If watching the latest MTV Music awards has illustrated anything (and not just Kanye West’s “outburst”), it’s that today’s music scene is a world full of jaded, over-pampered, attention seeking, product hawking, uptight musicians, or as everyone else calls them, dicks. Thankfully, we have someone like Charlotte Martin, who has proven to be a sonic savior, an artist who has delivered fresh and inventive music into the gag-inducing music scene for 10 years running. Her compositions float seamlessly between pop, electro, dance, and singer/songwriter, with her powerful opera-trained vocal chords leading the charge, paired with a piano playing dexterity that has the fury of a monsoon delivered with the delicateness of a soft caress. She is a music industry veteran who has clocked a decade in the field; from her humble beginnings in local Los Angeles clubs, to going through the trials and tribulations of a major label record contract and living to tell about it, to the present challenges of motherhood and gaining the freedom to guide her own career. And rather than enjoying the fruits of her labors, she chose to tough it out by launching the “Mad Fast Acoustic Tour” in the middle of recording a new album, with family in tow.
Mark from Nevermind the Posers had the chance to sit down with Charlotte at World Café Live in Philadelphia, PA on the first night of her 4 date tour (September 30, 2009) to discuss the fans, family life, music, the horrors of post-nasal drip, and her new instrumental release Piano Trees.
M (Mark): You’re a working mother who’s charting the course of her career, in the midst of recording a new album, and you have just completed a side project. With so much going on, why choose to launch a mini-tour in the midst of all of this?
CM (Charlotte Martin): I don’t know… because I’m insane. Honestly, I just want people to know that I am still able to tour; it’s really hard to tour with a baby, but actually mine is really easy [being that] he’s a good kid. The only thing that’s difficult is the extra gear [pointing to all of the baby gear]. I can’t do as much anymore, not all at the same time. I’m multi-tasking as a mom, and trying to run a house, so much that I can’t work on a record and tour at the same time. And the reason that this side project came out is because I have awesome people that helped me put it together. I wouldn’t have been able to do that by myself; I fully give props. As far as the writing goes, I’m still a bit slow. I mean we’ve recorded about 6 songs; most of it is written, but I am kind of at the mercy of Ken’s [Ken Andrews, Charlotte’s husband and producer] schedule, because I want to work with him. When we get back from these dates he’s going to work pretty much for a solid 3 weeks, so I am hoping to finish it by the end of the year… [by] early January, because my team wants to try to put it out next year.
M: On this tour you are releasing a side-project called Piano Trees and I read that you wrote it specifically to inspire other artists.
CM: I did. It didn’t seem like I was. I was actually going to write a book called ‘Word Trees’, because I write a lot of my songs from these lists that I have been brainstorming, broken thoughts and words, I call Word Trees. And I have 20-30 something books now; I was going to make a coffee table sort of art book, and the Piano Trees CD was going to go with the book, but it’s ridiculously expensive to make a book. So, when I figured out my record probably wasn’t going to be done this year, I figured [that] I have got to give everybody something, so why not? And fast forward from 2005 ’til now, lots of dancers dance to my stuff on all of these shows, which is amazing.
M: Like ‘So You Think You Can Dance’?
CM: Yeah! Tons of dancers, painters, photographers, actors and other musicians, and I thought “this would be really good for people”. Then the point became very clear that it might be cool for people if they are in the process of writing something. Honestly, you can’t write music to it, but if you’re a musician… I write lyrics while listening to my favorite bands all of the time, which is probably why the song “The Kick Inside” by Kate Bush is in the song “Up All Night”.
M: I know a lot of people ask you about your influences. You’ve name checked artists like New Order, The Cure, Kate Bush; I was wondering who are some of the other artists that you listened to that inspired you while you were making Piano Trees?
CM: A band called Stars of the Lid, a band called Explosions in the Sky; I’m really, really into M83, Radio Department, this piano player named Dustin O’Halloran; his music is pretty similar to Piano Trees except that it’s way sweeter, almost more proper classical. It’s all of my Shoe-Gazer stuff that I don’t sound like but that I want to be [laughing]. I really love it all, I just never do that… ever.
M: Along with past tour releases Darkest Hours, Veins, and the Rarities series, Piano Trees is also being released on tour, why release such a steady amount of material during tours?
CM: I feel like it gives me an excuse to tour because I have something coming out, otherwise I don’t know if I would tour just to tour. It’s for fun; I feel like it’s my obligation to give you good new music if you’re going to buy a ticket to come see me play.
M: A lot of other artists milk the same thing for years.
