mark seliger

Many aspiring country singers have day jobs, typically along the lines of waiting tables or seliger-articleInlinetending bar. Not Mark Seliger. He has shot famous portraits of public figures — actors, dancers, politicians, rock stars and artists, from Jay Z to the Dalai Lama — for magazines like Time, Rolling Stone, GQ and Vanity Fair.
Yet Mr. Seliger has a lesser-known passion: writing country songs. For the last decade, he has been the lead singer of the Los Angeles band Rusty Truck. On Tuesday, the group releases its second album, “Kicker Town,” a collection of lonesome songs in the tradition of Merle Haggard, Hank Williams and Willie Nelson.

Mr. Seliger, 54, said he started writing country songs in the late 1990s to stave off melancholy and artistic angst as his tenure as the chief photographer for Rolling Stone was winding down.

“It was really a kind of change of seasons for me,” he recalled. “It was just the experience of doing something new and original and getting back to that feeling of the first time you took a photograph. The ability to do something I had never done before.”

Skeptics may dismiss the albums as the vanity projects of someone whose work has given him deep connections in the music world, but Mr. Seliger’s songs have gained the respect of musicians like Lenny Kravitz, Gillian Welch and Willie Nelson, and his band mates include seasoned professionals like Joey Peters, the drummer from Grant Lee Buffalo, and Michael Duff, the guitarist from Chalk Farm. Mr. Seliger, they say, carries the burden of someone well known for one thing, yet trying to do another: the difficulty of being taken seriously.

“I think Mark is a really great songwriter,” Mr. Kravitz said in an interview. “You hear it and you go, ‘This guy writes heartfelt, beautiful songs.’ ”

Mr. Peters, the drummer, said Mr. Seliger’s lyrics are “very cinematic, very emotional.”

“There is a darkness to it I relate to, a storytelling vibe,” he added.

As a teenager, Mr. Seliger, the son of a traveling pipe salesman who was born in Amarillo, Tex., and grew up in Houston, was enamored of rock bands like ZZ Top and the Allman Brothers. But he became entranced with country music in college after he borrowed a car for a weekend that had Willie Nelson’s “Stardust” in the tape deck. That led him to Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, George Jones and Tammy Wynette.

As his photography career gained momentum in the 1980s, he continued to dabble in music, occasionally breaking out his guitar at a party to sing a Cat Stevens song or do a passable cover of a Willie Nelson hit.

That began to change in the late 1990s, while he was touring as a photographer with Jakob Dylan’s band, the Wallflowers, snapping images for an album cover. On the tour bus, he started playing Dwight Yoakum songs with the keyboardist Rami Jaffee. Later, he began coming up with his own melodies, and Mr. Jaffee, sensing a talent, recorded one of his ballads.

“I was a very reluctant songwriter,” Mr. Seliger said.

He writes in a traditional country style, skirting Nashville’s current pop-rock sound. His singing evokes the steel-string twang and emotion of singers like George Jones. On the new album, the lead track, “Buildings,” is typical of his work. He sings about unrequited love over simple chords and an old-school country beat, woven with dobro lines: “What am I supposed to do, yeah/what am I supposed to do, girl/ With this love as big as a building?”

Mr. Seliger said writing songs “refreshed the battery” in his photography. He ventured away from portraits, experimenting with surreal images of still lifes, landscapes and nudes.

“After 20 years of making images, I kind of freed myself up to do what I wanted to do and not think about it too hard,” he said.

Mr. Seliger, who is single and lives above his West Village studio, did not perform in a club until 1998, when Andy Gibson, a friend who is a professional dobro player, dragged him onstage at the Rodeo Bar in Manhattan and forced him to sing a Merle Haggard song. It was nerve-racking but intoxicating, Mr. Seliger said. He began showing up to open-mike nights at C-Note in the East Village and playing gigs with his own country combo at Mercury Lounge and the Knitting Factory.

Then, in 2000, Mr. Jaffee asked Mr. Seliger to play at a concert he was booking in Los Angeles, and invited Mr. Peters and Mr. Duff to back him up. Rusty Truck was born. The band began playing in Los Angeles whenever Mr. Seliger’s crammed schedule allowed, appearing regularly at the Mint nightclub.

Mr. Seliger said he had no plans to make an album, but Mr. Kravitz caught one of the shows and, afterward, expressed a desire to produce “Broken Promises,” a midtempo ballad about a homesick cowboy. Eventually the two men laid down three tracks at Mr. Kravitz’s home studio in Miami, and those recordings became the core of Rusty Truck’s first album, “Luck’s Changing Lanes.”

Mr. Seliger asked other friends to produce the rest of the songs on that record. Before it was done, Ms. Welch, Mr. Dylan, Willie Nelson, Dave Rawlings, Sheryl Crow and T Bone Burnett had all played roles. The album first came out on the minuscule Code Terra label in 2003, then was rereleased by Warner Brothers’ Rykodisc in 2008, along with five music videos and a book of photographs.

For the new album, however, Mr. Seliger stayed away from big-name collaborators. Having written a dozen songs, he assembled the core of the band — Mr. Peters, Mr. Duff and the vocalist Kristin Mooney — at a house he owns in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles in August 2010 and brought in the songwriter Mike Viola, from the band Candy Butchers, as an arranger. The group worked on the songs for a year, building up arrangements and harmonies in his living room. “There was some tequila involved,” he said.

Though the album was recorded over a week in August 2011 at the Village studios in Los Angeles, with Andres Levin as producer, Mr. Seliger delayed its release to create a multimedia package to accompany it: liner notes, high-quality music videos, photographs and readings of his lyrics by the comedians Will Ferrell and Seth Rogen.

“It was really a band record,” he said of “Kicker Town.” “We wanted it to be this nice, simple country structure. We didn’t want it to go pop. We wanted it to be like our little country opera.”
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