Interview | FFS 5 with The Last Optimist

Image courtesy of Independent Music Promotions

‘Sad folk’ songwriter, poet, and activist Markus Belanger is the Last Optimist. A moniker that he had conjured during dark times for the globe, Belanger aims to embrace an openness towards mental health awareness in his music. His EP, This Moment is Gone, is his next bid to help de-stigmatize mental health by building a community around it, one empathetic ally at a time. He states, “We are in a tough moment as more than a quarter of us are facing off with extreme sadness, anxiousness, panic, and all the accompanying struggles that throw us in to cold dark water and crash waves overhead. I perform this music to lift people up, to let them know that they are not alone, and to build empathic allies all around. Every little moment of peace helps.”

“Every little connection makes us more resilient. Every kind word is sunshine on a cheek. Sometimes we rage, sometimes we cry quiet and vulnerable, sometimes we stand bold and courageous, sometimes we love with abandon. Come join us and immerse yourself in both the inky black water and light that comes with the dawn.”

For Folk’s Sake is pleased to have worked with Belanger as a part of our ongoing ‘FFS 5’ series. Herein, we overview what exactly is behind a name with his title: “The Last Optimist”. He bears his heart on heavy topics, recovering some of the roots of folk music—human connection, empathy, and advocacy—in the midst of it all.

Please tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from and how did you get started in music? Any defining moments along the path to present day?

I am a Vermont kid at heart and now call Newburyport MA (and the Boston area) home. I launched my newest project, ‘the last optimist’ two years ago with an idea of stripping away all the trappings of modern music and sugaring everything down to just mission, lyrics, and a guitar line. Its been a meandering path to get here with moments of intense focus on music broken up by years of neglecting the artistic side of my life.

My defining musical moments are kind of funny and scattered: The first solo appearance (3rd grade talent show on a clarinet), first paid gig (playing the ‘elks club’ on trombone with my dad at age 12), first big audience (playing trombone behind Frankie Valley and the Four Seasons and The Four Tops at the Champlain Valley Fairgrounds at age 16), first European tour (backing up Clark Terry with his big band at age 19), first full length album (playing bass in emocore band ‘Stricken For Catherine’ in the mid 1990s), first solo album (the last optimist – ‘make it alright with grace’).

As an artist, how do you define success?

I love that you ask artists this question as success is an elusive lover for the modern singer/songwriter. I’ve recently come to terms with this after a long talk with former bandmate who made his living touring with ‘Garrison,’ ‘Her Heads on Fire,’ ‘Gay for Jonnie Depp,’ and ‘Judas Knife.’ He was pretty ruthless in laying out the facts about present day music distribution. The up side is that we now have almost complete ‘democratization’ of the industry. The down side is the near impossible task of finding and connecting with our tribes.

I am in a really good place with this now. When I play I look around at faces. Every once in awhile there is a moment of connection where the lyrics and the song resonate with a person’s life experience. Those single connections build up a strong fabric of community over time. Success is one person in one moment reached by a song. The rest will just have to work itself out on its own.

What do you find your greatest struggle to be when it comes to the music business?

The cycles bring both joys and challenges. There is intense creativity that is all around you when writing new music and sometimes I walk around for days spinning on a new idea until it is free takes full shape. Then there is a period of diligent practice so you don’t poop all over the chords as you are trying to play something new and challenging. The studio time is a real highlight – especially when you have laid down guitar lines and just get to sing into a high end microphone early in the morning with a cup of coffee.

The struggle for me comes with everything after that. Self-promotion does not come naturally and I may even be allergic. The hours of trying to be authentic in a medium as strange as Instagram is draining – the energy you put in is endless and the feedback seems unnatural.

Booking shows is challenging but in a good way. When I toured my new album ‘this moment is gone’ I stayed off from all the well-trodden paths of clubs and bars and instead connected with church leaders. This is not religious music but certainly shares a mission that resonates with faith leaders. All through this spring I got to sing in these beautiful old stone buildings and we donated every cent raised to local mental health providers and NAMI.

What do you think is the most realistic goal you can achieve as an artist and as a band? What do you hope to achieve?

I chose the name ‘the last optimist’ in a very dark period in our human history and we now together face the unfathomable realities of global pandemic, war and genocide, school shootings, and unreconciled political insurrection. It is too much to bear for any one of us. I feel the duty to bring a counterweight to so much sadness and pessimism. I feel the responsibility to remind us that humans are decent and caring and kind – especially in the face of extreme adversity. I found out that music is the medium that finds and connects hearts. My job now is to scream into the wind with kindness and empathy and hope that a few souls find the music and sing along.

Outside of music, what do you like to do that you feel contributes to the creativity that you tap into for your music?

This question is a bit upside down for me. I go to the music for the creativity and that then enriches the rest of my life. When I am tapping the well for a new song, I am a better human being to be around, happier, hyper, and a lot more interesting than usual. The art makes me better at my ‘day job’ too and I find it shifts my perspective so that even complex problem solving is easier when approached with creativity. The art brings an energy, optimism, and ‘way out of the box’ perspective that opens doors every day. In all parts of my life the creativity fills the deep wells of optimism so that I can bring my best self to each challenge.

Words by: Jonathan Frahm