Pricey Diggs: No concerts? Let’s record!

Pricey Diggs: Mark McMillen and Annie Boreson. Photo

Making music when you can’t play music

On the road again? Not yet, but…

The year dawned promisingly for most of us, or so we thought. And so thought Mark McMillen and Annie Boreson, the Manhattan Beach-based husband and wife duo who have lived in the South Bay for 10-plus years and have performed in such local venues as Homie, Barsha, Lil’ Simmzy’s, and the Portofino Hotel in Redondo.

The couple had lined up an early summer, 33-gig tour that would have spanned two-and-a-half months and taken them up the coast of California, through Oregon and Washington, and into Canada. From there they would have swung over to Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming.

“It was going to be a lot of fun,” Mark says, “in a little camper that we travel with. And we were going to play a lot of new places, too. Then the rug got pulled out. So, there was disappointment, for sure.”

The duo performs and records under the moniker Pricey Diggs rather than their actual names or some combination thereof. As for their stage names, Mark goes by Pricey Diggs and Annie by Tipsy Licks. So naturally this writer is curious: Why Pricey Diggs and not Pricey and Tipsy?

They both laugh as if having expected this topic to come up.

“Good question,” Mark replies. “I’m not sure we have a really good answer for that.”

Pricey digs, the expression, refers to expensive homes or other living quarters. Playing with some fellow musicians, Mark had joked that “Pricey Diggs” was what he wanted to change his name to. In a sense, that’s what happened, and seemingly Annie never objected when it also became the name of their two-person band. Mark points out, however, that initially they called themselves the Buzzer Beaters (the basketball term for that last-second shot that often wins the game or sends it into overtime). What they soon found out, though, is that if you Google “buzzer beaters” you wind up with real-life instances of it, lots and lots of them, and finally, underneath all that, you might be able to find their name. Fortunately, with its extra “g” Pricey Diggs pops up far closer to the top.

“Home Free,” out now from Pricey Diggs

Lemonade from lemons

The tour was lined up and it was looking good, and then mid-March came along and the spigot was turned off for hundreds of musicians ready to hit the road. Sort of like when all of the airplanes in mid-flight were instructed to land immediately in the wake of 9/11. Almost overnight, live music as we’ve always known it was no more. What was a musician to do?

“We were trying to figure out what we could do during that time frame,” Annie says. “We were all feeling the same thing at the beginning, like how long is this [referring to the quarantine] going to last?”

Annie and Mark realized that while they had no control over when venues for live music might reopen, they concurrently understood that what they did have control over was what they did with the stay-at-home time suddenly forced upon them. In short, and partly because they have a room for recording on the second floor of their home, they began to compose new songs.

“We just started writing,” Mark says. “That was seven months ago, and 10 songs later. Now it’s kind of nice to have finished something and to be able to say, Well, those were seven months where we couldn’t do what we would have loved to do, but we got something from it.”

What they got from it is their new CD, “Home Free.”

It contains 10 tracks, as Mark mentions, five co-written by Mark and Annie and five composed solely by Mark himself. And, truly, it is a topical record, with “Distance” a direct response to COVID-19.

“Some of the other songs deal with the political climate,” Mark adds, “which we were also facing head-on, like the Black Lives Matter racial thing. One of the songs, “Eventually,” was particularly inspired by John Lewis, a giant in the racial equality movement.”

The opening track, “Knock Down Drag Out,” concerns the tension and anger and unrest that resulted from the social, economic, political, and health upheavals that took center stage for much of the year. Essentially, the message of the song is, “Let’s pull it together; we’re all in this together.”

“But the CD goes from that extreme to ‘Closet Space,’” Annie says, “which was the first song we actually wrote together. [Mark] was explaining how a relationship broke up and I said, ‘Well, how did it break up? You were together a long time.’ And it was just like ‘closet space’ was his only answer, and from there the song was written.”

Perhaps the catchiest song on “Home Free” is “Porch Pirate.” Mark describes it as Latin-based, and indeed it has an agreeable, lilting rhythm and a nice vocal hook.

