CHARLOTTE MARTIN Interview by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor
August 12, 2004
Classically trained in opera singing and piano from an early age, Charlotte Martin has drawn comparisons to singer/songwriters like Tori Amos, Kate Bush, and PJ Harvey for her confessional lyricism, emotional intensity, and seductive vocals. In 2003, her EP debut In Parentheses garnered wide critical praise and a loyal following of fans.
August of 2004 saw the release of her first full-length album, the equally acclaimed On Your Shore. At the same time, she joined Liz Phair, the Cardigans, and Katy Rose on the Chicks With Attitude tour in support of the record. At her live performances, she has covered an interesting selection of songs from artists including The Cure, Peter Gabriel, Soundgarden, New Order, Sting, and The Police.
In this exclusive interview, we chat with a musical artist who possesses a wicked sense of humor and a wonderful flair for speaking about anything and everything that is on her mind.
Charlotte: Hi, Michael!
RadioFree.com: Hi, how are you doing?
[happily] I am so good.
Great. Well, I'm loathe to perpetuate bogus media stereotypes, so let's get the big one out of the way.
You're a young, female singer/songwriter who plays piano and is too artistic to be classified as pop, so a lot of people compare you with Tori Amos...
What are your thoughts on that comparison? Is it flattering, overblown, superficial, or just annoying?
Depends on the day, in all honesty. I am a huge fan, but that's just pretty much an indication that it's sort of a man's world still in the music business, and there's not enough women playing music. See, if I played harps, we would not be having this conversation right now. I think I know how I'm different, I know how I am influenced, and those people that care to actually listen to those differences and get into the music--those are the people I'll connect with, you know?
You did happen to do some work with Tori's anti-sexual assault organization RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network). What did you do with them and how did you get involved?
Actually, one of the upper people at RAINN, I think she saw me at a show or her friend saw me at a show, and they asked me to put a song on the benefit CD that they just put out. I put a song on there called "Monster," and all the proceeds are going to RAINN. I think it's being sold at Virgin and online. I'm not sure if it's being sold at Tower, but it's being sold at quite a few places.
I'm going to get another typical media subject out of the way, and then we'll move on. You're a former Miss Teen Illinois. How old were you when you won that title, and was that ever something that was going to be a career path for you?
It was 10 years ago. Was I a junior or a senior? I think I was a junior. I was 17 or 18. I was a teen. [laughs] Obviously. "I was 35 when I won Miss Teen Illinois!" No, ummm...I don't think I wanted to make a career out of being in a swimsuit. But now I'm a wine drinker, and I could probably make a career out of that if I would have known about that 10 years ago. Of course, that was illegal back then.
Oh, wonderful! [laughs] So is the whole pageantry scene really as catty and cutthroat as they satirize it on TV and film?
Ummm...yes! It's pretty awful actually. That's probably why I about-faced. But everybody has to try stuff, ya know?
How would you describe your music to someone who's never heard it before?
I would describe it as classical, a little harmonically complex at times, extremely layered, and mathematical.
How old were you when you started training as a pianist and an opera singer?
I was pretty young. I was playing Bach two-part inventions at 4. Opera came a little later. I started voice around 7. You know, first grade. It just sort of propelled because I kept wanting to sing harder and harder repertoire. You're like a kid that does sports, they want to always hit a home run. So I kept begging my teacher, who is my mother's best friend, to teach me, to let me sing lots and lots and lots of really difficult stuff. So the further I went in my studies, piano became more secondary as far as work goes, and the voice became first. Which it's still first. Which is the thing that--at least my approach--separates me from a lot of my peers. The closest one that is like me is Kate Bush, I think.
And how old were you when you started writing songs and breaking away from the classic opera mold?
(Arizona is hot, and I am dehydrated!) It was halfway through my senior year. So I was 20 or 21. Because I graduated summer or fall, I didn't graduate that spring. I went another summer. But my friend had died and I wrote a song for her funeral.
Do you play any other instruments besides the piano?
Nope. I do not.
But you rock on the piano, so that's enough...
What emotion do you find to be the best fuel for your songwriting?
What's your process for songwriting?
