Arts & Theater

‘America’s greatest living lyricist’ stops in at Old Ironsides

Musician Mark Eitzel said of his tour, “I’m not making any money, I just want to break even, but probably won’t.”
Musician Mark Eitzel said of his tour, “I’m not making any money, I just want to break even, but probably won’t.”

Mark Eitzel may or may not cheer you up. The songwriter and singer isn’t particularly trying to do either, but his songs can be anthemic and celebratory, or dour and pessimistic. Whichever they are, there’s an aching honesty and sense of transparent self-deprecation that, even when humorous, carry a melancholy tinge.

As both an acclaimed solo artist and leader of the San Francisco-based band American Music Club, Eitzel has often performed in Sacramento (the El Dorado Saloon, Melarkey’s and the Press Club have hosted Eitzel or AMC gigs) over the past 20 years. With his latest album, “Hey Mr Ferryman,” being released Friday, Jan. 27, Eitzel is making a short run up the West Coast including a stop at Old Ironsides in midtown Sacramento before going to Europe for a more extensive tour in February and March. When Eitzel comes back to the States in the spring, he’ll sit down in New York with Tony-winning playwright Simon Stephens to write their third musical together.

Eitzel has released 17 albums both with the American Music Club and as a solo artist, many of them highly regarded, but he’s never had much commercial success. He’s now based in Los Angeles where his partner lives, but has spent time in San Francisco rehearsing for the tour and trying to rent his house there.

“San Francisco is not really home any more,” Eitzel said by phone. “Spiritually it used to be, but at this point it’s really a province of people who make a lot more money than I ever will.”

He’s been called “America’s greatest living lyricist” by the Guardian, and Rolling Stone once named him “Songwriter of the Year,” but accolades don’t pay bills, so Eitzel will travel light on this tour.

“I can only afford to bring one band member with me, so I’m bringing a pianist on this trip,” Eitzel said. “I’m not making any money, I just want to break even, but probably won’t. That’s why I need to rent my house.”

His new record may not greatly affect his status, but it’s also one of the strongest song collections he has released in a career that includes several notable records. “California” (1988), “United Kingdom” (1989) and “Everclear” (1991) are the series of records by AMC, which first got Eitzel noticed. Subsequent solo records such as “60 Watt Silver Lining” (1996), “West” (1997) and “The Invisible Man” (2001) built on Eitzel’s reputation as a premier lyricist and composer.

Though Eitzel seems fairly prolific, he said the process of writing songs is “torture.”

“I don’t have a problem writing bad songs; good songs take a little longer,” he explained.

On “Hey Mr Ferryman,” Eitzel worked with English producer Bernard Butler, who plays almost all the instruments on the record. Butler has an extensive pop music background, having been with the band Suede during its early ascent. He has since produced or recorded with Ben Watt, Bert Jansch, Tricky, Edwyn Collins and numerous others. Butler and Eitzel’s manager in England are friends from meeting at the day care where each takes his daughter.

“I sent him some of my demos, and he actually responded,” Eitzel said.

Butler’s production gives the music a heft and density that builds on the tension and imagery of Eitzel’s lyrics. Opening with the optimistic “The Last Ten Years” followed by the lush and beautiful “An Answer,” the album exposes Eitzel’s art and craft in the best possible ways.

Eitzel feels much of the success of the collaboration came from what he didn’t have to say to Butler – in not having to explain the songs or the music.

“He hears me play something and says, ‘Oh that’s what you’re playing; OK got it,’ and he’ll quit,” Eitzel said. “For me that’s an awful lot of the battle – just trying to tell (a producer) why I use weird jazz chords.”

Eitzel may yet break into the mainstream through his work with Stephens, who won a Tony for his adaptation of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime.” Their first musical together, “Song From Far Away,” was highly praised in Great Britain. Eitzel also wrote music for Stephens’ play “Marine Parade.”

Looking to the upcoming third project, Eitzel said Stephens and he have a “really great story” with part of their process including interviews with people they’ll find New York.

For his tour, Eitzel will play songs from his new album and a variety of selections of his earlier work as well.

“We have tons of songs we play. I try to do songs from all of my career, but the only fortunate thing about not being a success is that I don’t have to.”

Marcus Crowder: 916-321-1120, @marcuscrowder

Mark Eitzel & Howe Gelb

When: 9 p.m. Friday, Jan. 27

Where: Old Ironsides, 1901 10th St., Sacramento

Cost: $15 (21 and older only)

Information: 916-443-9751;