Little Orange Room Sessions is a one-take, one-shot, “living-room”-style performance video series recorded in Eugene, Oregon. Each two-song session is recorded in the 125 square feet that I use for mixing, producing, and sometimes even recording entire albums. Little Orange Room Sessions grew out of my crazy love of music and mixing, a growing curiosity about film and cameras, and a deep-seated passion for performance and the art of song.
Session #14: Jeffrey Martin
Jeffrey Martin is a Portland, Oregon based Americana and folk singer/songwriter. After three full-length albums, one EP, and years of heavy touring, Martin is considered a true songwriter’s songwriter. Gregory Alan Isakov says of Jeffrey Martin, “One of the best writers out there – beautiful, brutal, and honest.” No Depression describes his most recent album, 2017’s One Go Around as “the poetry of America.” A few weeks ago Jeffrey took the time to answer some questions via email.
*In light of the recent Coronavirus pandemic I decided it would be appropriate to include Venmo and/or Paypal information (with consent of the artist) for any fans/viewers who would like to leave a tip. Our hard working songwriters and musicians are taking quite a hit right now and any little bit helps. Thank you.
LORS: I’m curious about your writing process. Is there a tried and true way a Jeffrey Martin song gets written?
JM: “Writing process” is a term that makes me feel really insecure. I’ve never been able to identify my own process, while others have written books on the subject, and it makes me wonder what I’m doing wrong. My process of writing a song, or writing anything that I feel is worth keeping (and therefore also sharing), is interwoven with my mind and heart in such a way that to try and nail down a process is about as foolhardy as trying to predict the weather. I can feel the air get thick, and I can see the clouds start to gather, but when exactly it finally pours is a holy mystery to me. I’ve spent some serious time watching the sky, crossing my fingers for some song inspiration. But the problem with that is all the stories, all the people, all the things worth writing about aren’t up there. They’re down on the ground, right out in front of me, right in my hands. And I know there are plenty of folks who say you need to make your own weather, sit down and put pen to paper every day, rain or shine. That may work for a lot of people, but I don’t have that kind of rigor in me. Plus there’s a difference between imagining a rainstorm and being caught out in one. All that to say, I’m trying to devote much less time to predicting the weather these days. It rains when it rains. And my only job is to have a pen ready when it does. (That said, I’ve noticed a spooky correlation between the amount I read and the amount that it rains.)
LORS: Your tour schedule has been pretty extensive especially over the last year or two. Does performing give you as much satisfaction as the writing process does or is the performing more of a means to an end? And I realize I’m being presumptuous. I guess because you used to be a high school English teacher I can assume writing brings you some satisfaction and also that you’re judging all of my incorrect sentence structures and spelling errors?
JM: First of all, I intentionally left as much grammar instruction out of my teaching as possible. I don’t believe in it. Truly and fully. So you’re off the hook.
For me, no song is complete until I’ve toured on it. Songs that feel gloriously whole at 3 am in my kitchen, can fall to pieces on tour when after playing them night after night, and feeling the room respond night after night, the cracks are revealed. I love the escape of writing– to be buried in the work, clueless to what time it is, what day it is even. But I’ve found that what makes sense in that intimate writing space doesn’t always translate well to the live show. Usually the bones of a song work well in both places, in the kitchen and on stage. But sometimes the energy needs to change, the key needs to change, the dynamics need to be worked on so that song can have an arch to it. Or sometimes I realize that what is crystal clear to me in the writing, isn’t very clear to many other folks. Sometimes that vagueness is a strength, other times it means that a little context, a little story or intro about the song, can really give it legs that it otherwise wouldn’t have. All this stuff I discover out on tour.
And now I’m remembering that your question was about the satisfaction of tour vs that of songwriting: Tour feels like pushing a homemade plywood boat into the river for the first time. I can build awesome boats in my backyard, but if I don’t drag it to the river, climb in, check for leaks, there will always be things I can’t know. And in that sense, the touring and the writing are equally satisfying. I can’t wait to get the boat wet, and I can’t wait to build another one. (sidenote: I think technology and the internet has created some really fascinating potential alternatives to classic touring, in terms of testing out how seaworthy songs are. I just haven’t explored it much. I like discovering new greasy diners and that can’t happen from home).
LORS: You’re recording a live album on April 23rd in Portland, Oregon. I know there is a lot up in the air right now with the Coronavirus pandemic so this is probably not happening on that date. Regardless, I think it’s such a great idea. How did that all come about? Will this be the official follow up to 2017’s One Go Around or something to keep your fans at bay while you work on your next studio album?
JM: Unfortunately, barring one of Trump’s miracles, it’s looking like that show will be almost certainly pushed back to a later date. I still play songs from my very first album, Gold in the Water, that I made back in 2009. An EP, two full length albums, and bunches of unrecorded songs have been written since that first one and I still cycle through most all of them on tour. The words are the same, but the way I play the songs has changed a lot as I’ve matured as a musician. I’m proud of those first albums, but I wanted to put something out that represented what touring has done to those songs, something that is truer to how they feel to me now. There has always been a very distinct feeling of freedom once I settle into a live show. Three or four songs in, and usually I’m lost in another place (similar to how getting lost in writing can feel), and that’s a feeling that I’ve never been able to capture in a studio setting. Whenever I listen to my recorded songs, I can hear that, on some level, I was aware of the fact that I was in a studio, sitting at a mic, trying to get it perfect. I’m excited to hear the difference on a live album. Fingers crossed it’s a good difference… And fingers crossed I can forget about the fact that we’re recording.
LORS: Guy Clark sings, “Some days you write the song / some days the song writes you.” Which line best describes you?
JM: Definitely the latter. I think all the songs I’ve ever kept, recorded, keep playing live, are songs that are still writing me in various ways. I can crawl back into them night after night and discover new corners. I have a few songs that are the opposite, and usually that feels like trying to jam the square peg into the round hole. The keepers always happen despite me, not because of me. Not to say that songs fly in on the breeze, as some people like to claim. I don’t believe that for a second. There’s a lot of hard word that has to happen long before a pen hits the page. But 99% of who I am doesn’t feel necessary in the moment of writing a song. So the work of it, to me, is trying to get all my unnecessary bits out of the damn way.
LORS: Any music you’re listening to (old or new) that I should put in my ear holes? Or any good books you’re currently reading or just finished?
JM: For a Sunday backyard beer, put on Bobby Charles (start with Small Town Talk, or I Must Be in a Good Place Now.) There’s a quality to a performance that exceeds lyrics, that transcends musicianship. Bobby’s got it in those tunes.
Lately I’ve been digging into Sandro Perri’s stuff. I’m fascinated by the fact that I either can’t stand his songs, or I love them and listen non stop on repeat. There is no in between for me. I’m really intrigued by his song writing, and how it feels so closely intertwined with the melodies he makes. Take a good walk in the neighborhood and listen to his 25 minute doozy, In Another Life.
As for books, I finally read Silence of the Lambs the other week. I was home alone for a few days and scared myself to the bone. It didn’t feel like a deep well for songwriting, but it’s a great read. Sometimes a bag of Doritos is just what the doctor ordered.