As far as the process goes, it starts with a feeling. But as the nitty-gritty goes, now that I've produced my record, the writing process is a little different for me, at least this record. There's a song called "Something Like A Hero" that has 36 background vocal parts on it, and I was writing the song and thinking about what these harmonies were going to be doing. It really depends. I keep journals. I have many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many journals of lyrics floating around constantly, but music always has to come when I sit down and I feel inspired to do it. Sometimes I'll get lyrics, sometimes I won't. Sometimes I'll write a two-part sonata. Sometimes I'll write a whole song with lyrics and music included in five minutes. It just depends. There's one song on the record that took me over two years to write. It's been re-written five times.
You're currently on the Chicks with Attitude tour with Liz Phair, the Cardigans, and Katy Rose. What flavor of attitude are you personally bringing to the mix?
Yes, it's potluck, and Charlotte Martin is in charge of bringing the what...?
Ooo...that's a good one. Hmmm...I need to think about that one. Because it's kind of narrowing yourself down to one emotion, and the music is just so many different things. Katy definitely rocks. And Liz definitely rocks. See, they both rock, and the Cardigans is just sultry and extremely musical. Everyone is very musical, but they're very smooth. You want me to relate this to food? Because I could do that way better.
Sure, do that.
I guess I'm kind of like...oh. Well, I'm not fruit salad, that's for sure. I might be...I just might be a blue crab handroll.
Because--I have to tell you--my elements are pretty simple: vocals and piano with certain effects on the vocals and a little bit of rhythm when I punch myself or punch my piano. But other than that, it's a blue crab handroll: blue crab, rice, and seaweed. Three ingredients.
What's your favorite Liz Phair song?
Well, right now, "F*ck and Run."
Obviously you enjoy performing, but do you enjoy the travel aspect of touring? Is it fun, or is it just tiring?
Both. It's starting to get really, really, really, really, really, really fun. The first week was a little intense, when my record was coming out. But once I get into the groove of it, I start having a lot of fun. We've had a cookout between the buses--Liz and myself and Katy and all our crew people. And we hung out and grilled out, and had some wine, and it was pretty fun. We all hang out, so it's fun.
On this tour, have you discovered any cool hangouts, restaurants, or landmarks during your travels across the U.S.?
You want to know something? I took a $25 cab ride to eat at a Chick-fil-A in San Antonio, Texas. That was the highlight of my whole entire tour as far as food goes. I've been looking for a Chick-fil-A for a long time, since March. My tour manager and I are both obsessed with Chick-fil-A. And we went, and I did get a little bit sick, but that's okay.
I had the chance to listen to one of your live performances. It was a recording from St. Anselm College Coffeeshop in New Hampshire from this past March. Do you remember that show?
[groans] Oh God, yeah.
That show was kind of like...well, I don't know. I want to say, "making out with a tornado" or something. That show was kind of like watching a train wreck slowly. [laughs] In slow motion, put a little reverb on it. That was sort of an intense show because I had just found out my uncle had cancer and he was just suddenly rushed to the hospital and put on severe amounts of morphine. And he had cancer spread all over his body, and no one ever caught it, and he all of a sudden had back pain and then he was dead two weeks later.
Oh, I'm sorry to hear that...
So that was kind of a crazy show.
Was that why you stopped your cover of Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes" midway through it?
I was so manic that night. I'm normally not quite as manic, but when tragic things happen, I get a little crazy.
I noticed that you cover a lot of cool songs, and that you interact with your audience. Are those elements that people can expect from most of your live performances?
You know, it changes every night. Sometimes I won't say a word. You just never know what you're going to get. It really depends. I can't program myself to do any certain sort of thing, and I never play the same setlist twice, and I never play what I write down anyway! [laughs] Pretty much everything I play live is from my gut, and I think of it as I go. I've never stuck to a setlist. Maybe once, ever. Maybe. Possibly.
Does it also depend on the energy the audience is giving back to you?
Yeah, and I can't really tell that until I start walking down and getting ready to go on stage. And then it kind of feeds itself as it goes.
I also noticed you asked the crowd if they recognized the covers and encouraged them to sing the chorus. Does it tick you off when people just sort of sit there with the deer-in-the-headlights stare?
No, not anymore. It does every once in a while, only if you feel like you're not connecting, or they're not connecting with you. But then sometimes maybe I'm not connecting with them because I'm already in another planet. You know, at least the last two tours, I've had a really, really easy time connecting to the music and delivering it, and I think because I'm connected with it, the response is then unanimously pretty intense. Almost every show, everyone's been into it. I forget that my show is me, and I really actually do have an element of responsibility up there where I have to make sure that I am in the music at all times. And it's work. Especially if you've been singing 20 years and playing 20 years, you can run up and down and sing your ass off--it can become a little automatic. I have to be very, very aware of the emotion and what the song was about.
