‘smallsongs’ is a YouTube series brought to you by Americana Highways with small & stripped down performances on the streets of different cities, featuring musical acts at their rawest.
Late January we brought the ‘smallsongs’ bus to the beautiful city of New Orleans, accidentally timing it just right to be here for Mardi Gras season. Even though the pandemic has temporarily changed the streets in the French Quarter, the Marigny and other neighborhoods, the resilience and charm of this historic town stay the same. Jazz is still echoing past the balconies and through the cobblestone alleyways, and of course you can’t cancel king cake!
Yesterday I was sitting in a coffee shop near city park with my wife and now 7 month old son Elliott. There a toothless older man walked up to us with a strong Southern accent & a bike helmet. He explained to us what makes the people of New Orleans so unique. Long after the French & Spanish settled here, a little more than 100 years ago, the Spanish Flu came as the most devastating influenza pandemic in modern history. He told us that it forced people to look at their lives differently, as they didn’t know how many months or weeks or days they might have left to live. There are some obvious parallels to what we’re all dealing with today. That resilient spirit still lives with these locals and in these colorfully storied homes.
Maybe it’s because of jazz, or all the French Quarter busking, but there seems to be an affinity for unplugged acoustic instruments here, which has perfectly complimented smallsongs. We’ve been here for close to 2 months and have gotten the chance to collaborate with musicians like Julie Odell, Sam Doores, Jeremiah Lloyd Harmon, Handmade Moments, Cyrille Aimée, Zoe Boekbinder, Renée Reed, David Shaw of The Revivalists, Kate Teague, Cha Wa, Sarah Quintana, Cassie Watson, Chris Acker, Morgan Orion, Butte, Juno Dunes, and more. So stay tuned as all these videos get shared.
This week we featured some new songs like “Please Hold On” off the upcoming album from Max & The Martians. This song was shot during golden hour in Armstrong Park while hundreds of crows flew by overhead.
For “List” we walked in to the French Quarter and picked a spot right by Royal Street that Max knew well.
Then we went to the Mississippi River with a drone, and he played an acoustic version of a tune titled “Death Dance.”
I asked Max from The Martians some questions for this.
Americana Highways: When did you first start playing music?
Max: I first started playing music when I was about five years old, taking violin lessons. I started playing guitar when I was ten or eleven and eventually dropped the violin, I wish I hadn’t, but I just wanted to learn songs I could sing. Also, I had a great guitar teacher who got me really excited about playing music.
AH: What does your songwriting & creative process typically look like?
Max: The songwriting process is really different depending on the song I’m working on. Some songs just pop into my head when I’m walking my dog or tinkering around on the guitar. Other songs I’ll think about a lot beforehand and then spend time working out the kinks. Most songs go through a lot of adjustments before they feel finished.
AH: Who are your artistic & musical influences?
Max: I think I’m most inspired by the musicians that I play with here in New Orleans. I play guitar in the band Tuba Skinny, so I spend a lot of time playing early blues, jazz, and ragtime. I learn a lot from that repertoire.
There’s lot of amazing songwriters in town and a lot of us play in each other’s bands. I play a lot with Esther Rose and Duff Thompson, for example, and they play in the Martians too. Mashed Potato Records put out two amazing compilations featuring a bunch of New Orleans songwriters and musicians in our community.
AH: Can you tell me the story behind your new album All the Same ?
Max: This project came together over a couple years. I started recording some of these songs immediately after putting out the 2016 self-titled release, so it’s been a long process. Over the course of 2017-2018 I recorded about 16 songs with Ross Farbe (who engineered all but two tracks on All the Same). In the end, when all of the tracks were done, I was left with a lot of material that covered a lot of time. Some of those songs were almost two years old, and it gave me perspective on what these songs actually meant to me.
I won’t go through all of the tracks, but the first song, “All the Same” tells the story of the record. It’s a reckoning of forces in my life, some within my control and some much bigger than me. In this song I’m drifting unaware of what will come to me. I’m living in a burning building. Inside, I’m dreaming of the past, recalling old lovers and heartbreak. I simultaneously feel love, nostalgia and regret. In the end, the house burns to the ground, and what’s left is all the same.
This record was written and recorded during the last years of my mother’s life. She had been diagnosed with terminal cancer when this record was started and she was fighting for her life when it was finished. The songwriting process helped me confront feelings of loneliness and grief, yet these songs aren’t here to make you cry.
This album is less influenced by country music than my earlier recordings, but I still find myself inspired by the story-telling and attitude of classic country songwriters. Even the saddest songs can make you want to dance and sometimes laugh a little.
All the Same features a rotating crew of backing musicians, including Ross Farbe and Ray Micarelli (Video Age), Jordan Odom (Gold Star), Esther Rose, Shaye Cohn (Tuba Skinny), Duff Thompson, Camille Weatherford (The Lostines), and Steph Green (Carver Baronda). The album was also recorded by Ross Farbe, with the exception of the single “Please Hold On” (recorded by Duff Thompson and Bill Howard of Mashed Potato Records).