Mark Eitzel, Elena & Los Fulanos

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Mark Eitzel, Elena & Los Fulanos photo
Cynthia E. Wood

Editorial Review

Eitzel follows his own songwriting path
By Mark Jenkins
Friday, November 30, 2012

A few unprecedented developments altered Mark Eitzel’s course toward his new album, “Don’t Be a Stranger.” The California singer-songwriter wrote the words and music for a British musical; a fan who won $11 million playing the lottery loaned the 53-year-old musician $5,000 in seed money for his album; and Eitzel had a major heart attack.

“Heart attacks are a dime a dozen these days,” Eitzel says by phone from San Francisco, where he has lived for more than 30 years. “My manager was like, ‘We have to put that in the first paragraph.’ Really? It’s not the most glamorous thing in the world.”

Actually, glamour has never been an Eitzel watchword. A self-described Army brat who spent most of his childhood in Asia and Britain, he started performing with punk bands as a teenager. He made his reputation in the 1980s with American Music Club, whose downbeat style drew on torch songs, country weepers and the troubled folk-rock troubadours known for what Eitzel calls “acoustic guitar junkie music.”

But Eitzel has recorded more albums solo than with the off-and-on AMC, whose latest split he says is permanent.

“Don’t Be a Stranger” has drawn some of the musician’s most enthusiastic reviews in years. Eitzel, who is modest about his abilities, credits producer Sheldon Gomberg: “He took the record and made it sound like something. I did play most of the stuff on this record, but the stuff I don’t play just made it beautiful.”

In addition to writing and singing, Eitzel plays guitar, piano and bass, and did some drum programming and all of the string arrangements. “That’s nothing,” he insists. “You can do all that and still make a record that sounds like a mouse.”

The sound of the singer’s upcoming U.S. shows may be a little mousier than the album. “I’m doing this sort of fake Tony Bennett thing,” Eitzel says. “I basically stand with a pianist and sing.” For West Coast dates, he’ll add a drummer.

“I really decided I can’t play guitar and sing anymore,” he says. “I haven’t decided if I’m going to bring a guitar on tour. I get very distracted by playing guitar; I have all these weird tunings to go between. Secondly, I just do not trust a single airline to not break my guitar.”

Perhaps the stripped-down format will suit such new songs as “Oh Mercy” and “Why Are You With Me.” The latest material is more direct, he says, a result of having written the British musical “Marine Parade.”

“Just watching these poor actors get their mouths around my lyrics. It was a very, very good thing to do,” he says. “When I write a song now, I try to make it simple.”

Eitzel’s material is personal -- although not always autobiographical -- and verbose. Although he’s easygoing in conversation, his songs tend to be melancholy, reflecting what he calls “a general distrust of the human race, which is not a bad thing to acquire.”

That’s why, Eitzel suspects, his acclaimed tunes are rarely recorded by others. “They’re hard songs, because there are too many words. And they’re odd.”

Another reason his songs are a minority taste, he suggests, is that “melodies have never been a strong point for me. I just try to write what I need to write.”

In fact, Eitzel composes elegant melodies, but he doesn’t boost them with syrupy refrains. “That’s true,” he concedes, recalling his collaboration with R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, who served as co-writer and producer for the 1997 album “West.”

“He was always telling me, ‘Mark, there’s no shame in repeating the chorus at the end,’ ” Eitzel says with a laugh. “And I was like, “Oh, okay, let’s do it.’ ”

On his own, however, Eitzel generally forgoes pop hooks. “Not because I can’t do it, which I patently cannot,” he says. “But usually I hate pop music so much. And big choruses are just like, ‘Oh yeah, good. You did that. You pushed that button. Ya-a-ay!’ ”

His songwriting ideal, Eitzel says, is to compose “things that are perfect little gems that maybe you have to listen to again but sort of suggest the absolute truth, and then disappear. I don’t care about pop music that much, actually.”