A SHORE THING
by JAY S. JACOBS
Everybody wants to be loved. That’s why we do most of the things we do in life. Even more than most, people in the arts crave acceptance. However, sometimes it is enough to just get a strong reaction.
Case in point, Charlotte Martin. With the release of her first major label full-length CD, On Your Shore, (she had also released the acclaimed EP In Parentheses and an indie album) she has been getting rapturous reviews.
She’s flattered. Sometimes, though, she finds it just as intriguing when she hears that people despise her.
“Obviously every artist wants their music to be received well,” Martin says. “But, it’s sort of exciting when someone hates you so much that they’ll write a three-page hate review on you, and give you no stars, and basically tell everyone you’re a fucking hack. It’s kind of the same sort of exhilarating feeling as getting a really good review in Rolling Stone…”
Sound like a contradiction? Perhaps, but why are contradictions bad? Charlotte Martin’s whole career is a study in contradictions. You don’t always have to live up (or down) to people’s expectations.
People’s expectations can paint a distorted view of someone. For example, not a single article on Charlotte Martin can resist mentioning the fact that she is a former Miss Teen Illinois. (Yes, I know, I just did it, too… guilty as charged.) However, what does that have to do with her musical ability? Not a fucking thing.
Still, Martin takes it good-naturedly and with a grain of salt. “It’s one of those things I think people like to ask about, because there is such a fascination with plastic surgery and fakeness and reality TV. As a matter of fact, it was ten years ago, and I really don’t give a shit. I was in high school,” she laughs.
So, forget about her all-American looks. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t define her. She is a complex person and a complex artist. She doesn’t buy into labels. Martin loves goth music and comic books (I’m sorry, graphic novels…). She idolizes Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush and the Cure. Even though she doesn’t wear black clothing and black lipstick and pancake makeup, she still acknowledges she digs the goth scene and music. And why not? What’s it to you?
“People assume that because I have blonde hair that I should be on The O.C. or something,” Martin says. “Which is the reason I keep my hair blonde, because I don’t like to feed into anybody’s stereotype. Does that make any sense? Like, if you get the Cure, you’re goth. If you have blonde hair, you should be on Beverly Hills 90210. If you have long hair, you’re female and play the piano, you’re Tori Amos. It’s easy to pigeonhole people. But I love dark art, and I love… I guess people would consider it gothic music. I like to broaden it more, anyways. I’ve been to my fair share of goth clubs. I did dress in all black in those or they would have kicked my ass.”
To continue her contradictions, Martin was brought up training to sing opera. She never even listened to popular music until college. Still, to this day, she is fascinated by classical music.
“There are a couple of composers that I wigged out on in college, that I still obsess over,” Martin says. “One was Benjamin Britten. I sang this choral cantata called ‘Rejoice in the Lamb’ in college. I bought a recording of it maybe two years ago. This was an obscure little college choir and it was a really great rendition and I started really getting into it. Just the vocals, they’re very abstract and very mathematical and yet very beautiful.”
It was tragedy that first led Martin to songwriting. A friend had died, and Martin wrote a song as a tribute for the funeral. “I sort of felt compelled,” she admits. “I wrote a song for her funeral. That was my first gig. My original material. As morbid and depressing as it sounds, I just felt compelled to keep going.”
So, she did. Eventually, she moved to Los Angeles with a boyfriend, both wanting to break into show business. The relationship died soon after, leaving Martin alone and lonely in a new city. She was from the great American heartland, and honestly the constant activity and pressure of LA scared the hell out of her. For a year, she completely retreated, rarely leaving her apartment. It gave her time to write her music, but still it was no way to go through life. Eventually, she was able to leave her shell and come to an uneasy truce with the City of Angels.
“I started getting out to a couple of local coffee shops that were a short driving distance to my apartment,” Martin says. “I eventually found my favorite grocery store and my gas station and my Laundromat. I slowly started to venture my way out into the world they call Hollywood. The thing that’s hard to navigate here in LA is you have to make your own world because it’s so big. There’s definitely the cheesy Hollywood element thing. But I’ve already done the cheesy thing, obviously. ‘I was Miss Teen Illinois. Hi!’ That doesn’t really impress me, or I’ve gotten over all of that. I was just trying to find places that I thought were cool. I really wanted to meet people, but it’s really hard to meet people in grocery stores. Mostly they’ll give you their card and say they’re an agent. It’s so lame. There’s one restaurant that… I’m not going to name the restaurant… but, like, I went to and there were maybe thirty people there eating and like half of them had scripts. Not that I’m knocking it. I’m sure many of them were legitimate. But some of them would look at their script, and then look up. It doesn’t really impress me. I love the weather and I have my restaurants. I would actually stay here for the food and the water.”
So, she emerged from her apartment with a bunch of songs and the determination to get them heard. And they were. She soon earned a reputation as a terrific live act. That led to the opportunity to make her first album One Girl Army, which never received wide release. She was signed to RCA Records, who introduced her with the EP In Parentheses, which was released in August 2003. The EP was released to euphoric reviews, and Martin started work on her follow-up, On Your Shore, which was released in August 2004.
