Mark Emanatian – Driven
Written by Liam Sweeny on February 10, 2019
Driven. That’s Mark Emanatian. He works in Citizen Action and Labor, and he plays in a few bands, among them Soul Sky and The Lawn Sausages. He does a lot, some of which we know, and much of which we’ll likely never know (unless he spills during this interview.)
He’s a gracious guy, and did I mention he was driven? It’s in the music too, encapsulating the upstate New York “crank-it-up” attitude. Both well liked and well regarded among musicians, and first among equals.
I sit down with Mark and talk about a little wet marble, third from the heater.
RRX: The thing that is universally said about you is that you have a lot heart that you bring to the stage, and to your work in the Capital Region community. And there’s a parallel that you could draw between the giving nature of music and other forms of giving. Are your music and your community work branches off the same trunk, do you think?
ME: Music has always made life better. It sustains people. It builds community. It has been a part of my life forever and it helps me do all the things I do. I often say at the end of the night’s last song “Take care of your family, your friends and your community…it’s all you got in this world.” I define my community in a big way…in a real sense my community is the world.
RRX: I know that you work for the Capital District Area Labor Federation. I saw you at Foodstock in the Rustic Barn, and I know you were very involved in that. But it’s not easy to just find a list of all that you do. That’s usually a sign you’re actually doing something. But can you tell me some things you’re involved in, so we can raise awareness?
ME: I work on issues of poverty all the time. The United States of America is the richest country in the history of the world. The three richest Americans have more wealth than the poorest 150 million Americans. Think of all the poor…the elderly, homeless veterans, children without enough food, hard working people who work jobs that don’t pay a living wage. I try to do something about it. I am a member of The Poor People’s Campaign. Some of what I do helps groups like the Food Pantries of the Capital District and the Regional Food Bank. That’s why I am involved with FoodStock at the Rustic Barn. The next one is on February 17, 2019. I help out at the Oakwood Community Center in Troy, which is a volunteer run center that’s a beacon of hope. Some of what I do is to try to build a movement that would fundamentally change the system that allows this to happen. That’s why I am member of Citizen Action.
I also work on anti-war and anti-violence campaigns. I don’t think peace is too much to ask for. I work on social justice issues and human rights campaigns. I am against racism, I am for the rights of women, I support the rights of our LGBTQ community. I try to build and support unions.
And something very important to me is supporting the efforts of my friend Joe Mele and his family. He lost his son to suicide six years ago and he took his tragedy and sorrow and has raised thousands of dollars to help people struggling with depression. The Sixth Annual Dustin Mele Memorial Concert is taking place on March 9, 2019 at Revolution Hall in Troy. I am honored to be playing at it.
RRX: I come from an activist family. We’ve gone on demonstrations and I’ve had causes ever since I was eight. As a musician, or as a creative person in general, do you feel that having a cause puts a particular fire in your belly? Does your willingness to fight for people push you internally to push the envelope with your own creative development?
ME: I have been going to rallies since I was 14…I went to a rally to try to stop the Vietnam War. I grew up in a time period when young people thought they could change the world and musicians thought they had a role in that. I can remember the first time I heard Ohio by CSNY, or Why I Sing the Blues by BB King or Deportees by Woody Guthrie or The Rising of the Moon by the Dubliners. I got to see Pete Seeger playing a concert to help farm workers and singing to end apartheid. I admired all of the musicians who used their talents to help the world or change the world. I am not able to separate my activism from my music. It’s all part of who I am. I think it is wonderful to go out and play some guitar with my friends, sing a few songs and help everyone have a good time and build some community along the way.
RRX: I’ve heard you play, and you go from having a real stomp acoustic road-trip vibe to some slick hotwire blues riffs. I heard a tribute to Ernie Williams, departed local blues great, and I’m always curious, when I hear blues players, what it means to them to play the blues, or to sing the blues. Can you describe that meaning, and how it motivates you?
