Last night, a fantastic Boston based music writer asked his friends for examples of “perfect songs”. I’d heard this on the radio a few days before and hadn’t been able to get it out of my head. Thank goodness for WEHM still playing actually great music. Instead of posting one of the many youtube clips of Tom’s version, I decided to fire up my microphone and piano and out came this. Enjoy. And thank you, Tom Waits. It really is perfect.
CT musical genius Daphne Lee Martin brings her music to the masses By Bill Copeland on August 6, 2014
Daphne Lee Martin just might be a musical genius. The New London, Connecticut Chanteuse released two full length albums in a year’s time. Moxie, released in 2013, and Frost, released in 2014, are companion pieces. Loaded with every influence from 1920s gypsy jazz, to big band swing elements, to modern electronic experimentations, to Appalachian folk, to jump blues, both albums are the product of a very fertile musical mind. Co-owing a record store with her husband reflects the broad musical vocabulary and tastes Martin carries around in her head. How she developed the skill to mesh these diverse elements into her own unique style requires a closer look at the singer-songwriter-composer-arranger‘s history.
“I grew up listening to a lot of traditional and folk music, singer-songwriters, folks like Neil Young, Crosby Stills And Nash, James Taylor. A lot of old classic country was played in my house. Dolly Parton was definitely one of my big heroes growing up. People like that and Loretta Lynn.” Once Martin got out into the big world, she immersed herself in everything she could find, which culminated in her owning a record store today, Telegraph Records in New London, Connecticut.
“Now, I’m literally surrounded every day by all kinds of different music,” she said. “All of which is important to know because I’m always talking to my customers. It’s fun to talk to people, learn things you didn’t’ know.”
Her albums Moxie and Frost reflect her diverse interests. Those album titles are based on an experience Martin had in New York City. She was dating an actor/folk musician who paid her an unusual compliment. “He said, ‘You know what I like about you? You have moxie, but you also have frost.’ Moxie basically meaning chutzpa, spunk, spirit character. And frost being the ability to keep cool under pressure, the ability to roll with the punches.”
Moxie and Frost, though, are not entirely based on Martin’s life experiences. “A lot of it is written from other narrative voices,” she said. “I can’t live every experience. As much as a writer I would love to know what it’s like to live on a safari for a year. I would love to have crazy adventures that inform me the way the books I love to read are informed. To do that, I just kind of bury myself in other people’s characters and try to write from their perspectives.” For example, Moxie’s opening track, “Sweet & Low Down,” is written from the point of view of Mehitabel The Cat from the Archie and the Mehitabel books.
Martin and her sister grew up in a very rural part of Ohio where they were home schooled for a good chunk of their education. Martin, her sister, and their mother played a lot of gigs together on the road, beginning when Martin was 14 years old. Until she got on the road, Martin was secluded in her middle of nowhere small town. Listening to oldies radio stations, Martin, her mother had discovered, could sing the harmonies to “We’re Going To The Chapel.” From there, her mother started teaching her a lot of music.
Martin began playing guitar at age 14. “I think that’s when I got the fool notion that I could actually write some music for myself,” she said, “and not just play other people’s material and traditional material.” When asked what kind of material she was writing, she answered: “I was writing pretty straight forward bad teenage diary songs at that point.” Giggles.
The singer-songwriter, these days, can be seen, live and in her online pictures, holding a five string banjo while singing into her microphone. She and that instrument are practically a Connecticut music scene cultural icon. Martin has had a life long fascination with the banjo but didn’t learn to play one until her husband, a bass player, brought one home from a pawn shop because he thought he could noodle with it. “It was just sitting there, in a corner, just sitting there, just taunting me. Finally, one day, I decided I was going to have a go at it.”
