Grand Prize Lyric Contest Winner Mark Rostenko Writes with Mary Gauthier, Records Demo On Music Row

Mark Rostenko and Mary Gauthier at the Razor & Tie office in Nashville. Photo by Caine O’Rear

Mark Rostenko, who won the Lyric Contest Grand Prize in 2016 for his song “Billy (Off The Line),” touched down in Nashville in late January to claim his prize package.

A resident of Cotopaxi, Colorado (a small rural hamlet along the Arkansas River in the middle of the state), Rostenko had never been to Nashville before. His prize package included airfare to Music City, a two-night stay at the Hutton Hotel in midtown Nashville, a co-write with Mary Gauthier, and a demo recording session at Omni Sound Studios on Music Row.

Here’s what Rostenko and Gauthier had to say about the experience. And be sure to check out the videos below.

Mark Rostenko, on co-writing with Mary Gauthier

Frankly, I went into the co-write with Mary Gauthier thinking, “There’s no way I can write a song with someone else – my process is too personal.”

I figured I would just use the opportunity to talk to Mary about songwriting and get some pointers and tips. But once we got to talking and discovered that we’re made of the same stuff — at the heart of it — different lives and experiences of course, but at the core of our humanity, the same struggles, the same pain, the same challenges, the same drive to overcome and heal.

Mary really “got” me and we went straight to the heart of it. Given who and how she is as a person, I felt no reservations about revealing myself and getting personal. Consequently, the song started to come together pretty soon. Essentially, we just dove right into it, trusting the process. I think we were both surprised at how quickly a song can come together.

It was a great example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts: What Mary brought to my story — her perspective, her wisdom around the human experience — and the way that we connected allowed for my story, as personal as it is, to emerge with a more universal flavor.

As a very revealing songwriter who is willing to put my vulnerability out there, I’d struggled for some time with the idea that my songs were too much about me and my story. What value has that for others?  But Mary helped me understand that when a song is done right, honestly and authentically, listeners find themselves in your songs and make those songs their own, regardless of how specific the story is to the writer. That’s the gift of songwriters who have experienced a lot of pain possess, a gift that we give back, transforming our struggles into something that serves others and helps them to heal.

What Mary shared with me in terms of wisdom, experience and validation for my songwriting was pivotal, transformational and left me with no doubt that I’m doing what I should be doing with my life. I couldn’t have hoped for a better experience and outcome.

Mary Gauthier, on her co-write with Mark:

Mark Rostenko is the real deal, a true artist. He understands empathy and how the art of song is used to generate it. Writing with him was a great pleasure. The time I spent with Mark reminded me that songs are more than songs. They are what human emotion sounds like.

Mark’s grabbed songwriting as a lifesaver, and he’s holding on for dear life. He reminds me of myself in this way. Neither of us are casual visitors to the art form. We write songs as if our lives depend on it, because in all honesty, they do.

Mark, on recording at Omni Sound Studios:

Recording in Nashville, in the heart of Music Row, was quite the eye-opener for someone with such limited studio experience, and amateur studios at that. I went there with a vision of how it would go, how I’d want my song to be recorded and what the process might be like, but it was nothing like that.

The efficiency, the professionalism and the outstanding talent of the session musicians really blew me away.

While I thought I had my song all worked out in the way I wanted it done, I’m really glad that I trusted the band’s input. They brought a flavor to my song that elevated it into something I hadn’t even imagined, given the relatively limited sound I’d always worked with of just one voice and one acoustic guitar. As thrilling as the whole process was, the greatest take-away for me was in hearing the possibility for my songs when I allow people who are so good at what they do to bring themselves into my music.

I’m the singer-songwriter. That’s what I do. That’s my strength. That’s my role in this process. But knowing when to let go and trust the musicians to do what they’re best at opens up the music to whole new dimensions. In retrospect, there are things I wish I had done differently, but the song came out great, and the whole experience was inspirational. What the studio brought out of my sound and my song left me with a much bigger vision of what I can do with my music.

Videos shot and edited by Neal Dahlgren.