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Voices in Conflict: The Charlotte Martin Interview
The new album, Stromata, seems much more experimental than your earlier work. What exactly were you aiming to accomplish with this record?
When I first got started in this business, I was lucky because with RCA records I got the chance to test out new material, what turned into On Your Shore, on the road. I was on the road for two years, then I'd come back, record two or three songs, and then go back out on the road. That's a very self-indulgent way of doing things, and it got very expensive, so I had to invest in gear -- lots of gear -- if I wanted to keep recording that way. So over the last five years, when I was on RCA, my studio's filled with new toys which I've learned how to use.

So this was all home produced?
Yes, the whole record is. My husband is a mixer, and we have two full-blown studios here. We get to mix some really big records here. The only thing we can't do on a huge level in our studio is track massive, massive, massive drums, like I got to do on On Your Shore. Which is really sort of sad, because sometimes I miss those big studios that I got to use on the earlier albums.

But I'll tell you, because I've got what I need here, it's amazing. I can walk down the hall and find that everything's all set up, with full-blown Pro Tools, five keyboards and a grand piano all sound-proofed and ready to go. Since I've been working with this equipment for five years I was able to get into recording Stromata by experimenting with a whole bunch of different sounds. For example, I know now how to sample and cut up, say, running water, run that through a delay and somehow make that into a drum track.

"Little Universe" sounded very trip-hop influenced.
It really is. It's cut up with something like twenty different drum sounds. It's really funny because that song's so hard to play live. When I wrote it, I held down a synth pad in E-flat and I really didn't count the measures out at all. I pretty much just wrote and played the song right there on tape. A lot of the songs were recorded this way. I usually do one or two takes and that's it. So we built the track of "Little Universe" around the vocal, which means every time there's a section change, there's a meter change, from 7/8 to 5/4 and 6/8 to 4/4. I have to seriously count it out now. I played the song for the first time live last night, but before we're out on the road for the nex tour, I hope to not still be counting.

But this whole record's going to be difficult to play live. We're still working out the kinks, because I'm running probably a hundred different synths in the course of the whole tour. So we had to buy a PC for the tour in order to incorporate all the right sounds from the record, to program them through my synthesizers live. Plus we have drum loops, a drummer and lights. It's grown so much from when it was just me and a keyboard live.

Sounds like it should be a fun show to catch.
It's going to be really fun! I'm really excited about the lights, personally. I've never taken full production, a drummer or any of this out before. I'm seriously excited to be taking this tour out this fall. Just pray for me that I don't hit the wrong buttons during a song.

You once said you no longer perform operatic music because it's such a different world from the music you otherwise perform. But "Just Before Dawn" seems like an attempt to bridge that gap. Were you trying to bring opera into your music?
I am. I've toyed with the idea of writing an entire record of arias. 21st Century arias. I'm really inspired by Darius Milhaud, John Cage, Benjamin Britton ... the only thing that would concern me is the lifestyle and schedule of being on the road. I tend to get ill, really sick, on almost every tour. During the last tour I had to cancel my first show in more than three years because I had no voice. And I can sing through anything, which is the big benefit of having gone to school to study opera.

But one thing that makes me nervous about the idea comes from when I was positioning myself away from opera. I'd just graduated, and had started writing songs, and I had a hard time deciding on what my style was as a contemporary vocalist. The music kept sounding like really bad broadway, with my really Massive vibrato, and there wasn't really much of an edge to it. Because of that, I had to consciously untrain myself. When you come out of fifteen years of classical training, you're over-enunciating everything because of all the use of foreign languages, the interpreting of other musicians' voices. At that point in my life I didn't have a clue how to interpret my own voice. And it's much more scary to perform your own music, because these are your babies.

Actually, though, I started writing a Mass a few years ago, for four-part vocals and organ. I never finished it, but I was sort of dabbling in my studio and became really inspired and wondered: "Maybe I should be doing some classical music too." That idea stuck in my head, so I wrote "Just Before Dawn," as an homage to my opera-singing days. And that was a year ago. By now I've finished another operatic piece called "Psalm 23" and a second which isn't yet titled. I'm trying to write something in Slavic, Russian, Czech or something. I might do it, who knows? It just takes a lot of training. I'd have to find a coach out here in LA, probably quit drinking for a while. It's a whole different animal. I don't know that I could ever go from singing Charlotte Martin music to singing operatic music in the course of a single show. It's a lot of energy and a whole different voice.