Martin treats it more like a percussive instrument than a melodic instrument, using it as a drum head, as she playfully mentioned. She uses a flat pick even though her five string banjo are usually played with fingers. “It’s more of a rhythm section in the song,” she said. “It sets the tempo for the rest of the band to play to. I also use the instrument to cue when things are about to change. If you watch my live performances, you’ll see the neck of the banjo go up and down right before a movement is going to happen.” Her song “Night We Fell In Love” was the first song she wrote when she picked up the banjo. “I tried to play that song on guitar before and I kind of can’t,” she said. “It just doesn’t make any sense. I don’t think that I was necessarily looking for that tone as that it found me and the song just happened out of it. Now, I wouldn’t know how to do it differently. Sometimes, when you pick up a new instrument, it writes the song for you. For example, a banjo, the fingering positions for the chords are different shapes than the guitar. It’s not like you can just pick it up and take your knowledge of the guitar right over to it. You actually have to figure it all out from scratch again. It gets your mind thinking about chord phrasing differently, and all of a sudden something pops out.”
Martin treats each instrument as a sound maker, figuring out how it fits into her song, then she figures out how to play it by reading books and watching videos. Martin knew she wanted a Gypsy jazz sound for her song “Molotov” after she heard the tom toms in the Benny Goodman tune “Sing! Sing! Sing!” The only way she could do that was to spend a day watching YouTube videos of Gypsy jazz bands and watching the guitar players’ fingers and seeing what chords they typically use, what scales they use, and just making notes. “And then I sat down and ’Molotov’ came out,” she said.
Martin doesn’t like to play solo because she sees music as a social thing. Always preferring to have friends to make music with, Martin likens solo gigs to playing solitaire. Her personal preference stems from her childhood. “Growing up in traditional music, Appalachian music,” she said, “that’s not a solitary endeavor. That was what people did before there was television. They’d get around the porch or whatever and everybody would bring their instruments and jam.”
That might explain, somewhat, why Martin’s last two albums, Moxie and frost have a strong ensemble feeling all the way through. Not being able to play every instrument her brain hears when she composes, Martin needs to bring in horn players, guitarists, string players, and so forth. “Almost every record I’ll ever make will have that feel just because I love all the textures,” she said. “It’s one thing to play live with a stripped down set, but it’s a different thing spending a year making a recording. I feel if you’re going to do it, you might as well make it as finished and as full as possible. Now that I say that, I’ll probably go record an acoustic record.” Laughs playfully.
Martin got the story ideas for her songs on Moxie and Frost by living life, hearing about other peoples’ experiences, and all of the books she reads. A song Martin is writing now for an upcoming album is written in the voice of Edie Sedgwick and the other is Brier Rabbit. “It’s pop culture,” she said. “Literature, poetry, prose, and it comes from conversations with people, little snippets of ideas and words and phrases and feelings about things.
Martin must be doing something right. She is finding audiences far beyond her home state of Connecticut. College radio has been good to her. Sending her last three albums out to colleges all over the United States, she gained 40 to 45 stations for each album, each station adding her music to their shelves and playing her on air. “When I go on tour, I go into the markets where I’ve been placed on radio,” she said. “We have a campaign manager that handles that stuff. They don’t get me the gigs. I get the gigs. But, it helps when I go to book a tour like that, it helps them to know I am being played in their market.”
Martin takes on paying gigs. She pays all of her players all of the time because they’re professionals. She will play in duos, trios, or a six piece band with horns, if it’s doable. The sound will change a little bit, depending on how many people she has with her. “If it’s just me and an organ player, it’s definitely more in that songwritery feel. Sometimes it’s a big jazz band.”
Her music goes over well down south and with people who have more of southern sentiment. She describes them as a laid back and quicker to the dance floor than New Englanders. “People up here tend to judge and take stock a little longer than people down south do,” she said. “They’re a little more ready to get down and enjoy themselves.”
Martin used to have a western swing band, Raise The Rent, which released one album before Martin went solo to record Moxie and Frost. That band disintegrated because each member was too busy with other bands and projects. Raise The Rent did manage to release an album called Dig & Be Dug, a country flavored, lush, well-produced record, yet with more guitar, pedal steel and other more country oriented instruments. “It sounds lighter because it’s not soaked with organ and everything,” she said.
Martin seems ever ready to talk about her songs. Starting with Moxie, she offered some insight into her songs. That album’s opening track, “Sweet & Low Down,” features an organ sound and a mellotron that her producer Bill Readey suggested. “We started goofing around and he would throw an idea out and I would tweak the idea,” she said. “We’d go back and forth until we chased out the part.”
