Marcus Eaton,
The TVD Interview

“Seems impossible to tell seasons apart, or know exactly which way the weather’s going to go,” states singer-songwriter Marcus Eaton in “Closer,” the third moodily introspective track on his EP “Invisible Lines,” released last month on vinyl. New and timely in its themes of isolation, sociological questioning, and nature awareness, Eaton’s EP stands as a semi-unintentional testament to the wild, sad, and unpredictable times we are currently living through.

The release date of mid-May was chosen months before the pandemic took center stage. But over the course of the EP’s five original tracks and one cover song, Eaton makes it clear that he is the ideal artist for the right now. He puts forth thoughtful and comfortable-in-uncertainty reiterations and spin-offs of his “Closer” observation. The revolutionarily minded “Step Aside” that inspires personal power and potential political change, the flight-focused “Shadow of a Bird” that encourages risk-taking and assuages fear of failure, and the responsibility-oriented “Handed Down” that investigates the concept of cultural inheritance, all address eternal themes of the human experience: physical and emotional solitude, penning one’s own most authentic creed, and trying to do the right thing while also honoring personal spiritual and material desires.

Different musicians who surmised the same truths that Eaton has on “Invisible Lines” could have reverted to rebellion, rage, ridicule, or disenchantment. But he appears to have chosen an alternate path, that of pursuing newness and insisting on hope. Even his choice of cover song, Sting’s classic world-conscious “Fragile,” merges with these same themes and fits perfectly alongside originals. Eaton’s guitar prowess, carefully cultivated over years of inquiry, practice, and spiritual searching, has served as his artistic calling card for much of his career and once again takes center stage—and exquisitely so—on “Invisible Lines.” As does his compositional penchant to get to the heart of the matter—for the universe at large—via the most musically captivating route.

Eaton released his first album with his jazz fusion-forward group The Lobby in 2003, which was followed by three solo albums before “Invisible Lines.” And his ongoing musical collaboration with the legendary David Crosby ultimately spawned last year’s acclaimed Grammy-nominated documentary Remember My Name, directed by Eaton’s brother A.J. and for which Marcus wrote and recorded a stark and stellar original guitar-based score (with Bill Laurance). And really, what better than intense instrumental acumen and sonic sophistication, to prepare a younger musician for working with an eminent and complex artist like David Crosby?

In conversation with Marcus Eaton, we learn more about the genesis of “Invisible Lines,” his myriad of guitar heroes, and his musical collaboration with one of the most talented and paradoxical artists in rock history.

You produced this new EP, “Invisible Lines,” yourself, but the whole thing—the sound quality, the mixing is very impressive.

Thank you. I’m really proud of this new project because I did it myself. My friend Billy Centenaro mixed it, and he took it way beyond what I expected. When I got the mixes back from him, it was the first time I heard the emotion that I put into the album come back to me. It really affected me; the emotion was translating—before, the emotion wasn’t hitting people. So that just shows you how important mixing is. My friend tracked the drums for me in his studio. We did the strings at my home, the violin parts on “Invisible Lines.”

Those were live players?

That was one live player named Lizzie Ball, she’s incredible, she used to play with Jeff Beck, a top violin player in London. I’d had some temporary synth parts that were replicating strings. She got into it, just went crazy, did like thirteen or fourteen tracks.

Can you discuss working with David Crosby in the past, and your connection to him, as a younger person? Did it feel special, like “not everyone gets to do this,” working with the legends, the masters?

The Crosby thing—what I love about it is that it was so organic. It happened through my friend Norm Waitt, who saw me open for Tim Reynolds, this incredible guitarist I’ve always idolized who plays with Dave Matthews. I started listening to him at 18 and thought if I could ever play with him, that could be the thing. And I ended up touring with him a lot. So on one of these tours, in Aspen, I met Norm Waitt, who asked if I wanted to play at his Christmas party in Omaha, Nebraska. It was a blast, and then Norm said “I really think you need to meet my friend David Crosby.” I found out that Norm had a record label, which he’d built around Crosby, because he loved his music so much. So that’s how I met David. A couple of months later he asked if I’d like to come and play on his album which became Croz (2014). So it was very organic, not through management, or lawyers—a lot in music happens that way—but this was organic. A ’60s-style “hey man, come and jam in my living room” sort of thing. It was very special.

