While Europe isn’t exactly known for its country music scene, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t an interest out there. While many country artists have turned to pop music to stay afloat, Canadian country artist Cory Marks has steered his music in another direction: rock and metal. Quickly catching attention in North America with singles like “Better Off,” “Outlaws & Outsiders,” and “Blame it on the Double,” Marks is picking up speed, heading out on a Canadian tour today, March 12th, with an American tour to follow shortly in support of BREAKING BENJAMIN.
Let’s get right to it! I discovered you and your music a month or two ago. One of the local Finnish music reps sent us a link to “Outlaws & Outsiders” and I thought that, as someone who grew up in Canada on country music, this was the best country song I’d heard since the 2000s. As western settler/rancher culture disappears in favor of the modern world, country music moved in a poppier direction to keep up with what’s popular.
Yeah, unfortunately, that’s what it is. Nashville is all over that and they are stuck in their ways right now. That’s exactly what we’re trying to break out of with this amped-up country music. It’s definitely a new sound and there’s nothing like it in rock or country, so we’re trying to pave our own road here. So far the response worldwide has been incredible. In North America alone we’re over 6 million streams in under 3 months, closing in on 10 million views. We’re really happy with that and it keeps climbing every day, so we’re very thankful.
Incredible. Country, back in the ’90s, was all about renegades, drinking and dancing, cheating and heartbreak, your house burned down and your wife left you and your dog ran away… the usual cliches [laughter]. Do you think those traditional themes are an important part of country music, or do you just write about whatever feels right in the moment?
My writing is definitely based on stuff that I’ve been through, both good or bad, or things that people close to me have been through. I think country music is just that, it’s about telling a story and painting a picture. That’s what’s so beautiful about country music, how sad some of those stories are… guys like Jimmy Rogers and Merle Haggard, Buck Owens and Hank Williams Sr. You go back to when country music was country music, those are all real stories, real heartbreaks, real things that happened to them, unfortunately. You can also get into the mid-’80s, early ’90s, like Toby Keith and Alan Jackson, where there are great party songs and great love songs as well, whether that’s lost love or gained love.
This project, you have music like “Outlaws & Outsiders,” which is definitely a completely different sound from anything else out there, mixing rock, metal, and country music. That being said, we’re creating a new sound and on the record, you have that rock/metal feel, if you will, but there’s also a song that I wrote called “Whiskey & Wine” that’s more stripped-down classic country music. If I compare it to anything, it’s more Vince Gill mixed with Merle Haggard. I’m a huge Merle Haggard fan [laughter]. You get the best of both worlds on this record.
Do you have any modern-day issues that you’re interested in lyrically, or is it more just about people, experiences, things like that?
I talk about my issues [laughter]. We’ve all got those. I’m not really a political guy. I try to stay out of politics. First of all, I don’t get them [laughter]…
I don’t think anybody really does [laughs]. I just try to stick to my guns on what’s important, which is family, love, friendship… animals of course, I’ve got my dog. A good old bottle of whiskey or a few beers here and there with those people. That’s kind of what I stick to at the moment.
Fair enough. Do you feel like country music is still a largely North American genre? At least out in Finland we might get a Shania Twain show once a decade if we’re lucky. Do you think it’s ever really crossed the seas anywhere else?
I think so. Guys that are bringing country music back, like Chris Stapleton or Tyler Childers or Sturgil Simpson… that’s more leaning towards real country music and the classic sound, both melodically and lyrically. Those guys are doing a great job, and of course there’s Eric Church who has more of a rock vibe to him as well, but he’s such a great songwriter and storyteller and that’s what really makes him country in my opinion. He’s got some love over in Europe. Also, in the last 3 months, I’ve been getting lots of love from the UK, Finland, Switzerland, and a lot of European countries, as well as Australia and Brazil.
That’s what I plan to do. I would love to definitely expand the genre of country music, if you will, but not only in North America but the UK and Europe as well. So far, on social media, it’s been great. I’m hoping for some tours out that way in the near future and that’s the goal, the plan.