I'd noticed with "The Dance," which "Just Before Dawn" leads into ...
Yes, that one's very operatic as well!

... And it sounded like a broadway play; I kept picturing a complete stage production being performed live as I listened.
Thank you! Actually, I've heard that about "Pills" as well. I'm good friends with Pete Yorn, and we were both over here listening to each others' records, and "Pills" was his favorite song. He was like: "You must write a musical around this song 'Pills!'" But I keep thinking that was a really depressing song for me to write, and it would make a really depressing musical. I don't know though, "The Dance" started out almost as a Celtic thing, and then it goes into full-blown Mass mode.

What's interesting about having worked on this album is that there's no one particular thing taking control. It's been interesting working with Dinosaur Fight because now that we have our own label, I don't get people naysaying, it's a completely different vibe. Because I was free to experiment, the album was able to touch on many genres. I mean, there's definitely a break in the middle. The first half is certainly the more electronic, heavy, dark material that could have fit in well on any of the EPs I've issued since On Your Shore. And from there the album branches out, and the songs get to cover more, they're really all over the place. I wanted to do it that way, because I don't want to be put in a "genre box." I dealt with that on On Your Shore, and at times it really just made me sad. People were reducing it to one stereotype, or a couple things the songs sounded like, and if you're a true artist that kind of thing can really hurt your feelings. You want to be able to do everything. If it's true and inspired, from whatever you'd call your muse, you want to be able to do everything.

That seems to be what really works about this album. "Stromata," the very first song, sounds a lot like Tori Amos, From A Choirgirl Hotel, but then it morphs away from that, It's not: "This song sounds like Tori, this song sounds like Kate Bush." It's more like: "This song sounds like Charlotte Martin."
Stromata was the first complete album I've recorded where I didn't listen to anyone else's music while recording it. I made definte homages on On Your Shore, and I'm proud of that record. I was homaging "Running Up That Hill" [by Kate Bush] with "Limits Of Our Love." I was a very big fan, still am a big fan of Kate Bush. And I hope someone homages me someday. I was really young, bright-eyed and excited that I had the ability, the chops, to really do that, to have the players in my band who could do that. And I caught some flak for it, people didn't understand why I did that. Or they just chalked it up to me not knowing what I was doing, that I wasn't original, when it was a very original decision that I made to pay tribute to artists who had inspired me.

Even On Your Shore was a very dark record, the songs were different with only the continuous thread of acoustic piano running through the album. Which you won't hear on Stromata because I simply don't play acoustic piano live. I use synthesizers so I thought why not experiment with that even more? I mean shit, if I played guitar, I'd play fifty guitars! I think drummers have it best. If I could be a drummer, which if you listen to my music you know I love drums ... I just hired a new drummer, and I keep wishing I could just be one of those drums! Not that I want him to hit me, but I would just love to be able to become those sounds! They're incredible. I know drummers get a bad rap, but they're my favorites. I just like to have my head blown off by drums.

When you write a song, is it difficult to develop the right hook?
I don't think about hooks as much as I used to. I did have that mindset for my earlier recordings, but I'm writing in a different phase now because I don't necessarily have to start the writing process anymore by playing notes on the keyboard. Now when inspiration comes, it can come from any medium, from the melody or the chord progression or bass line.

I can't really define my music as hooks anymore. I tend to like to repeat myself, but usually how I judge my material now is how well the song stays. I write a lot of material; we've already done two singles preceeding the album, and four of the B-sides were songs that didn't make the album itself. "Crimson Sky" and "Apology" were on the most recent release, and they probably should have been on Stromata. But I write so much that the songs I remember are the songs which usually make it onto a studio album. It's like I have two hundred songs in my head at any given time, so the ones that don't stand out end up simply not making it.

Some songs end up going to Ken [Andrews, Martin's producer / husband], and I've written a lot with this guy Tommy Walter. We've been writing for different television situations, films, and for other artists, which is always interesting when you get to write with or for other people.

