Back to our roots: a review of Lovesongs by Ana Mullinix

Mark Hetzel has just told me that he saw The Grateful Dead in concert 22 times in a span of 4 years, starting at the age of 14. His first show was chaperoned by a friend’s Dad who sat and read a book while Mark and his friends had their minds blown by the more than 50,000 Deadheads dancing and twirling around them as they stood on their seats and looked on in awe. This massive sea of humanity along with its openness and warmth captivated Hetzel. He would go to shows alone so he could get the most intimate experience possible – as much spiritual as it was musical – with Jerry Garcia, a man who became a huge influence in his life. He was also at The Dead’s last show on July 9th, 1995, a month before Garcia’s death that he remembers vividly the way past generations remember the death of King or Kennedy. Similarly, he recalls exactly where he was when he heard of Roy Orbison’s passing despite the fact that he was only 11 at the time.

Mark’s passion for music, people, and life gives off an aura and energy that while steady and down-to-earth also has a dreamy edge. For some reason his early history is somewhat surprising to me. We are sitting in Dollop, his favorite Buena Park café, in what he calls the “library” section. The front is vibrant, with lived-in brown leather sofas, comfy chairs, as well as tall stools where students and locals plug in their laptops and tinker away in their various pursuits. The baristas light up when they see Hetzel who asks for his usual, an unadulterated cup of Metropolis joe, no special ingredients or mixers. He asks about the renovations that his friend and Summer of Love drummer Brian O’Quinn has made in the café and about the newly refurbished jukebox recently completed by one of Dollop’s owners. “Be careful, the coffee is super strong here. You’ll tweak if you have too much,” he lightly jokes. Later, I find out while I’m “tweaking” and unable to sit still or concentrate, that it was a full-fledged warning.

A man of paradoxes, Hetzel is at once in tune with himself yet he has a self-professed “double,” where he either leads with his right brain or left brain depending on what is on his plate at the moment. Once upon a time he was an International Studies undergrad and later a Masters Transitional Justice student completing his dissertation at the University of Cape Town in South Africa on the accountability versus victimization of child soldiers. But he has now returned to his original passion of making music that started when he was a teenager and in love.

Mark’s debut album, appropriately named Lovesongs, was largely inspired by a high school crush that he met when he was 17. A shy bashfulness, seen in the way he turns down his long eyelashes, comes out when he talks about his first muse that he remains friends with today. One lyric he recalls that speaks to the innocence of this early relationship lightly laments, “Many are the times that I’ve dreamed the day away / Looking for your face up in a cloud / Gentle like the breeze that will blow it all away / Like a kitten’s meow but not as loud.” This song, “Treehouse,” is just one of many places where Mark’s early crush peeks through during the almost 70-minute Lovesongs.

The other inspiration for the album is a little private world called Meadowlark Farm, a thirty-some acre piece of land outside of Dubuque, Iowa. More a nature conservancy than a farm, Meadowlark was owned by his mother’s friends and served as his place of respite from bustling Chicago. Hetzel’s lifelong older friends Ann Davis and Nancy Mullins devoted themselves to organic gardening long before it was the trend. They also left most of their land as protected habitat for migratory birds and any other animals that sought refuge there. Throughout the year, Mark reveled at the property’s inhabitants. In spring, he remembers the pond filled with the deafening chorus of frogs, a veritable amphitheater not so different in intensity and feeling from the Grateful Dead concerts he once attended religiously. On one occasion, he termed the frogs “cheerleaders of chaos” as their unified performance seemed to shout approval for an approaching storm signaled by wild lightning. In summer, he loved to see the myriad Monarch butterflies lining Meadowlark’s fields that had traveled thousands of miles to find a temporary home there. He recalls the vast fields filled with fireflies at night, sometimes moving slowly “like a psychedelic snowglobe” and other times more frantically “pulsing like the light from a disco ball.” In fall, it was the flocking red-winged blackbirds preparing for their group migration that caught his attention. And in winter Mark and his mother would visit, almost as a pilgrimage, to see the bald eagles that came south to fish the broken ice of the Mississippi River. Speaking to Hetzel, it is obvious that these experiences had a profound effect on his life and vision, not to mention on Lovesongs.

