On an unusually warm autumn day in 2017, Mark D. Conklin stood on the shores of Lake Wallenpaupack in the Pocono Mountains and made a decision that would drastically change the direction of his life. After ten years of building a career in the “business” of music as an artist manager and industry executive, he would return to his creative roots as a singer-songwriter and music educator. “It’s never easy to leave the known for the unknown,” he says, “but sometimes your life chooses you.” He hurried back to the small cabin he had rented for the week, picked up a guitar and penned the opening line, “I’ve spent half my life hanging on and the other letting go,” for the song that would eventually become the first single of his newly released and same titled country-rock EP, “Starting Over.”
In the early 2000’s, after spending much of his early life making a living with a guitar as a club and touring musician, Mark began making frequent trips to Nashville from his home in New Jersey to pursue a career as a songwriter and producer. He immediately fell in love with the artistic community in Nashville and their respect for the craft and tradition of songwriting. He found early success writing songs for other artist’s albums appearing on Billboard’s Country, Blues and Bluegrass charts and landing songs in film and TV, including shows like Grey’s Anatomy and national advertising campaigns for retailers like Target, Starbucks and more.
In 2011, his focus shifted after he discovered a brilliant young singer-songwriter named, Mree and signed her to an exclusive management agreement. After finding quick success as an artist manager he largely set aside his creative endeavors to build his own music company, Music City East, LLC - an obvious nod to his love of Nashville. Over the next several years, his roster of artists whose careers he would guide, including Mree, Alice Kristiansen, Emily Zeck, Evangelia, Claire Ernst and MKJ, would generate over one billion streams of their music world wide and ultimately land deals with companies like Warner Music, Sony Music, Nettwerk Records, NetEase Cloud and more. Although Conklin found immense satisfaction and pride in helping his artists reach their goals and find their “voice,” the urge to create his own music never completely faded.
After his lakeside epiphany, Conklin “scraped off the rust,” refocused his creative energy and began working in earnest on his new six-track project. Unlike the past, however, he wasn’t attempting to write songs for the “country artist du jour” but instead wrote largely from the perspective of his own life and that of his contemporaries. “There’s still a lot of great country music being made but it seems mostly to be written for people in their early twenties,” Conklin laments. “I think there’s a voice missing for people ‘of a certain age’ like myself, who have had a few more years under their belt and have dealt with a lot of life’s unexpected ups and downs,” he adds.
The EP, released in April 2020, was recorded largely in Nashville with some of the finest session musicians Music City has to offer, including Linda Rondstadt and James Taylor alum, Dan Dugmore, who played pedal steel on several tracks. Mark draws his lyrical inspiration and influence from songwriters who have mastered the “Nashville craft” while simultaneously maintaining a fiercely artistic and independent singer-songwriter edge like Rodney Crowell, Lori McKenna, Travis Meadows and Brandy Clark. From a musical perspective, his country-rock foundations are evident in the Allman Brothers style slide guitar on the first single, “Starting Over” and the Eagles influenced harmonies that sit atop the second single, “Circus.”
A recent review of “Starting Over” noted:
“What you get first, before the smart lyrics, soulful guitar and resonant vocals, is the deep humanness of the songs as a whole. Listening through, the sense of connection, vulnerability, and redemption is just what we need right now. “
When he is not writing and recording new songs, Conklin says he has, “the best day gig in the world.” Mark is the Director of Artist Relations and Programming for the GRAMMY Museum Experience™ Prudential Center - the east coast home of the GRAMMY Museum. There, he develops the education programs and workshops for thousands of student visitors and serves as the host for all of its public programs, online content and audio podcasts. In his role he has the opportunity to regularly interview music legends like Philip Bailey (Earth, Wind & Fire), Gloria Gaynor, DJ Khaled, Mary Wilson (Supremes), The Zombies, Richard Marx and more. He states, “I think if you want to be great at something you should learn from the best and I’m incredibly fortunate to be able to gain insights from great musical artists across all genres.” He adds, “I try to apply that knowledge for myself and then pass it along to our students who are the next generation of GRAMMY Award winners!”
As the old saying goes, “Blessed is the man who has found his work.” Mark D. Conklin is living proof that it’s never too late.