The path of music business history is littered with promising careers that have been mishandled and misdirected, mulled over then chewed up and spat out. It takes a certain type of resolve to survive such ordeals with dignity, marbles and, most importantly, talent intact.
In the past 20 years Marc Carroll, born 1972, has travelled from his native Dublin to London and back and then onto Los Angeles to pursue his musical vision. “I’ve always travelled. I’ll go anywhere that is purposeful to me. The music comes first. It always has and always will. People have suffered because of that, probably me too, but I just can’t help that. I left my family - everything – behind, and I live with that. It isn’t always easy but that’s just the way it is.”
Carroll has experienced the frustration that comes with folding labels, collapsing deals, misguided marketing gambits, wrongheaded artist development. “I don’t mull over it, there’s been a reason for any mishaps or misfortune. I care about the music, not the business behind it.” And yet, refusing to be moulded according to marketeers whim each album Marc has recorded – ‘Ten Of Swords’, ‘World On A Wire’, the rarities collection ‘All Wrongs Reversed’ and ‘Dust Of Rumour’ - have rightfully been accorded across the board critical acclaim.
Along the way he’s gathered famous fans among some of his key inspirations - Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson, - and had a bizarre, but remunerative, liaison with Top US TV show Friends. The commercial breakthrough that would assuredly endear his music to a wider audience has thus far proved elusive but Carroll’s devotion to his art has never faltered. The albums stand as a tribute to both his single-minded determination and carefully nurtured talent. The influence of the folk, punk, country and blues records to the charged harmony pop that inspired him - The Beach Boys to Husker Du, Hank Williams to Neil Young - flow through Carroll’s music.
But as a free spirit his knack for consistently finding a striking song writer's perspective to deal with life's wounds, challenges and elations makes him more than the sum of his parts. While covering a wide terrain – from the tender pop ‘n’ folk fired vignettes of ‘Ten Of Swords’, to the raw exposed emotion of ‘World On A Wire’ onto the shimmering transcendence and lustful longing of ‘Dust Of Rumour’ - Marc has synthesised his own indivisible style.
Growing up in 1980s Dublin shadowed by the all pervasive shadow of a certain messianic world conquering 4 piece (you know who), Marc felt a closer connection to the rawer sounds from the north of Ireland and America - Belfast’s Stiff Little Fingers, Derry’s The Undertones. “I was listening to folk and punk records and went off on my own way, those band’s music spoke much more directly to me, they were true. They were singing about truth, frustration, violence and girls…that other stuff just didn’t ring true for me…Whited sepulchers.” he insists. “I heard Johnny Rotten and thought my word, I heard Hank Williams and I thought good lord and I heard Bob Dylan and I picked up a guitar. You can’t go back or aspire to any logical or idyllic way of life after that.”
Carroll ploughed through a succession of Dublin bands before moving to London with his brother in 1988 where he made his first, ultra rare, solo single. “I pressed it up my self, no distribution, no record company, I can’t even remember the title, “he says enigmatically. “I just wanted to hold a record. I looked at it for days, probably even slept with it. Not much good though, as a record. I was pretty young.”
The 80s in Ireland were a grim time, youth immigration to UK increased but there was often a frosty reception across the Irish Sea. “I played with some bands and went to a lot of shows, it was quite a difficult time to be Irish in London, I was alienated quite a bit but that has its advantages too.” Small wonder he sought warmth and sustenance in music. “I’ve always been quite insular, it suits me or it is me, one or the other. There was a lot of that going on at the time. I was fired from all the jobs I had. Didn’t bother me really, I had more time to listen to records and write a lot of letters too.”
A period back home at the start of 90s once again found him out of step with the contemporary Dublin scene. “Well, from a young age I always felt some sort of gravitational pull to be somewhere else and I can’t really explain that…. but I needed to be elsewhere so I went to London for a while, and then I travelled to America…and stayed. There is a relative openness in America, not so many approval tests or limits to character.” Signed to Rough Trade Marc’s metallic edged Husker Du accented three piece Puppy Love Bomb earned a support slot with Bob Mould’s Sugar. A live duet with Mould on ‘Ticket To Ride’ provided a boost (as well as shows with Husker Du drummer/Songwriter, Grant Hart) - but around the same time Rough Trade folded.
His next band The Hormones were subsequently signed to V2 and though similarly fated (album released and deleted almost immediately), Marc was offered a lifeline when a short traditional sounding instrumental piece he had composed - in response to a challenge set by his father, and untypical of the band’s sound - was picked up for inclusion on Friends. Strange days indeed. “Just one of those things you know. I don’t watch TV. Never heard of the program actually. I asked around and people said it was popular.”
Following The Hormones break up Carroll was persuaded to take the plunge and went solo signing to Universal this time around but “left hanging for two years” before his first solo album Ten of Swords – recorded in 1999 - was finally released independently in 2003. “They tried to get me to go over to Ireland and become some sort of, I don’t know, troubadour, is that the word? I don’t make records like that. I’d spent most of my adult life away from Ireland, so to be dropped back in just seemed false, wrong. Cheating myself almost.”
Finally free of his major contract Marc released Ten Of Swords through Andrew Lauder’s Evangeline label. “If Andrew hadn’t stepped in then I don’t know where I’d be. He phoned up and said ‘who has the record?’. I said ‘Universal but they won’t put it out.’ He said ‘Call your lawyer’. I said ‘I haven’t got one.’ He said ‘You do now. I’ll put it out. He’s a good man, Andrew. Him and my manager kept the boat from sinking….” Lauder’s intervention was well gauged as the album showed Carroll’s abundant gifts.
