After more than 30 years in the music business, singer-songwriter Mark Lanegan has learned a few things about himself as a creative individual. For someone who at times begrudgingly took on the role of lead singer for the bands he's fronted—most notably the Screaming Trees—Lanegan has grown leaps and bounds as a songwriter and, particularly, as a frontman. So much so that he still finds surprises in his line of work.
The measured, gravelly-voiced musician, who played the Showbox to a large crowd on August 24 with his Mark Lanegan Band, says that in the early days, he and his fellow players in the Screaming Trees (a group born in Ellensburg in 1985 who scored a platinum single, "Nearly Lost You," from the Singles soundtrack) were "learning as we went along—and we were slow learners." But Lanegan, who perhaps more than anyone else epitomized the 1990s grunge era with his disaffected eyes and long red hair, says he feels more "on the ball now" as a writer, and he knows "how to sing and write songs in a way that feels natural."
This focused sense of creativity shows on his latest solo album, Gargoyle, released in April. The record bumps, laments, and rolls, offering a bracing range of emotions. It's part Trent Reznor, like on the industrial-sounding opening track, "Death's Head Tattoo," and part teary-eyed balladry, like on the romantic yet sorrowful "Goodbye to Beauty," on which Lanegan croons over twinkling guitar, "Day follows night/Nightfall is day/Goodbye to beauty."
On Gargoyle, Lanegan more than ever makes the leap from raspy rocker with a sordid heart to Leonard Cohen on "Tower of Song"–style reporter of the botched way of the world—and how life will likely always go this way. "On the water still/My boat violently shaking," he sings on the rollicking "Emperor," adding, "Who's left to kill?/Just the emperor." The song stands out as the most radio-friendly track on the 10-song, 41-minute full-length.
But Gargoyle is not the only work Lanegan's released this year. In August, the singer released I Am the Wolf, a book composed of his career lyric writings; the tome spans his creative years from 1989 through 2017. Yet, despite such an achievement, Lanegan offers typical apathy instead of exuberance when reflecting upon it. "Somebody suggested it," he laughs, almost solemnly. "I was looking to have something to sell at shows, so I did it. It's cool, sure. It's great."
Nevertheless, Lanegan says he may undertake the writing process again, maybe even attempt a memoir. "Something more satisfying," he offers. "I'll say this about the book-writing process: There wasn't a lot of joy."
Recording music has proven to be Lanegan's most enjoyable creative endeavor. "It's where you get to make the document of this thing you've created," he explains. "Recording is the most satisfying stage of making music." While he's continuing to learn to enjoy live performance more, "it's not nearly as gratifying as writing a record or writing songs for a record," he admits.
But, of course, the whole recording process itself has changed in the three decades Lanegan has been in the scene. And he's had to adapt. "When Pro Tools first came along, I was highly suspicious of it," he says. "I was used to making records on old eight-track machines. But after seeing the ease with which you can make records now, I fell right in line. I'm happy to make records in a modern way."
It's easy for some to be self-deprecating when reflecting on their own storied careers. Lanegan says he and his bandmates in those early days weren't "savvy enough" to write intricate songs with key changes and, say, Radiohead-style ebbs and flows. Nevertheless, despite the band's raw, headfirst method of playing and writing, Lanegan says nobody ever told him to slow down. "I'm glad to have had the opportunities I've had," he reflects. "And glad I still get to create music and some people want to come out to hear it. I feel blessed." And while there's "probably a million things" he'd do differently with his career in hindsight, he feels content with his place in the pantheon of songwriters.
And it's living within this world of songwriters that's always fueled him, both as an artist and, simply, as a human being. "I'm a fan of music," he says. "Music has healing qualities. I know this because I feel it and I hear people say it all the time. People always say, 'Music did this for me, did that for me,' and I've been around long enough to hear people say that kind of stuff to me, about my music. I appreciate it."
Despite his connectedness to the songwriters and fans past, present, and future, Lanegan says the majority of his responsibility as an artist is to himself. "If people are paying money to come see a show," he says, "I feel a responsibility to do my best to sing to the best of my ability and hopefully give them something to enjoy. But other than that, my responsibility is to myself, to continue to make music that I enjoy, and if anybody else enjoys it, it's icing on the cake."
Either way, Lanegan keeps writing and producing—as with Gargoyle, an album Lanegan says he found "enjoyable" to create. "It has a beginning, a middle, and an end," he says. "It holds together and has some songs in there I'm going to enjoy playing live."
One of the most eminent figures in Seattle music history, Lanegan says he is still experiencing revelations in his art-making journey. "Like on 'Emperor,'" he says. "It's jaunty; it has a sort of bounce to it. I don't think I'd done anything like that before." The song's proof that Lanegan can still innovate, even three-plus decades into his eventful musical career.