How hard was it when you left Eastern Illinois University for Los Angeles, after growing up in the midwest?
It nearly killed me. That year was a really tough year. I didn't know anyone there, when I moved to LA with a handful of music in my head and whatever I could fit in my Saturn. My mom drove me out here, and I found an apartment. Then she left and I was alone here trying to figure out how I was going to make it as a musician. I was overwhelmed, just so overwhelmed. All I knew was I could play, I could sing and I was just starting to write. I felt I just had to give myself a real shot, a year out here to make a go of it. I had $30,000, my grad-school money, and once that was gone that'd be it. I'd go to grad-school, take out student loans and do what I was going to do anyway.

But what always keeps me from quitting is I have to keep writing, I have all this music. It was hard to decide, would I rather move to LA or New York and really pursue this music business? I'd been involved in music all my life, but a friend's dying just catapulted me into wanting to compose. I could have taken the route of my father and taught music, something which worked very well for him, but every time I tried to move toward that life, I'd think: "You have all this music!" And looking back, all the music back then was really bad, but it was what I created, and it was very important to me. That's still what keeps me going today.

I sacrificed everything for it. I left my family, my friends, what I thought was going to be my career, and blindly moved here and thought: "If this is meant to be for me then the doors will open." That didn't mean I could just sit on my ass. I worked extremely hard, and I still work extremely hard, and I know I will continue to do so. I'm lucky; though I've had a lot of obstacles, just when I'd think this might not be for me, something would happen to make me stay with it.

So was it a learning experience to have your first album not be released?
Between the first year of having no friends -- maybe I should have gotten a day job, instead of holing up all day every day writing music in a tiny apartment -- and soon after, I got signed and went into another isolating period. At that point I was working with Tom Rothrock, and it was just the two of us. To work on a record for nine months, and then wait another nine or ten months just to find out: "Oh we're sorry, we can't find a home for your record." I had a full on breakdown, I was clinically depressed when that all happened. I thought that was to be my sound, and then the record didn't come out and the label went under, and when we tried to shop it to other labels they didn't want it because they hadn't produced it. It was this orphan record that nobody wanted, but I'd spent a year on it and it made me very sad. No one had to tell me that signing a record contract made your life okay. I was lucky to be able to pay my rent, thank God for that, but I wanted to quit after that record was shelved.

You told Playboy Magazine in 2003 that the music industry is like the Matrix. It takes a while to figure out who the good and the bad guys are. What advice would you have for a young person who wants to pursue a music career?
It seriously is. My advice would have to be first to make good art. That's the big one, because I've made a lot of crappy stuff, that I thought was good, and it's really hard to gauge that when it's your own material. It took me a long time to become a good critic of what I do, and what I shouldn't do.

It's funny, I'm almost thirty, and I feel like I'm just now figuring out who it is that I am as an artist. Every press person I talk to is like: "Congratulations! You've finally found your sound!" And then there are always the people who are just so hardcore into On Your Shore, and I have to say first that I just couldn't make On Your Shore twice, and second, that was my voice at that time. Now I'm venturing into something that perhaps hasn't been done before ... everything's been done, but it hasn't been done this way before.

Well, listening to Stromata was like listening to Tusk by Fleetwood Mac. Rumors had sold something like forty million copies, and everyone starts telling the band to record Rumors II. And so what does Lindsey Buckingham do? He goes and does a bunch of weird studio stuff and comes out with a better album, but a lot of people who liked Rumors didn't get it.
Yeah! A lot of people just won't like your new stuff as much as your old stuff, or your old as much as the new. It's that old saying, you can't make everybody happy, so you just need to do what you like. It's hard to explain, it almost sounds cliche about muses and things like that, but I know now when I like something, as a fan, as a buyer, and as a musician. I know what I like, and for those first naive years after being signed, I didn't know what I should sound like because I didn't know what I wanted to sound like. I could have done anything, that?s the problem with being a trained musician, you can pretty much do any style you want.

I'm very content with this record. It's the most personal record I've made, and I didn't think I could get more personal than my last record. I had total control, so I was able to make the record I envisioned in my mind. Eventually as an artist you have to take the reins if you really believe in what you're doing, and just go for it. And if you don't believe in it, if you're just doing it to be famous, then good luck with that, God bless you, have fun being famous. There's lots of famous people, I want to be a musician who is remembered for being a musician.