You also covered Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun." Can you believe that song came out 10 years ago? A decade? Seems like yesterday, doesn't it?
It kind of does.
I'm asking you this next one as someone who is close to your age. A lot of "alternative/new wave" acts that were popular in the late '80s and early '90s (like R.E.M., The Cure, U2) are sort of treated like flashbacks now. Do you ever feel dated when the music from your high school and college days is now being marketed as an oldies compilation?
No, because I think the Cure is still doing it. [laughs] I don't know, I don't really feel dated. I'm still in my 20s. I just never really put a date on the music I listen to. I kind of understand why I should maybe, but I just don't care enough--I just like what I like. Take one of my favorite bands of all time. You know My Bloody Valentine, yeah? I don't even know how many records they sold worldwide. But I heard it was something like 30,000 in the States. I could be totally wrong. But that band changed my life, and the first thing they put out was in what? '89? And I didn't even hear about My Bloody Valentine until six years ago. I had no idea who they were. Same thing with the Cocteau Twins, and they were broken up before I even knew who they were.
That's a good way to look at it--to just say, "this is what I like, and at least their impact is still felt."
Yeah! Just the fact that I can get into the Cocteau Twins five years after they break up is kind of a big deal, you know? I discovered all those bands after they had broken up.
You performed a song called "I'm Normal, Please Date Me." It spawned its own set of concert t-shirts, but it's not on your album. Is it just something you threw together, or is it a cover or B-side?
It's a B-side, but I don't know if I'll ever record a studio version of it. It's just a live thing.
I really enjoyed the piano on that song--it sounds like it should be the soundtrack to a twisted version of Alice in Wonderland.
Yeah, well, it's kind of messed up, but it is about stalking somebody and running through a guy's bushes.
Do you sing often in everyday life, like along with the radio?
No. If I listen, I'm listening intently. Or if I'm working, I'm working intently. I have to be doing it, you know? I'm not a big karaoke fan...at all.
What are some of your hobbies and interests outside of music?
Wine. Food. There's this restaurant. You're in LA, yeah? I'm so into this restaurant. I'm going to go when I'm in LA on Monday night. One night off, and I'm going to this restaurant. What else am I into? I'm into movies.
Any movie recommendations?
There's a horror flick. Did you ever see May?
Yes. May, with Angela Bettis. She was great.
That is such a good movie. It's one of the most uncomfortable movies I've ever seen, where she puts her face up to his hand and like rubs her face with his hand while he's asleep? Oh, God! I also like toys. I like stuffed animals, and I like figurines. I like Tim Burton. I get really into quirky pop culture types of things. Roman Dirge, he has these things called Halfsies, and they're little animals that are cut open, and you can pull them apart and put them back together. Like you can put the bottom of a bunny underneath the top of a chickie--you have a halfsie. And I'm really into these dolls, they're called UglyDolls. You can get them at comic book stores, you can get them at Tower Records, you can get them at Virgin. They sell them in certain quirky little areas. I'm sure Hot Topic and stuff like that. But they're really, really quite cute. I just got Beaker from the Muppets yesterday.
You remember Beaker?
Yes, I remember Beaker.
[does Beaker impersonation]
[laughs] That's great.
Love him! I brought him on TV, I was so excited.
I saw a comic strip on your website called "766 6th Street." (That's a bit of a tongue twister.) But then your website got a makeover and it disappeared. What's the story behind that strip? Did you write and draw it yourself?
I didn't draw it, but I wrote it. And it was going to be actually something more than it is. [laughs] It was actually going to be a real book. But I've been gone for a year, and we haven't had a chance to actually finish it. But the illustrator is one of my best friends. We just never finished it. I wish we would have. We might come back to it sometime, but if I come back to it, I want to devote time to it, and not be trying to promote a record.
Was it going to be a one-shot thing, or a series?
I don't know. I think I just wanted to do one to do one, because I had never done one. And I just really enjoy making fun of myself.
What was the story? On the website, it showed a girl moving into a house.