What was it like working with David Crosby? In the documentary I got the feeling he was a sometimes-difficult character, while a brilliant artist.

When he and I played, it was really inspiring. Crosby’s stuff is extremely progressive, which is kind of why we get along. My stuff is pretty similar, in that its singer-songwriter music, primarily based on acoustic guitar, progressive, and challenging for the listener, meaning that sometimes there’s odd time signatures, piano-like chords and jazz chords; he plays his in open tunings and I use different fingerings for chords.

When we first started working together he was stoked. It was his first solo album in twenty years. It was me and him and his son James, and I remember him coming in and just being so inspired. I think it was the first time since CPR he was so psyched about making music. We did one album; it took three years to make, but it was really special. We got to write together. He had a guitar made for me called a McAlister, which set me on this whole different trajectory, because I became really good friends with the luthier who made it, who made this signature guitar for me. He surprised me with that gift. I am extremely grateful to David Crosby for that opportunity. I’m proud of what we did.

How was it working on the soundtrack? Was that just you, and the producers and director, your brother A.J. Eaton? Was Crosby involved in any of that?

It was cool. David and I had worked together for six years or so and known each other for about ten. My brother was doing the film; I had introduced them. When we were recording the album Croz, my brother came up and filmed some stuff when we were in the studio, and came to do an interview at Crosby’s house. Which went on to be this beautiful thing, and it kept kind of pushing them to do a film. My brother connected with Cameron Crowe, and it spawned into the movie. I kept telling my brother I wanted to do the score, but Cameron’s a soundtrack guy—but A.J. wanted something deeper emotionally. Jazz stuff—because Crosby’s really a jazz artist in a lot of ways. So they actually ended up getting Bill Laurance from Snarky Puppy, an incredible pianist, and then we started writing together, because my brother wanted to try some acoustic stuff.

It was cool because Crosby has all these particular tunings, and all the things I kind of worked on with him—it (the score) sounded like something he might write, but more cinematic. It worked really well and was really fun. I’m really grateful that my brother included me, because it was kind of the perfect thing. I was kind of the perfect person to do it, because I know his (Crosby’s) essence. And it’s pretty seamless, if you see the film, it doesn’t ever take you out of the film.

Your brother must be so grateful to you too, for introducing him to Crosby.

We went to Sundance and it was like, “Holy shit, we’re here!” It was almost shocking, because especially as a musician, you hardly ever get that moment, of that culmination. Our family and friends were there, some of them were crying—it was a big moment for my brother, A.J. who was then nominated for a Grammy for the film, too.

Your new album’s themes of unity, connecting with people—literally and more spiritually, across great physical or emotional distances, are so fitting of our current world of social distancing and self-isolation. Did you sense this coming?

With this album release, it was in a way, written about right now. Every song is so relevant to this moment, I’m really proud of that. Timing is everything, synchronicity is everything. Everything worked out to release it at this time – I set the date up—a while ago—but I’m so happy with the timing of it. The album’s title track “Invisible Lines” was written originally about Standing Rock. That was the inspiration, but the idea was that the invisible lines are geographic lines that are being erased by technology. For the first time, sitting here watching this culture that’s been completely marginalized and been forgotten about, fight for their rights against these huge corporations. It was a way of saying the whole world is connected through this, and the whole world wants what’s right. “Step Aside” is the same kind thing, it’s about the political spectrum that we’re in, and about the new generation coming in, parting the ways for the new to come in.

Had these themes been on your mind for a while?

Yeah, these are themes that have been kind of on my mind for a long time. Spiritually it’s not something that’s intentional, it’s just what comes to me when I write. And I care about things, I care about the environment, and the world. Music is here for a number of reasons; it can be here to take us out of the moment, or to heal or help us deal with emotion. And I kind of feel like this album should be helpful. I think my old style of writing was a little less poetic and more informative. It was just “these are the problems,” and not necessarily offering a clear solution. There can be a lot of power in that, and it can help people get their power back. But here, there’s a little bit of informant in there, speaking about how it is, but there’s also hope in there too. That’s the important ingredient, for me, it’s got to be hopeful.