ME: For whatever reason I fell in love with Blues music the first time I heard it. I grew up in a household where music was always played. My mother and father loved music and we heard everything from Sinatra, to classical, to big bands, to Peter Paul and Mary, the Beatles, Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, Coltrane, the Allman Brothers. The record player was always on at our house. It was a time before the 24 hour a day television world we live in now. And I love most kinds of music, but when I heard Blues music and the sound of the guitar in that music, I was hooked. I wanted to listen to it, read about it and try to learn to play it.
When I was fourteen, I joined my first band…the Third Avenue Blues Band. Tom Dolan, my dear friend, played in that band and I am still playing in bands with him almost five decades later. I got to see many of the legends…BB King, Albert King, Freddy King, Muddy Waters, Paul Butterfield, Luther Allison, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, John Lee Hooker, Buddy Guy and many more. I fell in love with the British greats…I love Eric Clapton and Peter Green and Mick Taylor…and then the great Stevie Ray Vaughan.
In my 20’s and 30’s I moved around the country a bit and then in the early 1990s I moved back here and I started playing in bands again and I played in Ernie Williams and the Wildcats for a decade. With Ernie I got to play all over the country in blues clubs and at blues festivals. Meeting Ernie and playing in his band was a wonderful experience. It also gave me a chance to play with and learn from some great guitarists that live and play around here. Joe Mele, Hank Soto, Scotty Mac, Jeremy Walz and many others. You don’t get better guitarists than that list.
RRX: Jimmy Barrett was one of my recent interviewees, and he was in high praise of you being someone who could straddle the fence of having a career and a music career. I’m sure you read it, as Jimmy is a friend to all, so I figured I’d give you a chance to comment on it. I’m sure there are quite a few aspiring string-slingers who’d like to catch some wisdom here.
ME: Jimmy Barrett is a dear friend and he has done so much for me and the rest of the musical community. He is also a person who is always there to help anyone in need. He is also one of the funniest people I have ever met. Music is a weird business. It’s tough. People pay $150 to see someone lip sync at SPAC but don’t want to pay $5 to see a great local band. It’s very tough to make a living playing music…especially if you want to play original songs. And everything in the world tells you to give it up. But I think you have to resist that. I think you have to fight to play music. And most of that fight is in your own head. But it is the fight for your soul.
I have a family that I love. I know we all do. I have bills and responsibilities. We all do. But after a long week at work, on Saturday night, you put on your guitar and you start to play and all the weariness fades away and you close your eyes and you are you again. I will fight to keep doing that.
RRX: Can you separate what goes on in the world from what makes its way into your music? I’m not trying to spark any specific political argument here, but it seems like there are a lot of people who want to say “just stick to…” Can we make music that will be classic three decades from now that isn’t drawing on what goes on now?
ME: Other than songs that we are just writing, most of the music I play in Soul Sky, The 317, the Dolan Brothers or even the Lawn Sausages is decades old. I play at least one song that’s over 100 years old. And even with all the changes in technology and in the world, the human condition and what we feel is pretty much the same. There is a longing that I see in people for real things…real emotions, real music, real instruments. Music should be fun, happy, sad, angry, tough, kind and anything else the human condition and spirit can muster up. With me, music makes me feel better and it is best when it is shared.
RRX: This is where you can answer any good questions I didn’t ask. Who’s on the edge, who deserves a ‘like’ or a ‘share’? What projects do you have coming up? I yield the floor.
ME: There are plenty of really good people trying to promote local music. The work Art Fredette is doing with RadioRadioX playing local music all the time is one example. He is another person who is always there when someone needs a helping hand. There are plenty of good people booking bands and keeping music alive. I count them as dear friends…Dottie from the Stony Creek, Tess from McGeary’s, Brian from the Ale House, Jody and Jason from the Rustic Barn, Jesse from the Cooperstown Blues Express, Garrick from Delta Blue just to name a few. Tommy and Matt up at Parkway. Sonny on Stormy Monday Blues on WRPI. Great bands all over the place. Solo acts. Songwriters. Singers. Just around the corner from everywhere, there is music and art and culture and humanity and people trying to make a better world. Find them and join in!
As for me, I want to keep playing and keep building. I would love to make another record. I made six with Ernie and four with Folding Sky and one with Amy Collins and Shadowland. But I have a bunch of new songs not yet recorded and I would love to get them out and about.