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Rebecca Martin: Paradox Of Continuity

By Published: December 25, 2006

AAJ: So you'll come up with the melody first for, say, an entire tune or a line or two of melody will give you an idea for something to write lyrically and then the rest will come? Or do you have the entire melody and then you fit in the words?

RM: No. I try to write the song in its entirety; both the harmony and the melody. So when I start writing the lyric, I have the context in its entirety. A lot of times when I'm working on the melody, there are things that come out just from me naturally singing and writing the melodies. Sounds will come out and sometimes they'll suggest words that I think are maybe unusual, like "bookends. Something will come out in a phrase at the end of a melody and I'll write it down. But generally I write all the music and the melody first. Then I go fishin' essentially—searching for words. Then gradually the meaning is revealed. Because I don't ever really know what the song is about a lot of times. It's very rare that a song I write is linear in its meaning for me.

AAJ: It seems to me that that's different from a lot of the tunes you've interpreted. Middlehope and this latest record with Paul are mostly older style lyrics, or old school standards. Lyrically, a lot of that stuff is more about clever turns of phrase and are more straightforward in terms of subject matter.

RM: Right. The Tin Pan Alley kind of writing or earlier—crafty. But there's that element in those songs too. Because something like, say, "The Midnight Sun, that lyric has what I feel is a perfect balance of everything. That tune, even though it has some of what you're describing—which is that very crafty, crafted songwriting—who's to know? Because I don't know what those songwriters' process really was. [Pianist] Bill Charlap probably does (laughs) because he's a knowledgeable dude with the American songbook. But that song feels so mysterious to me in its meaning.

AAJ: The music itself is sort of mysterious—that chromatic line...

RM: Yeah, I know. That's the stuff I'm really drawn too. I'd say the similarity is that there's a mysterious quality in certain tunes that I love to interpret. Even "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered. When the verse is added into that tune it changes it all to me and gives me a different context. When you listen to something so many times and you get so many references with people sort of singing the lyric in the same way, over and over and over again—without it all being intact. When it finally is all intact it can totally change the meaning enough to shift how you're feeling when you're singing it. Which maybe brings you back closer to the original intent of the song.

I say all of this and I qualify it by saying I'm not sure because I don't know what other writer's intentions are or even other interpreters' intentions are. I just know when something sounds really balanced to me and has all the mystery and soulfulness that creates a feeling—and then has all of the structure in terms of the words to help move the feeling out into the world for others to interpret.

AAJ: Middlehope is mainly standards and some covers?

RM: They were all standards and two songs that were written by Jesse Harris who was my old writing partner in Once Blue—"Then A Wall Came Up Inside Me and "One Flight Down. "One Flight Down is such a classic song. A lot of singers have done it. Norah Jones did it and somebody else did it.

AAJ: The melody is just killing. Great melody.

RM: And the lyric. Geez, when he hits it he hits it out of the park. That guy is such a modern day classic song writer. He writes timeless stuff sometimes and that's one of them for sure. But there are so many songs that were intended to be recorded by Once Blue that didn't get recorded. So I gradually sneak one in here and there so they get their due because they're such good songs. But everything else on that record was either an old song from a show or maybe a little more obscure, like "How Do You Say Auf Weidersen. I'm trying to remember where I'd [found] that. I love that song. It's so poignant, and so sad. I am always really drawn to that emotion. It's a good thing too.

AAJ: I was going to talk about the difference between the lyrics on Middlehope and your new original lyrics. There's some pretty dark stuff going on in the new songs which you say you get drawn to. To be totally specific, there are a lot of references to death. Which is not everyone's favorite subject to deal with but is, of course, always out there.

RM: You know what somebody said to me the other day? (laughing) An old friend of mine, who's a documentary maker and a wonderful songwriter too, came to my gig and said, "You know what's so great Rebecca? Your voice and your vibe are so inviting. People come to hear what you're doing and they sit down and they get themselves a cocktail and they're ready take you in and then you talk about death. And that's the great thing because it catches people off guard. I don't even go in there as deep as I want to go.

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