Her next song, “Whiskey & Sin,” features a guitar that blares like a horn. It was inspired by Gurf Morlix, a national, in demand sideman. “Belly” offers a glimpse into the music Martin is writing now. It has a modern rhythm track and the keyboard is an antique mellotron sample. “It’s a detuned funky mellotron in there,” she said. “Then there’s a mixture of live drums and a sample thing we made. It’s complicated. It was a crazy day in the studio too. I felt like we were floating.” Martin hired her friend Jimmy Patterson to make a video for the song. Her only instruction was to make something like a James Bond film opening. Patterson came back with something that was made with silhouettes of professional dancers.
“House That Built Itself” found Martin singing into something that makes her voice sound slightly altered. Her friend Thor Jenson, a guitarist from an early Martin band called Roadside Attraction , built an antique telephone microphone. “It’s actually an old rotary phone handle with the original diaphragm inside,” she said. “He rigged it up so it could be my mic live.”
Martin’s hit single, “Molotov,” was inspired by a tom tom driven beat like the Benny Goodman piece “Sing! Sing! Sing!” Martin’s friend Matt Lindauer adds an old time banjo flavor that turns the tune into gypsy jazz.
Her “Faithless Beauty” has a Latin feel and is based on a Tom Waits tune. “Instead of having a junkyard dog feeling, which is what it started out having, I wanted it to feel Latin, almost Cuban,” she said. “When I was in the studio, I was sharing the studio with John Panos, trumpet player for Mates Of State. He just happened to be kicking around the studio with us one afternoon while we were working on it, and he had a trumpet with him. We were like ‘Let’s see what you think of this.’ He played his part, and we loved it. Then he doubled the part and did the whole overdub track.”
“Whispers” is a more personal song for Martin. The reason Roadside Attraction fell apart was because one member overdosed on heroin and passed away. Another of Martin’s friends, at the time, was also using drugs. “It really bothered me that he didn’t learn his lesson from losing our friend,” she said. “So, ’all your whispers in the dark’ is the allure of the drug. And that ’she’ll never love you like me’ is that the drug will never love you as I love you as a friend and will never take care of you. It will betray you in the end, like it did our friend.”
“Friendliest Room In Town” benefits from a pedal steel played by Sandy Allen. “It gives it a ghosty feeling,” she said. “Cheers Darlin’ is a moodier piece, with a softly tinkled piano line with a whispered vocal melody creating a nice space for its horn line. The song came about when Martin and a friend were sitting around discussing the most difficult subject matter for songwriters: death. “Nobody wants to hear songs about death,” she said. “It’s scary, dark, and morose. Yet, it’s important to talk about and process and that’s how we get through things like that. He and I both left that conversation and decided to write music about death and come back and say this is what I did with that conversation. And ’Cheers, Darlin’ was my way of tackling the sense of futility of an artist, what you create and what you leave behind when you’re gone. I think the subject matter in general demanded it be handled gently.”
Moxie closes out with “A Little Bit,” a song that was meant to be included on Frost, the next record, which was released earlier this year. The song was inspired by a goofy conversation with a friend about breaking camp and moving to Oregon and starting over in life.
Martin’s Frost album is an intriguing companion to Moxie which she released almost a year earlier. Frost opens with the intriguing “Little Birds.” Its partly modern sounding with a vocal line from the past. Martin was listening to a lot of Bob Dylan at the time, especially the album Another Side Of Bob Dylan. “I wanted to try to conjure up the kind of poetry that Bob Dylan uses,” she said. “I don’t know how well I did. I tried. It started out a really slow set, sort of waltz feeling when I was playing it by myself. But, when we introduced the keyboard, it kind of decided to get fast. Sometimes when you add a new instrument, everything changes.”
Martin covers “The Book Of Love” by Stephin Merritt of Magnetic Fields. Martin had never intended to put the song on her Frost album She recorded it as a birthday gift for her husband who loved the song so much, he wrote to the band for permission to use that song. “Sure enough, it made the record,” Martin said.
