Angeleno Songwriting Champions, Part I.
More deep sorrow has descended over the Angeleno songwriting community. Mark Humphreys, a beloved friend, songwriter, producer, and champion to so many songwriters and musicians, has died.
When it came to better angels here in the angel city, there weren’t many better than him. He was the best of us.
Among human attributes, among the greatest is a true generosity of spirit. It comes from knowing that the authentic joy of giving far surpasses that of receiving. Albert Pike, an author and judge in Lincoln’s time, said, “What we do for ourselves dies with us. What we do for others and the world remains and is immortal.”
Mark understood this innately, and it was at the core of who he was. As anyone knew him can affirm, he was that rare guy who genuinely cared about other people, and went the extra distance so that they knew it. He had more than good intentions; he carried through. He didn’t make promises he didn’t keep. His greatest happiness came from the happiness of others.
In this business of music, climbing over one’s friends – or anyone in the way – to reach the top is an old tradition. Mark did the very opposite. He built a foundation on which he could launch a real songwriting career, on which he invited many artists to join him, and, with his help, ascend. It was called Trough Records.
Trough was conceived as a collective record company, in which the artists could own their own work. Of course, this is the absolute antithesis of the American music business practices of exploiting and profiting off of musicians and songwriters. Enriching one’s self thoroughly is the priority, and is not as easily done when sharing the profits with the creative folks. Besides – the thinking went and still goes – it will only make them fat and lazy, and songwriters need to stay hungry to write good songs.
Mark, being both a serious songwriter and a good businessman, didn’t subscribe to that thinking. Songwriters, he knew, were hungry enough. More than enough. Hungry for the essentials of life. But also hungry to be heard. Hungry to get their songs recorded and out in the world.
So instead of pushing people out of his way, he pushed them to write more songs, to record. And to not give up. He knew as long as an artist never stops, that he is unstoppable.
He didn’t view the music business as a necessary competition of triumph and defeat, and knew that thinking is detrimental to the spirit of a songwriter in every way. Before he created Trough, he devoted himself fully to being a serious songwriter and touring musician for years, and made many albums. He was one of the first guys who put all the pieces together on his own, and somehow figured out how to be an indie artist, and not go under.
But that generosity of spirit was there from the start. As soon as he figured it out – how to make albums, promote them, get them to radio, and even tour – he wanted to share this knowledge with others. He never seemed to care about lifting himself beyond everyone else. Mark wanted to lift up others, always, and he did.
He also was unique in his innate ability to get along with just about everyone. The differences that divide people – religion, politics, age, gender, etc. – were secondary to him. Musicians make music out of noise, and bring harmony to the world. The triumph is in the doing, as he knew. The real reward came in realizing the work to the fullness of one’s vision, and not settling. It wasn’t about looking to others for judgment of one’s song. Others might love it or not. But it started always with the artist.
“My life has been blessed beyond anything I could have possibly hoped for.”
– Mark Humphreys
He was a gentle, warm-hearted guy, and if he was judgmental, only expressed it with tenderness. He was more excited about the good work an artist does than any bad behavior. He knew humans were only human, after all, even musicians. He had no problem forgiving anyone for attitudes or actions others found unforgivable. When certain artists would be vilified and shunned by others for their politics, or some other reason, he wasn’t the type to ever be persuaded by groupthink; he was repelled by it. Loyalty, like other old-fashioned values discarded or forgotten long ago, mattered to him. Anyone who became uninvited in this community, and made to feel like an outsider, was someone he’d go out of his way to comfort. Many people never understood or appreciated why he did this. But those he championed when they needed it the most understood. And never forgot.
He was a truly benevolent man in this way, even when benevolence went out of fashion. Fashion, and what was considered hip or right for one moment, he knew was fleeting and fluid. It was the timeless aspects of life that mattered more. Being good to each other. Being loyal. Being true. True to one’s self, and true to the world.
In this way he was an analog man in a digital age. Even when the entire world got digitized, he remained proudly analog, literally and symbolically. He recorded at his home studio on his trusty analog TASCAM 388, making his own albums there and the albums of countless artists. And they sounded great.
Mark created and launched Trough Records to release his own music at first. But almost immediately recognized that having the label established, and a system in place that worked affordably through all the stages of making an album, that it could be used to help others. As soon as he created the perfect vessel, ensured it was sea-worthy and set sail, he welcomed others aboard.
So many great songwriters, artists, duos, bands and more who didn’t fit easily into the shifting musical trends of the day and found themselves denied access, forever outside the walls of the kingdom, were given a home by Mark, and a way in. Over the years he gave a home to a vast swath of artists, including this writer.
But I was a late-comer to Trough. Before me came many great, singular artists championed by Mark Humphreys. These include Rod Sphere, Dave Morrison, Tom Ianello, Andrew Lorand and Puppets of Castro (featuring Darryl Purpose), Phil Ward, Tim Tedrow & Terry Vreeland, Tim Tedrow & John-Michael Kaye, Lisa Johnson, Piper-Grey, David Piper, Earl Grey, Brett Perkins, The Moriartys, and Motel Six.