There was another section on it. Like you could click on the house and all the roommates would come up, and you could click on the roommates and then go inside her room. And then go inside her closet. And you could go take a tour of the house based on the roommates. It was insane. But the comic book was basically about these five girls--they were all art majors of some sort. And they represented basically every stereotype. The clean, sweet little virgin Sandra Dee. The heavily-influenced-by-Nine-Inch-Nails goth girl that names herself a stereotype named Raven who hates everything and has a minor drinking problem, and apparently other drug problems as well. And then there is, of course, the other roommate that had done so much dope she couldn't actually remember anything.
Her room was covered in Post-it notes, and she was a chain smoker, and she was anorexic. And then there was the other roommate that taught the little sweet girl how to have sex with her stuffed animals. And she was so strange that drugs didn't even affect her. She just couldn't get high. She ate magic mushrooms on her pizza, and she could not get high at all! Like she just went to bed. And then there was the other roommate--she had like a crazy 180 IQ, and she would basically do guys' homework so they would sleep with her. She was kind of a whore. And all of us lived together! And it's basically from the little sweet virgin Jerica, clean-cut, Bible-thumping, beauty queen's point of view about her year with all these crazy psycho people.
Any chance you guys would pitch this as a television pilot? This would make a great show!
I know, wouldn't it? God! Ummm...possibly. It would have to be on HBO or Showtime because the content of it is not exactly PG. And that's the humor in it. [laughs]
It would be a good follow-up to Dead Like Me.
Yeah, it's kind of sort of like that, but the funniest part of it is that everyone fits their stereotype very well--what everyone thinks their stereotype should be. One of the adventures, Jerica and Raven do a frat party and sniff people's hair. And Jerica dressed in pink and Raven was in black.
This definitely needs to be on television. Now, concerning your new album On Your Shore: considering that you had complete creative control over it, was any track particularly fun and exciting to create from a production standpoint?
"Something Like A Hero."
The one with all the background vocals...
Yeah. It's the most layered song on the record. There's only like four instruments on it, too.
Were any tracks ever in danger of being cut, or did you know from beginning to end that these were the songs you wanted to include?
Twenty tracks were cut. We have seven B-sides right now. [laughs] It was tough. There were moments where we didn't think "Beautiful Life" would be on it. There were moments we didn't think "Something Like A Hero" would be on it. Every song almost got axed at one point. Yeah, it was hard.
At least it sounds like you have no shortage of material.
We're starting the next record in September. So that would be good.
So even though your first full-length album just came out and you're in the middle of a tour, you're already looking ahead to your next project?
Yeah. I mean, it's written, so I think we're ready. So we're just going to start going for it. And I'm friends with all the musicians. That's kind of how I made this record, because I was touring on that EP In Parentheses. And it would be awesome because I could go out for three or four weeks and then come back and have a fresh perspective on the songs. I play the album, but I play a lot of new songs. I'm playing this different record already. I have been for a couple of months. So I can come back in September and I've already played this. And it's just a perfect time to make music. It's very self-indulgent, but if I can actually financially pull it off...[laughs] I'd like to make a second record like that.
What is your opinion about the current state of mainstream music in the U.S.?
You know, I don't want to hurt anybody's feelings. I have a positive opinion, actually. I can't really be one of those people that knocks certain types of art or music because I really have my own taste, and I don't want someone knocking mine. But it's sort of interesting, I think there's a lot of eclectic stuff out there, and I think a lot of big scary label things are happening and people are losing their jobs and artists are getting dropped. I think the business boomed, and there's so much material that a lot of really great music got lost in the shuffle. And right now everything's downsizing. Maybe some of it is bands that I love. Like I wanted Interpol to take over the world, and I think they might now with their second record. You just never know. I think there's a lot of really eclectic stuff that's going to see a lot of success. Like The Postal Service, and Interpol.
It's great that you're getting all this publicity now. It won't be long before we see you on The Tonight Show, right?
I don't know. I think they give me a schedule everyday, so if I'm on The Tonight Show, they'll let me know the day of! [laughs] And I like it like that. It keeps me down to earth and grounded and I can concentrate on what I'm going to eat for dinner, which possibly will be soft-shelled crab.
If you could pick two other guests to be on the show's lineup with you, who would they be?
[excited] Sofia Coppola. And...oh...can they be dead?
Nick Drake. My superpower, if I was a superhero, would be to raise the dead. I've been asked that before. Bringing back dead people makes the competition a little more interesting, I think.
And think of the party that you could throw afterwards.
I know! It would be such a party, oh my God! [laughs]