Five Questions With… Mark J. Nyvlt
The eclectic Ottawa-based singer/songwriter has just released a fourth album, This ‘n’ That. Here he discusses the record, the significance of the classic La Vie en Rose, his love of travel, his other gig as a philosophy professor, and a desire to perform in-person shows.
By Jason Schneider
While listening to Mark Nyvlt (pronounced Ni-valt), it’s easy to picture the many places he’s visited around the world. For the Ottawa-based singer/songwriter, exploring different cultures has always provided endless inspiration, and on his latest album This ‘n’ That, Nyvlt thematically retraces some of his steps, along with acknowledging the various musical styles that, combined, define his distinct sound.
In broad terms, it’s a mix of folk and jazz, with some classical elements present as well that recall Nyvlt’s teenage musical training. But overall, This ‘n’ That offers an unpredictable sonic journey wherein a standard such as La Vie En Rose can sit comfortably next to a complex rhythmic excursion such as Pandora’s Box.
Nyvlt has always embraced a broad worldview as the son of a Czechoslovakian father and Egyptian mother. It’s led to his songwriting encompassing the essence of the stories he’s accumulated over the course of his travels, which he hopes convey some of the hope and wonder they’ve provided him.
For those who might think this isn’t the usual singer/songwriter fare, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Nyvlt is also Dean of the Faculty of Philosophy at Ottawa’s Dominican University College, a vocation he ultimately chose rather than pursuing a career as a classical musician. However, since picking up the guitar again in his thirties, Nyvlt has released three albums (This ‘n’ That is the fourth) that have demonstrated his renewed, open-minded approach to music.
Indeed, even though Nyvlt still admires the work of Bach, Mozart, Brahms and other masters, his sound now contains more echoes of Dylan, Lightfoot and Cohen, along the with the guitar stylings of Jerry Garcia and Dave Matthews. In fact, Nyvlt tips his hat to the former with This ‘n’ That’s version of Irving Berlin’s Russian Lullaby, a longtime Garcia favourite, as fans of his solo work can attest to.
As he did on his world travels, Mark Nyvlt doesn’t follow a map on This ‘n’ That. And by doing so, the end result adds up to a musical experience that appeals equally to the heart and mind. Find out more at marknyvlt.com.
What makes This 'n' That stand apart from your past work?
In contrast to previous albums, This ‘n’ That exhibits much more complex jazz chordal structures and complex techniques in the songs. This album creates a bit of an eclectic mood. The original songs on this album carry with them separate themes. The storyline of each song reflects a distinct theme, but the musical style of each song is also unique. On this album, we experimented with a folk-jazz style. The cover of the album captures a festivity in an English Court—live music, dancing, conversation, laughter. This is the general feel of this album.
What songs on the album have particular meaning to you and why?
The cover songs, Russian Lullaby and La Vie en Rose, are songs of my childhood. I wanted to record this in our own way. Our version of La Vie en Rose was my gift to my mother, for whom this is one of her favourite songs. But the overall artistic vision for this recording was to create a wide range of stories that people experience on a regular basis: the dating life, philosophical reflections on the world, separation and divorce, and occasionally feeling happy-go-lucky. This ‘n’ That also captures an array of a richness of musical techniques and styles that I hope are appealing to the ear.
Many of your songs are inspired by your world travels. Do you hope to do more of that once Covid is under control?
Yes, definitely. I already have plans to travel to Rome, Czech Republic, and Egypt next year. However, it is also my desire to discover my own country, Canada. While having travelled across Canada as a teenager, I wish to explore the musical geography much more in the upcoming years. I would like to discover the music festivals in Canada and have the opportunity to perform at these festivals in the future.
You're also a philosophy professor. Has your academic work influenced your songwriting at all?
As a philosopher, it is a sheer delight to study the history of remarkable epic stories from Homer to Goethe. The range that the human soul and mind can reach in order to grasp one’s reality and situation is a marvel. I am so often inspired humanly by such philosophical insights. My academic work only influences my songwriting indirectly. I try not to popularize philosophical insights, but some content of these epic philosophical stories cannot be helped but to be included in my songs, such as Pandora’s Box and The Wand of Eros, which are on This ‘n’ That. These are songs that carry within them the themes of these great Greek stories. However, they are experiences that the modern person can also relate to. It is for the modern ear that I write my songs, which merely echo a long tradition of humanism and its epic stories found in philosophy.
What's your mindset looking ahead to the prospect of playing live?
Once the dust settles after Covid, I eagerly anticipate performing live again on a regular basis. Sharing the stage with others or performing solo, it does not matter. There is a real contact that is made between the audience and me, the artist, and no sophisticated technology will ever be able to substitute this accurately. Social media can only approximate the kind of contact that the artist and audience can generate effortlessly. I miss speaking with people live and speaking about my songs whilst forming new friendships with the audience.