Canadian singer-songwriter Christina Martin has spent the past 15 years carving out a solo career that, across six albums, has seen her perfect a musical style that pairs an Americana-rock sound with lyrics that are personal, yet universal.
Her latest single, Lungs Are Burning, from her upcoming LP (expected in November 2017) is a case in point. An irrepressibly catchy song with an irresistible chorus, it conveys her reaction to the Fentanyl drug crisis that’s killed thousands of Canadians.
It’s one of the songs she’s been performing on her latest UK tour. Just before her recent show at The Sound Lounge in London, we caught up with the musician and record label owner to discuss her musical origins and influences, her love of dance music, why songwriting is anything but thrilling, routine on the road, and connecting with audiences.
What made you realise you wanted to become a musician in the first place? And what was the appeal?
I think Tina Turner, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and watching Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox in music videos all made me think it would be cool to be a performer or in a band, but as a teenager, my head was caught up with family turmoil, athletics, and worrying about boys and getting my teeth straightened out.
Eventually, through getting out and listening to live music and dance music, I began to dream about being a part of a band or some kind of musical entity.
I dabbled in performing, and at 19 I ended up joining a ‘70s rock revival band in Austin called Young Heart Attack. Around that same time I bought an acoustic guitar, and started writing and performing my own songs. I put together my own bands, but it took me many years to sort out my live sound, and I still feel I’m evolving.
David Bowie, Madonna, Michael Jackson… there were other influences too, The Pretenders, Bruce Springsteen, Bryan Adams, Wilco… but these were the iconic performers that I watched and sang or danced along with that got me excited about performing. It was something about their attitude, energy, or the sound of the band and their records.
I found out that performing can actually be quite stressful and nerve wracking, but every now and then I really enjoy myself, and on the right night with the right crowd, it’s a feeling that keeps you coming back for more!
As a songwriter and performer what is it that you connect to in other people’s songs? Is it, for example, the lyrics, the melody, the mood, or something else entirely?
It depends, it could be any one of those things, or a combination. It also depends on whether I’m in the mood to listen to lyrics and sing along, dance, or both. If I want to dance, I’ll probably throw on a Daft Punk record, if both, then Michael Jackson Off The Wall would do. If I want to listen to good lyrics and sing along, I might throw on David Bowie, Shawn Colvin, or Patty Griffin.
So are you interested in exploring some of these other genres? A couple of years ago you released a dance remix of your song Take Me Back In A Dream.
I’ve always loved dancing and certain types of dance music like disco, funk, and house. I would like to sing vocals for dance music, or remix more of my songs. I’d love to work with Daft Punk on a track.
Looking back on your earliest work, how has your approach to writing and your subject matter changed the longer you’ve done this?
I’m a better songwriter now, which makes sense because I’ve been doing this for many years. I edit more and am not afraid to ask for what I want in the studio. I’m a better performer, and sometimes I have the live performance in mind when I’m writing and recording a song.
Certainly as life happens, I write about new topics, and revisit old memories with new perspective. I just attribute growth to sticking around and dedicating myself to the work. The longer you do anything, the more experience you gain and hopefully at the end of the journey you have a catalogue you can be proud of, that reflects your life and your unique journey.
Is songwriting a methodical or more instinctual process for you?
Instinctual. Most of the time I’m just going by ‘feel’ and I have no idea what I’m doing otherwise.
Do you still get the same thrill when you come up with a great line or melody, or finish a song you’re proud of, as when you first started?
I’m a bit too cynical to describe the process of songwriting as ‘thrilling’, or to feel ‘pride’ when I’m writing. It’s a bit more quiet a process for me. I usually have a good instinct for when a melody or lyric might work, but it takes time to know whether I feel I can confidently say the song will work in a live setting or on an album. I think it’s always been that way for me.
There are surprise elements to creating always, because all of a sudden there is something from nothing, but I don’t get overly excited about the process. I just genuinely enjoy writing and working through songs, and maybe I get excited when it eventually sounds awesome in the studio or live, but during the writing process I’m not overly excitable.
Although it deals with a universal subject, a song like your new single Lungs Are Burning is very personal. Do you ever feel the need to censor yourself when writing lyrics?
I do edit my lyrics, but I don’t think I censor myself. Sometimes I think about my audience, and whether I would regret saying one thing or another. But other times I just write whatever with little edits. I try to write lyrics that represent how I honestly feel at the time. Editing is a process that helps me sift through millions of thoughts and opinions racing through my mind.
How important to you is it that people connect to your lyrics? Lungs Are Burning, for example, has such a big catchy melody that people could miss what it’s about on first listen.
It’s great if someone hears my music and feels anything! It’s more important that I’m doing what I love and that I have the freedom to continue following the path I have chosen. I’m happy if someone just finds some enjoyment from what I release. Some people focus on the music, some on the lyrics, and some both. Heck, I’m just thrilled if anyone is listening! There’s so much noise out there, it’s a challenge to be heard.
On a related note, what do you hope your audiences get from your live performances?
I hope they feel something, and I hope they genuinely feel like I was speaking to them. The connection in a live setting is very important to me, it allows for a kind of exchange of energy during the show, and I enjoy that. I want the audience to feel like I am appreciative of their presence and attention, and that I am singing and speaking to them. Otherwise, I’m not sure what the point of performing is.
I could record and release albums and not have to tour, it would be much easier in fact, but I do feel it’s important to share the music and messages, and nothing beats a great audience and stage! I also love sharing the stage with talented musicians; it’s healthy to feel like a part of something beyond yourself!
Touring can be tiring and monotonous. Is there anything you like to do to break the monotony, or is the time up on stage worth all the slogging around?
I like a bit of routine on the road. When I get to a hotel, I unpack all my stuff as if I’m going to be there for a week. I don’t plan ahead anymore, because I’ve learned that the most important thing on the road for me is to take care of business, eat, exercise, and sleep when you can.
When we have days off in a place I try to work in a few sight-seeing activities, but that is rare. I love running, as I get my workout and see a few sights along the jog. Sometimes I’m so tired during the show, it’s hard for me to enjoy being present, but when I have energy and everything lines up, the great shows keep me going for a while.
Edyta K reviewed and photographed Christina Martin’s show at The Sound Lounge. See her coverage here.