“Night We Fell In Love” was inspired by the night Martin and her husband swiftly realized they were meant to be much more than really good friends. That’s why a horn suddenly blares. It signifies their realization. “Both of us ended up single right around the same time, and we were both really bummed out, just sad, lonely miserable people. We were hanging out with our friend Liz at a local tavern one night. She was listening to both of us complaining, and she got sick of it. So, she just grabbed both of us by the shoulders, and she smushed us into each other. And, without having to say anything, it just made sense right then and there.”
“Make It Rain” sounds a bit like Roomful Of Blues, maybe because Roomful’s former trumpet player Danny Motto plays on the song. Its vintage swing blues comes across with great passion. “It’s about being fearless. You make mistakes but live with them,” Martin said. “It’s a tough one. It’s an experience that I still have a hard time talking about it.”
Martin sings like a 1920s chanteuse on her “More Flies With Honey.” She wanted to sound sassy because she was telling the story of her grandfather, a hustler, a gambler, a womanizer, a wild and crazy guy. “If I’m going to tell his story, I’ve got to put on a little sass.”
“Smile At Perfect Strangers” sounds like it could’ve been on The Great Gatsby soundtrack. Chirpy melodies abound from pizzicato strings. “Actually, that was the producer’s idea,” she said. “What I had had was the ukulele part, and I really liked the ukulele part. We ended up using tuba on the track instead of bass guitar. And so, it had the nice bouncy, jaunty feeling because of the ukulele and the tuba.” The producer also suggested that an initially planned piano line be replace by pizzicato strings.
Martin’s “I Still Want You” comes across like a 1970s R&B ballad. “What I wanted was something that kind of made me feel the way that ‘Bring It On Home To Me” by Sam Cooke felt.” She recorded it as a duet because she likes singing with other people.
The album closes out with “Five Points,” a whispery vocal line over swaggering horn and guitar number. That contrast between the subtle voice and bossy instrumentation came about because the way Martin felt about something contrasted with the way she was able to talk about it . “Sometimes you may feel a very strong emotional response to something,” she said, “but you can’t talk about it like that. You might be angry but you bite your lip. You might be passionate but you don’t want to overwhelm the situation. It’s almost like the still water runs deep feeling.”
Daphne Lee Martin clearly possesses an advanced ability to compose and arrange music. Her range of styles throughout her last two albums is wide but also deep. She fuses all of the traditional and modern instruments and innovations into a cohesive sound all her own. The only thing left to say: Go listen to her music.
Martin will play Luthier’s Co-Op in North Hampton, Massachusetts on September 12, Nectar’s in Burlington, Vermont on September 13, and The Burren in Somerville, Massachusetts on September 14.
Well, Traditions was an absolute blast and I’ll be spending the weekend with these fine fellas once again at Newport Folk Festival! But when the dust settles from that, I’ll be playing with my amazing acoustic trio at Hygienic Art on August 2nd at 7pm. You can get tickets HERE.
Much love from the wearer of many hats,
More about the Duhks:
|No band epitomizes the polyethnic strands of modern folk music better than The Duhks. Since forming in Winnipeg in 2001 The Duhks have created a dynamic blend of old-timey, French Canadian and Celtic music punched up with shades of blues, soul and driving Afro Cuban rhythms that leaves festival crowds on their feet. Over the course of 4 critically-acclaimed albums the band has earned Juno and Grammy awards and nominations and have played a significant role in the neo-folk revival.
On Beyond the Blue The Duhks are in the best form of their 13 year career. Rejuvenated by a two year hiatus and energized by the return of vocalist Jessee Havey and the addition of new members, fiddler Rosie Newton, drummer/percussionist Kevin Garcia, and guitarist/bouzouki player Colin Savoie-Levac, The Duhks founder Leonard Podolak found an amazing pallet of inspiration for the new project. “All of the people who have been in the band over the years, including non-touring founding members Tania Elizabeth and Jordan McConnell (who both appear on the album) have had a hand in shaping our sound and direction. The goal with the new record was to draw on everything we’ve learned over the years and everything we know about where we want to take the music now and create something as fresh, exciting and forward thinking as possible.” Toward that end, the band turned to the rising production team of Mike + Ruthy (Mike Merenda and Ruth Unger of The Mammals), who brought a progressive approach to production that was still firmly rooted in the traditions of folk music.
