John Mark Painter
John Mark Painter lives in a tasteful bungalow near the Five Points community in East Nashville. He’s near multiple coffee shops, an artisan butcher, watering holes both dainty and dive-y, and various and sundry Hair Worlds. It’s a lovely house, somehow cozy yet roomy, and with a fine, tree-canopied front yard that is tastefully landscaped. When your reporter remarks about the Pleasantville feel of the street (and its attendant, ever-rising mortgages), how quiet and quaint it all seems, Painter smiles and retells a story about how, way more recently than you would think, the street’s operative artisanal products were measured in rocks, keys, and quarter bags. How he knows what a S.W.A.T. squad looks like. He then says it’s home, it was then and it is now, and it is indeed that: homey and sun-dappled and warm.
Warm, and smelling of coffee. Painter is something of a coffee connoisseur, and has French presses, and great small-batch coffees, and more than a couple of other coffee-making implements. He has high-end coffee filters that take a while to filter water, but produce a hell of a cup of coffee. He’s recently begun roasting his own beans. It is something he does with things that interest him: He follows them to the source.
Painter lives here with his wife, Fleming McWilliams. McWilliams, you may know, is the “Fleming” to Painter’s “John” in the popular band Fleming & John. Formerly signed to Universal Records, they released two fulllength platters, 1995’s Delusions of Grandeur and 1999’s The Way We Are. If you’ve ever heard the song “I’m Not Afraid,” the name there on the page will have it in your head for the rest of the day.
On this day, Fleming is in the kitchen with a friend, discussing lawn-cutting arrangements. She’s a smiling, affable presence, the kind of person who instantly makes you feel comfortable. “At home,” if you will.
Our coffee suitably percolated, we headed outside, to Painter’s office.
Painter’s studio, which is in a separate building in his back yard, is a two-story structure he helped build. It’s a handsome brick thing, with the requisite ivy overleaf and tasteful wear pattern. Inside, well, it looks like a recording studio. There are instruments galore. There’s a vintage Fender Precision Bass. There’s a doubleneck Epiphone guitar, which from a short distance is a dead ringer for the famous “Jimmy Page” Gibson model of same. There’s an Indianmade stringed instrument or two (Painter says he’s been itching to buy a sitar). There are keyboards, and a Rickenbacker lap steel. There is a computer and recording software and tasteful wall hangings and a steel thermos of yet more coffee. There’s Painter’s favorite guitar, a leather-clad Les Paul (think Waylon Jennings’ famous Telecaster as seen at the beginning of The Dukes of Hazzard, but with the cowhide leaving the Les Paul’s beautiful sunburst finish visible) that he bought at a pawn shop “in the days when you could still find a bargain in a pawn shop.” He forgets what he traded in on it — some brightly-colored, flashy something or another of the sort popular in the late ’80s and early ’90s — but he remembers that the owners of said establishment snickered when he broached the subject of a trade. Not snickering at what he was trading in, mind you, but what he was trading for. (It’s instructive to remember here that the vintage guitar market 20-some years ago was nothing like it is today, even for Les Pauls.) To further stick it to pawn shops, Painter offers your reporter the pricing code for a popular pawn shop chain that will remain unnamed here (okay, so there’s CASH in there somewhere, which should narrow it down exactly none), but notes cheerfully that there’s not nearly as much choice gear to be found in this day and age of the Google search.
Here in the studio is home within home, where Painter works his magic. A musical polymath who plays all the instruments above and more (the would-be sitar he’s not so sure about, but gives himself a puncher’s chance), he’s the kind of guy you learn is a musician, and, when you ask him what he plays, he doesn’t always know what to answer. He’s first and foremost a guitarist, probably, but more succinctly a musician, in the broader sense of the word. He plays instruments that play music.
Painter often says that he loves his job, whether in print, or to a reporter, or in his frequent blog posts. One of the things he loves most is that he gets to take this love of music and apply it to an equally broad array of projects. You know about Fleming & John (or do now), but while attending Belmont and collaborating with his fellow Bruin, he also began his Nashville rite of passage, session work with the likes of Nancy Griffith and Jewel. He’s since performed with the likes of Ben Folds, Sixpence None The Richer, Owsley, Sevendust (!), Fear of Pop (including that band’s notable first/last live performance on the January 22, 1999 edition of Late Night with Conan O’Brien, with none other than William Shatner on lead vocals). He records folks in this studio, nicknamed I.H.O.F., or International House of Fleming, and often works on movie scores, a particular love, but at the moment he’s working on arranging: specifically, arranging a grouping of string players, mostly from Nashville, to go up to Chicago to play some string parts he’s written, for Kings of Leon, at Lollapalooza. Kings of Leon have had strings on records before (Painter was the one who arranged them), but had never met the string players Painter plucked, much less tried using such a troupe in a live setting. It seemed to go off with nary a hitch: a recent Rolling Stone listicle called the encore one of the highlights of the festival.
What allows him such a diverse workload, says Painter, is knowing the language behind music, whatever form it may take on that particular day.
Painter says that he learned music theory at a very young age. When he got it down enough for it to become second nature for him, all the theory fell away, leaving him free to hear a piece of music — either someone else’s, or his own, maybe a melody stuck in his head — and transcribe it, preserving it for posterity.
That theory, learned all those years ago, has stuck with him. On the day we spoke to Painter, he was going over some string arrangements he’d written for the aforementioned Kings of Leon show, shuffling a stack of handwritten charts that looked written in something like the famed “Nashville Number System” — a sort of simplified, on-the-fly musical notation shorthand. He’s then able to email these charts to his players to familiarize themselves with, while he busies himself with the technical aspects and logistics of the gig.
Much of Painter’s work these days is telecommuting. He’ll get a call about a gig, like he did with the Kings, and get to work. Even playing on other people’s records these days doesn’t require travel, more often than not. A file can be sent, parts added, and then sent back, with little — if any — discernible difference in sound quality, and, thanks to modern recording software, patched in seamlessly. It might raise the hackles of some old-timers, but, if a record’s being recorded piecemeal, part by part at a studio and not recorded full band, live to tape, is there anything really lost? Do one’s ears cease to work just because they’re not in the same physical space as the other players? And if the part that needs to be played is recorded in a backyard studio just as modern (if not more so) than the one in which the original tracks are recorded, a studio that is likely to make the player (in this case, Painter) feel more at home, and feeling open and creative — for it is his home — isn’t that preferable? Isn’t the finished product blasting out of your headphones or car stereo all that matters, not the audio engineering, impressive as it may be, that went into the recording of it?
Painter thinks so, and most of the people he works with these days — moviemakers, musicians both well-known and up-and-coming — seem to think so too. The recording center that is Nashville in 2014 is plenty about great players, great gear, and great studios, but it’s also about being able to grab a cup of coffee or a bite of hot chicken to discuss projects, to discuss ideas for projects, to talk songs.
There’s nothing that’ll ever replace a person or persons sitting down with instruments and crafting some songs, of course. Music is a social art, even for your lone troubadour/one-manband types. Music is made to share a feeling or emotion with others, whether one person in particular or the world at large. How that music gets to your ears, however, is a matter — much like music itself — open to interpretation.
Not up to interpretation: The provisions have run out, along with our words.The yard man has come. Thermos suitably drained, we exit the studio, head back to the house, and let the man go back to living his life again.