Very cool! Now you’re a pretty fresh, new artist, so could you tell us a bit about your background, when you started listening to what, what instruments you learned, that sort of thing?
I come from a very musical family. My dad was a drummer in his late teens/early 20s, and also a great songwriter, although he hasn’t released anything. He just writes about himself and I think that’s probably where I got it from. My uncle, Wolf Milestone, is a country artist as well. So I was lucky enough to grow up in a house where my parents listened to classics like George Jones, Buck Owens, Jimmy Rogers, Merle Haggard, Brad Paisley, and Alan Jackson. My dad was a huge Merle Haggard fan and a big Waylon Jennings fan, so I got to grow up on that.
On the other side, he’s been to almost thirty RUSH concerts and I started drumming at the age of 10, so I was also listening to RUSH, DEEP PURPLE, Ozzy Osbourne. I didn’t pick up a guitar until I was about 16-17 years old and it was just, you know [laughs] “Smoke on the Water” basically. Closet writing and all that. I was in a few high school bands, one of which was a heavy metal band, so I totally get you [on the metal side of things]. Bands like ARCH ENEMY and DREAM THEATER. I covered a very wide range of music, thankfully, in the household I grew up in.
That said, with this record and this sound that we’ve created, my producer Kevin Churko and I, and of course with the help of his son, Kane, we’re writing these songs and creating this sound that mixes all those genres together. In my newest release, “Blame it on the Double,” there are PANTERA breakdowns, which you definitely do not hear in country music. But we talk about whiskey and fighting and all that good stuff, with some heavy, rockin’ guitars.
How would you describe the album you’re working on?
The best way I can describe it, honestly, is like a mix of Merle Haggard, Eric Church, and Ozzy Osbourne [laughter]. It’s crazy but it is what it is and those are all incredible artists who’ve done very well. I hope to do the same one day; they’re all legends. If I can have half their success I’ll be pretty excited. There’s still a lot of work to do but I’m hoping this record is definitely going to reach a huge audience in the rock and metal lovers and, of course, the country music lovers.
I’ve seen some live clips of you online from bars and I’ve read that you’ve also done some touring already. Do you have any stories or memories from that time when you were just getting started that you’re willing to share?
Probably none that we should talk about [laughter]. Before this project started, I was signed with an independent country label called Big Star Recordings. I’d released an album back in 2015 called “This Man,” songs from my songwriting and in Nashville, which started in 2012 up until 2015, when we released the record. Since 2014 up until about 2017 before when this deal with Better Noise was in play, I toured across Canada several times, playing hundreds of shows.
My career started… I was actually enrolled at the Royal Military College of Canada playing hockey, so I’m also a hockey player – of course, Canadian boy [laughter]. So that’s where it all started for me. While I was playing hockey, I was enrolled as a pilot. I wanted to be a fighter pilot, so I started playing and singing in any spare time I had.
It all started going out with the boys one night at a bar called The Brass. My good friend Smitty, who’s been playing there for years… they found my videos and I had not sang in front of anybody before. Of course, one night they went behind my back and told Smitty that, when he took his break, he should call up Sunshine. They called me Sunshine because I was on the military hockey team, the only one with long hair, and I was just upgrading, I hadn’t full enrolled yet. So they related me to the star quarterback from the movie, Remember the Titans. That’s how I got my nickname, Sunshine, and long story short, I started playing there once or twice a week when people started asking me, you know, “Where else do you play?” “Where can I buy your music?” “Where can I listen to you?” It was like, man… nowhere, really.
It’s bittersweet that it didn’t work out at RMCC but everything happens for a reason and once I left there – I think that was in January-February 2011 or 2012 – I started playing small bars in North Bay, my hometown, and then branched out to other cities, including Ottawa, Ontario. That built into smaller festivals and fairs. Then I signed my first record deal with Big Star Recording between 2014-2015 and released a record up here in Canada. It was #1 on iTunes for about a week, which was really cool to see considering it was just an indie label. That was a lot of fun, I still love those songs a lot, and it was really great for me to start my touring experience in Canada. Now this whole new project with Better Noise is going to kick things up a notch and open up a whole new door for me, I hope.