Musically, the new project is reminiscent of 2006′s Grammy-nominated Migrations, but with a sound that is even more dense and grittier than 2008′s Fast Paced World. The album opens with the title track, a gorgeous song by Beth Nielsen Chapman and Gary Nicholson that begins with the bell-like drone of Leonard’s claw hammer banjo and the ethereal sound of guest Charlie Rose’s lap steel before giving way to Jessee’s expressive alto, perfectly complemented by Tania’s harmonies. On “Banjo Roustabout” electric guitar and drums bring out the more aggressive side of the band’s sound while “Suffer No Fools” is a beautifully rendered acoustic waltz ornamented by banjo, strings and percussion and beautifully sung by Jesse and Tania. Taken as a whole, Beyond the Blue represents a group of musicians at the peak of their powers, the music shaped by their collective experience of years on the road and driven by the sheer joy and inspiration that comes from reuniting and rediscovering that magic that drew them together in the first place.
Sigh. This song.
What if everything had gone differently? What if I’d made another decision at just that one moment of time? What path would I have been on if I’d just…?
Regret is a strange bedfellow. The veil of our history, filtering forever how we see the world ahead of us. I read once somewhere that if you haven’t seen someone in the last five minutes, you can never make the assumption that you truly know them as they are now- life changing moments happen all the time and can shift our direction in an instant. Everyone seems so driven toward goals, ends, destinations, accomplishments, finality- even with the knowledge that the good stuff happens along the way, we seldom stop to appreciate when we have right this very now. The creation of memories that will fill us when we no longer have the strength, energy, and time to enjoy life the way we do when we are young.
So take the long way home. Try and forgive him for not calling you back, you had an amazing time together while it lasted and your heart isn’t so broken after all. Hug your friends and spend time with your kids and your parents. Be unafraid. Dance in the rain, and get soaking wet. Be ridiculous and don’t apologize for it. Admit your shortcomings and learn to live with yourself. Make it rain.
You pull up in a long black car
Saying we could fall heavy and we could fall hard
But I have heard your songs, what a mess you are
You’re gonna make it rain on me
You spread like fire through my weeds
And it is only what I’m wanting that makes me weak
But it is your sweet bourbon burning in my cheeks
So make it rain on me
Won’t you make it rain
Let’s take the long way home and whatever it brings
Yes I hear the thunder roll but I am not afraid to get caught in the rain
So make it rain
I guess that I must seem pretty tough
When I ask you not to call it love
But really I am softer than your touch
So make it rain on me
It’s what you think you cannot have that you are sure you need
And it’s the honey you keep talking will be the death of me
But maybe you are exactly what I need
So make it rain on me
Lyrical cues I borrowed for this song come from a few places, the long black car features in a Jim Carpenter song, Hole In My Heart. Jim mastered Frost and I just adore him and everything he does. I also borrowed from Woody Guthrie again, a passage where he describes a girl dancing and setting his weeds on fire. And of course, the best songwriter in the world, Mr. Tom Waits, although the namesake song is a far cry from the theme, I actually borrowed more from Take the Long Way Home.
THANK YOU! I’ve been chosen from among dozens of fantastic songwriters to stand among the Top 5 in CT. Thank you so much for voting and nominating me! The ceremony will take place June 10th at the Bushnell Theater in Hartford. Click HERE for the full list of nominees in each category and more info on the ceremony.
In the meantime, here’s a fantastic new review for Frost from Lonesome Noise.
New London’s Daphne Lee Martin is a refreshing marvel, a chanteuse always willing to push her music forward while maintaining classic vocals that are drenched in the colors of old nightclubs from thousands of moons ago. The kind born from bottles of gin and beautiful brass instruments and the Appalachian night-air. The past has always been there in her songs: but she’s found a way to deliciously modernize.
