I first interviewed Charlotte Martin over a year ago. At the time she was a young singer/songwriter on a piano with only an EP (In Parentheses) to her name, a collection of open veined, piano pounding, painful songs. And the oddest thing happened. We became friends. Over the past twelve months we’ve checked in with each other, talked about art, and, from time to time, she’s sent me demos of things she was working on.
I’ve come to live with her songs as I do few others. Sometimes you just connect with what someone is doing, it becomes personal to you. There have been times that the only answer I could come up with was to be found between the keys of her piano plucking.
Charlotte is a deeply personal, emotional artist. Some might say too emotional, although I don’t know exactly what that is. Her debut, On Your Shore, which hits stores today, will connect with anyone who’s ever sat on the other side of happiness, pounding their head, hoping that things might get better. It’s not for everyone, just anyone for whom music can be a salve to the times that life cuts deeper than you’d hope it would. Within each tale (although the longing and loss and despair mix on the surface) is the most wonderful greed there is. The greed that insists things get better. A greed that demands another day, another hope, another chance, all wrapped around a voice that could sing the alphabet and send chills down your spine. Ladies and gentlemen, Ms. Charlotte Martin.
JARRET MCNEILL: Tell me a little something about Charlotte Martin. Where you are from? How did you get into music? A bit o' history, if you please.
CHARLOTTE MARTIN: I’m a small-town gal who has transplanted herself to the middle of a big city. Um, was raised in a little town called Charleston, Illinois. Went to college there, too. Eastern Illinois University 1998 summer grad. I don’t think my upbringing or interests were all that insane. I was very intense about music since I was conscious. My parents are musicians. Daddy is an oboe professor. My mom taught general music and piano lessons for years. She studied voice as well. Funny, I am the perfect mathematical outcome of my parents’ genes. How, erm, unexciting. But I guess I was so intense that I made myself insane at a young age, entering myself in competitions, begging my vocal coach to give me [operatic] arias at age 10. It was crazy and very nerdy, and I was very competitive. My teacher got criticized for giving me such difficult and taxing material to sing. I didn’t care, and eventually neither did she. I ended up blowing through some very hard material by the time I was in college, and got a new teacher, Jerry Daniels. Jody, my childhood / high school teacher was very technical which I needed, and still use. Jerry was about interpretation. He let me sing some really hard stuff. I’m rambling, but it’s because I miss them. So, that’s my foundation, I guess. It’s all classical. Began songwriting late. Senior year of college was the beginning. Tragedy breeds art for me, I think, and it sucks. It still breeds it. So does other art. I’m a working musician. Praise God.
JM: What did you listen to as a kid? Is music something that shaped your life? When did you discover it?
CM: I don’t remember not doing music so it has more than shaped my life, it’s embedded into my very existence-as an artist, listener, fan, critic. I listened to mostly classical growing up cause that’s what I was into.
JM: When did you decide that this was what you wanted to do? How did you get to this point?
CM: I worked really hard. I still work very hard, and I love it. I feel big things with the music right now. It’s weird. Something magical. I hate to say this, but I think On Your Shore is going to connect with some very artistic and emotional people, which really excites me. I am already blessed to have people that connect to my older work and live shows. I am constantly etching away at everything—my thoughts, feelings, and how I express them. It all started when I was young, but I was singing other people’s music. Interpreting an aria is very different than delivering your own words on record and on stage. It’s a different world actually.
JM: The past year has been something of a whirlwind for you. Since we met over a year ago, I think I've seen you 4 times and you've been officially off the road for an extended period of time only twice. Can you explain the experience?
CM: Being on the road is like nothing else. I had a lot of hardships this year and my work saved me, the shows saved me, and my songs saved me. They always have and continue to teach me. There is nothing more cathartic going from city to city. You get a different energy in every place and every audience. Sometimes I get a bit lonely, trapped in my own head when I’ve got down time. I just need to get to the shows. That is where I am the most fulfilled and the most complete. Go go go go go. Play play play play play. It’s a disease and an addiction.
JM: Since you're not that well know as yet, you've been attached to other artists’ shows as an opener. What's it been like? What were the good experiences? What were the bad experiences like?
CM: It’s because I’ve had those experiences that I can say the stage is the place I’m most fulfilled. Not every romance or relationship is going to be perfect, and I think my shows are the same way. At some point I learned to play to the people that connect with me. Those are my people, and we have an understanding. It’s the music that joins us for that brief time, and we all walk away with something different. The good experiences are like taking a drug you can’t put in a pill and the really bad ones will have me in tears until I get to the next town.
