The singer-songwriter is showing that she can do both with equal grace and skill.
The Maine native proved to be an innovative interpreter of jazz standards with her acclaimed 2002 release, "Middlehope." That recording drew the attention of Richard McDonnell, the founder of MAXJAZZ. He went to New York City to see Martin perform, expecting to hear a set of standards, but instead he found her singing her own songs. Martin was soon offered a deal with MAXJAZZ, making her the label’s first singer-songwriter.
The result is "People Behave Like Ballads," a collection of 16 original compositions. The new album defies musical labels, melding the boundaries of jazz and folk. The songs are seamlessly tied together by Martin’s strong, soprano voice. It is one of the year’s best CDs.
Martin talks to JazzReview.com about the new CD and why music should be a public service.
JazzReview.com: When you started making "People Behave Like Ballads," what were your goals?
Rebecca Martin: "My goal in general was to document where the band was at that time. The songs I had waited a lot of years to record because I wanted to try to collaborate with the right label. By the time I got to recording, there were so many songs that songwise, it was a very hard record to make. Initially, it was going to be 11 or 12 songs. I had 40. I ended up choosing 16. I’m not quite sure what it was about these particular 16 tunes. It just felt like a balanced collection of songs. Ultimately, what I wanted to do was capture the band as we all were, which I’m very proud of.
The title comes from a book of poetry and illustrations by Robert Tristram Coffin, a fellow Maine poet. This particular book, I believe, was first published in the ‘50s. I found the title and thought it was perfect. One of the reasons, which is sort of my own private joke, is that folks are always complaining that they want more up-tempo songs. When I found that title, the first thing I thought was yeah, but people behave like ballads, and that’s why I write so many of them."
JazzReview.com: Your previous CD, "Middlehope," was largely standards. Was it always intended that "People Behave Like Ballads" would be all originals?
Rebecca Martin: "I’m a singer-songwriter. My background is not straight-ahead jazz. I’m a singer-songwriter who loves the challenge of interpreting songs. I enjoy beautiful songs. That’s the bottom line. The reason behind the standards record being made was that I was offered an opportunity to record with that label, Fresh Sound. Quite frankly, that deal wasn’t favorable in terms of my music and the publishing aspects of it, which is always a drag to have to be concerned about that stuff, but you have to be. You have to protect the music.
I decided that instead of going down that road I would do a record of songs that weren’t mine and to spend time doing working and listening to other singers. It was a wonderful education for me. I got a chance to discover Blossom Dearie, June Christy and Stan Kenton’s whole stable of singers like Chris Connor and Anita O’Day and hear songs that were a little left of center. Not all of them, but a few like ‘A Fine Spring Morning’ and ‘Ridin’ High.’ I love that record. I’m proud of it. I think it documented the sound of the band at that time, but I know it has confused folks. They are trying hard to understand and want to know what I think I am. Am I jazz singer? Not really, but you’re not really a pop singer so what are you? I’m not breaking stuff down like that. I don’t think about music in that way."
JazzReview.com: What period did you write the 16 songs that are on the new CD?
Rebecca Martin: "I started writing on my own around 1998. I had been co-writing before that with Jesse Harris, who I shared a band with called Once Blue. In 1998, the band disbanded, and I went off on my own. That’s when I started playing guitar and writing, so the body of work that I have, at this point it’s probably 60 or 70 songs, is the culmination of the last six years.
The next record will be another record of originals, which will also span quite a range of time. I don’t like leaving songs out. I’m sad when a song can’t get recorded."
JazzReview.com: You’re MAXJAZZ’s first singer-songwriter, correct?
Rebecca Martin: "Pretty much. In my opinion, there are two others who are crossing the line. One is Claudia Acuna. Though tagged as a jazz singer, she’s been writing, too. It’s very lyrical and not so traditional, fusing music from her home in Chile and the New York jazz scene and her love of melody and lyrics. In a way, that might have started it. Then, there’s Erin Bode. To me, she’s much more of a singer-songwriter than a jazz singer, too.