Since you’ve already done some touring, have you recently or are you going to get to go anywhere new this time?
At the end of February I [did] a showcase for the label in New York City, and then I [performed] in Las Vegas, Nevada, on the 28th. Then we ship over to Idaho, so we’re starting to get a string of US dates, which is really exciting, and in May we’re off to Texas for three, hopefully four dates.
Can you tell me anything about the older songs from the older album that we can find on YouTube [or Spotify under Cory Marquardt]?
There’s a song called “Nowhere with You,” “This Man” – the title track, “Smartphone,” and “Don’t Count Saturday Night.” Those are the four songs from the previous record on YouTube. My music there was definitely available on all the other streaming platforms, that entire record, but there are definitely some videos on YouTube of the older stuff from back in 2015-2016.
Will any of those songs potentially make a comeback or are they locked in with the old label and untouchable?
No, even up until this summer, I’d only played a few festivals around North Bay here and [many of those songs] are still loved here in Canada and, of course, with songs like “Outlaws & Outsiders” and “Better Off,” and the new one, “Blame it on the Double,” I’m also seeing a huge increase in the streams from the 2015 record, so that’s pretty awesome to see. “Nowhere with You” went from about a quarter-million views on YouTube to now closing in on four hundred-thousand. So pretty excited about that and if we get more love on those songs then of course you might see them in a setlist, especially up here in Canada.
You hear a lot of tales about what the music industry was like in the ’70s, ’90s, etc. Nowadays it seems like there’s a lot more business involved for the artists. How do you feel as though the industry holds up these days?
It’s both good and bad. I think the business side nowadays for the artist… you know what, to make a long story short, it’s less about the music, unfortunately. To me, that hurts because there are some great songs out there but for me personally, most of the stuff out there just doesn’t do it for me and you can tell that it’s been [fabricated]. It’s stories that are made up, I guess. It’s just meant to sell and doesn’t have any significance to it. You talk about those old heartbreaks… you don’t really hear those songs anymore. They’re still out there, but less and less on mainstream radio. We hope to bring that back.
For me personally, it looks like in some ways it was a lot more fun in the ’70s and ’80s [laughter]. You could get away with a lot more, of course, and now you can almost say it’s like that with anything. Whether you’re an athlete, an actor, or an artist/musician, you’ve got to really be careful of what you do out there, considering all the smartphones. That’s exactly what “Smartphone” is about, really; it being harder to get away with things, good or bad.
I definitely like to take part in a certain amount of the business involved in this industry, but I’m a singer/songwriter and performer and that’s my job, so that’s what I try to really focus on.
As you said, you’ve written a lot of material about personal experiences. Are you willing to share any of the backstories or are they too personal to elaborate on?
Sure. I don’t think anything’s too personal when you’re an artist. That’s your job. I feel that there’s a lot of people that are afraid or too skeptical to tell their story. For example, “Better Off” is a great example of that. It was a song I wrote about a relationship that really turned sour but was never really good in the first place. That being said, I like relating that to not only your boyfriend/girlfriend, but any relationship, between your parents, your siblings, or best friends. You can love that person or at least think you love that person and try to help out as much as you can, but sometimes you can only do so much and it’s up to them to figure this stuff out. Really, they’re only hurting you at the end of the day, so you’re better off without them.
It’s great that, even if you write it with something deeply personal and specific in mind, the listeners will hear their own parallel experiences. Do you hear many stories from fans about how they’ve connected with your lyrics?
Oh yeah! I think “Outlaws & Outsiders” is another one where, for me, the idea behind the song came from a tour called the Outlaws and Outsiders Tour back in 2015, with Canadian country star, Aaron Pritchett. It was a cool tour but also gave me a song idea, which was that song.
