn’t know what to do,” said Growden, speaking on his cell phone as he walked to his S.F. apartment with carrot juice in hand. “I sort of started playing a role of what people wanted me to be. That had a real negative impact on my soul.”
It was during this down time that Growden made the most of those storied CRUX appearances. Chico artist/CRUX member David “Dragonboy” Sutherland had seen Growden perform at a party and invited him to play. Slowly, Growden found his way back to music.
“I didn’t know I was going to go back to music,” Growden said, reflecting on that time. Now 40, he says he’s come to terms with the fact that his gift is making music and that he has to do it. And as for the spotlight and attention that comes with the work?
“It’s not about me, it’s about the work,” he says. “I know what to do with it now.”
What he’s done is record his first studio album in eight years. Boisen and Grady returned for the recording and were joined by cellist Alex Kelly, percussionist Jenya Chernoff and upright bassist Seth Ford-Young (who’s played with everyone from Eric McFadden to Waits, and who will be joining Growden for his stripped-down Chico show). Engineered by the legendary Oz Fritz, Saint Judas is a lusty, somewhat loosely presented collection of poems set to disjointed waltzes and dark ballads of biblical proportion.
“With this album I reference the Bible a lot. … I’m reclaiming characters,” Growden says. “I have an affinity for the character of Judas,” he adds referencing his invented title character. “I relate to the antihero.”
The Chico show, as well as a handful of other West Coast dates, is part of a “narrow release” of Saint Judas. Growden’s new label, San Francisco’s Porto Franco Records, is planning a world-wide release—with attendant international tour—for March 2010.