Go With the Flow

Mark Anthony Febbo’s new record Dry River Redemption is filled with colorful stories of life in the Southwest 

Mark Anthony Febbo: “I can’t think of a better way to make an album, to pick the people you love and get to think who’d be perfect for this part or that part.”
Mark Anthony Febbo: “I can’t think of a better way to make an album, to pick the people you love and get to think who’d be perfect for this part or that part.”
A river, Mark Anthony Febbo says, can be like a story. 

There's a beginning, a middle and an end. For a river-rafting enthusiast like Febbo, there's a natural connection between a river and a journey. There's unknown danger, awe-inspiring beauty, and moments that swing from calm to climactic. 

A singer-songwriter and guitarist, Febbo was well into building his new album of character-driven story songs before he realized there was a common thread of river imagery that connected and drew everything together. And while the saying goes, "no man can step in the same river twice," Febbo says a river can bring both continuity and a clean slate. And, unsurprisingly, he sees parallels between being drawn to rivers and being drawn to music. As a musician and songwriter, he's always reaching for something new as well, for making progress to somewhere he's never been. 

"I like concept albums, but not necessarily when the songs on an album sound similar. I like eclectic music, so I like for songs that are grouped together to have different aspects to them," he says. "I write purposefully and mindfully, and write in a different groove or do something different that I haven't tried before. I was pushing myself to learn new things on the guitar and stretch out musically. When I push myself to learn something new or I'm in uncomfortable territory, that results in a song with a different feel to it." 

Similar to the realm of music, rafting for Febbo is about seeking an experience that offers something new. Febbo says his first river rafting trip in 2004 changed his life. Invited on a nine-day trip with a friend, Febbo didn't have the right gear, but persevered.

"It was the most difficult thing I'd ever done. After the trip, I was just so proud of myself, having accomplished that, I got hooked. Rafting is a lot of work, but rafting has become my church. It's about having some time to hit the reset button. Rafting has that redemptive quality for me," he says. "Working to pay bills can become drudgery and we need to pay attention to our spiritual mind. Whatever can bring you to that place where you're like a kid again. Those things are a point of privilege for us but they have that redemptive quality because they can bring you back to a certain unknowing. They have a way of making things new inside your head." 

Formerly frontman for The Clam Tostada, a band that called itself "rock-funk-bluesy-twangy-folky-hip-hop-wah-wah," Febbo's musical inclinations lean naturally toward a varied sound.  

"In my experience, when I push myself to learn something new, I end up having a new song. All my best songs have come at a point I'm leveling up and discovering something new. That enthusiasm shows up in the songs," he says. "I've never been good with self-discipline as a songwriter, so it's particularly invigorating to stumble on something undiscovered. I can be so happy about leveling up." 

Dry River Redemption has its headwaters, so to speak, in two separate batches of songs, and the album itself became what flowed downstream from the confluence. 

About two years ago, Febbo laid down about seven or eight songs, just the basic tracks of acoustic guitar and vocals, to think about and work with. Some were older, one even dating back to 1999, that never fit with Clam Tostada. Some had begun as poems and were being reworked into songs. But Febbo hit a wall with that batch. 

"I got that far with it, but I wasn't in a place I was that motivated, so I left it. They just sat," he says. Febbo was in a period of transition in his life and career. At the urging of Oscar Fuentes, his frequent musical collaborator, Febbo turned his energy back to writing new songs. 

"Oscar said I just needed to get some songs down. He wanted me to write and thought I needed to. I was just putting some trust in him, that he was seeing something I didn't necessarily see. About a year ago, I had these other new songs I'd written that I was excited about, so that's when we earnestly started working on the record." 

Febbo had no expectation those two batches of songs would end up coming together as one album.  

"They seemed so different from each other when they were just acoustic guitar and vocals. I didn't think it could be one record. I didn't think they fit," he says. "Oscar said 'We can do that with the production, so it's not going to be disjointed.' It was really when I started hearing other people on the songs that I started seeing it come together." 

Fuentes became the lead producer, working on arrangements as Febbo brought his own dream collection of musicians to the studio.  "I thought of the people I wanted on the album, people I've been a fan of and been to tons of their shows and always appreciated what they bring and the creativity they have. So we opened it up and everyone we invited to the studio, we counted on their creativity and told them to do wild and do what they think seems cool," Febbo says. "For me, it was very fortunate. I can't think of a better way to make an album, to pick the people you love and get to think who'd be perfect for this part or that part." 

Recorded at Fuentes' TucSound Recording Studio, Dry River Redemption features Bruce Halper on drums, Thøger Lund on bass, and Fuentes on acoustic and electric guitar, organ and percussion. Other contributors include Alvin Blaine, Heather Hardy, Rich Hopkins, Damon Barnaby, Tom Walbank and Billy Sedlmayr. (Most will join Febbo for the release show, with Gary Mackender taking over on drums.) 

Always a fan of songwriters whose work is rooted in stories, like James McMurtry and Townes Van Zandt, Febbo crafted an album similarly centered on narratives. Some characters are fictional, some are real—"Alfie's Song (Riverside)," for example, is about Febbo's grandfather. Some of the entries on Dry River Redemption were poems before they were songs. 

"Blue Monsoon" started as a free-verse poem for a creative writing workshop, based on characters Febbo knew from working at a drive-through liquor store in college. He reworked it into the structure of a song, affixing a melody to it that came from a fingerpicking phrase he was toying with. Later on, Febbo realized his song wasn't balanced, with one of the characters having two verses. So, he got rid of one of those and reached out to fellow songwriter Sedlmayr, asking if he'd take a look. Sedlymayr added a character, "Dirty Jack," who rounded out the song. 

"It's not autobiographical, there are different characters, but I can identify well with every song. Redemption is something we all need at one time or another," he says. "There are things I wrote about because they seem universal and they seem like things that people can identify with. When it comes to putting the songs in order, I had my own logic about it. It has a story to it, but I like people to listen to it and figure out what it means to them."

For more information, visit markanthonyfebbo.com