‘Crashpad Number’ was the opening hit single that never was but certainly should have been (bizarrely it brought letters from born again Christians concerned for Marc’s spiritual welfare. “Well, some people lose faith in themselves so they replace it with something else.”) A Dublin street scene laced with folk threads was turned into aural gold on ‘Mrs. Lullaby’, ‘Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down’ reignited a timeless rebuke to authority, while a pervasive sense of ennui and dead-end lives was captured in the jangling beauty of ‘Falling Into Nowhere’. Shunning the ‘power pop’ tag his debut had earned him, Carroll showed his willfulness, refusal to follow formulae or chase a market by exploring the soul scarred landscapes of the follow-up, ‘World On A Wire’ which presented the austere clangor of ‘Love Over Gold’, the wrathful yet magisterial chamber pop of ‘It Isn’t Always Easy’, his voice now full of character and rasping warmth.
“That’s quite a raw record. I wrote it late at night and into the early hours, ate goats cheese and drank this sweetened fortified wine that I picked up in Nashville from this woman, a waitress called Flossie, an incredible guitar player, a great great musician. I never heard anything like this woman in all my life. I wrote the record after that and did the songs in one take, maybe two but no more than two.” Carroll’s formative Folk roots and punk blend has antecedents: The Pogues, Van Morrison, Dexys Midnight Runners were also sprung in various ways from such a union. Does he feel part of that tradition? “Only in the way that you do what you do, regardless of consequence or opinion.”
That approach calls to mind Bob Dylan - an influence obvious from the grim fatalism that peppers Carroll’s own compositions and the fact that he’s covered several of the maestro’s songs. One of Marc’s Dylan covers, ‘Gates Of Eden’, was featured on Dylan’s official webpage. (“I don’t know how that happened… glad it did though.”) Carroll subsequently got to meet the man and watch him from the stage at London’s Dockland Arena. “I sat on the side of the stage 10 feet from him. His commitment to his music and craft is just something to be respected. He’s great, you know. People still walk out of his shows in disbelief. Isn’t that something? They still don’t get it. I don’t understand the constant need to look back to the 1960’s. His Christmas record is up there with his best records in my mind.”
‘Mr. Wilson’ a heartfelt tribute to Beach Boys presiding genius Brian Wilson recorded in 1998 came to the Beach Boy’s legend attention. In LA Wilson’s band helped put together a live group for some dates. “I found some people in Los Angeles who were in some way familiar with what I do. That was interesting. I flew over, never met them previously, did a few rehearsals and then some shows. Very instinctive, slightly unorganized and shambolic but I need that sometimes. I don’t know structure of any kind.”
Written after the death of his father, ‘Dust Of Rumour’ showed a keen new maturity, hardened by raw experience but finding new levels of dreamy release in the gossamer magic of songs such as ‘Illusion And I’ and ‘A Dark And Lucky Night.’ Now after a period that has seen him absent from the live stage for 5 years, making ends meet with a series of jobs like cleaning up in LA Zoo (“I looked after the Bonobos. I didn’t want to work anywhere else, just with them. I felt a kinship, they really left a strong impression on me.”)
In 2010 a fresh deal was struck with One Little Indian - “Derek (Birkett) asked me what I wanted to do, just straight up ‘what do you want to do’, that’s not something you hear everyday from record labels. Apart from that, he is a kick boxer and what else do you need in life other than kick boxing and a little bit of freedom. I don’t want to be content. Life is lived forward and then reviewed backwards...something like that anyway.”
The first release was the retrospective compilation, ‘In Silence’ (2011) which refocused attention on Marc and paved the way for new album ‘Stone Beads & Silver’ - Carroll’s best yet. Recorded in Los Angeles and Woodstock during the summer of 2012, the it marks yet another turning point in his long and often varied career. Previously playing all instruments on his solo recordings, for the new record, Carroll drafted in a host of high ranking musicians to play on the songs - some of the best working in American music today, including Bo Koster (My Morning Jacket), Nelson Bragg & Probyn Gregory (Brian Wilson), McKenzie Smith (Midlake) as well as former Bob Dylan sideman and Levon Helm band leader, the now late Larry Campbell.
“I didn’t want to play it all myself this time,” explains Carroll. “I wanted to bring a different feel to some of the songs. These weren’t a bunch of 3-minute guitar songs. I knew who I wanted to play on the songs as I was writing them and the record benefits from that approach. These people are all great at what they do, have an ethos, a way of life that puts music first or makes music an intimate part of their lives. They come from different musical environments but the ethic is the same, they understand the depth and variety and history of American music in particular, which is important to me.”
And for the first time Marc drafted in a defacto producer - Grammy Award winner Chris Testa (Jimmy Eat World, Band Of Horses, Dixie Chicks) to work alongside him on the sessions in Los Angeles. “I liked Chris when I met him and I think we worked well together. I thought it would be interesting to let someone else in on the act. ”
“There is no particular style to the new record. My records have never been like that. You can’t really pigeonhole life and I certainly can’t do that to my songs. They have a life of their own and they are what they are. I never have a set plan. I only care about the songs and they will dictate how they should sound.”