“[The acceptance for the EP] gave me the courage to make the album,” Martin says. “I personally know that I made a record that is not for everyone. I know I’m getting really good reviews. I don’t read them. I try not to read them. I get filtered good ones… I know that there are a few people that venomously hate what I do. I guess that first EP, because it didn’t make artistic waves, it was an introduction. But people received it pretty well. It just gave me the balls to make the record that I wanted to make and not care. I still don’t care. If people don’t like it, I made this record the way I wanted to make it. I produced it. I wrote everything on it, except for the cover [‘Wild Horses’ by the Rolling Stones], that was the bonus track for everyone. There’s not a drum sound or an ‘aah’ or a sigh that I didn’t have control over. If people don’t like it, it’s fine, because I do.”
Martin is being too modest. People like it. They like it a lot. Reviews have been overwhelmingly positive. People enjoy the fact that Martin’s music is artistic and interesting, but also memorable and accessible. Because you can create the most ground-breaking art in the world, but if no one can stand to listen to it, what good is it doing anyone?
“That word accessible. I come from a world where Mozart wrote a few tunes,” Martin says. “I come from the tune world and it’s not necessarily selling out to get into the Mozart Requiem. All the melodies are very memorable. Or ‘Adagio for Strings’ by Samuel Barber. Like, everyone knows that shit. It’s been on commercials like twenty billion times. Memorable is good. I don’t want to go over people’s heads.”
She is also able to make nods to her favorite acts in the songs, name checking Kate Bush’s “The Kick Inside” on “Up All Night” and a variation of Peter Gabriel’s “Mercy Street” [and at the same time specifically mentioning Nick Cave’s “Mercy Seat”] on the title track. Any and all little lyrical or musical tributes were completely intended, Martin says.
“You’re the first one that got it,” she says, excited. “Thank you very much. You got them all. I’m so impressed! I can tell you the specific tributes. The song ‘Limits of My Love’ was a tribute to ‘Running Up That Hill’ [by Kate Bush] and ‘The Walk’ by the Cure. Just the whole song… I purposely produced it that way, because I love that band and that artist. That was a definite head nod. ‘The kick inside’ was definitely a reference to Kate Bush’s record. And ‘mercy seat’ is definitely a reference to a Peter Gabriel song. I made it ‘mercy seat’ instead of ‘mercy street.’ I’m a Nick Cave fan [but the reference was to Gabriel]. I listened to a lot of Peter Gabriel while making my record. A lot of Security. I got heavily into ‘Lay Your Hands on Me’ and ‘I Have the Touch’ and all that stuff.”
A lot of people get it. Some people don’t. That’s okay, too. That’s why Baskin Robbins has thirty-one flavors. That’s why there are cats and dogs. That’s why there are Democrats and Republicans. Nothing works for everybody, and Charlotte Martin has no interest in driving herself crazy trying to fit her square peg into someone else’s round hole. You can’t please everyone, so you’ve got to please yourself.
“I’ve been criticized a little bit because it’s a little too sappy for [some] people,” Martin acknowledges. “A couple of people think it’s just chalked up this, or a version of that. They can’t deal with fact that it’s vulnerable. It’s painfully vulnerable. I had a couple of people tell me that they couldn’t listen to the song ‘Your Armor’ [which is the only song on both In Parentheses and On Your Shore] because it was just like stabbing themselves. They didn’t like it. They just flat out didn’t like it. The lyric ‘Am I worthy to come in?’ They just couldn’t deal with it. It was just too much for them. In that respect, I feel like I did a good job. I did want to do that.”
Don’t let that make you think that she can’t laugh at herself too. One of her concert faves is a hilarious song called, “I’m Normal, Please Date Me,” in which she obsesses about an old boyfriend that she really didn’t like all that much, anyway. She enjoys playing it but acknowledges the tune probably won’t ever be recorded. “I don’t want to be known as stalker girl,” she laughs. “It’s about as tongue-in-cheek as I’m going to go.”
In the meantime, she is forging ahead. Martin has been touring tirelessly. Liz Phair picked her to be on the “Chicks with Attitude” tour (sharing the stage with Phair, the Cardigans and Katy Rose). She has also toured with John Ondrasik (Five for Fighting) and Howie Day. Also, even though On Your Shore is just now arriving in stores, Martin has been working on the follow-up.
“My second album is written. My lyrics are always direct. They have some imagery to them. They even get more direct and more provocative later. I guess I feel like I’m writing the same record forever. Now On Your Shore got released, that’s fine. Now the next one is written. It was just weird. It was a continuation of this process.”
Again, it all comes down to making somebody feel something, for good or for bad.
“I just want it to be a strong reaction,” Martin tells me. “If everyone likes you, you’re boring. I’m grateful, you know. I don’t make music to be popular and I never have. I make the music that I like to make. I listen to the music I like to listen to. I very much approach all of my work also like as a fan, you know? My songs are my stories and my guts. I’m proud of what I do. I hope people connect to it. Either they love it or hate it. I guess I’ll take it either way.”
Copyright © 2004 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: September 22, 2004.
#1 © 2004 Yariv Milchan. Courtesy of RCA Records.
#2 © 2004 Yariv Milchan. Courtesy of RCA Records.
#3 © 2004 Yariv Milchan. Courtesy of RCA Records.