Mark Bethune

Elyssa Goodman

My shutter clicks wildly as Mark Bethune strums his guitar, image after image appearing in the tiny screen on the back of my camera. His is no ordinary guitar - not of mythical proportions, but definitely unusual. It is a black matte acoustic guitar, seemingly simple and plain, but I can almost see the sounds coming out of it. The strings shake with each strum, emitting a soulful shudder that seems to make my shutter click more often. He plays his guitar with lion-like intensity, as if in the moments when he is touching it, there is nothing more important in the world. His sandy brown mane quivers as he plays - a fortunate side effect of making beautiful sounds. The way he stands and plays reminds me of movies in which a traveling troubadour sings his songs to anyone who will listen, telling stories of broken and mended hearts and of dreams.

Because if anyone was to be a traveling troubadour, it would be Mark Bethune. His travels have taken him from his native Canada to London to India, moving homes approximately every six months. Now, he resides in Pittsburgh where he is getting his Master's Degree in Entertainment Technology at Carnegie Mellon's Entertainment Technology Center. Though he has been out of school for a while (he graduated from Toronto's Ryerson University in 2003 with a degree in film), Mark, at 30, is learning to "see what's possible as a student again." But when he is not building 3D movie rigs or studying new and interactive technologies in film and video games, he is messing around with his guitar, thinking of music as a hobby he's taking seriously.

Influenced by "women and frustration" but also "Blind Melon, Led Zeppelin - yeah, definitely Led Zeppelin - Neil Young, Bob Dylan's words, Pearl Jam, and Nirvana's Nevermind," Mark's voice reverberates with bluesy words of passion and loss, lovingly supported by that masterful, pounding black acoustic guitar. Mark is inspired by Neil Young in particular because "my voice, [like his], is kind of nasal-y," he jokes. In reality, Mark's voice seems more like something between a growl and a purr, a soulful echo that turns words into stories and stories into music.

Mark's most recent EP, Faces, recorded in the spring of 2009, includes only four songs, but sounds like a life-changing road trip complete with exotic women loved and lost, dirty bars filled with smoke from Marlboro cigarettes, and empty, dusty highways.

Mark has recorded four EPs, all based on different experiences, recorded in different places, and named for the studio in which they were recorded. Mark recorded Faces at Face Studios in London with musicians he met on public transportation, TPA at the famed Tin Pan Alley Studios in London, and The Gas Station Sessions at, you guessed it, The Gas Station Recording Studio in Toronto, Canada. He likes EPs because they are "a slice of something - four three-chord songs moaning about girls and pistachios," he smiles. "It's a short and simple way to get music out into the world." There have been times when Mark, who writes all of his own songs, has been able to write three or four songs in a weekend, but there are also the times when "I feel like I forget how to play my guitar. It goes in waves, but it makes the songs more interesting." He just waits for the story to come along. "I just like doing it my way," he says. "I don't want to force it. It's just one step at a time - not to be really cliche or anything," he laughs.

Mark's five years in London helped him grow as a musician and led him to record some of these EPs. Though he had been interested in music since (and even before) high school - when he played lead guitar in a band - Mark left his guitar at home for his entire college career. But when he arrived in London, he couldn't put it down. "It was my only friend," he smiles. He kept his music on the side of his job at a hedge fund, but still managed to get inspired and record.

"You meet people, people inspire song," Mark says. One song, "Rocket (She's a Rocket)" was inspired by a Bollywood actress he met while directing soda commercials in India. In fact, "Rocket" has recently been in rotation on Pittsburgh's independent radio station, 91.3 WYEP. "I just sent in a disc, and they liked it," Mark says, happy, but still unfazed by this success and wanting to stay realistic. "No, I want to be selling three million records next week!" he laughs. "I don't like talking about [my work] too much because everyone's a musician," he says modestly. Even so, Mark's work speaks for itself, especially with his recent success at WYEP and on, a website for emerging musicians on which he currently has the most viewed profile.

Mark has no trouble staying grounded though, especially with his Master's Degree in the midst. Mark will graduate the Entertainment Technology Center in 2011, but hopes to continue making music here in Pittsburgh and wherever else he might wind up after graduation. Mark's music career in Pittsburgh will continue in the short-term at least, since he is looking to assemble a band in the near future and hopes to keep recording. This troubadour seems to have put down roots for the moment, however temporary they might be.