It’s common for aspiring artists to hear that they could be an international star from agents and people in the press, but in the case of singer/ guitarist/ arranger/ teacher Martha J, those folks are not just weaving tall-tales. Martha J has the goods and the chops to become much more than a local attraction in her native land of Milan, Italy. The lass has a set of pipes that can appeal to the denizens of Australia’s outback just as assuredly as she can reel in crowds for a concert in London’s Hyde Park. When Martha sings in her native Italian, it is as lyrical sounding as Venezuela’s Shakira singing in Spanish, or Canada’s Celion Dion performing in French. Though Martha J does sing most tunes in English on her two debut albums, No One But You and That’s It, when she sings in Italian, she makes it the most desirable language to hear old-school jazz standards in and makes the songs a viable part of herself.
She professes, "I always choose songs that I like, that mean something to me, for their lyric or for the music. If I am singing a song I like, I am sure I can more easily please my audience. It is difficult for me to involve the listeners into something that I don’t like."
She tells that she decided to record her solo albums, No One But You and That’s It to have some physical proof of her work. She details, "I had been thinking of making a CD such as No One But You for a long time, because I liked the atmosphere I could make when I performed live accompanied only by a pianist. I thought the moment had come when I started working with Francesco Chebat, a young and very talented piano player and composer. I think I felt it was time for me to make a photograph of where I was in that moment, of what my singing was, of all the changes that happened in more than ten years just that. After so many years of live performances, maybe I just felt that I needed some kind of substantial evidence of my work!"
She reveals, "To tell the truth, No One But You and That’s It were recorded on the same session. I tell you how it went: I wanted to make a CD only with voice and piano. I talked about this with Francesco Chebat but in the end he convinced me that it was better to record a CD also with a rhythm section double bass and drums with only one or two songs only voice and piano. We booked the studio for 2 days and planned to record two or three songs only Francesco and I on the first day, and to record the rest of the songs with the band on the following day. At the end of the two days, we realized that we had recorded enough songs to make two albums. And so we released two albums at the same time."
Joining her on both recordings is pianist Francesco Chebat. They perform as a duo on No One But You and are accompanied by bassist Roberto Piccolo and drummer Stefano Bertoli on That’s It. She explains how she met her band, "I met Francesco maybe ten years ago. I had been called as a guest by a band in which he played. After that we played together now and then, but from 2006 I started to consider Francesco a special partner. His way of playing piano was very inspiring for me and he taught me a lot. So it was obvious for me to involve him in my recording projects. Also for the double bass player I had no doubt Roberto Piccolo with whom we had already worked a lot in concerts and live performances, (he) was the right man. The problem was the drum player. I didn’t really know who to call so I let Francesco decide. He chose Stefano Bertoli and I think that this has been a very good choice. I love Stefano’s sound!"
She cites, "The arrangements of these songs are the result of many years of live performances with many musicians, especially of course Francesco Chebat. Before the recordings, I had some meetings with Francesco in which we discussed the project, decided some arrangements and so on. His ideas are behind almost every song of both That’s It and No One But You."
She delivers a stellar performance on her rendition of Matt Dennis’ track "Angel Eyes" and enthuses, "This is one of my favorite songs. I like its harmonic structure and the way the melody grows at the beginning of the B section: here the voice can really fly. I can’t remember when I first heard this song, it was a long time ago, but I remember quite well that it was a live recording by Ella Fitzgerald. The lyrics of this song obviously mean something to me. I remember being in the midst of happy people, in a bar or a party, and asking myself what I was doing there since the only person I wanted to see was somewhere else, probably with someone else... But this was a long time ago, I was very young. Now I can smile at this past heart ache and let myself be carried away mostly by the beauty of the melody."
