Stories to Sing

Singer and songwriter Christopher Mark Jones released his sixth album this year, Looking for the Light.

Now that life is moving to a post-pandemic normal, Jefferson Drive resident Christopher Mark Jones can look back and concede that he had a pretty productive lockdown. For one thing, he produced his sixth album of original songs.

Looking for The Light is a collection of folksy, bluesy music featuring Jones on guitar and lead vocals, with support from other local songwriters and musicians. Some might hear echoes of Lyle Lovett, John Prine and Jason Isbell, but after 50-plus years as a musician and writer, Jones’s songs are his own.

“I’ve been accused of being a storyteller,” he said, and his songs offer no defense. A Heart in Razor Wire tells of a scarred and heartbroken Vietnam War veteran. Carrieanne is a song of abuse survival and second chances. And Hey Baby traces the hopeful arc of hard-won love.

Jones, 73, has no shortage of colorful life experiences to shape into song. He was born in Oregon and raised in Wisconsin in a musical household­—his father had a PhD in music theory, and he and his sisters formed a string quartet as children. After graduating from Beloit College, Jones spent most of the 1970s bouncing around Europe, both as a basketball player (he’s 6’7”) and as a touring musician. He even scored a short write-up in Melody Maker, then a top UK music magazine. It’s on his website.

By the 1980s, marriage and fatherhood had intervened. Jones earned a PhD in French Studies. When he was hired as a senior lecturer in French at Carnegie-Mellon in 1993, he and his family moved to Mt. Lebanon. Music was, for a while, not a priority.

“I took 20 years off to raise my boys,” he said, along with his wife, Linda Benedict-Jones, who taught the history of photography at Carnegie-Mellon University. Once their sons (Tanner, now 39, and Max, 37) were launched, “I said, ‘I’d really like to do this again.’”

About 15 years ago, Jones started writing songs again. He got to know other local songwriters, including Brad Yoder, Brian Junker and Ben Shannon. And as music production apps like Garageband evolved through the 2010s, he also tried his hand at producing.

Jones’s recording space evolved as well, from a spare bedroom with two microphones, where he recorded Heartland Variations in 2010, to the full-fledged Studio 256, converted from the family garage in 2015. He recorded both Looking for the Light and his previous release, Incantations, there. Several musicians have recorded at the studio, and through the pandemic, Jones streamed concerts and hosted other songwriters.

The pandemic production of Looking for the Light presented specific challenges. Instead of recording other musicians live, he said, “I created demos. I could show the other musicians the feel I’m after” and they would send back their contributions. Now that vaccinations have become more prevalent, live jamming in Studio 256 will make a welcome comeback, he said.

The past year has been “very hard,” Jones acknowledged. He misses performing live both around the city and in Mt. Lebanon. (“I had wonderful shows at Sunnyhill,” he said.) He feels confident that there is more to come.

Jones is looking forward to scheduling live gigs. But he also has a “half an album” worth of new songs ready to record. In addition, he’s also collaborating with Bernard Pozier, a Montreal poet, on a collection of bilingual songs. He does vocal exercises and writes a bit every day.

“I’m not young,” he noted.  “Just like you need to exercise your body, I do vocal exercises every day.”

Looking back over the years, Jones said with satisfaction, “I found my medium in the three-minute song.”