I think it is, as a listener. Especially with “Invisible Lines,” the first track, how there are these lines, divisions that have been put down by people, but they can be easily erased or changed, they’re not set in stone.

It’s true. We live in a violent time. Violence never accomplishes anything. I mean, everyone wants the same things in life. They want to live with their family. For the most part, in the world there are more good people than bad people. If there weren’t, we wouldn’t even have the world that we have. There are a lot of great people. And everybody’s just trying to do their thing. They want clean water and food and to not be afraid when they go outside. And not to be hassled by cops. I don’t think that’s a lot to ask. But clearly, we don’t have that yet. Which is insane.

Your music is pretty sonically sophisticated, and people accustomed to listening to jazzy-sounds things would be more readily receptive. The chord changes are complex; they make you think, musically, while listening.

All of my favorite artists, you have to invest time to listen to them. Intention is everything. It has to hit you right here, hit you in the chest. I love technical stuff, but if the technique’s not used to enhance the music, make you relate to it, you’re not doing the right thing. This album is actually much more acoustic than I’ve gone, which I’d wanted to do in the past, but I just didn’t know how to produce it. If I could go back, I would strip it down more. Crosby helped me with that. He said, “If I were ever going to produce your album, I’d just keep it as you and the guitar. You can produce some tracks, but for the most part, you can keep the band off of there.” And you know, he was right. So this one’s pretty balanced; it’s three acoustic, tracks, three electric tracks. And I felt like the essence of the acoustic tracks, the way they’re mixed, you can really hear everything.

The song “Closer” is so timely—“impossible to tell seasons apart”—it seems like that now, from what we’re going through.

It was kind of crazy to release a song called “Closer” while we were in quarantine. At the end of the song there are all these string parts, but they’re all acoustic guitar. It’s a volume pedal, and I’m playing an acoustic, with the delay, so it’s layered up like a string section.

Part of your work reminds me of Sting’s, and his varied interests in different musical areas. That lute album Songs from the Labyrinth he did in 2006…

I love Sting, and would love to collaborate with him.

And your cover of his “Fragile” is on this record.

A friend recommended I cover it. Again, it’s really timely. The song is just as powerful now as when it was written. It can almost always be applied to anything that’s going on in the world.

I like “Shadow of Bird,” and your interest in birds in general is intriguing—they always seem to have been a theme in your work. Imagery, and the metaphor of a bird, what that suggests. It also seems timely too—I’ve been a bit envious of birds lately, being so homebound, and seeing them fly so freely from my window.

The cool part about music is everyone can take their own ideas from it, but to me, this song is about having the freedom to make mistakes. We’re living in a time when it seems like everybody is afraid to make mistakes. Ten years ago, not everybody was actually filming you when you played live. You could actually go out and try some shit and experiment. Now, it seems like everyone is just so focused on productivity. Nobody gets to gradually find their path. So part of the idea for the song is, that people need to space to fail. Failure can really teach you things. That was the general idea.

You grew up in Idaho—was that more of a “natural” upbringing? More exposure to nature?

Yes. My brother and I were really lucky, because we grew up in this little town Pocatello. We were about four miles away from the town. Right on top of a mountain; we grew up in this gorgeous area. My dad (Steve Eaton) is a musician, so he had a recording studio in the basement. He’d written some songs for artists like Art Garfunkel.

Living there really helped our creativity. We had only two TV stations that were on an antenna, so we invented things to do. I like to paint too; we’d go outside and paint, or build treehouses and play in the dirt. When I was a kid I met Morley Nelson. He was one of the foremost authorities on birds of prey in the world, one of the first naturalists, and also a cinematographer. He was training golden eagles, bald eagles, peregrines, all sort of birds. My dad was doing music for his films in Boise, and he took me to Morley’s house when I was like 5. I saw all of his falcons and eagles, and I just wanted to be a falconer.

You have a song called “Dreams of Flying.” Do you still have dreams about flying?