Though Martha’s chosen path to lead the life of a recording artist means being set on a conveyor belt where step 1 is recording an album, step 2 is going on tour, and step 3 is repeating steps 1 and 2, she sounds completely satisfied with this life. She remarks, "I like people, I like to stay with people and to share with them my great passion: music. I like to be on stage and share with people the joy I feel when I sing. I think that performing live gives my singing a lot more energy, that’s why I always miss people when I record in a studio. I always tell my students to go and sing in band, to go and sing in a pub, in church, in the street... I tell them to go and sing to people, because singing alone for ourselves is as insane as talking alone to ourselves."
She ruminates over what kind of an impact she would like to make on audiences, "I would like people to be happy, to feel that they have spent a good couple of hours with my music. I would like them to feel lighter. I think that what I try to reveal is my passion for music. I always imagine myself saying: ‘Hey, listen to this song! It is beautiful!.’ It is like when you put flowers in a vase it is a pleasure for you to handle such beauty and it is greater pleasure when somebody else sees the vase and cries out, ‘Wow! What beautiful flowers!.’ Sometimes, for some songs, I like to create the same atmosphere you have when you tell a joke to a friend ‘Hey, listen to this!’ and then you have a laugh together."
She recalls how growing up in Milan influenced her desire to turn to singing, "Milan is my hometown and it is the Italian capital of music. All the most important record labels and companies are based in Milan. In the ‘80s, when I began singing and playing in pubs and little venues, there were a lot of places in Milan where you could play and it was very easy if you were good enough to earn your living playing almost every night in different venues. I had the chance to meet musicians and to form my first band: Proxima. While playing in a little, ugly and almost empty bar in the outskirts of Milan, we met our first producer. With Proxima, I took part in Sanremo Music Festival and recorded two CDs for PDU/EMI. Proxima raised some interest, but did not seem to be able to make a great success. This, in addition to the requests of the producer that didn’t match my musical taste, made me quit. Since then I have been an independent artist."
She remembers how it all began for her, "I started going in pubs and venues in Milan. I was too young to drive a car so I had to stay in my home town and play and sing alone. I not only played in little clubs, but also on big stages. Alone! I don’t know if I would have the courage to do this now! After a few years, I started to play with other musicians. I remember a good friend I met at the University, he was a pianist and it was with him that I started singing jazz songs. Then I met Andrea Majocchi who played keyboards and Alberto Deponti who played guitar. We founded Proxima."
She recollects about those early days, "I began writing and arranging songs when I was twenty. It all started when we met our first producer and the dream of recording our records became true! Being with Proxima was the key to get into the music business and to learn how to become a professional musician. Going to radio stations and (on) TV shows was a great experience and made me aware of the great job you must do to promote your work! I learned that being a good singer and songwriter is not enough. I had to learn to stay on a stage or in front of a camera, to talk to fans and to the press, to make a soundcheck, to do my best in a recording studio... But the most important thing is that I understood that my first goal is to use my vocal skills to truly communicate with people. I understood that for many of us. it is not simple to express our feelings and we turn to art music, visual arts, theater, cinema, literature, because artists can express what we feel but cannot say. As a vocal artist, this awareness makes me feel very strongly (about) the responsibility of being true to myself and, as a consequence, true to people. I mean, it is just like when you tell a story to a child we are not children anymore, but we all like to sit and listen to a good story! And the more the story teller delves into his own feelings, the more he can get in touch with the listener’s soul. So, most of all I feel I am a story teller!"
She shares, "Both my parents are good singers but none of them studied music or are particularly inclined to music. This may not have helped me in many things, but maybe let me free to explore, to learn, to choose freely... I am a self-taught guitarist and singer. To tell the truth, my mother sent me to guitar lessons when I was eight, but after a few months the teacher told my mother I did not have a flair for music, so he suggested my mother to save her money and don’t send me to guitar lessons any more. All this was just because I was too young to understand solfeggio. I kept on playing guitar by myself, learning chords and songs by ear. When I was fifteen, I started to study fingerpicking style, listening to John Renbourn, Stefan Grossman and Jorma Kaukonen. As for my voice, I started taking singing lessons very late, just a few years ago. They helped me in very many ways, but I think that sometimes vocal trainers tend to teach not only a technique, but also a style of singing and I think this is very dangerous for a singer. I have always been afraid they could change my personality, making me copy somebody else’s style or trap my creativity with all their rules! Very few vocal trainers seem to understand this, that’s why I never rehearse my songs with a vocal trainer!"
