A guitarist, four-time GRAMMY winner, band member, family man, songwriter and soloist, Mark Lettieri is in it for the magic of creation. As a member of the jazz/world ensemble Snarky Puppy, as well as the Fearless Flyers, Lettieri gets to collaborate with some of his closest friends and influences. Now up for his first GRAMMY nomination as a solo artist, this rhythm guitarist has honed his craft to the point where experimentation and creativity have lent to one of the most extraordinary records to date: Deep: The Baritone Sessions, Vol. 2.
A friend to The Orchard and distributed artist via GroundUP Music and Broken Silence, Lettieri reflects on his early days, influences, and even some upcoming projects! Read on for more…
You are currently a guitarist, composer, producer, and instructor. Tell us about your early years. Did you always know you would have a career in music?
I started playing guitar at age 11, and it began as any sort of adolescent experiment would, trying out a new hobby. However, it instantly became a passion – something I knew would stick with me for the rest of my life. It also came at a time when I was discovering music on my own, beyond what my parents would play at home or in the car (which, thankfully, was all great stuff). Learning the instrument while playing in garage bands or at church with like-minded friends was a huge part of my early musical development as a teen, but the idea of pursuing it as a career didn’t become tangible until I was finishing my senior year of college.
Well known as a member of the popular Jazz/World group Snarky Puppy, how did you find yourself there?
Many of the players, like myself, connected with band through the Dallas groove music scene and the various jam sessions that existed within those circles. I began as a sub first, but since the band was so busy I kept getting asked to come back and fill in, and soon after was brought into the fold.
As far as my interest in jazz goes, I started checking it out after I’d invested a lot of time listening to rock and pop, followed by soul and funk. From there, I starting dipping my toes into jazz. It’s certainly a solid influence of mine, especially in terms of how I look at harmony and composition, but I wouldn’t consider myself a real “jazz guitarist.” Snarky Puppy started out with guys who were in jazz school, but the band became way more than a jazz group as more members with different backgrounds starting joining the band. I’d call us an “advanced instrumental pop” group, if that makes sense!
What are some of your favorite genres to play and/or listen to? How do you prefer to describe your performance style?
Rock, pop, soul and funk are my favorite styles to play – but I enjoy listening to jazz, hip hop, and pretty aggressive metal as well. As a writer, I do tend to blend all these elements subconsciously, however. I suppose you could categorize my guitar playing specifically as a combination of rock attitude with funk groove, plus a little jazz harmony.
Beyond Snarky Puppy, can you tell us about your solo and various side projects?
Singing was never my strong point, so I’ve been writing guitar instrumentals since I was about 14 or 15. Naturally that sound was going to become my main focus, whether I knew back then it would be or not. I released my first solo record in 2011, and kept making records and working on developing my own voice. It’s been a bit of a process coming to terms with being a “solo artist” but I’m on my sixth album now, with Deep: The Baritone Sessions, Vol. 2. About five years ago I started putting bands together to perform the music live. It has evolved into a steady ensemble called the Mark Lettieri Group that tours stateside and internationally. The Fearless Flyers would probably be the most “visible” side project I do – a collaboration with Joe Dart and Cory Wong of Vulfpeck, with drummer Nate Smith. It’s a stripped-down funk ensemble, in which I play primarily baritone guitar. We’ve done three records and are about to record our fourth. It’s a really great band to be part of, and I’m looking forward to doing some more shows with them in ’22.
As an esteemed guitarist yourself, who are some of your biggest inspirations?
I have favorite guitarists from all the different genres of music that have influenced me. I’ve also always been enamored with session players – the guitarists who can kind of play anything at anytime, with anyone. All those great players from the “golden age” of pop sessions in the mid 1970s through the 1980s. Studying them has helped me develop my versatility, and it’s that versatility that’s kept a large portion of my career moving. But if I had to pick three major guitar influences that I’m constantly referencing from an artistic context, I’d say Prince, Jeff Beck, and Edward Van Halen.
Do you prefer to write alone or to collaborate with a group?
The solo material happens alone, as you might expect, but I also enjoy writing with singers as well. I’ve had various bands in the past where I’ve been the Page to someone’s Plant, so to speak, and that’s yielded some interesting results. I’d like to get back to that again at someday, with a vocalist (or several) for a solo project down the line. And The Fearless Flyers and Snarky Puppy have some space for collaboration as well, which is inspiring.
If you could collaborate with anyone (living or dead), who would be in your dream band?
It was always a dream to play with Prince (with him on any instrument of his choosing). I’d also love to play with Bernard Purdie, Pino Palladino, Larry Graham, or Steve Perry. What’s been the biggest blessing about my career, however, is that I’m kind of already playing in my “dream bands.” The folks I make music with on a regular basis are some of my closest friends and deepest influences.
You are nominated for a GRAMMY this year for Contemporary Instrumental Music for Deep: The Baritone Sessions, Vol. 2 but this is not your first GRAMMY. How does it feel to be nominated and to win a GRAMMY?
Winning the GRAMMYs with Snarky Puppy was an incredible feeling each time – certainly a validation for all of our hard work and the crazy obstacles the band had overcome. We never expected to be nominated, let alone win. And if you visited 15-year-old Mark in his bedroom, as he made weird little guitar tunes on a Fostex 4-track recorder and told him that one day those weird little guitar tunes would get him his own GRAMMY nomination, he’d look at you like you were from Mars. It’s definitely a bit surreal, and I don’t know if the weight of the nomination as a solo artist has totally sunk in yet.
What would you say are your top 3 biggest accomplishments?
Honestly, raising a family and helping support them by doing what I love is probably the biggest and most important. I’m grateful to have played some amazing tours, worked on incredible records, and have had several career moments that I’m very proud of and would never take for granted. But it’s always been about making sure I can take care of those around me by playing music I care about with people I like.
Let’s talk formats. Do you have a favorite way to listen to music (ie. vinyl, 8-track, iPhone, Hi-fi)?
Lately, my routine has been to listen to my iTunes library while washing dishes! Not the most glamorous, but it’s actually a nice way to lose myself in some songs. We recently acquired a record player for our house, and have made a few trips to the local used record store to increase our vinyl collection. It’s fun to buy a $5 record, for example, just based on the album artwork and see if it turns out to be a gem.
What’s an upcoming project you’re excited about?
I recorded an EP of trio-based ballads recently, with my longtime rhythm section of Wes Stephenson (bass) and Jason “JT” Thomas (drums). On various voice memos and videos on my iPhone, I’d recorded several ideas over the last two years, many of which were vibe-y, mellow little guitar etudes. I decided to go through them and flesh out the best ones into full compositions. We recorded live with no overdubs, and had the amps in the same room as the drums. It’s very organic and natural, and I think shows a side of my playing and personality that I haven’t captured much on recordings to date.