CM: No, I have never done a record cycle for longer than a year, because the records weren’t quite that huge. You know, on my level you have to release a lot of material to make a living… and I am blessed that people buy it, but I have got to release a lot. I’m just really lucky; I mean they are the reason that I have a job.
M: One of the things that is noticeable about the shows, in addition to the growing crowds, are the familiar faces that I see. What effect has having such a dedicated fan base had on your writing and career?
CM: Everything. I write thinking, “Is this going to bore people? Are people going to be into this”? I mean, I write for myself too, but I’m very conscientious. I know that there is a lot of my fan base that wants me to do a solo record, and honestly I feel like saying, “You think that you want that for a whole record, but I don’t think you want it that… stark”. Even On Your Shore was in a lot of ways as dense as Stromata, it was just orchestra, but there were lots of layers. People think they want [another] On Your Shore because it’s sparse, but it really isn’t, it just has sparser moments.
M: Around the time of On Your Shore, you started collaborating with a lot of dance acts; you did a song with the Crystal Method (“Glass Breaker”), with DJ Tiesto (“Sweet Things”), and most recently, I was ecstatic to see that you collaborated with BT on his next album. how did that come about? How was the recording process? Was it any different than what you are used to?
CM: Well, he sent me a track, and I recorded over it and sent it back to him.
M: So that’s pretty much it with BT then?
CM: Yeah. I really don’t know what he’s doing right now. He’s been working on it for a while, because we did that song 2 years ago. It’s called “Feed the Monster”, it’s slammin’… it’s Garbage, meets Shiny Toy Guns, meets BT.
M: Each of your records seem to have its own distinct sound and atmosphere, how do you determine which sonic direction that you want to take during the recording process?
CM: Well, with Stromata we decided pretty quickly. With this new record, the writing, or the actual song itself tells Ken and I where it should go. I mean we do get stumped; there is this one [song] now that is called “Everything is Tied to Little Strings” that we just can’t crack. We actually asked Greg [Greg Edwards of Autolux and Failure] to work on it because it’s super weird. It’s a really tough nut to crack, but I have had songs that were tough to crack before. I mean “Every Time It Rains” is a simple pop song, and this [new track] is way more complex than that… like this is arty art. And that took us years to finish the album version of “Every Time It Rains”, I mean I have 5 versions of that song. We wrote it in the studio while cutting it, it was always evolving.
M: Being that you’re an independent artist with a still flourishing career, how important would you say that word of mouth has been in the development of your career?
CM: It’s all. It could be a lot more too, because what I have is all people… it doesn’t get any more grassroots than this. I’ve never had a break, I just slugged it out and toured… and I’ve had some good tours; Liz Phair’s “Chicks with Attitude” tour and Howie Day.
M: I was surprised to read about in your newsletter is that you allow your shows to be taped. Why do you allow it?
CM: I have a lot of international fans. I have been doing this for 10 years and it’s been tragic that I haven’t made it over to tour, especially in Japan, where On Your Shore did okay on import. I don’t know how to do that yet, so I’m just like “tape it all”. And if they can remain a fan and connect to me that way, then go for it.
M: Something like that ties into the fact that a lot of the praise coming from your fans is your personal interaction with them. During shows, I know that you make faces at people, you’ve made faces at me; and on this tour you took another step [with fan interaction] and you invited your fans to post song requests on your websites message boards.
CM: I’m going to do my best… I rehearsed a lot of them, and there were A LOT of requests. It’s finding that balance, because I am going to play a couple of new ones, and I want to play a couple that I know people want to hear, and then there’s the fans that want to hear everything obscure, and I don’t think that would make for a good show, personally.
M: My last question could be directed at both of you [Charlotte and Ken]. There was a project a while back that both of you were supposed to be involved in called Digital Noise Academy. I know that it involved a lot of your collaborators and friends, and I was just wondering whatever became of it?
[Ken Andrews joins the interview]
KA: Well, it exists…
CM: A whole record.
KA: No one’s heard it except the band, because we haven’t had the time to organize a release. I know that that sounds ridiculous, but it’s actually true. With everyone’s projects, and the baby, and one of the other members also having a baby… that this project even happened at all was amazing. And now the fact that it is sitting there waiting to be released is kind of a bummer, but we’re pursuing it. We’re just looking for the right way to release it, because it’s not a real band in the sense that we don’t play shows all of the time, and it’s not like we’re going to tour on top of the release.
CM: And we’re not going out for a big record deal. We’re all doing our personal artist careers, production careers… we all have our own things. But it’s a very artistically fulfilling project.
KA: It’s going to come out
CM: It’ll come out. It makes me sad to think of it not coming out.
Photos and interview by Mark B.