For musician Mark Sims, life's small moments inform 'Big Dreams'

Andy Downing
Mark Sims

Big Dreams, the new album from musician Mark Sims, started with a small idea.

Prior to starting the songs that would form the basis for the record,released digitally last week, Sims struggled for months with writer’s block that he attributed to a long-held desire to write the great American song each time he put pen to paper.

“I’ll listen to the Beatles or Bob Dylan, or so much of what we consider the classic canon of music, and it’s intimidating. You try to write, but you start to wonder why you even bother when everyone has access to all of the best songs ever written on a cellphone that you can carry in your pocket,” said Sims, 38, who explores this burden in the song “You’ve Heard It All Before,” on which he compares releasing music with pouring a cup of water into the ocean. “I had this idea to write the classic American novel each time I opened my mouth, and I think I’ve given up on that. I just have to write something honest, and if it’s a little clunky in a spot or two, I don’t think anyone is going to lose any sleep over it.”

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This relaxed mindset bleeds into the songs populatingBig Dreams, with Sims singing about fatherhood, getting older and the repetitive hum of family life amid coronavirus-driven stay-at-home orders. Sims said his songwriting revelation coincided with the start of the pandemic, so the tunes were often recorded as the musician shared space with his wife and two children. “A lot of this record I literally recorded with my son, who is 13, sitting on the couch next to me watching TV or playing video games,” Sims said.

As a result, Sims’ thoughts turn to his children throughout, surfacing on songs such as “Too Late to Cry” and “Wouldn’t That Be Nice,” on which he reflects on his early years as a father, in addition to wrestling with the realization that some day in the near future his children will be on their own. “I wish we had more time,” he sings atop finger-picked guitar. This reflective headspace was further informed by the deaths of Sims’ parents, and he said as he wrote he often shared room not only with them, but with different versions of himself.

“My father passed away about this time last year, and my mother passed away a couple of years ago. … And that made me look inward a lot, because I’m realizing for a long time I defined myself as a ‘son,’ which isn’t as relevant now. I mean, I’m still their son, but I don’t have that real, ongoing conversation with them,” Sims said. “And I think that realization made me rethink who I am. I’m at a point now where I can remember exactly how I was when I was my kids’ age, and I can remember how my parents were when they were my age. So when I was writing, I could have all of them together. I had myself at 38 and my dad at 38, and then I could remember myself at 13 and 15 and my kids at 13 and 15, which got me to thinking about who I am now, and how that compares to who my dad was when I was my kids’ age.”

While most of the songs look inward, focused on those more intimate, typically overlooked moments, there are a couple of tunes that pull the larger world into focus. The hazy “Summer Never Really Happened,” written in a rush as Sims watched his daughter play tennis in late summer, deals with the reality of COVID-19, which obliterated the usual seasonal activities like barbecues, trips to the local swimming pool and vacations. “The Pain We Are Feeling,” in turn, deals with the political ugliness that predated Donald Trump but found fresh oxygen in his election, with Sims bargaining that real change won’t grip the country “until we cleanse the White House/until we cleanse ourselves.”

“I get it through Facebook, or when I talk to people, but there are so many people who are just so sad about the state that we’re in,” Sims said. “It’s the tone, the way that Trump talks, which is so disheartening for so many people in my life, and it’s so sad to see somebody be so openly bigoted and cruel. That song came to me in like two minutes, because it was something I had been thinking about, like, I just wish we could get rid of all this pain.”

Sims then pivoted to the current presidential election, which as of this writing still hasn’t been called for either candidate but has trended strongly to Joe Biden in recent days. “I think minute-by-minute we’re finding out now if that will be the case or not,” he said.