Whereas Martin’s prior release, Moxie, is a sexy journey along the dark alleys of sin and excess,Frost makes its way toward a yellow brick road. It’s buoyant, whimsical, bright. She calls the two records “twins,” but I think Frost is more of a younger sister, the one who chooses romance over salacity.
“Night We Fell In Love” is an example of the optimism, a song written about a night eight years ago when she first kissed the man who became her husband. Musically, it’s a breathy jaunt, with bass and percussion playing with one another like newly entwined lovers. It also features singing from six-year old Miss Ada Mae Florek during the outro, which further exposes a sense of hope.
“Little Birds” begins with electronic swells before the guitar comes in, and Martin sings:
you are light as a bird, with your hollow bones
bringing me branches to build me a nest, ribbons of silk and colorful yarns
a beautiful cradle to keep me safe and warm
a kiss on the forehead all fear to disarm
is the only paradise I will ever know
After another verse, it launches into a fun interlude of guitars and synths whirling around the space, hopeful and sprightly. Even a song called “Make It Rain” performs in a throw-back, lively way, the piano reminiscent of McCartney’s “Oh, Darling!”
It’s difficult not to listen to Frost without feeling like Spring is bursting forth from the Winter that is Moxie. The instrumentation is open, interesting, at times unusual. But Martin’s voice grounds everything. She’s a storyteller. She causes you to lean in and see through her hypnotic purview.Frost continues her run of excellent songwriting and proves there are very few of her high ability to craft songs with such schizophrenic sublimity.
In early 2006, I’d just ended a very long relationship and was fantastically gun-shy about getting serious with anyone for a long while. I spent a good amount of time then at a little tavern called The Dutch, a neighborhood joint that only serves beer and wine, closes early, and is the hub in town where all of the artists congregate, at any given table there will be a painter, a poet, a writer, a musician or three… Eugene O’Neill even used to frequent the place.
I was hanging with my friends Liz and Rich (who was bartending and also recently single) and bemoaning the big empty house and cold existence of being single for really the first time in my life when Liz, who had apparently had enough of both Rich’s and my complaining, grabbed us each by the shoulders and smooshed us into each other. Something happened. All of a sudden, the blur came into focus. I stayed on to help Rich clean up the bar that night and then we went for a walk in the park along the river, stayed up all night talking. We were inseparable from that moment on.
Not long after, Rich found a cheap banjo at a local pawn shop and brought it home thinking he might teach himself how to play it. Like most of the things he brings home (gadgets, clothes, toys, pretty much anything) I quickly reallocated it for myself, I’m good that way. When you pick up a new-to-you instrument the most amazing thing happens- a new tuning or way of looking at chords, even just the shapes your hand makes when you touch the fretboard, makes all kinds of cool interpretations of things come out of you- things you would have never done on your old tried-and-true guitar or keyboard.
I suppose the gun-shy part of me begged the question, “Is this going to last? Will we be able to feel this way about each other when it isn’t new and crazy anymore? Will is stand the tests?” And I’m happy to say that 8 years and a whole lot of trials later, it has.
The little lady singing along at the end of the song is Miss Ada Mae Florek, the daughter of one of our dear friends and Rich’s bandmate in Brazen Hussy, Sara and our friend Jared from another great New London band, Street People. I had the pleasure of being by her side when Ada was born, nearly 6 years ago. And I have to tell you, Ada is a rock star. The crazy sounds you hear at the end of the song is a reverse banjo, played by Matt Lindauer.
Night We Fell In Love
Will you remember how I smiled?
Will you remember how we walked for miles?
Will you remember that one fateful kiss?
The night we fell in love
When the rains come & people close their shutters
& the storm clouds seem to hang right above us
Will you remember when you are soaking wet?
The night we fell in love
Will you still be tender when your hands
Know me better than your own homeland?
Will you remember how you held me then?
The night we fell in love
Check out the event page for more details, but Daphne will be performing that day as well- alongside labelmates Elison Jackson and Pocket Vinyl, as well is fantastic regional acts John Faraone, Sketch the Cataclysm and more.