Lovesongs is a mix of soft musings on love, loss, time, and loneliness. Hetzel’s lyric-driven songs are echoed in different parts by ethereal guitars and keyboards, string arrangements, and various other backings from very simple yet flowing to full-band and driving. In “Treehouse,” a small choir of Mark’s three “little cousins” is led by his grandmother, one of the people to whom the album was dedicated. His uncle fills in on trumpet and tack piano while his oldest cousin keeps the beat on tuba, reminiscent of their days together in a thriving Dixieland band. In “So” – written for Mark’s beloved uncle who was the one to break the news to him about Jerry Garcia’s death – Hetzel is supported by an epic arrangement conceived by keyboardist and recording engineer Kurt Festge, more along the lines of Peter Gabriel than something heard at a speakeasy. Reacting to the death of his uncle from cancer he sings, “Fly me away to a time and a place where time and place don’t really matter / I’ve been down on the road for so long and I can’t seem to fly though I try.” Reflecting Hetzel’s strong interest in global affairs not to mention his affection for South Africa nurtured during two years living there, “Alone” alludes to the racially divisive system of apartheid in the form of an intimate love song. With the stark backing of a dry wind-sounding viola played by Omoladun Tyehimba over his guitar, he sings, “Crush the hand that holds the key and keep it far away from me / Turn the lights down low / Draw the curtain and shut the window / I think we’re alone in here.” Although sometimes dark, there is a sense of optimism and the possibility for redemption in Lovesongs illustrated perhaps most clearly in “Another Day.” The first song he recorded for the album, it starts with his punctuating guitar riff soon joined by a strong but melancholic electric guitar lead-in by guitarist and major contributor Antonio Carella. After the strings enter and build and the verse issues an apology to long-lost friends, the chorus affirms, “Another day our hearts will open wide / Once led astray but now crawling on out from the inside / Swear that there’s days I think I see the light / Baby, there’s days I just might.”

Aside from the dynamic instrumentation and meaningful lyrics throughout the album, it is Mark’s field recordings of nature and city that bring Lovesongs all together. In the introductory “Seep” – taken from the bridge of the song “Tin Can,”’ what Hetzel sees as the apex of the album and the distillation of Lovesongs message – the studio door opens and someone enters before it closes again. A long breath is heard being exhaled. The sound of frogs and birds are juxtaposed with rain and traffic moving down Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive. A ringing meditation bell, brought back to Chicago from Mark’s trip years ago to Nepal, signals the beginning of what the album’s subtitle illuminates will be An Early Meditation on Love and Alienation in the Modern Era. A plucked viola matching the sound of falling raindrops is soon joined by the decaying din of a lone siren. A bowed viola then enters with a similarly descending arc before being accompanied by the sound of rolling thunder. The orchestration builds and throbs as a bus is heard passing nearby. As the strings ebb, one last thunderclap resounds and a second breath is exhaled only to be replaced by the sound of flowing water. Mark’s brother Paul is then heard playing his cedar Native American flute beside a gently-flowing stream. That is the end of Track 1, the opening to the ambitious contemplation of the state of the modern world and where Hetzel sees himself in it. Yes, there is a lot going on in the album’s 17 tracks – and it takes headphones to hear a lot of this album’s subtle movements – but much of the meaning of Lovesongs would be lost without the same attention to detail that were applied in the album’s creation which took place over about 6 years.

It is Hetzel’s love of nature and his innate affinity for small details that has also led him to the photographic work he incorporated as the artwork for Lovesongs. As his website explains, the photos were taken on an early Spring day “after a warm spell had made snow into puddles and then a sideways nighttime snowfall held tight to the trees. Sunny skies the next day brought the magic to life – snow that caught the light through the puddles’ visual distortion.” The impressionistic images that resulted, presented in a gallery-esque layout, provide a perfect compliment to the dreamscape music that one fan describes as “like being in a movie.” The album cover is a perfect example: snow melts on green grass across from cracking asphalt. You have to look twice to realize that the trees in the center are only a reflection. In fact all of the album’s photos are reflections – where images of nature are surrounded by coarser and/or man-made elements. They seem to imply that the natural world in this modern era is being held captive. These images represent the essence of Lovesongs – a meditation on modernity and what it means to be human in this quote-unquote “advanced” age. Hetzel explains this after he suggests leaving the café to take advantage of one of the last nice days of Chicago autumn last year.

We choose to sit on a ledge at the back of a residential building where the sun heats the concrete to a perfect warmth and where we have an ideal view of the neighborhood’s comings and goings. Mark brings his knees to his chin and looks out as we discuss his album, life, and the crazy world in which we live. Referring to his goal with Lovesongs of making people reflect on how modernity, progress, and technological advancement have affected them he says, “When it comes down to it, we’re animals. And sometimes I think we might need to go back to our roots to put things in perspective.”

I leave wondering what kind of things I would do if I left my city girl instincts aside for more natural ones. Would I run barefoot in the woods, or forage for my own food? Would I partake in psychedelic drugs in order to commune more intimately with nature and to hear a different kind of music than I’m used to? Truthfully, I don’t really need to as I’m tweaking on coffee at the moment and everything seems a bit more amplified than usual – birds, sirens, and everything else. Instead, I go home and put on Lovesongs. In no time the chirping of crickets, the ripples of the viola’s sweet song, and Hetzel’s soulful and resonating music send me closer to nature already.