“This next one’s something like six and a half minutes long. And it’s only got four chords. And yeah, it doesn’t really do a lot. But hope you enjoy it.”
With a wry smile on his face, Mark McCambridge – the creative force behind Arborist – tunes his guitar and speaks with typically self-effacing humour to the Portstewart crowd sat at tables adorned with wine glasses and half-empty beer bottles, before launching into a stunning rendition of ‘A Man of my Age’.
Since that track appeared on his debut album Home Burial in 2016, he has forged a path for himself as one of Northern Ireland’s most celebrated songwriters, winning a deserved NI Music Prize for best song in 2020 [for Here Comes the Devil] and creating a series of albums that repeatedly stop you in your tracks with their mesmerising melodies and storytelling.
Just an hour earlier on this overcast April night at Flowerfield Arts Centre, Mark kindly opened the doors of his dressing room prior to taking to the stage to tell us about his excitement on being back on the road in support of his third record, An Endless Sequence of Dead Zeros.
“It’s early days, we’re only two shows in and it’s still finding its voice a little bit. Not in a problematic way, but we’re feeling out some of the songs. And I think that’s a good thing, because it means the songs are still alive.”
The reason his band are still “feeling out” the songs is because Mark travelled solo across the Atlantic in March 2023, with demos in hand, to the heartland of Americana looking to flesh out his tracks in the most authentic style possible. This journey led him to the Spacebomb Studios in Richmond, Virginia, and the backing of their vastly experienced in-house team of session musicians.
It did mean recording an entire album in just over a week though.
“When I went out, there was without doubt a sense of imposter syndrome. Because even though I’ve played music in London, Scotland, Dublin and Belfast, I’m maybe sometimes caught up in a bubble where I feel I’m pushing myself as an artist but actually I’m not.”
However he soon felt at home, and sees now how the breakneck speed of arranging and recording the album in eight days may have enabled them to achieve even more exciting results. “Even though these guys are sensational players, their approach to creativity is much the same as anyone else I’ve met. There is that sense of jeopardy, of sometimes doubting yourself and trying to find your way out of a rut.”
One of the standout tracks from the new album is Matisse with its refrain, “And if you think that this looks good, you should have seen it in his head.” This prompts me to ask Mark if this latest record finished up any differently to how he first imagined it in his head.
“The songs aren’t a million miles away [from what I’d imagined], they’re just so much more efficiently played and more creative and melodic. That song [Matisse] is all about the disparity between sometimes feeling like you’ve written the best album in the world and then having to make a series of compromises and choices enroute between that first idea in your head and the final product.”
The concept of making choices is something that crops up time and time again both in our conversation and on this album, especially on the haunting Unkind that builds in a crescendo of claustrophobic reflections on the state of the world today before horns and Hammond organ lead it to its instrumental climax.
“Much of that song [Unkind] is written with my children in mind. The line ‘Absolve ourselves of any blame, but that seem unkind’ speaks of our generation’s disregard for the climate and everything else besides, that our children and grandchildren will have to pick up. It’s the same in the line about religion – ‘Try to raise our children in the light of the Lord, but that seems unkind’ – I don’t have any faith, but I can also see the anxiety in the nothingness that is death. To present that to a child is quite a difficult thing to do. So the whole song is a juxtaposition of the choices we have.”
Unkind has an almost hypnotic, repetitive pattern to it. And it’s not the only track on the album like that, with opener Dreaming in Another Language dancing around the same bass motif throughout its seven-minute duration.
“That sense of repetition is a big part of folk music. There are a lot of songs [on the album] where I’ve found something that I really like, like the bass riff on that opening track, where I’ve said ‘Set it off like a train, and it’s not going to move’ and then you just come in and out and add things around it and build it from there.”
The album would probably have been named after the opening track as well, if The 1975 hadn’t foiled his plans. “It was called Dreaming in Another Language in the studio,” Mark explains. “But then I saw that The 1975 were releasing a record – not that I’ve listened to any of their songs – called Being Funny in A Foreign Language. And it made me a bit nauseous, you know, imagine if that’s coming out at the same time and it might look like some sort of reference to it!”
In the end, Mark’s own touring band – Aga Olek (violin), James Heaney (bass), Ben McAuley (drums) and Clara Tracey (keys and backing vocals) – show tonight they are more than capable of bringing the sound of the Southern States to life on a north coast stage as they rattle through the new record with a sensitivity and richness of sound that complement Mark’s voice perfectly.
The whole performance feels like being swept along in a dreamlike state through his back catalogue, new and old, punctuated with moments of humour and genuine warmth, demonstrating exactly why Arborist are held in such high esteem and why so many rave reviews have already poured in for the new record.
And Mark wants to see more artists from our part of the world have similar opportunities to bring their ideas to life, but finds himself increasingly frustrated at the lack of support from those in positions of authority – again making choices – when it comes to financial backing.
“I think it’s slightly dangerous to say we punch above our weight [as a music scene in Northern Ireland], because I don’t think we do. And I think that’s largely down to funding.”
He recently attended a protest event against arts budget cuts at the Black Box, organised by the Equity union representing those working in the arts, and feels worried that further cuts could come in the near future if people don’t make their voices heard.
“I think £5.45 per head is given to the arts in Northern Ireland by the government, but in the South it’s around £25 per head. So five times more. Even in the rest of the UK it’s something like £10-£12 per head in Wales, England and Scotland. And yet they’re planning to cut more in Northern Ireland. So without doubt we need more funding, and lines about us ‘punching above our weight’ might suggest we don’t need any more when we absolutely do.”
After all, denying other talented artists the opportunity to shine, that seems unkind.
It’s not too late to catch the brilliant Arborist for yourself on this tour, with their re-arranged album launch at the Ulster Sports Club on Thursday 11th May 2023, and a further full band show at the Braid Valley Arts Centre in Ballymena on Saturday 13th May 2023.
The latest Arborist record, An Endless Sequence of Dead Zeros is available now via bandcamp.