If you sit back, close your eyes and listen to one of Martha’s excellent songs, you’d swear she was an American gal, roots filled, rustic n jeans, siting on a farm porch with her guitar and musing about the world. That’s how much her music is steeped in the American Folk/Country/Roots tradition. Organic, honest, intelligent, emotional and humble. The ingredients which make for great songwriting.
Martha: Martin Dreadnought Junior / Fender telecaster
Al Shields: Vintage Guild guitar/ Fender Telecaster
Mic – Shure SM58 bets
Pedals / Electronics: LR Baggs Venue DI
Amidst a busy gig/tour schedule, Martha took time out to answer some questions about her album, her songwriting influences & processes and what’s planned next.
Q: What first got you into music, how long have you been playing and why the guitar as primary instrument ?
“I can’t remember a time I wasn’t into music, it’s always been there. I come from a family obsessed with music in every way to be honest! My dad was always playing cassettes in the car – everything from The Eagles and Bruce Springsteen to Irish folk groups. And mum was into Abba and disco. Both of my Irish grandfathers played the fiddle, so I think it genuinely is something in the blood. “The reason I play guitar is two-fold: I loved female singer-songwriters like Sheryl Crow and Bonnie Raitt growing up and they were really great guitarists. Also, my Dad just happened to have a giant acoustic guitar, which was twice the size of me, so it was there and it was accessible and I could practice it regularly and persevered until my fingertips hardened”..”
Q: Who are your main influences: are they the same for songwriting and singing or do you have different ones for both ?
“They’re probably a bit of both! Vocally, I love Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton, Stevie Nicks, Bonnie Rait. Songwriting-wise, I love Bruce Springsteen, Beth Nielsen Chapman, Kim Richey, Gretchen Peters and Lori McKenna. And they are also amazing singers. So I guess I am a sucker for great stories and strong vocals.”
Q: How do you approach writing a new song – what processes do you go through. Melody first, or guitar/chord
progression ideas come first, or does it all differ for each song ?
“I find it hard to remember. I spend time with just words and ideas and fill notebooks and go back and highlight stuff I think is maybe interesting. Observing is also a big part of my process: I love to people-watch, scour magazines and newspapers for stories. That’s one part of it. Then I sit down with my guitar and just start playing and humming ideas and that usually comes first if I think about it. The hard part is deciding what I am trying to say and how that should sound, so it’s a bit of a drawn-out process for me.”
Q: What are your main topic areas for songwriting, love, loss, life etc ?
“I write about so many different things. My last album Keep “The Flame Alight” was about home, travel, love, pain, friendship, how I see my role as a woman in this century, observations on people I’ve seen and stories I’ve made up in my head. It’s whatever makes me react strongly and gives me an impetus to write about it, that’s when I know I have something that matters. One of my favourite poets, William Wordsworth, described poetry as “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” and I think songwriting is that, too.”
Q: How do you get ideas for songs, do you listen to other songwriters/music artists ?
“I do, I really love Springsteen, Dylan, The Eagles, Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Lori McKenna and Carole King. It’s hard to produce something original, but I just try and do my homework like I mentioned above and not get too bogged down on how I want something to sound.”
Q: Have you had writers block, if so how do you cope with it – just leave it until it’s ready to come out, or do you “fight to write” ?
“I fight to write. I need to feel productive, that’s something I’ve learned over the past few years. When I was living in Nashville for three months in 2017, I got to focus a lot on my writing and started doing free writing and exercises to prevent the awful “blank page syndrome” we can become afflicted with. Back home, there are lots of distractions and it’s easy to feel blocked or uninspired. I find it difficult to promote and tour an album and write at the same time – they use very different parts of my brain and I haven’t found a way to make the two meet in the middle! I think as long as I am setting a timer and doing my morning pages when I get up, at least I feel I am doing something. I also love Pat Pattison (he writes on songwriting) and I’ve been lucky to attend some great workshops, including one with Gretchen Peters”
Q: You wrote and later recorded your last album “Keep the Flame Alight” in Nashville. How did the album songs come about and how was it then to go back and record in such an iconic place ?
“Yeah, Nashville is one of my favourite places in the whole world. I’ve been going there before the hit TV show so I got to experience it before the hype and hysteria associated with that show. The songs came about on a life sabbatical I took in 2017. I left my job in TV and my husband and I saved like mad to be able to survive and rent an air b&b for three months. We hung out with friends, watched so many amazing bands and artists and I learnt more about writing than ever. I had already made my first album over there and it seemed like the right thing to do and go back to where the songs began with my friend David, who I love working with and trust wholeheartedly.”