She transitioned from singing pop tunes and folk songs to singing jazz. She admits, "I don’t really know why I have been attracted by jazz music. As a very little child, maybe I was two or three years old, I used to steal my father’s forty-five by Fred Buscaglione and listen to them all day long. Fred Buscaglione was a very famous Italian singer during the ‘50s. He started playing violin. Very few people in Italy know that his name in Europe came immediately after Stephane Grappelli and Joe Venuti. Jazz was his great passion. His style as a singer is something between Louis Prima and classic Italian songs. He was a kind of Italian Clark Gable. I think that I learned from him what swing is! Growing up, I never missed a movie with Fred Astaire or Frank Sinatra and similar. I liked those songs a lot, but nobody told me it was jazz! When I was thirteen, someone introduced me to the Beatles. I learned all their songs with my guitar. I collected records, photographs... I was a real Beatles-maniac! That summer I went to the seaside with my parents and I played guitar and sang on the beach with friends. A boy told me I sang like Joni Mitchell; I said ‘Who is Joni Mitchell?.’ This boy lent me some of Joni Mitchell’s records and I loved her at once! The first songs I recorded when I was seventeen were ‘Little Green,’ ‘The Circle Game,’ ‘Big Yellow Taxi.’ In those years, I discovered also Ella Fitzgerald. I remember listening to some live recordings. I guess it was Montreaux festival. I immediately got mad! This is where it all began, and it went on with Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Nat King Cole... But when I really decided to study those songs, my guru has been Chet Baker. He seemed to make it all so easy and straightforward, but with such elegance and feeling!" she emphasizes. "Now a lot of time has passed, but sometimes, I still need to go back to my ‘maestro’ Chet Baker and discover his soft style again. It helps me to remember, that in the end, it is better to sing with a good heart rather than with a good technique."
Like a rose bush, Martha J’s budding florets have branched out from many different points while always held firmly to the roots system. She reflects, "I think I’ve changed a lot. I feel more mature, both as a singer and as a live performer. I think I gained strength and self assurance. I am quite aware of what I can or cannot do, of my strengths and weak points, of the things I still have to learn or to improve. I am less tempted to follow other people’s suggestions and more inclined to follow my own way, though I always listen with great attention to musicians’ advice and to what people think about my work. As a songwriter, I still need somebody else’s help that’s why I am working with Francesco Chebat for the new CD. I really hope I will be able to grow. I am sure that there are a lot of things I still need to learn, to practice, to improve. I keep on studying, listening, trying, searching... But all these efforts are just one of the reasons why I love music so much and I need it to be part of my life!"
She confides, "Of course I hope That’s It will become one of the best selling albums of the year! Joking apart, I hope this album will introduce me in the jazz world, giving me the chance to make my work known by many people all around the world. This album is already giving me the possibility to play in festivals and jazz clubs, where I could not even dream to perform before its release! I hope That’s It will go far and will take me far too! I would really like to go and play around the world: USA, Canada, France, Japan, and all the places where great singers performed. That’s It is very important for me because it is getting so many good reviews and appreciation by the public that I feel strong, good and excited enough to go on and write new songs for a new album. I plan to record in September and publish the new CD in winter."
Though most artists release just one debut record, Martha J is offering two recordings for her debut outing. Her vocal strokes appear effortless as she performs with a beauty that can rival the most attractive songbirds. Martha J has been singing, performing, composing, arranging, and recordings for three decades now, and she sounds exquisite. It’s quite certain that Martha J won’t be terminating her efforts as a solo artist with an album titled That’s It. If anything, the recording leaves the impression that "you ain’t seen nothing yet," in the immortal words penned by singer-songwriter Randy Bachman from Bachman-Turner Overdrive.