Katie and I had a chance to sit down and speak with Mark Lalama at The Old Sumbler House Recording Studio here in Niagara.
Mark is a world-class musician, a solo artist, a producer and arranger who enjoyed a 6-year stint on Cdn Idol – 4 of them on-air as pianist/arranger. This is a guy who has worked with Tony Bennett, Nelly Furtado, Bryan Adams, John Legend, Kelly Clarkson, The Barenaked Ladies, Hedley and Simple Plan.
He is a professional musician who is known nationwide as a producer and arranger, so why did I wonder if I missed the turn when I drove down his lane? Here is a beautifully restored historic home with its wraparound porch surrounded by 9 acres of forest and privacy. Also situated on his property is a spacious garage that he has converted into a beautiful studio.
Mark greets us with a smile and his humble, laid back style. He welcomes us into the state-of-the art music studio that has been his fortress of solitude. We walk past the 8-foot recording console, where there are 5 isolation rooms, a piano and instruments galore, and throughout the studio there are dozens of photos of Mark playing with the biggest musicians in North American music. He is grinning in every one and it is clear that he knows just how good he’s got it.
Mark was born and raised in Welland. His dad played in a weekend wedding band which resulted in Mark and 2 of his brothers playing in that band. (In his 80’s, his dad still plays with the Jimmy Marando Swing Band).
Music lessons started on the accordion and music became an integral part of Mark’s regular routine, but his Dad always warned him against the life of a full-time musician.
His father and teachers were early role models and they opened the door. Once the door was open, Mark found music has always been something he couldn’t shake and his mind was always working on solving musical problems.
When he was 16, one of his father’s friends invited Mark to witness a live session in a real recording studio. Mark took the bus in and made his way to the studio in down-town Toronto and was enthralled as a number of professional musicians came in and recorded a Monroe Shock Absorber commercial. The producer, Paul Zaza (now also a Niagara resident) took the time to explain the process and show him some things on the Piano.
He was on Cloud 9 and smitten with the process – his path was becoming clear.
Mark returned to Niagara focused on his craft, particularly his writing and got some local opportunities. One was writing songs for the Welland United Way which he did for 4 years.
After awhile, he determined that if he was going to have an ambitious career in music he would have to move away from Niagara to Toronto.
The first step was going to York University where he studied music composition and performance with the intention of become a songwriter. Mark describes the exposure to teachers, performers and other students eye-opening as he realized he had been too hard on himself. He began to trust his own skills and developed his confidence as a musical performer.
One of the things he remembers was the encouragement from his teachers to spend a little less time practising and focusing on music and take some time to explore the culture in the city, appreciate fine art and expand his horizons. It was hard advice to follow at that age when everything was about pushing himself and getting better as a musician.
For several years he and his wife juggled their professional lives in Toronto. She worked as a teacher at the ROM and Mark jumped from gig to gig, alternating performances, with production and arranging. Finally after a short stint trying to balance all of this with a new child they realized they wanted to be able to offer their daughter the same opportunities for a quality childhood that they had being raised in Niagara. So they moved back to Niagara, bought their home and converted the garage into a professional recording studio.
Mark decided he needed to say yes to nearly every gig he was offered as they began to adjust to the single income and being outside of Toronto. This led to some great opportunities for him including a 6-year stint working on the hit television series Canadian Idol.
I’ve learned something from every artist I’ve worked with. I have worked with Amy Sky as her live musical director for 16 years and now I have worked with her husband, Mark Jordan for 6 years. Even in the case of them being married, I am amazed at how different they work, rehearse and approach their music — virtually opposite. The thing I have learned over the years is to work with the artist to help them find their own answers in their own way.
All of the talented musicians that impressed him the most were humble and down to earth and that made it easy to embrace a Niagara life again.
He explains that with Toronto only 90 minutes away from his home he could still be home most days to eat his supper at home with the family while working with some of the greatest young talent in the country as well as some of the biggest stars in the music industry.
He still recognizes there are some drawbacks to his professional friends that are making Niagara their home.
Community-wise, it is easier, when you are in a city like Toronto where you can bar hop and run across the entire music community playing live locally. Building a music community here in Niagara is important. We have a number of world-class musicians who have come to Niagara to settle down or raise their family. How do we find and support our local talent so that they can ply their craft and make some of their income here?
Mark’s many years in the music business have led to friendships and professional relationships that keep him busy as a producer, a studio musician, a composer and an arranger.
I like talent. I like an honest conversation. When you make a sound or noise with the intention of reaching another person’s ear it’s a conversation.
Mark Lalama produces recording artists in his studio here in Niagara and performs as a solo artist as well as a part of the trio ACCORDION CRIMES. He is also a member of the Juno-award winning group THE SISTERS EUCLID.
Kevin Breit of The Sisters Euclid has really impacted me because of how prolific he is as a writer and how spontaneous he is as a performer. Kevin plays like the rest of us speak — an endless vocabulary and honest — and it motivates me every day towards performing like that.
If you are lucky, you can catch Mark performing on Wednesday evenings at Coppolas in St. Catharines. Mark’s most recent album is HOME and was recorded in his Niagara studio.
You can learn more about Mark Lalama and preview/purchase his album from his official website MarkLalama.com