Click HERE to listen to “Keep The Flame Alight”
8) You worked with Nashville Producer with David Spicher – how do you find it working with a Producer and were you ok to relinquish some control over production and instrumentation ideas to him ?
“David is an absolute gem to work with in every way. He is such an accomplished musician, arranger and he has the most amazing, chilled out nature. We agree on most things, to be honest, and we had a lot of conversations and email discussions prior to the actual recording of the album about the direction of the tracks, so there weren’t any surprises. Well maybe one or two! I trust David and we work well together and some of the arrangements are thanks to his direction and the involvement of the brilliant Nashville session players on the album.”
Q: Have you had any interest from Labels or Publishers ?
“I’ve had interest in the past from some labels and publishers, but it’s really difficult to make the right connections in this game. So many artists are now doing it on their own and it does give you more power over your career. Having said that, the exposure a bigger label or publisher can give an artist would be welcome over here any time”
Q: What’s the plan with the album (and any more in the pipeline ) and for 2020 – more gigs etc ?
“Keep The Flame Alight” was released in October 2018 and I toured and gigged to support the release for the past 15 months. I was really pleased to play festivals from Red Rooster in Suffolk and AMA UK In London to Arisaig Americana and Omagh Bluegrass in Northern Ireland. It took me on a great trip. I feel it’s time to work on a new project now and my friend and guitarist, Al Shields, and I are planning to work on something to give us some focus before we bring out our next albums.”
Q: What stumbling blocks have you had as a music artist or songwriter/composer ?
“SO MANY! I couldn’t possibly list them all. The stumbling blocks have come in so many guises: personal struggles with confidence and self-belief; practical ones like getting involved with the wrong managers/agents/promoters; always having to have a part-time or full-time job to support the music at the level I operate….the list goes on…it’s not an easy path or choice, it really isn’t. Then there’s writer’s block, financial stuff. I’m not alone in all of this.”
Q: You’re constantly gigging, how is that for your mental well being and health ?
“I love singing and playing and I really love meeting people and music is such an important part of my life. However, the travelling, driving, late nights and early starts do take a toll. People don’t realise how much work goes into rehearsing, planning sets, getting to the venue on a tour etc…
They think you’ve just been sitting getting ready to do your 90-2 hours on stage. They don’t see all the other stuff like eating really bad service station food and staying in cheap and nasty digs! It’s exciting and exasperating all at once. Let’s not forget, when you’re gigging, you’re constantly putting yourself up in the public realm for criticism and “feedback”…so it can be challenging to stay positive.”
Q: Is there anything you’d like to see happen in terms of improving support for Songwriters/Artists in Scotland ?
“Absolutely, I’d love a major record label and publisher to headquarter in Glasgow. It’s such a great music city and we have such a wealth of talent here. I used to work in TV and saw great successes when production companies and broadcasters invest outside of London. We need to stop considering London the centre of the music industry. I’d love to see Scotland’s talent being recognised and there needs to be something massive going on to create a buzz here. I feel although there are great organisations like MU, Creative Scotland and PRS and Help Musicians, we are still struggling to make headway in popular music and new artists are only breaking through with label backing. This needs to change. Artists get so far and then plateau. How can artists take their careers to the next stage or level?”
Q: What was it that drew you toward your influences, What was it that resonated with you ie guitar based, stripped back, strong melodies and crafted songs etc ?
“I’ve always loved stories and I’ve always loved country-sounding instrumentation: fiddles/acoustic guitar sound/pedal steel. At school, I’d read the cover notes of LPs and cassettes for all the information on the lyrics and I’ve always felt when songs make me feel emotional (be that happy or sad) that’s when I am drawn in….Writers like I mentioned above, it’s the honestly, the truth in the songwriting and the emotion in the instrumentation.”
Q: You’re on tour with Al Shields, any wee funny anecdotes or stories you can share.
“Al is my guitarist and a great friend. It’s really rare to be able to hang around with someone who doesn’t do your head in ha ha ha…We both get hangry quite a lot and so part of our touring rules is “let’s eat regularly”. We also listen to really bad 80s and 90s CDs in the car on the way to venues. We frequently end up dressing in the same plaid shirts if we don’t consult each other first, too! Al does a tour VLOG on his YouTube Channel and we have some laughs.”