Inside Mark Mallman’s Musical Pursuit of Happiness

The musician’s first book, ”The Happiness Playlist,” is out now

Photo by Wilson Webb

Mark Mallman went through a beast of a Minnesota winter a few years back. In the aftermath of his mother’s death and the dissolution of a romantic relationship, the Twin Cities musician found that certain songs were too much to stomach—specifically, the ones echoing a despair he couldn’t shake. So he curated a list of positivity-imbued melodies—stuff like Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” and James Brown’s “I Got You (I Feel Good)” —and took it like medicine over and over and over again. (See the entire playlist at the end of this post.)

Eventually, he started keeping a journal and the results became The Happiness Playlist: The True Story of Healing My Heart With Feel-Good Music. It’s a window into his mind, his close relationships, and a tour of his favorite Minneapolis hangouts during that formative period. Instead of a step-by-step guide to a more-positive existence, it’s more like a living-proof document of music’s healing powers. “I hope that it can help a lot of people write their own playlists and use music to reinforce some positivity when times are tough,” Mallman says. Ahead of a book-release party at 7th St. Entry, he explained to Minnesota Monthly how and why music makes him happy.

How did this book come about?
Once I decided the topic I was going to write about was going to be this happiness playlist, the first draft of the book is just journaling. I knew my story. There was going to be winter involved. I knew I was going to listen exclusively to the playlist. I just kept a diary of what went down. Then it took another year to take it from journal entry to the book. It’s about the collective idea of a playlist. I didn’t want it to be a prescription of songs for people. I wanted it to be “this is how a happiness playlist affected me.” I didn’t know exactly how it was going to affect me when I set out to write, but I had a vague notion that I was going to be in a good mood [laughs].

The book’s narrative doesn’t spend much time analyzing the songs on the playlist, they’re more in the background.
Music is not much different from the food I eat or the air I breathe. I’m just immersed. I’m not saying that I couldn’t survive without music, but I’m saying that I’ve integrated it into my life in such a way that it’s a phantom limb. The difference is that I haven’t written about it. I don’t have a critical mind that could offer up an authoritative deconstruction of a song in the same way that I write songs to deconstruct the world around me. So it made more sense for me to tell a story. It was hard for me to find a book to make me feel better, and I really needed it. I figured there needed to be a book that would address some healing and my hope is that people read it and feel good. Which is different from why I write albums. When I knew I was writing it, I was thinking, “Make sure it’s funny, make sure it’s happy,” because I wanted that response.

So is this book a happiness playlist of personal memories?
It’s intended to create a complex, calm, positive feeling as opposed to a book that dissects happiness. Instead of talking about it, just be it. There’s a mindful, meditative quality of talking about things that are beautiful, dogs that are cute, rain that is soft, foods that are warm, and people that you love. When you read this, your body goes through the same responses. It was easier for me to write about light things, and dip into the heavy stuff now and then, than to just go [barf], here’s all the horrible stuff that happened.

How much of a playlist person are you in life?
Writing an album is like creating a playlist, and I grew up making mixtapes. Now, a playlist is such an integral part for even the most casual music fan. We all have playlists, you know? As a creator of music, I forget that there’s also just listening. That playlist is just an aside. I have all the playlists that I use for research or if I’m composing. The happiness playlist that I have was just super organic. Like, “Oh, I’m in a crappy mood, I’m going to put this on.” It snuck up on me that I’d create a piece of work about it.

Three ways songs make me happy: a physical response to rhythm, nostalgic emotional response to the lyrics, or that rare song that’s manufactured to be about happiness that actually feels genuine. Which categories do these songs fall into for you?
First and foremost, the body responds. We listen with our bodies. The initial response in the recording studio when a song’s in the right spot is everyone is moving their head. For happy songs, I think that energy is transferred to the body. Music bypasses the intellect and expresses the soul.

For me, the cultural context or the historical significance of a song didn’t come into play—with the exception of [Bobby Day’s] “Rockin’ Robin.” Mom and I would listen to the oldies station when I was real young. I remember “Rockin’ Robin” would come on and we’d sing along. It’s a simple, happy song. In that way, it’s very powerful in manifesting joy. She loved robins too, they were her favorite bird.

The third, is that manufactured happy song. An artist is a manufacturer. We sometimes channel our ego in our work and tell our personal story, but other times we write dance or rock music with the intention to rock out with the band. Or to make music for dancing. “Happy” has proven globally as a song that was manufactured to create happiness and has exceeded those expectations. It’s a phenom. I’m sure that Pharrell just has powerful emotions about the positivity of that song that no one could have expected. I hope in some way my book can do the same thing.

As this playlist came together, did you get sick of some stuff?
A song that didn’t make the playlist was U2’s “City of Blinding Lights.” It got cut. Something about that song makes me feel incredibly high, elated even, but there’s this saccharine descending bell in it. It started to drive me nuts, and the earworm became a little too strong to listen to over and over. There are some songs on there that you would think would be annoying but every time “The Bare Necessities” comes on, I love it.

Some of the vocalists for songs you chose could yield an entire happiness playlist on their own. Take Mavis Staples or Damon Albarn (Gorillaz, Blur).
That’s interesting to me. As a songwriter, my intuition is that Damon Albarn is writing from the child self, which comes up a lot on this list. Returning to our innocence, lyrically and stylistically. Literally, with “Over the Rainbow,” which is sung by [Judy Garland] playing a child, and “O-o-h Child” by the Five Stairsteps, they’re singing to a child. Beatles songs are basically kids’ songs. We might associate childhood with a certain naiveté, but there’s a lot of wisdom in being a child. A playlist is like a hive mind. When you make a mixtape for someone, it’s a collection of multi-faceted emotions that you might feel for them. But there are elements of this playlist that are driving the same points home: dancing, love, and be like a child. And potato chips.

Mark Mallman Book Release. 8 p.m., Friday, March 22 at 7th St Entry. Tickets. Order a copy of The Happiness Playlist here.