We talk to the Toronto songwriter about his following among other musicians, then we talk to some other musicians about him
MARKER STARLING with BUNNY at the Tranzac (292 Brunswick), Saturday (January 13), doors 8:30 pm. $15. facebook.com.
Marker Starling never set out to be a “songwriter’s songwriter.”
“I’ve been making records for nearly 20 years almost,” says Chris Cummings, the man behind Marker Starling and previously Mantler, from his overflowing east-end Toronto studio/record library. “I was always under the mistaken impression that what I did next was going to be huge.
“It never really worked out that way. But I’ve gotten to do some really cool things.”
You could see why a soft-spoken 48-year-old Canadian gently crooning smooth 70s easy-listening jazz over Brazilian Tropicalia organ grooves might not sit atop the Billboard hot 100 alongside Ed Sheeran and Beyoncé. But there’s something about the dapper singer/songwriter that connects deeply with a small but dedicated fan base. Chief among them: other musicians.
Stereolab’s Laetitia Sadier, who recently collaborated with Cummings, has called him her favourite composer. Another of his self-proclaimed “biggest idols,” Sean O’Hagan of long-running Irish avant-pop band the High Llamas recently joined him for a team-up. His work with the Cologne band Von Spar built him a solid following in Germany. The head of Japanese label 7 e.p. personally brought him on tour in Japan in 2016. His current label, Tin Angel, is based in the U.K.
Here in Toronto, he’s like a secret handshake. Caribou’s Dan Snaith and Owen Pallett are fans and sometimes collaborators, and he’s been accepted into the alt-comedy world, too. He used to be a frequent musical guest at Laugh Sabbath and opened for Tim Heidecker accompanying the Canadian Romantic.
“There’s an element of humour in [what I do], I guess,” he says. “I’ll sing a sad song and then say something funny.”
You could almost mistake Marker Starling for an ironic Neil Hamburger-esque performance-art piece if not for the sincerity in his songcraft. It’s not so much funny as it is disorienting, like a lost Burt Bacharach lounge singer got stuck out of time.
The latest Marker Starling album, Anchors & Ampersands, amplifies that timelessness. Cummings connects the dots between his guises by re-recording his own songs from throughout his career alongside new recordings and a couple of outright covers.
“I hate to say I’ve matured, but I’m more seasoned than I was in the early 2000s,” he says. “My voice is different, too.”
His outsider take on well-crafted piano pop has made him a favourite of other left-of-centre auteurs like Eric Matthews and Jordan Zadorozny from long-running Montreal lo-fi band Blinker the Star. He’s still waiting for a call from a hip-hop producer like Madlib.
“Or maybe I can get in with Drake’s camp,” he quips.
Then the secret might get out.
Here’s what other artists have to say about Marker Starling:
Sandro Perri (singer/songwriter):
I really like Chris’s lyrics. I can see them in my mind, on a page, and I can hear them in a conversation. They bounce around between formal and casual, poetic and pragmatic. As a listener, I feel a really nice closeness-to-distance ratio.
Kathleen Phillips-Locke (comedian):
The first time I saw Chris play was in Dufferin Grove park for some kind of makeshift outdoor music fest in, like, 2006 maybe? I just remember the guy in the white ruffled tux playing this suitcase that turned into a piano and crooning these solitary, contemplative, groovy but actually super-chatty songs. He seemed like he was on a boat while everyone else was just sitting on the grass by the Dufferin Mall. I thought this music sounded like the inside of a quiet person just riding along on transit or something. I’m a quiet person, so the ruffled tux guy spoke to me.
Jeremy Greenspan (Junior Boys):
Chris can conjure a special kind of nostalgia in me. His music radiates, like the soft Technicolor glow of 1970s Canadiana. He remains, in my opinion, the finest Canadian songwriter of the past 20 years.
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