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Multi-Instrumentalist John Mock Uses Music to Help Preserve Lighthouses

Corey Seeman/Flickr

Multi-instrumentalist John Mock has spent the better part of three decades performing the stories of coastal communities,  from Massachusetts to Ireland. On March 19th, Mock will head to a different kind of coastal community -- St. Joseph -- to play a multi-media concert with the Southwest Michigan Symphony Orchestra featuring music, stories and photographs, as a way to honor the renovation of the city's historic lighthouse.

These sorts of places actually first inspired Mock when he was in Nashville, Tenn. longing for his old home in Connecticut. 

"And I think out of homesickness for New England and being inspired by trips I had taken to play in Ireland -- it seemed like once New England and Irish influences hit me, and I started playing the concertina and tin whistle, it felt like there was more steady inspiration to write. Because I felt like there was a place, a story to score against."

These places – New England, Ireland, and Scotland – had a mystery that Mock couldn’t shake. He longed for them, and that longing soon made melodies pour out of him. Mock’s songs really sound like these places, with maritime and Irish-inspired instruments.

Mock also takes pictures of old castles, lighthouses, and ships. Together, they form the backbone of Mock’s unique multimedia concerts that he takes around the world.

"And then between that and the music and the story, the idea is to have somebody, kind of astro-travel  during the concert," Mock laughs. "That this is this place. This music. It just has three things that can bring a listener to that area or another place in time."

Last year, Mock found himself along the Great Lakes shoreline, playing concerts from St. Joseph to Muskegon and even Wisconsin. He took the opportunity to take a trip along Lake Michigan’s coast, up through the Upper Pensinsula, then back down. And the views hit him in a way that he hadn’t felt in years.

"God, it’s just gorgeous," he says. "The landscape. I know it’s not ocean, but it’s still vast. It’s got that same sense about it. So I just really fell in love with it."

He continues: "It was really interesting, I’m working with this woman, Silvia, on an album. And I’ve written half a dozen things on it in which  she and a writer named Scott Tyler put lyrics to. And out of those half a dozen things, I think five of them I wrote on that trip to Michigan. So I just wrote a lot while I was there. It was an inspirational place."

Mock says he connected with a lot here, but in particular, he couldn’t stop taking pictures of the old lighthouses, like the one in St. Joseph. They're ancient and worn down, but in the process of being restored.

As part of his concert in St. Joseph, Mock will set his songs to a visual backdrop featuring dozens of photographs of the St. Joseph lighthouse, taken over the course of a year by local photographer Laura Kraklau.

"They’re kind of like America’s castles, right?" Mock says. "Wherever you have a lighthouse, you also have a beautiful spot of land. You want it to be protected and people to always be able to see it and visit."

Mock says this cause is special to him. These structures inspired him, and the fact that many are losing their relevance and being torn down hits him personally.

"When I compare it to America, to places like Ireland and Scotland that had history there that is, like, B.C. You know, monuments that are 500 years B.C. in Ireland and they’re on farmers' land. They're next to castles crumbling in the ocean. And no one touches that! No one paves it over to build a McDonalds. There’s a real respect for the heritage and the history. In America, there's a lot of that, too. But a lot of times, it's like if a lighthouse is going to be saved for someone to enjoy, it’ll happen with organizations from the American Lighthouse Foundation. There are a number of organizations out there with a goal to preserve lighthouses. Because once they’re not needed anymore, there’s a tendency, let’s just stick a pole in the water and have a parking lot and a restaurant. It’s like, no!"

Mock says he’s doing what he can to save lighthouses like the one in St. Joseph in his own way. He has a unique title: artist advocate for the American Lighthouse Foundation. His CD is available to purchase inside towns with lighthouses, with all the profits going straight to restoration efforts.

Mock is thinking of other ideas, too, like house concerts inside lighthouse keeper’s houses, with big-names playing.

"And wouldn’t it be neat to have a bank put up a fee for a performer to play?" he says. "And then all the ticket money went directly to the lighthouse? And it would also be a great way to educate people. Someone like John Kocker or Cheryl Wheeler. Some big draw up there doing a concert at a lighthouse. Then someone from the foundation gets up and explains what it’s about. It's a way of telling people what it's about and raising money. It would raise more money then a bake sale."

Ultimately, Mock says, restoration is necessary. But seeing these lighthouses survive is especially important to him. These landmarks have been the inspiration for nearly all of Mock’s music. So he’s got an obligation to fight for them.

"If you just look at history, and time, and how small our little life is here, I think about the fact that an entire livelihood and artistic inspiration, for me is from areas in places that, if they weren’t preserved, I wouldn’t have seen. It just makes you feel like it’s really important that other generations have that opportunity to visit these places. And to be inspired by them, whether it be musically or another way. So that is definitely a part of it. It feels like the very least I can do."

John Mock performs with the Southwest Michigan Symphony Orchestra at the St. Joseph High School Performing Arts Center on March 19th at 7:30.

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