Yes, though I used to have a lot more of them. One interpretation of them is it means you’re trying to escape. I have some where I’m jumping off cliffs and then fly; those are amazing dreams. Falcons are magical, almost mystical in a way. When you see one up close, you can understand why some ancient cultures, the Egyptians, had falcon obsessions. Peregrines are some of the fastest on the planet; they fly 270 miles an hour.

Your new album is available on vinyl—are you a “vinyl snob” or into vinyl? Why did you decide to release the record that way?

I’m not a “vinyl snob” at all. I always thought it was a very cool way to listen to music, for sure. We’re in a weird transitional moment in music; that’s just a fact. CDs are basically over with. It is what it is, but it’s driven people to the digital world. But—collectors have started buying vinyl. The whole experience of putting that vinyl on and listening nowadays, immediately it sounds better compared to a digital file on your laptop. My vinyl of “Invisible Lines” is really good, because it’s 45 RPM, so it’s a faster spin, which technically gives it more depth. There’s only six songs, so there’s more room for the actual groove, which determines the quality. Artistically I’ve always loved vinyl.

Do you have a favorite guitarist? Your style seems influenced by jazz players like Julian Lage and Bill Frisell.

I love Pat Metheny. And Tim Reynolds, he’s got all these different styles. He’s a versatile player and always does things he wants to do, he’s never trapped in some mode. There was a guy I grew up with named Billy McLaughlin, who was the two-handed tapping technique guy. Paco de Lucia and Vicente Amigo, a really amazing flamenco player. I love Dominic Miller, Andy Summers, Jimi Hendrix, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. It’s a pretty big, versatile list of people. Then there are some newer blues guys—Eric Gayles, and Derek Trucks, who I’ve gotten to play with. Jimmy Haring, who used to play with the Allman Brothers. There’re so many great players out there right now. My thing is, it’s got to be musical. Like if I wanted to start a fusion band, play instrumental stuff, I could do that. But to me it’s all about the power of the song. It’s about ideas, and connecting on a heart level. Tying all those things together, vocals, guitar, songwriting, is what’s powerful for me.

Your first album, recorded with your band at the time, The Lobby, had such a sophisticated sound as well, especially the first track “Top of the World.”

Thank you. We actually got signed with that band, and I was thinking it was going to hit pretty hard. I’m still pretty proud if it though. That was kind of a fusion band too, it got really progressive. We never got to finish and put out that next album, because the label folded before it could happen. Our manager was so pissed at us; I remember him saying, “Guys, we need to go record a demo of the song ‘Disposable.’” And we went into the studio, and the song was seven minutes long, with this really long outro. We were planning on editing it, but he got so pissed at us. “We’re supposed to send this over to the label, and you give me a seven minute song?!”

This new record, “Invisible Lines,” seems very radio-friendly.

I would love for that to happen, because honestly I feel they’re important songs that fit the times. I feel connected to this moment, and the album is hopeful. The album is like flying in a way; you turn it on and feel like you’ve gone on a nice trip across the US or something. It has a good vibe to it. The emotional content, the mixes, everything.

There’s also a classic, eternal quality to it too. While it is timely as well.

If I spend so much time on something, it’s got to be there for the long haul. I think it’s important to put your heart and soul into it, because it’s going to be there for a long time. Even with my last album, I’m considering remixing it. We had done a great job on it, but technology has since progressed further, and it can hit better emotionally, like this one, to which people are responding to better than anything I’ve done. It’s a good feeling.

What else is up next for you?

I’m so close to having another EP done. Since quarantine I’ve been really working to just finish these songs. There’s always a group of songs I’m working on, and I’ve got some five or six really powerful new tunes. They’re really tied to “right now” too, but they were written before we were in this. I’ve just finished a new song on acoustic guitar called “Obvious.” And I’m always looking for inspiration. It’s weird, because I almost feel like I’ve been writing more about what’s happening now for a really long time. With writing, there are moments when you’re a conduit and the ideas keep coming. Lately I’ve been really in tune, and I love that.

“Invisible Lines,” the new EP from Marcus Eaton is in stores now—on vinyl.

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