Dougherty makes introspective DIY folk

by Jordan Green

When the door swings open at the Green Bean coffeehouse at the southern anchor of Greensboro’s burgeoning downtown, Mark Dougherty leaps up from his table and waves. Dressed in an argyle sweater and wire-framed glasses with his close-cropped hair revealing a broad forehead, he looks like a school teacher.

Which he is.

The 26-year-old Dougherty is decompressing on this Tuesday evening after a full day of teaching seventh graders how to construct sentences at Southeast Middle School and then meeting for more than an hour with his fellow instructors to discuss how to handle a lockdown in the event of something unthinkable, like the Amish school shootings that took place in Pennsylvania the week before.

He’s also a prolific songwriter with a record deal and the goods to show for the promise: two albums released in the space of four months. Shadows In the Light and In Dreams, respectively released on May 9 and Sept. 1 on Atlanta’s Lost Cat Records, came about as a result of label head Jerry Jodice running across Dougherty’ s recordings on the internet and including them in his “Great American Music Hour” podcast.

When he contacted Lost Cat, which specializes in offbeat singer songwriters and Americana artists, Dougherty reports that Jodice didn’t need much persuasion to add him to the roster. The resulting two albums reveal an artist with a vocal range capable of conveying emotional subtlety, a lyricist with keen phrasing abilities and a songwriter deeply immersed in philosophy and literature.

“Because I’m an English teacher I take a lot of inspiration from the classical poets,” Dougherty says. “William Butler Yeats’ ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ is alluded to in ‘Hallelujah.’

That composition was released on Shadows In the Light. The songs that comprise In Dreams were inspired by Sandman, the groundbreaking comic book series created by artist Neil Gaiman in the 1980s and ’90s. At the recommendation of his girlfriend, Dougherty picked up the comics and was soon unwittingly incorporating Gaiman’s mythology in his own work.

“The songs all of a sudden just started relating to it,” he says. “This was a fast process. I’m continually writing. You see a lot of artists where it sometimes takes years to put out a CD, and I’ve never been like that. The music part is the easy part. The challenge is to find a base of listeners.”

Dougherty finds himself alienated from the music scene in Greensboro with its preponderance of cover bands, flamboyant guitar rock outfits and other derivative entertainments. Aesthetically he identifies more with the Chapel Hill scene and the Triangle’s Merge Records, with its pop avant-garde stable of artists such as the Arcade Fire and the Clientele.

This week he has vague plans to hit an open mic at the Rubber Soul club in Winston-Salem to try out some new songs and keep in practice as a live performer, but for the most part Dougherty reserves his energy for teaching during the school year. Next summer, he says, he’s going to try to set up some gigs at venues scattered across the country with other artists on the Lost Cat roster.

Dougherty credits Crosby Stills Nash & Young and Van Morrison with starting him down the singer-songwriter path. Van Morrison, he says, “has the most true-to-life lyrics, but they pull on your heartstrings.” When he saw a CSNY concert with his father at the age of 12, he says he had a revelation about Young in particular: “All of a sudden it hit me that he’s the real deal. Looking at the longevity of his career, he’s considered an artist.”

The introspection and moodiness of Dougherty’s songs, not to mention the technical command he maintains over his vocal instrument, also bring to mind folksingers Tim Hardin and Tim Buckley. However, Dougherty’s positive life outlook contrasts with the self-destructive arc traced by the two Tims who struggled against personal demons during careers launched in the turbulent 1960s, and each ultimately died of heroin overdoses.

Where Hardin and Buckley struggled with rotating casts of talented session musicians to get their vision on record, Dougherty has the 21st century advantage of being able to record his songs on a Macintosh computer in his bedroom, playing every instrument himself.

“If I was a musician thirty years ago, I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing right now even though the music I do was a style that was popular then,” he says.

The downside is translating the recorded songs to a live setting.

“I have a setback in that I am a singular musician,” Dougherty says. “In Dreams has a full band sound, and no matter what, it’s going to sound different live with just me and an acoustic guitar.”

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