My roots are deeply singer/songwriter in the New York scene. Outside of New York, people are struggling to understand what I am. Luckily, the press has been fantastic, and, in most cases, has been helpful in giving people a reference point, and it’s an open perspective, which has been really great."
JazzReview.com: If someone asked you, how would you describe your music?
Rebecca Martin: "I just wouldn’t. I don’t think it’s important. I understand why it is necessary in this day and age with marketing and people wanting to understand everything. But, you can’t understand everything
By being signed by MAXJAZZ, I understand the confusion. What MAXJAZZ has done is they’ve created a business that allows for creativity. What they started out doing and what they’ll continue to do is going to be augmented by music that they feel is creative and people who they like, which is a very important thing to them. That’s great. A label like that has flexibility to do more and other things, which is a giant service to music. The people who are finding me I love the jazz audience. That audience is open. If the music is honest, that audience will respond to it. I’m grateful to be in this place."
JazzReview.com: Let’s talk about some of the songs on "People Behave Like Ballads." Tell us about the first song, "Lead Us."
Rebecca Martin: "That song is a more recent song. When I look at the body of work, it’s incredible how it absolutely tells a story that’s my story. Sometimes when I finish a song I think it’s about one thing and in time I realize that actually that’s not what it’s about at all. It’s more closely related to me than I thought. Each tune is written very similarly in that the guitar and melody are absolutely the very first part of it. The lyrics come from the sounds that are being made out of the melody. It’s a late-night process, my favorite time to write. A lot of what’s going on in that moment in my life is contributing to the feeling of the song. It’s never one particular story. It’s a combination of a lot of different things, emotions. All in all, that is how every one of these songs was created. It isn’t a linear process."
JazzReview.com: The songs have a confessional quality to them.
Rebecca Martin: "Yeah, it’s definitely important. What’s the point in writing otherwise if you aren’t connecting to it in a deep way."
JazzReview.com: How about the song "These Bones Are Yours Alone?"
Rebecca Martin: "There’s really nothing more to tell except what I just explained. The process of writing these songs is all the same. The meaning behind them is my private relationship with them. By explaining my feelings in that moment, I don’t feel it is a service for anybody who likes the music. I’ve turned this question around and have asked people what they think the song is about. That tune in particular. I mentioned this in a review somewhere else, and the response was so completely different than what my intention of the song was, and it was so great. It was such a great take on it."
JazzReview.com: This is always a hard question, but is there a song on the CD that stands out for you?
Rebecca Martin: "I guess at different times different songs stand out to me. One of my favorites is ‘I’d Like To Think It’s Coming.’ I love how everybody fell into it and how the arrangement was captured. That tune and ‘Lonesome Town’ are the very first takes of those songs. That’s exciting to me when that happens and everything just falls in. That song, for me, is a gift."
JazzReview.com: You’ve said that music should be a public service. What did you mean by that?
Rebecca Martin: "One of my favorite parts of performing live I have to say is when people come up to me and they’ve been crying or I see people crying and leaving. I love that. We are so afraid to experience sadness. We are so concerned about being happy, and that’s an important thing. Being grateful, I think, is more important My desire is to make people feel all sorts of things, ultimately that are healing and warm, but sadness, too, or melancholy or nostalgia. In that respect, I feel it is public service work and it’s why I love it."
JazzReview.com: Do you remember an early experience of listening to the radio or hearing a record and being moved?
Rebecca Martin: "Two come to mind. The first one was Joni Mitchell’s ‘Court and Spark.’ I was probably between 10 and 12. Another record that did it to me was Rickie Lee Jones’ first record. That was really powerful.
Since coming to New York, I have been inundated with so much great, fearless music. A lot of it has become more instrumental, but there are plenty of singers. One musician that I will mention is Gary Karr, an acoustic bassist. I think his background is more classical. To me, it’s incredible music. One record features just him and an organist. It’s so intense."
