Mark Waldoch infuses Milwaukee's music and bar scene with talent, passion
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Musician Mark Waldoch learned he was a strong singer while in church as a child, but how he got to church in the first place is a somber tune. Born in New York, Waldoch – who is probably best known as the frontman for local band The Celebrated Workingman – moved to Wisconsin in 1981 at age 6 with his mother and brother to escape his father.
"He was a bad dude. He had another relationship and gambled away our bodega and apartment, and then offered my mother up for a night to pay off a gambling debt," says Waldoch. "So it was time to go."
The family of three moved to Racine to live with his aunt – his mother's sister – but she was focused on her own life and not much of a support person. Hence, when Waldoch's mother died from breast cancer a few years later, he and his brother were placed in foster care and eventually adopted by another family. A family that went to church.
"And that's how I learned I could sing," says Waldoch.
Initially, Waldoch sang extremely loudly – in part because he was shell-shocked from his new life, but also just to be a jerk. However, his vehement vocalizing was interpreted as a passionate response to the spirit of Christ, and although that was not the case, Waldoch was placed in a prominent position in the church choir.
"I think I got all of my musical ability from my grandmother," says Waldoch. "I've always been very female-minded and, although I have a lot of guy friends, I've often related more to women."
This is evident through Waldoch's original lyrics like "F-ck, I'm In Love," which pinpoints the complexities of being in love that's on par with Joni Mitchell's famous, similarly-themed song, "Both Sides, Now."
In the past couple of years, Waldoch also masterfully covered numerous songs with lady-heavy lyrics that were originally performed by women.
In 2014, Waldoch covered Patti Smith's "Kimberly" – documenting the story of the birth of Smith's daughter – during "Smith Uncovered," a series of shows in which local musicians re-interpreted a songwriter's work. Last month, he belted out a version of The Paragons' "The Tide Is High" (also famously covered by Blondie) – absolutely owning the line "every girl wants you to be her man" – during the Pablove benefit show at Turner Hall.
Waldoch started playing trombone in middle school – which he studied through college – and picked up guitar in high school to accompany his singing. He realized early on he was going to take an alternative music route, even though he was encouraged by his private-lesson instructor to consider a more mainstream approach to a musical career.
"During my senior year (of high school), I was in solo ensemble and I picked a very challenging piece to learn. It was the first time I really challenged myself and I practiced my ass off. This meant more to me than anything ever had," says Waldoch.
However, Waldoch missed the opportunity to attend state by one point.
"That's when I realized I didn't want to do music the way school and society wants you to do it. One 'judge' decided I wasn't going to state," he says. "I decided then, and still feel this way today, that what's most important is that I feel like I'm improving and doing something different and working with talented people who are better at what they do than I am."
Waldoch – and his at-times frenzied and at-other-times highly intentional voice – received rave reviews for his performances with The Celebrated Workingman, toured Europe and the United States as a guitar tech for Volcano Choir and briefly moved to New York.
Waldoch also supports himself through bartending. He's tended at Tonic Tavern since it opened almost eight years ago and, a few years ago, started taking shifts at Boone & Crockett.
"I love working there," says Waldoch. "I generally love every person I work with. They're all that cool. Sometimes it's a little cliquey, but I'm a little bit older and can weave in and out of it."
Recently, Tonic started hosting karaoke every Tuesday night during Waldoch's shift.
"At first, I thought a karaoke night would make me want to kill myself," says Waldoch. "But it turns out, when there aren't any bro-douche-assholes trying to sing, it's actually a joyous, fun environment. People are genuinely happy and we all need that now so hard. Sh*t, I need that."
At 42, Waldoch has experienced and learned from numerous ups-and-downs in his musical career, as well as his personal life.
With his former bands Polite, Islands, The Mustn'ts, Celebrated Workingman and various other groups, he's headlined many shows and opened for greats like Bright Eyes, Arcade Fire, Low, Interpol, The Walkmen, Pedro the Lion, Phosphorescent, Josh Tillman (now Father John Misty), The Promise Ring, Maritime, Cinerama (The Wedding Present), Daniel Johnson (who he also played guitar with), Frank Black, Eric Bachmann, Joan of Arc and more.
"It's been a lot of fun. I never got the marketing machine behind me and promoted the way some bands have, but I've had a lot of really interesting experiences," he says.
And, of course, he's suffered hardships as an adult – like he did as a child. After his fiancee broke off their engagement, Waldoch moved to New York, and shortly after became ill with a kidney infection that landed him in the hospital and depleted all of his savings. He later was diagnosed with a growth on his vocal cord; when he found out it was benign, he quit smoking cigarettes and altered his perspective on life.
For the past four years, however, he's been focusing again on his voice, generating new work, retooling some old ideas and learning as much as he can about music technology. He collaborates with many other musicians, but is also comfortable without currently being in a band.
"In the past, in bands, I was trying to sing over everyone, and there's a certain part of that that's really fun, but I don't ever want to scream over the sounds in the room. I want to hear myself, find the nuance of what I'm doing," says Waldoch. "As Johnny Marr said in an interview in the '80s, 'I want to paint with a feather, not a firehose.'"
Mark Waldoch performs Tuesday, March 7 at Gibraltar; Friday, April 14 in a reinterpretation of Stevie Wonder's "Songs in the Key of Life;" Saturday, March 18 at Club Garibaldi (opening for Twin Brother) and Saturday, May 13 at Milwaukee Psych Fest V.
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