Would it bother you if someone bought the song "Stromata" online and didn't ever hear the rest of the album?
You know, that's a good question. That's a tough question. I think there are two different kinds of people who listen to music, and I'm both of those people. I'll buy a song from somebody if that's the only thing that I like. So if a person buys "Stromata" because that's all they like, then at least they heard "Stromata." Then there's the other person who's so into albums. If I like an artist as an artist, and they blow me away live, I'll be into their albums because I'll want to hear their entire story. So I'm open to both. Whatever level people get it on, that's up to them, that's not for me to judge. I would hope Beyonce wouldn't be mad at me because I just bought "Crazy In Love," and didn't hear the rest of her album.

There are so many artists now who are refusing to market their music online unless the whole album must be bought in one chunk. And I wonder how many of them realize what they're missing out on as far as fans go.
It's hard to decide for some. I know a lot of my music is shared, and I'm grateful that it's being shared. People pass around a lot of my music, and I've given people permission to record almost all of my shows, unless I'm recording it for a release myself. And I say thank God, because it took me years of touring to get that fanbase built up. I make records because I want to make records, but I also make records because I love to tour. I mean, I've toured on two EPs and a DVD last year, because I love to be out on the road playing music for people who want to hear it.

I've just got a couple of wrapup questions for you. First, what question would you love to be asked, but no one ever asks?
Oh my God ... I could go in so many directions. You'll have to give me a second on that, could we come back to it in a minute?

Sure. The other question, though, was the reverse: which question do you wish no one would ever ask you again?
Were you inspired by Tori Amos? I think I've gotten that all out, it was all done with On Your Shore. But there were actually two questions I wish I'd never be asked. Someone could never mention, and I would be totally fine with it, that I was in a beauty pageant in high school.

I've seen that in every interview you've done!
I know! It's the most frustrating sick thing, and do you want to know something? Three years ago when we were going to prep the In Parentheses EP, having been in a beauty pageant was not a good thing. It wasn't that people were interested in the fact, it was more that they were interested in almost making fun of me. And now what, there's this fucking show on MTV called "Tiara Girls" where girls are getting their lips injected and all sorts of shit, and "Are You Hot?" That show was the most degrading thing making it on mainstream TV. And there's American Idol, which is a fucking contest ... but I got all this flak for being in a state beauty pageant more than a decade ago. If no one ever asked me that again, I'd be just fine. There's a lot more to my life that's happened in the last ten years.

Really, it comes down to the fact that it's hard being new in this business. Because people love that stuff. I don't know though, if I was new now, I probably wouldn't get the same flak for it. It's all popular now, but back then: "Oh, she's trying to play music, but she used to be in beauty pageants ... so whatever." But there wasn't much to do in my small town, what else was I going to do, go cow-tipping? And because I liked The Cure back then I was called goth. If that was me now, I'd get my own line at Hot Topic.

But back to the first question.

Right. What does no one ever ask, but you wish they would?
You know, I wish someone would ask just once how I survived my battle with anorexia. That would be a whole interview in itself. I support a lot of organizations, including ANAD, the national support group for those with eating disorders. And I've worked with suicide hotlines, because I know what it's like to lose a friend to suicide. All the problems with depression and control issues, I wish someone would ask me how I stayed alive.

I wish people weren't afraid to bring up subjects like that. I know you're not afraid to bring up this kind of topic, but sometimes I wish more people would ask a few questions that were about more than just music. If they've done their research those things are mentioned, such as the charities I support and the reasons I support them. Everyone knows "Something Like A Hero" was about my eating disorder, but nobody asks what parts of it are, and why I mentioned the phrase "beauty queen." I mean, I actually got nailed for, of all things, using the phrase "beauty queen" in that song. They said it was wrong for me to broach that subject when Tori Amos already had a song about that! How do you respond to that?

But I do wish someone would ask, because I don't know a lot of people personally who went through a full-fledged battle with eating, and then come out to where I am now ... I'm a food freak, and a wine nut, and yet I used to suffer from anorexia, where I would have believed that would be impossible. So how did I get well? It's a really long story, a really embarassing story. That's the important thing though, to not be afraid to ask tough questions. Most people can handle those questions, and odds are they're waiting for a chance to tell their story. The stories people really want to read.

All interviews (c) Jonathan Sanders, 2004-2006, all rights reserved. No part of these interviews may be retransmitted without express written permission.