JM: It's interesting for me to know you, particularly so early in your career, because there is a distinctive progression you've gone through. Here's what I think: The early songs of yours, off your EP (In Parentheses) and tracks you did on your website, to me were derivative in the best possible way. They reminded me of Tori Amos, or Kate Bush, or Siouxie Sioux (or, as you like to say, "Siouxie Fucking Sioux.") But songwriters mature. You've sent me tracks throughout the year, things you were playing with, or had finished and I can hear you coming into your own, taking those influences and internalizing them to create something that is clearly and definitively Charlotte Martin. Can you respond to the idea of being derivative, because it is something I see as a rather high complement? Can you compare early songs like "In Parenthesis" and "Your Armor" (which I fucking love, as you know) to your more recent songs like "Steel" or "Sweet Chariot?"
CM: I think every artist’s work evolves. I gutted myself to write On Your Shore and all the songs from the past years were so necessary to that. Like every writer, and you know this yourself, my earlier work is heavily influenced by my heroes. I’ve matured quickly in the last 2 years. Being into production helped, as did touring. I had to really figure out what moved me and what I ultimately loved as someone who listens to and is a fan of music. You learn and change. Two years ago, I never would’ve had a 40-instrument percussion outro in a song. (“Something Like a Hero”) I knew my album would have choir vocals, because I grew up singing that music, I just didn’t know how to execute them until I started this album. Every one of my influences started somewhere. We all start somewhere and evolve over time. I’ve just been brewing awhile and had the chance to release some material that was at a different ripening stage. I love the word ripen.
JM: "Beautiful Life" and "Every Time it Rains" are two of my absolute favorites by you, and both seem to come from a similar place, they share a parallel philosophy. They describe terrible, hard, lonely, miserable times, but there's this amazing optimism to your perspective. What are the songs about, and what is the optimism?
CM: It’s an optimism that pulls you out of your closet, makes you get up when you got beat up by someone, the kind that makes you love after everyone you loved before stomped on you.
JM: Goth? Come on! Defend yourself, woman!
CM: Hey! I love Goth-influenced art, film and music. What is there to defend here? My taste has nothing to do with my hair color. People love to ask me about that because I love The Cure and have blonde hair. It’s not a big deal. I am not a clubber and I don’t go to S&M shows, and even if I did, would I ever tell anyone? If I did, that would require several glasses of wine and some candle wax. Why doesn’t anyone ever ask me about my favorite color (and it’s not black by the way)?? What is the world coming to? Come on Jarret, I thought you loved me?
JM: I do love you. I just love needling you about it. Fine. What is your favorite color?
CM: Every color. (You can kick me now.)
JM: Your relationship with Goth is something I actually quite like, mainly because it’s out of left field. Want to talk about Raven at all? Perhaps how she introduced you to this world, and what you fed off?
CM: Goth is a loose and general stereotype, I guess. Raven introduced me to a side of pop culture and art and music that I might otherwise not have been exposed to right away. She was the one that wore electrical tape, not me. I just like the Cure. Still do. That’s really it in a nutshell. Preferable salted. JM: We've talked about this a lot, but the difference between you in person, you on stage, and you singing is striking. You are a very warm and open person, almost gregarious onstage. You talk and laugh and comment, but when you sing your songs it's almost like you pop into a trance. CM: I know. I’m very serious about the delivery of my material and my musicianship, as well as the relationship with my audience, although it’s all a bit psychitzo, but it’s the way I am. I want to be myself, and anyone who knows me well can tell you I have two very different sides. Both come out on stage. Actually, several come out on stage just like real life.
JM: Does it worry you to be so open and brutally honest in your songs?
JM: What is the worry? I know that for myself when someone criticizes something I've written, they like to pretend there's some distance between what's on page and the person that's written it. There's not. Hack my work, you hack me. It's one and the same.
CM: That’s exactly it, I agree with you. Although when someone does hack our work, at least they had a reaction. I want to strike a chord emotionally, good or bad, because then it’s the art that is talking to them. If everyone likes you, then your work is probably boring. That is my opinion. But it’s one person’s opinion. At least they have one either way.
JM: Do you have a writing process?
CM: Every composition is different. It depends on the song and my mood. It’s all emotion and inspiration. I do keep a very accurate journal. I write daily, I write lists and word trees daily. I am always working in that respect but the music and the rest come whenever I am inspired.
JM: Who were your influences? Who are your favorites?
CM: I already warned you on this so...:) The Cure, Peter Gabriel, Tori Amos, Cocteau Twins, Kate Bush, Paula Cole, Debussy, Henryk Gorecki, Benjamin Britten, Jody, Jerry, Daddy, God, Slowdive, My Bloody Valentine, Nick Drake, Snow Patrol, Failure, NIN, Larmousse, Bjork, Jeff Buckley, Siouxie, Interpol, Joy Division, Tortoise, Air, Autolux, Cranes...too many. The answer to both questions is the same.
JM: More heroes. Who do you read? Who do you admire?
CM: My Mom. My Dad. Awwww! Hillary Clinton, Raven, Nire, Emily Dickenson, Ted Hughes, Sark, Jesus. I admire my brother for being a wonderful Daddy. I admire you. Hi Lisa.
JM: What did your mother think when she finally got to see you at Joe's Pub? What was it like to have her in the audience? (Hi, Charlotte's mom!)
