If there were an ongoing award for Colorado Springs' Most Chameleonic Recording Artist, there's a really good chance Mike Clark would be giving more than a few acceptance speeches.
In the decade since he first picked up an acoustic guitar and began writing songs, the Calhan transplant has fronted the Black Keys-inspired Jack Trades; launched a second, more bluegrass-inclined two-piece band called Crow Flies; and ventured into gypsy-folk terrain while recording and performing as The Ghost of Mike Clark.
All that was followed, in early 2013, by the debut album of Mike Clark & the Sugar Sounds, a twitchy retro-soul affair complete with heavy bass lines and funky horns.
Along the way, he also became one of the principal singer-songwriters in Pueblo's Leadbelly-worshipping Haunted Windchimes, which has enabled him to finally quit his day job.
Clark's latest project materialized last week in the form of a CD called Golden Light. This time around, he's recording under the band name The River Arkansas, a group that will be playing its first local show at Front Range Barbeque this coming Friday.
If you can't catch it this week, Clark expects to do an official big-deal CD release show, but not for a while. Western Jubilee's Scott O'Malley, the manager responsible for getting the Haunted Windchimes their career-changing A Prairie Home Companion appearance, has been keeping the band busy out on the road, with upcoming shows that will include California's colorful Cowboy Festival and, yes, the Pedaler's Jamboree in Boonville, Montana.
As for The River Arkansas album itself, there's really nothing on the CD jacket to tell you that Clark's at the helm, apart from a small writer's credit and a photo of the little skull-headed puppet guy who also made the cover of the singer's Bound to Break album.
"I've released a few albums over the years under my name, and I just felt it was time for a change," explains Clark. "This project really took shape after I asked bass player Macon Terry into the studio to track some of these songs. There was an immediate connection and we decided to form a band together around them."
In addition to Terry — a former member of Denver's Paper Bird who's now with the band Clouds & Mountains — other featured players on Golden Light include Danah Olivetree on cello and violin, Windchimes bandmate Inaiah Lujan on electric guitar, and dueling drummers Max Barcelow and Alex Koshak.
Guests include Dino Belli from the sadly defunct Flumps, who joins Eros & the Eschaton's Katey Sleeveless and Adam Hawkins for the gorgeous, Fleetwood Mac-style backing vocals on "You've Been Runnin'."
The track also finds Clark getting in touch with his inner Roy Orbison falsetto. Elsewhere, on songs like the opening "A Place to Rest," his delivery is more ragged. Kind of like Tom Waits, just a couple octaves higher.
"My voice changes every day," says Clark. "I feel like I'm just now getting it under control."
And while band names and faces have also changed through the years, the recording and arranging process hasn't.
"I'm notorious for making my friends learn things on the spot and hitting the 'record' button," he admits. "I had the basic forms of the songs — where the verse, chorus, bridge, and instrumentals go. But other than that, what you hear is being arranged in the studio. I had maybe one practice with these guys to familiarize themselves, but everything you hear is basically great players laying it down live."
Clark is no less effusive about Ian Bourgal, who produced and engineered the tracks at Sunshine Studios.
"We've done a lot of work together," he says, "and I just really like him, his work ethic, and his attitude. He believes in me, and I believe in him. And that's what makes great records."