All of these artists and groups were passionately engaged, as was Mark, in the old world romance of writing serious songs – songs from their hearts and souls, and making records of them. Their songs were no longer considered commercial by the industry, which moved far from the singer-songwriters and their heart & soul songs towards music designed for the Hit Parade. And popular songwriting changed.
But he wasn’t diminished by this change. He was empowered. Trough was a home for all those abandoned by the industry yet still staying true to the mission: writing great songs.
When their albums were completed – always as momentous to the songwriter/artist as completing the Sistine Chapel was for Michelangelo, if not way more – he understood how it felt better than anyone.
He’d help do that thing most songwriters do poorly, or not at all – promote their work. He was someone who had been in the trenches for years, doing the work, and he understood all of it, especially the hard parts. Though he was much better at championing himself than most artists, he also recognized that it wasn’t easy for most, and impossible for some.
As a gifted and passionate songwriter himself, he embraced the fullness of the art with all his being. He wrote about the truth, both the truth of the world and his personal truth. Often he wrote about happiness. That one can find true joy, even in this world. He’d celebrate his own good fortune to be alive, to have a job which pays him, an office on the 33rd floor, and a woman he loves always in his heart:
“And I’m king of the world!” he proclaimed with unabashed delight in his song “Mexican Sunrise,” one of my personal favorites. It’s the one Mark Humphreys song I recorded, and which I am proud is included on a tribute album created for him – thankfully, while he was still with us, which is the best time – called The Mark Humphreys Experience: Just About Everybody Sings Mark Humphreys. It’s on Trough Records.
Mark always seemed like a happy guy. Although, as I didn’t know for years, he had a major drinking problem, which he kicked long ago. And he knew misery well, he said. But he kicked that too.
And never did he seem happier in life than after meeting and marrying his true love, Melissa Morgan. They created a warm and beautiful home, which seemed like his dream come true. The first song he wrote for Melissa was called “Home.”
He was the producer and co-host/engineer of her great true crime/murder podcast Just the Tip-Sters. He engineered it all, and served as her on-air sidekick, her Ed McMahon/Robin Givens. But she was the star, which is how he wanted it. He was in his element, and delighted in letting the world know how brilliant his wife was, and helping her star shine.
He was one of those singular people who understood innately that even the most seemingly confident performers and artists among us needed some affirmation. I had the great privilege and fun of performing in many Trough Records shows. Always he seemed tuned in to others, and never neurotic, burdened or bitter about life, or needy for attention.
Instead, he’d set up a great concert to feature others, and afterwards would make a point of shining his bright positivity into the after-the-show backstage realm where all performers are hoping for a good review.
Yet he wasn’t false or phony. He told you how he really felt, and if there was anything he felt was a misstep, he wouldn’t gloss over it. Because of that, one knew any praise was real. And from him, it meant a lot. He’d deliver it with his robust joy, reveling in his discovery of new aspects of our music or performances he hadn’t seen before, or which had improved a lot. His tone was not one of an elder letting you know you had finally improved, but a friend – a brother in arms – thrilled for you that you did such great work. He always seemed genuinely happy for the happiness of others.
I spent a long time making my album, Universal Cure for Trough. Longer than Sgt. Pepper took The Beatles. He was always patient. He understood.
One of my favorite memories after it was finally complete, and sent him a copy was a receiving his excited phone call about it.
“Zollo,” he said excitedly, “you are no folkie – you’re a rocker!”
Politically, Mark was always on his own turf, and proudly. His politics were not liberal, or conservative, but some kind of hybrid of each enriched by another of those rare old-world attributes mostly extinct in these modern times: independent thinking. He was a deep thinker, a compassionate soul, but also an unusually grounded, realistic one. And though it is easier in Los Angeles to be phony, and falsely feign left-wing Liberal attitudes so as not to ruffle feathers, he didn’t do that. He preferred, when possible, leaving the feathers of friends unruffled when he could. He had no need to denigrate others ever to prove his point. He recognized that doing so was pointless. More to the point for him was not to create more division in our world.
When social media created a forum for politics to be pronounced, leading to debate, animosity and worse, it created a real division in our community. Tolerance was in short supply, even among the old hippies and Liberals who used to ascribe to such thinking.
Mark wouldn’t have any of it. At his parties everyone was invited, those on the Right, the Left. Even the undecided, if there were any. Nobody was excluded. It didn’t make everyone comfortable, and many barely acknowledged those on the other side.
But Mark was Mark, and warmly welcomed all with his gentle, ecumenical spirit of inclusion. It wasn’t something he needed to lecture about. He simply lived what he believed in. Which was brave, beautiful and essentially who Mark Humphreys was and how he will be remembered. He was a happy man who reveled always in the happiness of others.
So to lose Mark of all people is especially painful and sad, as without him it won’t be the same. Who else can come to this world with his calm, joy, warmth, wisdom, and rare ability to get along with everyone? Who else easily delights in celebrating others more than himself ?
For all of us blessed by his friendship, and enriched by his big heart and generosity of spirit, we will keep those gifts always. For that we are forever grateful.
So long for now, old friend. And thank you.