It was always a struggle for me to get on Canadian country radio because I was different, I was outside the box. Even on the first album, [the music had] a little more of a rock-y edge, less pop. I’m not really one to play the game, if you will. I really think, being an artist, that it’s important to write and perform the songs that you want to write and the image you want to get across. I think it’s a lot easier, as your career grows, to maintain that because it’s not something that’s made-up or fabricated. As you grow as a person, it’s easier to grow as an artist too, and that song is for anyone who has ever felt like an outlaw or outsider, in a sense, where they couldn’t be themselves. So a lot of people have related to that.
Or there’s “Better Off” again, where everyone goes through at least one bad break-up, so I’ve been getting lots of fan mail based on that song, saying this song really helped me out, I’m going through just that, I’m better off without that person. That’s also great and I love hearing that from the fans too.
While we’re on the topic of “Outlaws & Outsiders,” you got to work with Ivan Moody [5FDP], Travis Tritt, and Mick Mars [MÖTLEY CRÜE]. How did that collaboration come together and what was it like working with those guys?
It was incredible, really. They’re all legends or icons in their own genres, but the most important thing is we all share the same story one way or another – we are just that, outlaws and outsiders, considering MÖTLEY CRÜE struggled and you know, talking about the ’70s and ’80s, I don’t think there’s any need to say more. They had a really good time touring and doing their thing, but it was a bit of a struggle for them at first to get with major labels or to get tons of radio play, and same with FIVE FINGER at some point, because they’re just that: they’re different, they’re outside of the box from anything else out there. [Having those guys be] part of the song is, I think, really important because it’s relatable for them as well. Of course, you’ve got Travis Tritt who really is one of the only outlaws left, besides Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson. It was a great pleasure working with them, and even now, still connecting with Travis Tritt. We text each other a couple times a week to see what’s up and check in and make sure everything’s good, so it’s kind of a “pinch me” surreal moment, but I’m definitely thankful they’re on board with the project.
What’s the hardest part about writing music for you, or does it all come quite naturally?
I think it comes together really easily in a way. I’ve heard Willie Nelson interviews say that if it takes more than a couple minutes, or something like that, and you have to force it… I just close the laptop and call it a day. I might work on guitar licks or choruses and melodies, but typically, a lot of the songs that I write are usually done within an hour, because it’s something that I’m feeling in that moment or that I went through really recently, so it’s really easy to talk about and put on paper. Then of course, if you’re writing with guys like Kevin Churko, that also helps to get ideas out.
Now thinking back to the older country artists like Patsy Cline, Willie Nelson, and Hank Sr., I tend to hear more of that classic country style in your music; are there any artists that you enjoy in the more modern country scene?
Yeah, actually, I mentioned before, Sturgil Simpson and Chris Stapleton. I would say my biggest influence today would be… well, there’s still Merle Haggard, of course, still releasing music. It wasn’t pop enough for country [laughter]. I’ve been a huge fan of Eric Church since I really started getting into the business and this world of country music and, like I mentioned earlier, he’s definitely got a great appreciation for rock n’ roll: “Good music is good music.” I appreciate that. Going kind of out of context here, believe it or not, but I also love guys like Iggy and Tupac. I have a great appreciation for what they do as well because they have enough lyrics in one song that I could use in three or four of mine, so I find that pretty incredible.
They say that everything has been done already, every song is written, every chord has been played, but one of the most interesting things happening now – and usually you hear it most in heavy metal – is genre blending. You’re hearing all sorts of new folk metals these days.
Have you heard of THE HU?
The Mongolian metal band?
