Talking With Mark Knopfler: 'I Try To Write Good Songs And Make Good Records -- And Get Better"

03/17/2015 05:14 am ET | Updated May 17, 2015
Paul A. Hebert/Invision/AP

Very few people find early in life what they want to do and get to do it all their lives. At the top of the list in music: Mark Knopfler.

Knopfler got his first guitar at 15, practiced with the same ferocity as guitar god Chet Atkins ("You should fall asleep with the guitar in your hands"), and found a style of playing that has become among the most famous signatures in music. "Sultans of Swing," the first Dire Straits single, made Top Five lists; in 8 years, the band went on to sell 125 million records. And then Knopfler called it quits.

Disbanding at the top? Who does that? The Beatles. Who else? Mark Knopfler had what may look like smaller dreams: writing great songs, making great records, working to make each one better. The happy result: As a self-improvement effort, Knopfler's solo career can't be topped. Nor can "Tracker." Recorded in old-fashioned analog, enjoyed through state-of-the-moment earphones, it elevates easy-on-the-ears listening to a complex, subtle mosaic -- to art.

Example: For "Tracker," he wrote and recorded a song about British novelist Beryl Bainbridge (1934-2010). She published 18 novels and two collections of short stories, and if you can name just one title, I tip my hat to you. Often nominated for the prestigious Booker Prize, she never won --- and as the Booker is awarded to living writers, the only way the prize committee could correct its error was to create a one-off for her the year after she died.

Knopfler is a Bainbridge fan - that's not surprising; like him, she ruthlessly edited her writing to the essential --- and, outraged on her behalf, he wrote harsh, caustic lyrics:

Beryl was on another level
When she got a Booker medal
She was dead in her grave
After all she gave
After all she gave

But Knopfler is nothing if not strategic. A rant about a virtual unknown? Not for him. So he set the words against music straight from the "Sultans of Swing" playbook. Sounds like a hit, doesn't it? Listen:

I have a simple test for beauty: It makes me cry. Mark Knopfler's music does that. Infallibly. Overlook, for a moment, the too-smart-for-pop lyrics and the confidential voice. The way Knopfler plays guitar is the way I try to write: every note impeccable, inevitable. To listen to "Tracker" is to hear 84 minutes of music that is, for fans of grown-up music, just a bit better than almost anything else out there. To listen to "Tracker" is to weep for joy.

But for all his artistry, Knopfler is stunningly modest, even self-deprecating. You'll see that in the video he's made for "Tracker."

I've enjoyed his wit, intelligence and modesty every few years, when I interview him --- here and here. And you'll see it again in our most recent interview...

Jesse Kornbluth: Jack Nicholson says: "Until you're 27, you can live on barbed wire. After that, you pay for everything." In the fall, you're playing 35 American cities in 6 weeks. And you're no longer 27. What's your regime?

Mark Knopfler: You pay a price getting older. As Bette Davis said, old age isn't for sissies. I do two gyms and one Pilates a week, and I haven't had a cigarette in close to 15 years. You have to look after yourself, so I've built more days off into the tour. And --- I'm a slow learner --- I've discovered I like to write on the road.

JK: In 2013, to protest Putin, you canceled shows in Moscow and St Petersburg. Where won't you be playing on this tour?

MK: I canceled the Russian shows because, from the days of the first Dire Straits album, I've supported Amnesty International. It's not a good thing to read about people being jailed for no reason, so I raised my hand and made a small objection. It was good to do --- but where do you stop?

JK: The last time I interviewed you, I called a Dire Straits reunion tour "the easiest $300 million you'll ever make." That didn't move you. Have you reconsidered?

MK: No. A long time ago, I thought we could get together to do something for charity. But I saw where that would lead: more shows, a record, a tour. It would mean going back to big.

JK: Your songs are indelible --- you correctly call them "landmarks." I get the high of touring: hanging out with your mates, seeing the world. But when you're playing the classics, what's the thrill?

MK: A song like "Brothers in Arms" --- it captures a moment. And because it's become meaningful to many people, I have an obligation to play it well.

JK: Interviewing John Updike, I mentioned our good fortune: We never had to take a job. "Yes," he said, "we got away with it." And so, it seems, have you. That is: you've done it your way.

MK: I had a lot of jobs before I got into music. When I was 15, I was a copy boy for the Evening Chronicle in Newcastle. Then I was a journalist. I value those experiences --- I got to see how the world works. But yes, in music, you're right.

JK: The wisdom of age --- got any?

MK: I've learned to respect what talent I've got. I'm sure I didn't for many years --- I was just playing and running with it. Now I stick to my little ditties. Doing a film score is outside my zone. I feel like an imposter from time to time.

JK: My favorite Zen master used to tell his students: "I think you're perfect. And I think you can improve." Is there anything you're working to get better at?

MK: Gillian Welch told me, "All I'm trying to do is write a good song and make a good record." That sums it up. And you hope, as you go along, you get better.

JK: True or false: Any idiot can write a 6-minute art song. It takes a genius to write a 2:45 song with three chords and a hook.

MK: It depends on the chords. But a proper songwriter can do it in a few words.

JK: You and J.J. Cale came from such different backgrounds it's stunning to me that you have a similar musical philosophy. How does that happen?

MK: The first time I heard James Burton play lead guitar on "A Little Too Much," all I knew was that Ricky Nelson was a terrific singer and that guitar player was also terrific. I'd bet when J.J. heard that song he thought pretty much the same thing.

JK: You have a degree in literature. Your first jobs were in journalism. Shouldn't you write a book?

MK: I don't think my prose would hold up. It might even bore you to death --- really, it might read like a note to the milkman. Better for me to stick to songs.

JK: By writing a song about her, and with really catchy music, you've done the estate of Beryl Bainbridge a great favor. What other writers would you like to champion?

MK: Many. Beryl grabbed my attention for her writing, but even more for the fact that she never won the Booker Prize until she was dead. In her time, the judges were from Cambridge or Oxford, mostly male, definitely inclined to snobbery. Beryl was from Liverpool, poor, not educated. Her publisher didn't promote her books --- and he was having an affair with her. So when I wrote the song, I went to a "Sultans of Swing" style to evoke her time.

JK: You have children, some quite young. What do they think about your music?

MK: Issy, my 17-year-old, plays guitar in her room. When I told her about the musicians I was recording with, she'd never heard of any of them. That's how it is when you're young --- you're in your own world. When I mentioned someone to my son the drummer, he asked if that was in "the olden days."

JK: So, from the vantage point of the olden days, as best you can see it, what's your future?

MK: Hopping from one slippery stone to the next, until it ends in tears.


"Wherever I Go," with Ruth Moody

[cross-posted from]