JazzReview.com: Why did Joni Mitchell resonate with you?
Rebecca Martin: "I think that my ear appreciated her melodic sensibility. I’ve always been moved toward to people who have a gift of melody. It’s funny with Joni because I have never been able to remember her lyrics all the way through, but I can sing every one of her melodies. The way that she used language strengthened the melody. It intensified the way that I heard the melody."
JazzReview.com: You’ve been compared to Joni Mitchell, who not only has the singer-songwriter label but also a history in jazz.
Rebecca Martin: "That’s really generous. Let’s be honest. It’s so awful when people compare music to something like Joni or Billie Holiday or Shirley Horn. It’s not accurate. That’s what I mean about categories. I’m inspired by Joni, but I’m not like Joni Mitchell, and I’m not like Laura Nyro. I’m just making music. People are digging it or they’re not."
JazzReview.com: We have an idea of what you were listening to while growing up. Tell us more about what you were like as a child and how music fit in.
Rebecca Martin: "Music is a part of every child’s life. How it is encouraged or how it develops is something else. I’ve been singing for as long as I can remember. My mother has always made that an important part of our lives. We would sing every night at the piano. For a really long time, music wasn’t something that I had thought about as a career. It was something that I found that I could do and was encouraged to do and developed a love for it. I’ve always loved music."
JazzReview.com: One of the things that did a while back was perform at Lilith Fair. How was that experience?
Rebecca Martin: "That was one of the best experiences of any festival. It was very organized. Sarah McLachlan’s heart is so good. She went way, way out of her way. The whole tour was set up so the sound was wonderful. The audiences were wonderful. She would greet you in your trailer with a gift and thank you for being a part of it. She would give a percentage of the monies she raised, which were considerable, to a local charity in whatever town she was in. She would bring the performers together to do a question-and-answer panel with the press, so everybody got to meet each other. It was very communal. Even though there were huge audiences, there was somehow still intimacy. The stages were all interesting. There was the main stage, which housed the artists that most likely everybody came to see. Then you had the B stage, which I thought was a hip place. There was Juliana Hatfield, Victoria Williams. We were there on that stage. Cassandra Wilson was on the B stage. That’s pretty cool. The third stage, which was a much smaller stage, but Jill Sobule was there. People who were raging and a force to be reckoned with. It was a nice mix of people."
JazzReview.com: If you were putting on a show, who would you invite to be on it?
Rebecca Martin: "I think there would be several configurations. The first one would be a lot of singer-songwriters that people need to know about, but don’t. People who are under the radar and doing the most innovative work in songwriting that I know of in New York. This would be a stage filled with people like Frank Tedesso, Larry John McNally, Dorothy Scott, Jane Kelly Williams, Timothy Hill, Alice Bierhorst. There would be more.
The other one that I would love to do would include Blossom Dearie. She’s so fresh and alive at this point in her career. It’s exciting. It would be singers who I admire like Blossom Dearie. And Nellie McKay. It would be a wacky combination."
JazzReview.com: You’re performing quite a bit now.
Rebecca Martin: "I just got back from Maine and New Hampshire. I’ll be doing the Midwest in December, the Southeast in January and the West Coast in February."
JazzReview.com: What’s next for you?
Rebecca Martin: "I’m really focused on touring. That is something that I’ve been wanting to do for a lot of years. I’m working on two other records right now. One of originals and another project that I think is going to take a while. I’m putting lyrics to contemporary standard tunes that are written by a lot of my contemporaries."
JazzReview.com: Is there anything else that you wanted to talk about?
Rebecca Martin: "I always like to say how much I appreciate my band. They’ve been with me for a long time and helped me to develop the sound of these songs. I’m also grateful to James Farber, who is a recording engineer who has worked with me for two records."