Mark Knopfler

Down The Road Wherever

Ask Mark Knopfler to explain the title of his ninth solo studio album and he will tell you that Down The Road Wherever is a line from one of the tracks: “One Song At A Time.” He'll give the credit for that title phrase to a sadly departed friend with whom he shared a lifelong love of songwriting and guitar playing, and their endless potential to change lives.

“I remember my pal Chet Atkins once saying that he picked his way out of poverty one song at a time, and it just stuck in my mind,” says Mark. “You get to an age where it is a few songs. But Down The Road Wherever seems to be appropriate, just because it’s what I’ve always done. I’ve always tried to keep my own geography happening in the songs, that applies there as well.” In “One Song At A Time” that autobiographical geography pinpoints Deptford, England, where the up-and-coming Dire Straits began to make their way, one song at a time.

The unassuming spirit of the itinerant songsmith is still Knopfler’s pilot light, inextinguishable through more than 40 years at the absolute pinnacle of his profession. Down The Road Wherever is the latest, elegant evidence of that steadfast hunger, a bold and often surprising songbook of 14 selections (more on the deluxe editions) boiled down from twice as many that went into the workshop.

Mark’s apparently limitless creativity was further extended by simultaneous compositions for the upcoming Local Hero musical. That’s a subject close to his heart too, as the 1983 movie version became his first of several soundtrack projects and included the talismanic instrumental theme “Going Home,” to which his beloved Newcastle United still take the field.

Just as with its 2015 predecessor Tracker and others before it, Down The Road Wherever was created at Knopfler’s own West London recording space, British Grove Studios. Instrumental compadres include longtime collaborators such as co-producer and keyboardist Guy Fletcher, bass player Glenn Worf, pianist Jim Cox, guitarist Richard Bennett, drummer Ian “Ianto” Thomas and percussionist Danny Cummings. Mark’s ten-year association with top folk players John McCusker (fiddle) and Michael McGoldrick (whistles) continues, while additions to the group include saxophonist Nigel Hitchcock and Tom Walsh on trumpet.

As ever, Knopfler found that the pleasure of birthing a new song is complemented by the process of what to do with it. “I enjoy the whole thing, of being inspired to write something, of working on it at home, writing it, and then taking it to a studio to try to make it work as a record,” he says. “I’ve got to make a decision as well: shall I just bring it here (to British Grove) and work on it on my own, or should I take it straight to the band? Because it’ll be a different thing if you do that. So you’re trying to decide which school to send your child to.”

Female backing vocals also abound on several tracks, along with a notable name on the door for “Back On The Dancefloor” in the form of Irish force of nature Imelda May. “It was great to have Imelda on that song, I think she’s fantastic,” says Knopfler. “She really did add a lot of color to it. She’s so creative, and that was fun. It’s a kind of a mystery song to me but I like it, that’s one of my favorites.”

“Female backing vocals are something that was going to happen. [I’ve] probably been meaning to feature that for a long time. And I’ve been enjoying having the brass element in quite a lot of the songs. When I go out on tour, I’m thinking I’ll have the elements I’ve always had but add brass to the line-up. It’ll just be more people on the bus.”

Longtime fans of this giant among singer-songwriter guitar heroes will note some palpable changes of mood on Down The Road Wherever, which stays true to the folk and roots-inflected ambience of his solo oeuvre but introduces new elements of jazz, funk and even a hint of the rockier leanings of earlier days.

“It will be different because whether you want to or not, you develop,” says Knopfler. “That’s just what happens. Sometimes the songs will tell you after you’re done, what it is you’ve been doing wrong, or where you’ve been going. So that’s a never-ending source of amusement. You can even find out from doing them what they’re about, or what you’ve been thinking about, perhaps.”

Other sonic surprises include the sparse and deeply romantic ballad “When You Leave” and the playful “Heavy Up,” inspired by a fellow songwriter who told Mark that his response to being told to “lighten up” was “I’ll lighten up for you if you’ll heavy up for me.” There is further inspiration from close to home in “Just A Boy Away From Home,” which rose from a memory back home in Newcastle, when his father was in hospital after a heart attack.

“He was in Newcastle General, which as anyone from the Northeast of England will know is very close to the football ground. He was lying awake in the middle of the night feeling a bit sorry for himself, and he heard a lad walking on the deserted street outside singing ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone.’ Of course, he was a Liverpool fan and he’d been to the match—or who knows, he might have missed it somehow. But there he was in Newcastle singing his song. My dad found it inspiring, the spirit of it.” The track includes a full, stirring reprise of the famous melody. “It just felt good to play it on the slide,” says Mark. “I thought, ‘I’ve started, so I may as well finish.’ And it’s fun for the band to play.”

The completion of another momentous entry in Knopfler’s catalogue is the prelude to another joy of his life: the chance to perform some of it along with his endless supply of classic songs on the road. “You do find yourself thinking about being on a stage and playing a song,” he says. “I’ll be thinking about everybody, about having Mike McGoldrick and John McCusker, the folk musicians, as part of some songs, and Nigel and Tom as part of the brass thing on others. I’m looking forward to it.”

Down The Road Wherever concludes with “Matchstick Man,” another personal memory that poignantly captures Mark Knopfler as he was, and as he remains. “That’s me,” he confesses readily, “a young idiot with a guitar and a bag, climbing up into trucks and hitchhiking. I was trying to get back from a Christmas Eve gig in Penzance early on Christmas Day. I thought I’d hitch home. I don’t think I really knew it was 500 miles from there.”

“I got a lift up the old A1 and he let me off at a high crossroads in the Midlands. The sun was shining, there was snow everywhere and I could see for miles. There was nothing moving anywhere. I’m standing there with my guitar case and bag and this realization of what I’d chosen to do with my life. To me, it was exactly what I wanted to do. It’s just a snapshot of me then. From the air I would have been a tiny matchstick figure in this vastness of snow with his dream of being a musician.”

“You need some energy to make these things happen,” he concludes. “You’re not going to last if you haven’t got enough to get you through all the tougher times. I feel the same way I always felt. When I come in here and I see a couple of guitars in the corner, I get the same buzz that I had when I was a kid, and you’ve got to have that. It’s almost a childish attitude that keeps you fired up about turning up.”

For more information, please contact Samantha Tillman, Joe Cohen or Carla Sacks at Sacks & Co., 212.741.1000.