Robert McLain of The Sundial Agency refers to the record as blue-eyed soul Americana, which sounds concise, but when Mark is asked how he’d summarize the overall style he mentions other genres as well: “I like a lot of different stuff; I like playing different styles—jazz, blues, reggae, funk, pop, R&B, and I think each song on the record has its own characteristic.”

Generally speaking, however, the album has a soft rock, slightly bluesy-jazzy feel. Mark toured for over 25 years with Bobby Caldwell (“What You Won’t Do For Love”), and he’s an accomplished, versatile keyboardist. Annie plays percussion and provides backup vocals. So it’s a fairly easygoing sound all-in-all that they produce, and when they perform in public it’s mostly as entertainers, to provide an ambience in which people are free to listen, socialize, or dance. Annie points out that one of Mark’s favorite bands is Steely Dan, and the reference is at times palpable, for instance in the above-mentioned “Porch Pirate.”

Of course, it’s fairly ironic to have a product that one can take on the road but then to be stuck at home (maybe the disc should have been titled “Homebound” instead of “Home Free.”)

“The main way you can sell CDs anymore is when you’re playing live,” Mark says, “because CDs are becoming a dinosaur in the music industry.” However, like most people who came of age buying LPs and then CDs, Mark and Annie wanted to have physical albums on hand when they toured. Mark says they even joked about this among themselves: “As a marketing ploy, let’s give everybody a CD player with the CD that they buy.”

Pricey Diggs: Mark McMillen and Annie Boreson. Photo

Gray clouds… blue sky

Despite the somewhat oppressive pall that hangs over the nation today, Pricey Diggs didn’t want to create a downer of a record. “We were trying to make the CD hopeful,” Annie says, “so it wasn’t just all doom and gloom. We want to be proud of a CD that says this is what we were experiencing here, that things will get better, because we’ve seen this all through history that it will get better. Young people today maybe don’t understand this. Having gone through as many years as we have, that’s the benefit of knowing that it will turn around again.”

That life can make an about-face and improve is something Annie knows from personal experience, and in fact it was an illness of her own that eventually led to the formation of Pricey Diggs as a performing duo.

“About seven years ago I had cancer,” she says. “I was hooked up to chemo and was kind of woozy; and I looked at him and said, If I get through this we’re gonna get a camper, I’m gonna learn to play something, and we’re gonna start touring up and down the coast playing little wine bars and stuff. And he kept thinking, ‘Sure you will,’ but he held me to it and that was maybe three years ago and I started playing the cajon (a box-shaped percussion instrument) because it was an easy thing to take along with you. It was mainly to be as a backup for him. And then he said, ‘Well, now you gotta sing, too.’”

“She loves music and she comes from a musical family,” Mark adds. “I’d hear her singing and I’d say ‘She’s got great pitch, a nice-sounding voice, and great rhythm.”

He bought the cajon kit and assembled it, and Annie began taking lessons from the University of YouTube, Mark says with a grin. “She really put her mind to it and practiced daily.” As Annie gained proficiency on the instrument the two of them started making those road trips she’d talked about during her illness.

“I’d been doing it all my life,” Mark says of his performing and touring, “but to be able to share that now, to have her experience some of those moments that musicians get to experience, the joy of that…”

“He definitely turned me onto it,” Annie says, “because the first road trip we took he would just stop the car at a little town and he’d say, ‘I’ll be back in a minute.’ He’d be gone maybe 10 minutes and then come back and say, ‘We’re playing in 15 minutes,’ and I’d be, We’re doing what?! You had to learn fast because there wasn’t any time to say I can’t do this. He’d already had us booked and we’re going.”

“Hopefully that will happen next summer,” Mark says, alluding to the 2020 postponed road trip. “We keep our fingers crossed because live music is probably going to be one of the last things to come back. I hope that changes sooner than later.”

For more information about Pricey Diggs and their “Home Free” CD go to ER


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Written by: Bondo Wyszpolski

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