A reflection on loss: On his new album, Mark Schwaber looks back on the death of his mother

  • Guitarist and singer-songwriter Mark Schwaber has an introspective new album out, “Everything Around Me,” that he composed in the wake of his mother’s death. Photo by Paul Reitano/courtesy Mark Schwaber

  • Mark Schwaber, the former Easthampton guitarist and singer-songwriter now living in Greenfield, has a new album out that he composed mostly before the pandemic. Photo by Paul Reitano/courtesy Mark Schwaber

  • On his new album, guitarist and singer-songwriter Mark Schwaber reflects on the loss of his mother. courtesy Mark Schwaber

Staff Writer
Published: 5/20/2021 1:06:14 PM

A good number of musicians, hunkered down at home for much of the past year during the pandemic, have used that enforced isolation to write and record new music, with some of the songs reflecting the strange turn life has taken since early 2020.

Mark Schwaber’s newest release, “Everything Around Me,” feels like a pandemic album. For one thing, Schwaber played all the instruments on the record, and he also engineered and produced it in his studio at home. And then there’s the subject matter: An initial listen to the tracks reveals songs of loss, of isolation, of pain, of life being knocked off course.

But Schwaber, the veteran Valley singer-songwriter and guitarist, actually recorded most of “Everything Around Me” in 2019, before COVID-19 arrived. The release of the album, he says, has been delayed because of the pandemic, but he’s now putting it out in anticipation of playing some live shows later this year.

Yet Schwaber, who today lives in Greenfield — he previously lived in Easthampton for 20 years and co-owned Night Owl Records there for a stretch — notes that “Everything Around Me” does in fact reflect a very difficult period in his life. The songs were composed in the months leading up and following the death of his mother, Judy, a loss that still pains him, though turning that pain into something creative has helped a bit.

“It was definitely a really hard time for me,” Schwaber said during a recent phone call from his home. “One way to deal with it was to write music that reflected what I was feeling.”

From an instrumental perspective, Schwaber has channeled those feelings with a very different sound. His previous albums, such as “White Flood,” Those You Trust,” and “The Killing Card,” were characterized by a mix of melodic, guitar-driven indie rock, some harder-edged rock tunes, and acoustic guitar tracks. “Everything Around Me,” though, offers a more somber sound that’s dominated by keyboards and swirling synthesizer as well as deliberately muted vocals.

Some tracks, such as “Evil Valentine” and “On Fire,” are built primarily around strummed acoustic guitar; electric guitar, occasionally heavily distorted, and programmed drums come in on other cuts.

But the album as a whole, which includes four instrumentals, has a hazy, dreamlike quality that reflects both Schwaber’s emotional struggle and his interest in creating a particular sound, which he says evolved more or less organically as he began recording his new songs.

“I was listening to a lot of soundtrack music then, and I was also kind of flashing back to some of the stuff I heard when I was growing up and got into music, a lot of ’80s sounds,” said Schwaber, who was born in 1972. “I was also trying to do some meditation around that time, and I just had this kind of big, swirling sound in my head.”

Perhaps most notable are his vocals, which tend to be buried down in the mix. Schwaber says that came about in part because he’d written much of his new material in a way that required him to sing in a lower register. But, he added, he was also “writing stuff that in some ways was so private that I was kind of saying, ‘Come closer to listen.’”

“Monastery on the Hill,” the album’s opening track, speaks to the record’s overall sound. To layered keyboards, drums and a repeated melody that takes on an almost hypnotic quality, he sings, in part, “The monastery on the hill near the hospital / where you pray to see your Mother repair her failing / lungs and heart. / From the view the train tracks, / right outside, a chance to ride away to nothingness.”

“Evil Valentine,” meantime, questions whether we really have any control over our own lives, let alone those of others, and conjures a sense of terrible loss: “Now we punctuate the past with bold extremes. / If you’re dead then so am I.”

This isn’t the first time that Schwaber, who has worked as an addiction counselor for area health organizations in recent years, has turned difficult periods in his life into music. His previous album, “White Flood,” came out following a period of heavy drinking.

As the notes to his new album put it, “To Mark Schwaber, the art of distilling beauty from desolation is a familiar one. The sonic expression of his sincere relationship with darkness binds together the many albums that he has recorded over the last several years.”

That said, Schwaber also has a long resume as a solo performer, band leader and accompanist to numerous other musicians, including Lou Barlow, Matthew Sweet and Lloyd Cole. Schwaber and Valley guitarist Matt Cullen toured numerous countries a decade ago as part of an acoustic trio with Cole, the former English pop star/turned singer-songwriter who settled in Easthampton in the late 1990s.

Schwaber says he’s looking to organize some solo shows later this year to showcase his new music, perhaps with some taped backup to accompany him on guitar. If conditions permit it, he’ll think about putting together a band for some shows.

And he’s working on some new music as well, including tunes that harken back to his early love for the electric guitar, when the late Eddie Van Halen and then punk rock bands got him interested in picking up the instrument.

“I’m kind of knee-deep in nostalgia these days,” he said with a laugh.

More information about Schwaber’s music can be found at markschwaber.bandcamp.com.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

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