FARGO — When Mark Mallman returns to Fargo on Saturday, Oct. 12, he’ll be playing a different room.
The Minneapolis singer-songwriter, known for his energetic shows, used to be an annual feature at The Aquarium, standing on top of his piano and belting out indie tunes like “True Love” or “The End Is Not the End."
Saturday will see a quieter, calmer but still impassioned Mallman in the back room of Zandbroz Variety. He won’t be playing songs from a new album, but rather reading from his book, “The Happiness Playlist: The True Story of Healing My Heart with Feel-Good Music.”
Fargo is the first stop on his reading tour, and Mallman is looking forward to hitting the road with a book rather than a band.
“For the last 20 years, I’ve been getting on stage and playing in my persona. This gives me a chance to escape that and speak in a way that songs can’t and a way my lyrics can’t reach,” he says.
The story Mallman’s telling is deeply personal for him. Having always dealt with anxiety as an adult, feelings of depression surrounded him following the 2013 death of his mother. Eighteen months after her passing, the singer knew something had to change.
“I was so traumatized by the suicide of my mother, I couldn’t listen to any music that would trigger these horrible memories,” he says from his Minneapolis studio. “I’ve found that when I’m in a heavy spot, I can’t read heavy stuff, I can’t listen to heavy music. You need to get out of the pit to figure out why you went into the pit.”
The sad songs he so loved he now couldn’t bear to hear. But that made him wonder — if sad songs brought him down, would happy songs lift him up?
He set out on a little experiment, making a list of tunes he thought could cheer him up and listen to nothing but that for six months.
The 50 songs, which came to be known as The Happiness Playlist, range from pop (Whitney Houston's "I Wanna Dance with Somebody”), disco (Olivia Newton-John’s “Xanadu”), funk (Sly & The Family Stone’s “Dance to the Music”), punk (Buzzcocks “Everybody’s Happy Nowadays”), classic rock (Queen’s “You’re My Best Friend”) and hip-hop (A Tribe Called Quest’s “Can I Kick It?”).
“You don’t need a prescription for this, you just put it on and it will help your mood,” Mallman says.
Not everyone has the same tastes, though. He asked his musician friends for their reactions to some of the songs on his playlist. The most divisive was Pharrell Williams’ “Happy.”
“You know that cliche that if you hold a smile long enough you’ll feel better? That’s what this song does,” Mallman says. “It’s an incredibly well-written song, beautifully recorded and performed. But there is something to it that feels like a child’s plastic toy.”
The list may surprise some. Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” may be an earworm, but is it a cure for the blues? Mallman thinks so.
And the inclusion of Sting’s midtempo “Fields of Gold”? Mallman recalls a visit with his dad after his mother’s death and the father playing it, explaining how it was about a young couple that made love in the field of barley and later returned with their children.
While he made the list, even he was surprised that some of the songs made the cut.
“‘Feel My Sunshine’ by Len,” Mallman says. “It’s a song I never recognized as ‘good’ in the canon of great songwriting. But it’s effective in a way that ‘Highway 61’ is not effective, or ‘American Pie’ or even a great song like ‘Stairway to Heaven.’ This song is really powerful and does something other songs can’t do. That song really opened my eyes to stop thinking with my mind and listen with my body.”
And the song he’s listened to most on the list? “Rock & Roll” by The Velvet Underground, with its chorus, “It was all right (it was all right)."
“If you’re all by yourself and don’t have anybody to tell you that and you can put a song on and even if it’s just the speaker talking, sometimes life gets so stressful that you forget to remind yourself that ‘it’s all right’. Sometimes it’s the simple stuff that works.”
While he made The Happiness Playlist public on Spotify years ago, Mallman doesn’t play it anymore for himself.
“If I were to make my own happiness playlist right now, I would copy that and use some of the songs and change some of them,” he says. “I did overlisten to the list, six months of listening nonstop. Maybe in a few years I won’t be sick of them.”
He points to Van Morrison’s “And it Stoned Me” as a tune that is played out.
“It just got old,” he says.
Others, like The O’Jays “I Like Music,” he never tires of.
“Music is a part of our lives, but I don’t know if it’s the main part of our existence,” he says.
“If anybody is reading this article and going through panic and anxiety, try forgetting about it. Don’t try to solve it. Try to steer your mind to something that is happy,” he says. “Bake some brownies and smell them in the kitchen. That’s what happy music does, it draws your attention away from the panic knocking at your door.”
If you go
What: Mark Mallman reads from “The Happiness Playlist”
When: 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 12
Where: Zandbroz Variety, 420 Broadway, Fargo
Info: This event is free and open to the public; 701-239-4729