Chris Thomas, from Martin Guitar, recently spoke with Mark Ballas in the Martin Guitar Museum. Ballas, an accomplished singer/songwriter/musician and professional dancer on ABCs ‘Dancing with the Stars’ provided some insight into his musical journey.
So Mark, how long have you been playing guitar and have you always been a songwriter?
MB: I have been playing guitar since I was ten—so fourteen years; and I started getting into song writing when I was like thirteen. That’s when I kind of started, you know, playing around a lot. I can still remember my first song. It was absolutely terrible. But yeah, I was about thirteen or twelve when I started.
Awesome! Who would you consider some of your biggest musical influences?
MB: I have a wide range. Growing up, there was a lot of flamenco played in my house. I love Paco de Lucía and the Gypsy Kings. So it was that kind of stuff. I’m a huge Eric Clapton fan. I think today—nowadays—I would say that John Mayer is kind of someone I really look up to, and I love his music. I love Stevie Ray Vaughn, as well… Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, so yeah, all those kind of guys.
When you first started performing, did you play a lot of cover songs, or has it always been an original thing for you?
MB: I think my first gig, I remember, was at a place called the Rugby Club in Guildford, England, and we played about half and half. It was about half our own songs and then we did some covers as well. So usually, the set was about six originals and six covers as well.
Do you feel differently delivering a cover tune versus an original?
MB: Well I try—when I play covers—in our set we do like a mash-up of a few covers. Together, we try to put our own spin on them and try to make them our own. So, in the delivery, I try to, you know, deliver it as if it was something that I, you know, changed and arranged, and what not. But I’d say I feel the same. Whether it’s an original or a cover, I try to connect to it when I am singing and playing it.
As far as the different Martin body types that you’re playing right now, do you find that a dreadnought inspires a different type of song, than say a smaller-bodied 000?
MB: Yeah, I mean, I think with the 000—I’ve been a big fan of the 000—the first Martin purchase I got actually was a Martin 000-18 Golden Era. I remember seeing it at Guitar Center and I was like ‘Ah, I really want that guitar!’ I saved up for months and then I got it. I say with the 000s, I use a lot more finger-picky kind of stuff—and, um, more percussive. And then with the dreadnoughts, I like to use the open tunings and kind of, you know, use more strumming, and open wide tuning, and what not.
Now I’ve recently learned that your friend and colleague on ‘Dancing with the Stars’, Chelsie Hightower is learning guitar.
MB: She is, yes!
And I am wondering how much you had to do with that, and what type of advice you might be giving her as she learns.
MB: She’s always been into guitar and she loves really great music. We have that in common, so we listen to a lot of acoustic music. But, she started picking it up, and she plays really, really well, considering it’s been like a month and a half, two months. So whenever we’re together, I try to help out, and I’m trying to get her to use her right hand a little bit more than relying on a pick.
What would you consider your most gratifying musical accomplishment?
MB: This right now! Being here at the Martin factory and just being able to play for you guys has just been like a dream come true. Martin has been my favorite—it’s kind of like the pinnacle of all guitars for me. So to be actually here—from growing up in London and then all of a sudden being here at the Martin factory is like a blessing. I’m really happy to be here.
Well, we’re honored to have you.
MB: Thank you.
We know that your album is coming out very soon. You’ve been working hard on it. Are you about ready to release it?
MB: I am. I just finally approved the masters yesterday, so—we spent a lot of time on it and have writing the songs for quite a while now. So, to finally hear them come to life in a huge form, rather than just me and the acoustic guitars, has been really rewarding and amazing. The producer I worked with, Rob Chiarelli, has been so great to work with. He’s been like a mentor to help me and to show me—because sometimes I’m like ‘Let’s do this, that and the other’ and he’s like ‘no, no, pull it back’. So he’s helped show me where to be simple and then where to go for it. I really excited. The record is sounding really great and I am excited for people to hear it.
Well, we’re looking forward to it for sure.
MB: And it’s all Martin guitars on it. Acoustically, that’s all that’s on there.
Fantastic! Have you written additional songs? I’m sure you are constantly inspired by things. Are you writing songs for your next release?
MB: Yes. I’ve written two since we’ve been on the road. One called ‘If Only’ and then another one called ‘Barely Breathing’. We’re going to be in D.C. this weekend and I think we are going to make some acoustic demos in the studio while we are there. But yeah, I’m constantly—on my iPhone, I have voice memo after voice memo of riffs and guitar work and vocal lines. So I am constantly writing and being inspired by everything.
Thanks so much for talking with us Mark.
MB: Oh no, thank you! Thanks for having me.