It may sound wry, but Mark Earnest is serious about the description he uses on the posters hanging around the brightly lit coffeehouses and dark corner bars in which he plays as Mister Vague. That description is: Insensitive Singer-Songwriter.
“Yeah, I’m trying to be funny, but at the same time I want to stand apart from what I see as the touchy-feely nature of most solo performers,” Earnest says. “One of the synonyms for insensitive is thick-skinned, and really that’s what I’m aiming for: music that tackles the hard stuff without a lot of the ‘woe-is-me’ attitude you usually get.”
Earnest’s professional life as a journalist certainly informs his work as he trains an eye to subjects from the cost of fame to the price of love (hint: it’s worth more than $1). Those subjects join tunes about surviving illness, being a small-town misfit and suffering the pretentious on “Not Lost,” the new EP released Sept. 8 on Slothtrop Music.
As Mister Vague, Earnest has slogged and toiled for more than two decades in the musical underground. His music blends the palette of ‘70s confessional folk and minimalist pop with the drive and snarl of ‘80s post-punk for a bittersweet brew. “I can’t escape being a punk fan at heart, and I don’t want to escape that,” Earnest says. “I hope that the years I’ve been fronting punk bands in other towns I’ve lived in – Las Cruces, New Mexico; Duluth, Minnesota – shows up in the Mister Vague material.”
Earnest is now based in Reno, Nevada, and first used the Mister Vague moniker for his open-mic appearances in the early 2000s. In 2003, he decided to find like-minded musicians to flesh the songs out and kept a recurring cast of characters together for studio and live work.
The first two Mister Vague releases on Seattle-based Unsmashable Records – “Square One” in 2004 and “File Under: Trial” in 2006 – sold out their first pressings. That success led to Midwest label Slothtrop offering to re-release and re-master “Trial” in late 2006. This new version was played on 100-plus radio stations in the U.S. and Canada and earned some brisk sales on iTunes, Rhapsody and Napster. Mister Vague also contributed a cover of Neil Young’s “Bandit” to the critically acclaimed “More Barn” charity CD for the Bridge School that Slothtrop released in 2007. Mister Vague’s third album, “Allergic To Everything,” was also released in 2007. “Allergic” was co-produced by Alan Sparhawk from the indie-pop band Low (Sub Pop) at his Sacred Heart Studios in Duluth. It has also received some nifty reviews on blogs around the world, plus radio airplay on about 120 stations.
For 2009, the approach is different all the way around. Earnest is now a solo artist; he decided with Slothtrop to release an EP instead of a full length; and he traveled far from the desert to record “Not Lost” at revered and famous Smart Studios in Madison. “It was pretty neat seeing copies of these albums on the wall at Smart that influenced these songs,” Earnest said. “Stuff like Overwhelming Colorfast or Death Cab’s ‘Plans’ record – it was a trip knowing I was in the same room that these records I enjoyed so much were crafted.”
A cache of Madison musicians play on “Not Lost,” and the result is a singer-songwriter record with a rockin’ twist, as songs like “Semaphore” and “She’s Everywhere” kick with the verve of Midwest post-punk. Then there are the more reflective tunes such as “Ex-Ray” and “The Antenna Points West.” The EP also includes “Dollar Store,” a stab at alt-country that points to yet another influence. “I’m not a very good filterer, I’m afraid,” Earnest said with a laugh. “I like too much music, so inevitably influences beyond rock will seep in there.”
To promote “Not Lost,” Mister Vague will continue his touring ways around the West. Earnest has made a name for himself (even if it’s not his real name) in such rock-centric towns as San Francisco, Sacramento, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, Boise and Salt Lake City. And, of course, Bakersfield. Beyond that, well who knows? Certainly not Mister Vague. “True to the name, I’m taking it one record, one show at a time. It’s easier to enjoy that way.”