By Melissa Fossum
By Lauren Wise
By New Times
By Amanda Savage
By Jason P. Woodbury
By Troy Farah
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It's hard for even the most jaded and cynical of critics not to occasionally be swayed by the enthusiasm and personal charm of the artists we encounter. Such is the case with singer Mark Norman.
It's difficult to pin down exactly why he engenders such goodwill. It could be Norman's fresh-faced, almost cherubic appearance, which calls to mind a grown up Peter Brady. Or maybe it's his conversation, one that's filled with skateboarder patois and "whoa, dude" sentiments.
A fixture on the local music scene for years before ever fronting a band, the Southern California native has logged time in a number of combos including Cottonmouth, Gravy and most notably, Sledville.
Though his penchant for career-boosting hustle and hype is well known, his current exuberance is understandable. Norman's new group, Ghetto Cowgirl, is about to release its full-length debut on the self-financed Migraine Records.
Though he's Ghetto Cowgirl's chief architect, Norman's reputation, for the most part, has been that of a lead singer about town. He even fronted Doug Hopkins' first post-Gin Blossoms group, the short lived Eventuals (which also featured future Refreshments P.H. Naffah, Brian Blush and Gloritone bassist Nic Scropos). Norman would go on to achieve a modicum of prominence during the mid-'90s while fronting college-rock quintet Sledville. The group's original lineup included guitarists Thomas Laufenberg and Phil Beach, bassist Brad Howsman and drummer Gary Sanchez. Though the band found some success during its three-year run, a series of personnel departures and defections effectively brought things to a halt in late 1997.
"We only had the illusion of a band in '98," chuckles Norman in between pulls from a beer and puffs from a Marlboro. "At that point, Thomas [Laufenberg] had left to joint the Pistoleros and Brad Brown came in to replace him. Phil Beach eventually moved to New York to become a recording engineer, Brad Howsman moved to Colorado -- basically, things just fell apart."
Despite playing a handful of local gigs and out-of-town events, Sledville officially called it quits in the spring of '98.
"After the band disintegrated and everybody went their separate ways, I said, 'Well, I'm going back to L.A.' This was at the tail end of '98," recalls Norman.
"I went out there and I ended up writing a lot of stuff, about 30 songs. This entire record was basically written during that period, after Sledville stopped and I was trying to figure out what to do."
Though his SoCal sojourn stimulated his creative juices, Norman had a hard time finding any sympathetic and capable musical comrades among Tinseltown's session-hack elite.
"So, I'm in L.A. writing all these damn songs, and I couldn't find anyone out there that was remotely as good as the guys I was playing with in Tempe -- and I jammed with tons of people out there," notes Norman dryly. "The guys that are good enough are either too snobby or too hard to get to out there. That whole experience made me realize how deep and accessible the talent pool is out here."
Norman had more luck on the business end after a chance meeting with L.A.-based manager David Skye, who accidentally stumbled upon a three-song demo the singer had recorded under the name Ghetto Cowgirl.
Immediately taken by the tracks, Skye began touting his new discovery to record company bosses, and Norman quickly found himself in the unlikeliest of positions -- taking meetings with major label executives, talking up an album and a band that didn't yet exist.
Shuttling back and forth between L.A. and Phoenix, Norman began piecing together a backing group to help him finish recording the songs he'd been working on, and to perform with him at an upcoming label showcase. He was quickly able to secure the services of his onetime Sledville mate Thomas Laufenberg, Pollen bassist Chris Serafini and Yoko Love drummer Mike Hill.
The Ghetto Cowgirl lineup was finalized last fall when former sideman Phil Beach -- then working at New York City's Baby Monster studios -- was persuaded to return to Phoenix after joining Norman for a Big Apple jaunt/performance paid for by Atlantic imprint Lava Records (the boutique label run by Jason Flom, the man responsible for -- or guilty of -- launching the careers of Matchbox 20 and Sugar Ray, among others).
The irony of having such intense industry interest foisted upon him virtually overnight was not lost on Norman.
"You spend all those years writing songs and playing shows and just trying to keep a band together and make something happen, and then it's when you don't have a band or a record or anythingthat suddenly people are interested," he adds, shrugging his shoulders. "It doesn't make any sense but that's how it happened."
In September, Norman released a limited-edition maxi-single (featuring a quartet of early Ghetto Cowgirl tracks) that met with considerable local enthusiasm. Casting the business concerns aside, Norman refocused his efforts toward completing a full-length album, finishing work on the record early last month.
Although Norman ended up collaborating on a handful of tracks with various co-writers, all but two of the nine cuts found on the final version of Excuses are solo compositions. The exceptions being the chunky guitar workout, "Rock Pig" (a rehearsal jam fleshed out by Laufenberg) and the maudlin "Brand New," for which veteran local guitarist Neil Malmstrom provided the music.