Mark Renner. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Maryland-native artist and experimental folk musician Mark Renner says he “hadn’t really given much thought” to his body of recordings from more than three decades ago when Brooklyn-based indie label RVNG came calling.

“I was quite honored for them to have the interest,” he says. “I’ve talked to people [from record labels] over the years, but nothing ever really materialized until now.”

Today marks the release of “Few Traces,” a 21-track collection of music Renner made in and around Baltimore from 1982 through 1990, some of it previously released and other pieces stashed away for years. The collection includes material from his self-released 1986 album “All Walks of This Life” (1986) and “Painter’s Joy” (1988), which was released by a subsidiary of Enigma Records.

RVNG owner Matt Werth reached out to Renner in 2015 after coming across a sealed copy of “All Walks of This Life” on a record dealer’s table at a flea market in Philadelphia. In an emailed statement, he said the album was “profoundly relatable and resonant, musical and original even if the sounds, scapes, and shapes appeared similar from other listening instances.”

“Digging deeper into Renner’s DIY aesthetic, it was clear that a collection of Mark’s work would make a fitting addition to our ongoing archival series,” Werth said, referring to his label’s ReRVNG line of decades-old artist collections.

What listeners will find in “Few Traces” is a DIY anthology of radiant, dreamy compositions framed by pulsing drums and soaring notes–both made by synthesizer–calling to mind the sounds of Brian Eno, Joy Division and Ultravox. The collection traces Renner’s musical evolution during the 1980s when he would journey down—sometimes hitchhiking–from his home of Upperco in northern Baltimore County to the city.

Renner made much of his early work with a simple toolkit: an electric guitar, a four-track recorder and a classic Casio CZ101 synth. A self-taught musician, his arsenal evolved over time as he added new instrumentation. Renner says he eventually dove into what he calls the “electro-acoustic realm,” where he remains today while making new music.

“I think in the ’80s I listened to a lot more electronics, exclusively, and most of the recordings you listen to are exclusively electronic,” he says. “And later, extending and combining those, the organic and the electronic, that’s sort of the ideal mix.”

His sound has a spiritual affect, an unintentional result Renner attributes to his fondness for Celtic hymns and music from his ancestral home of Scotland. He’s made pilgrimages there, and even recorded some of his newest in-progress album in Glasgow.

“I don’t think I’ve ever intentionally set to out to do something,” he says, “but I think that you probably absorb a lot of your influences without understanding how much you do. The traditional church hymns, I’ve always loved.”

A visual artist specializing in painting, printing and drawing, Renner originally made music to pair with his exhibitions around Baltimore. He would create soundscapes to guide guests along as they perused his working hanging on gallery walls, handing out cassettes to those who came equipped with the then-popular Walkman.

“I thought creating an environment, a sort of atmosphere for people to view the work would be sort of an interesting idea,” he says. “I later found out that I was far from the first one to do it, but it was just an idea… A lot of the material in this compilation is work that comes from a few of the exhibitions.”

YouTube video

In the above short documentary released by RVNG and produced by Baltimore-based filmmaker Maia Stern, Renner traces his local roots. He calls out a rowhouse where he produced “The Lost Years,” the album accompanying his first solo exhibition of the same name in 1984. Gazing at Max’s Taphouse in Fells Point, he highlights the bar as one of the few local venues that hosted live music multiple nights per week at the time.

He also stops by Secret Sound Studio in Middle River, where he recorded a fair share of the music compiled on “Few Traces.” His producer, John Grant, notes in the documentary that Renner was one of his first clients.

“Guys like Mark, what’s cool about them is when they come up with ideas, they don’t know what rules they may be breaking, and there is no box,” Grant says. “So they’re automatically outside the box.”

The album art for Mark Renner’s “Few Traces.” Image via Mark Renner/Bandcamp.
The album art for Mark Renner’s “Few Traces.” Image via Mark Renner/Bandcamp.

Renner says one of his biggest takeaways from the experience of working with RVNG was the importance of taking care of one’s personal archives. “The things that you save…” he ruminates.

Many of his original recordings were decades-old, half-inch cassette reels that had to be baked in an oven to keep them from disintegrating.

“RVNG, they were willing to do all that. So putting it all together and listening to it, it did create some good memories, mostly of trying to create something bigger than what I had to work with,” he said.

“Few Traces” is available in vinyl ($30), CD ($12) and digital ($12) formats on Renner’s Bandcamp page.

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Ethan McLeod

Ethan McLeod is a freelance reporter in Baltimore. He previously worked as an editor for the Baltimore Business Journal and Baltimore Fishbowl. His work has appeared in Bloomberg CityLab, Next City and...