CM: She’s going to freak out when she reads this. She loved it. She loved NYC. It was her first time ever there. Joe’s Pub is such a perfect venue. I’m so glad she got to see that show.
JM: I remember one of the first questions I asked you the last time I interviewed you was "who is the bastard you keep writing about?" So I will follow that up, is there one person whose influenced your tales more than any others, or do you take bits and pieces of people to produce a lyric?
CM: Ooh, Jarret. There were too many to name. I don’t write so much about those folks anymore. Now the big monster is inside me, ya know? We are constantly at war, and I never win.
JM: I remember asking you at one point to put the cover of "Wild Horses" on your album but not release it. Did it make it on there because I asked you to? (Just say yes.)
CM: Of course I did. You think I was going to shaft you on that? Come on.
JM Tell me the story behind "Steel."
CM: That’s about 3 or 4 different stories. I’ll tell you what it means...it means I feel every frickin thing and I will tell myself I don’t. Denial is a reoccurring theme for me.
JM: What do you mean?
CM: I write about dealing with my little monsters. Things that eat at you and try to make you bury yourself. I write about the darkness and light and the relationship between the two as I see it, and in the most romantic sense, of course. I’m painfully romantic to a fault sometimes. I write about pretense. I write about other artists. I write about everything that I need to write about.
JM: What's the song "On Your Shore" about?
CM: You know this because you love music, but I want people who hear these songs to be able to form their own stories with my songs. I always have with others. But it’s basically about having to give up on something before I could move on.
JM: Which song are you most proud of?
CM: “Something Like A Hero.”
JM: What’s been the best part of this past year, about this fucked up ride you are on? What's one thing you will always take with you from this experience?
CM: Just to keep going. Keep waking up in the morning. Keep creating and loving.
JM: Do you think something has changed in you?
CM: You know, somewhere between Sept 2002 and July 2004 I grew another person. I am definitely not the same. I grew a whole new heart and a new set of voices and another set of eyes. I still use the old ones all the time. I know I’m not going to make sense of this question. Sorry.
JM: Not at all. That makes perfect sense, actually. In a way it relates to my next question, I guess. What was the moment you thought you might not be able to do this?
CM: I was in L.A. and nothing was happening and it had been a year of isolation, draining my savings, hiding, and, of course, doing a lot of thinking. I was coming out of several disastrous relationships. I met people that were just as lost as I was. The loneliness got me more than anything. I remember calling my mom sobbing about 2AM one night and just losing it. I hadn’t left my apartment in a month. I was beyond depressed about giving it all up and moving on to be a composer and no one giving a shit. And then you come down to 2 decisions. The one I chose led me here. Face down and guts out.
JM: Are you conscious of how these topics become songs? Do you sit down with an intention, or does something build within?
CM: Something always builds within. Sometimes my emotions get surged by circumstances or events and then I’ll have intent on my side, but even that is a building of sorts, a release. In the end, the songs are really about me.
JM: How do you find music today? Are you a fan? A critic? Not bothered?
CM: I’m very much an explorer of different arts. I am all about the discovery as well as the actual music itself. I love to discover music through friends, but I’m a fan of what I’m a fan of. I wish some of my favorite artists would have had greater success. I wish Kate Bush would have toured the states. Hell, I wish she’d put out an album. a lot of the music I like is older stuff. 80’s 90’s. I love Interpol though and Snow Patrol. Those records are recent. I wish Interpol would’ve taken over the world. Maybe they will. I love The Cure’s new record. I will be catching them on tour, of course. I could ramble on here for at least another hour so let’s just pick this one up over coffee next time we are in the same city.
JM: Did you hear the story about Kate Bush? I've heard this second hand, so it may not be true, but I love this story. Her record label was worried, they hadn't heard any new music from her in quite some time, so they called and asked if they could stop by to get a feel for what she was working on. She said of course, come on over. They came over and she invited them in and sat them down in the kitchen. A few minutes later she brought out some muffins, sat them in the middle of the table and said, "This is what I've been working on. I hope you like it."
CM: If that is true I love her more.
JM: Read any good books lately?
CM: Yes, the bible actually. It’s an extremely emotional book.
JM: Alright, it's your last night on earth. Tomorrow, it's all going away, but you are going to celebrate, live it up, it's not a bad thing, it's a beautiful thing. You get to pick things in one: One location, one person, one movie, one book, one album, one last experience. You can't cop out on this. What are they.
CM: Location: Matador Beach. Person: You are evil for asking that. Album: Does my iPod count? Album, erm… Disintegration-THE CURE. One last experience: Is this interview PG?
JM: Here's your chance: In all the interviews you've done, what's the one thing that you really wish someone would ask, but they never do. Or, what's the one area I've neglected that you want to touch on or talk about. Ask and answer your own question.
JM: What drives you to compose?
CM: Understanding. I’m trying to understand.
So what are you all waiting for? Go buy the album, fools!!