Yeah! They’re actually on my label and that’s a cool thing that I forgot to mention earlier [about “Outlaws & Outsiders”]. Being on Better Noise, I’m the first and only country act on the bill, so my label-mates are HELLYEAH, PAPA ROACH, FIVE FINGER DEATH PUNCH, IN FLAMES, THE HU, and MÖTLEY CRÜE, so that being said, so the team over there at Better Noise sent the music off to Mick and Ivan and they absolutely loved the song and what it stood for, and my manager knew Cheese, who is Travis Tritt‘s manager, and we went in there knowing that, shit, Travis hasn’t released anything in 14 years so we’re not sure if he’d want to. He’s a great songwriter as well, so we weren’t sure if [he’d want his first single in ages] to be a feature. But he loved the song and loved what it was all about too, so that was really cool, how that came about. FIVE FINGER and CRÜE are my label-mates, and a country legend loved what I’m doing and wanted to be part of it.
With heavy metal in particular, being on a label like that must open up more opportunities for you to have touring partners as well. You may find a lot of crossovers with your fans and theirs. What can people expect from your shows?
I have a really great appreciation for metal and rock music, although in my set – especially this new rock/metal/country mix – I will still throw a Merle Haggard song in there. I also have a medley that is totally unique and different; part of it is a cover of “Holy Diver” – a tribute to Ronnie James Dio, of course. I sing it like Dio (or try to; he’s a phenomenal singer), with the classic high-pitched metal screams, but the band plays it the way KILLSWITCH ENGAGE covered it. That way you have that rock-metal vibe… and that goes right into “Footloose” by Kenny Loggins. That’s our blend. So there are my songs, a tribute to Merle Haggard/country legends, and then Dio right into Kenny Loggins. It’s a lot of fun.
Covers offer a lot of flexibility too, in that sense, because a lot of pop songs, for example, have really great melodies but the production around the melody isn’t that interesting, so if you punch some heavy metal or country into it, you can make some magic.
Exactly, and that’s what you want to do, right? You want to keep it interesting but you want to make sure it’s good and that they’re going to love it.
Do you have any official release plans for an album? Can we expect it soon?
I hope so! There’s not a specific date set; it’s all kind of relevant to a tour, so we’re working on a North American tour at the moment. We have this #rednek tour with Gord Bamford, which starts March 12th, 2020, and goes all the way across the western wing of Canada, from Manitoba to British Columbia, and that brings us all the way to mid-April. We’re hitting some festival gigs in the summer up here in Canada and the US. Then hopefully we’ll hop on an American tour and then we’ll start planning the album release.
We’ve already heard three singles – will they all appear on the album or will they remain singles?
They’ll be on the album. There’s twelve songs on this record that I’m super excited about. You guys will get the full deal and I can’t wait for the entire world to hear this record, especially country/rock fans and rock/metal fans, so I hope they find something to look forward to.
Are there any more stories from the upcoming album that you’re excited to share?
There are some good party anthems on there that I’m excited to play live and really excited to get out there. College students in that realm in their life with school and parties, from 19-25… and you can still party after that too. There are some good life stories, lessons, and feel-good party songs that I’m excited for y’all to hear.
Starting to wrap up then, do you have any last words for our readers in Europe or Finland?
Well, I think I would just say, check me out on all streaming platforms. The best thing to do is follow me on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook @corymarksmusic and check out my website corymarks.com for details and all touring info, new music, new videos. If there are country music fans and rock fans, they’re going to love this stuff and I’ve always dreamed of going over there to visit, so I need all the love I can get and I appreciate all the love I can get. Thank you very much!
If we want to make sure you get over here on tour, is there anything else we can do to make it happen?
Download, stream, buy as much music as you can, tweeting at me so the world can see that Finland and Europe want to see some Cory Marks shows out there, and then we’ll do everything we can to make that happen. The best thing to do is just play and share the hell out of my music everywhere! With everyone!
Well thanks so much for taking the time to do this interview with us!
I appreciate the time, it was great chatting with you! I hope we talk again soon.
We hope to see you live here soon!
Interview by Bear Wiseman
SONATA ARCTICA – “Acoustic Adventures – Volume Two” due out on September 30th; extensive Finnish/European tour to kick off next month