Martin Kerr photos by Shaun Scade
Martin Kerr on Street Performing, Travel, and His EP Don’t Listen To Me
British-born, Canada-based singer/songwriter Martin Kerr recently released a new EP, Don’t Listen To Me, via Nettwerk, building on many years of songwriting and performing. His songs have a certain ethereal quality, but also focus in on core human experiences and allow room for audience participation. The combination naturally catches peoples’ attention, something that Kerr experienced through a career built on street performing. Now he’s as comfortable leading people in communal singing at small gatherings as he is in larger, orchestral concert venues or even stadiums.
For the new EP, Kerr found himself in both a more reflective mood due to the progressing illness of a close friend, but also in a more optimistic state as he found reasons to celebrate connection with other human beings. The title track, in fact, which is overtly uplifting, was prompted by a concern for what Kerr’s final message to his own children might be. This duality between recognizing harsh realities in life and yet expressing belief in the human spirit is part of what makes for a dynamic EP. I spoke with Martin Kerr about street performing, travel, and the origins of Don’t Listen To Me.
Americana Highways: I see that you’re in British Columbia. It seems like a lovely place to be on a summer’s day. What brings you there?
Martin Kerr: There are about 150 campers here and there are various programs going on, like yoga and guided meditation, so I’m singing with them. We have a welcome session every morning and I get everyone singing. We did a more meditative one at the chapel last night with my more chill songs and meditative stuff. Tonight, they’ve invited everyone to come out from surrounding towns and it should be a big party in the park.
AH: I’ve been hearing more lately about community singing and gatherings that draw from all kind of traditions.
MK: I feel like we really need that, as a society. That hole in our lives used to be filled by religions, where we’d get together and sing on the regular, but we still have that need to sing together and be together. It’s nice if you can reintroduce it in a way that’s welcoming. Often they just sing one chorus or a line. This is something a bit different that I’ve been invited to do, but in my regular live shows at festivals and theaters, there’s always lots of participation.
I personally love the feeling of a whole room of people singing together. There’s something magical about it, especially if the people aren’t necessarily singers. For me, it’s amazing therapy to sing, especially with other people. I feel like that’s a gift that I can give to people.
I was quite conscious of that when writing these new songs, that they had to have bits where people could join in, for the most part. “You’re Hand in Mine” is more introspection, but there are quite a few in the folky tradition. [Laughs]
AH: I’ve seen some photos and footage of a few of your shows, and I honestly did get that feeling just from those elements, because I noticed that every single audience member is intent on the stage in a really focused way. No one was looking at their phones! When I heard the music, I understood that more, because I think it’s also very accessible.
MK: Thank you. That’s actually my number one favorite challenge, to capture the attention and the hearts of new audiences. I got a lot of experience doing that as a street performer. For ten years, my main source of income was street performing, and that’s the whole game, to draw people in with something beautiful that captures the ear and attention. Now that I have people actually turning up to hear me, it feels so much easier! And I can take that a few steps further with participation.
The song “You’re Amazing” is always a big hit at the live shows, where people sing the choruses to each other, even to people they don’t know. The song has taken on a life of its own as people are sharing it in schools and kindergartens. I love emotional songs where you can have a good cry, but I also love the way that music can brighten someone’s mood and create a sense of belonging among a group of people.
AH: It gives me the sense that human beings don’t need that much encouragement to connect with each other, just an opportunity and a little push.
MK: I think so. Just create the right conditions and good things happen. I’ve had some pessimistic moments in my life, but this album is a little more hopeful. There’s some pain in it as well. As I was writing this album, a good friend of mine was in late-stage cancer. She passed away in February, so she’d been in my mind all the way through making this album. The song “I Just Wanted You To Know” is specifically about her.
But on the whole, this EP is more forward-looking whereas previous EPs have been more about struggle. There was a song on a previous album called “Reason,” for instance, which was about living in the “post-truth” age and another one called “Good Old Days” about how the people in charge keep harking back to when things are better when it was them who screwed things up. I’ve let go of some of that rage now! [Laughs] Though I still play them live. There’s a bit more peace and optimism here, I think.
AH: I think it’s great that you don’t rule anything out for potential songwriting. If there’s something heavier that you need to write about, you do. If there’s something more hopeful, you do that. I was wondering about the song “Blissful Lands” because that could be taken to be about someone leaving this life, though I’m aware that it could be about many things. It has a questioning tone, reminding us that we don’t have all the answers.
MK: I enjoy writing in such a way that people can find their own story in the song. The imagery can take them somewhere into their own story. That song, “Blissful Lands,” according to my intentions, is a song about passing on into the next world. There are not very many songs about that, at least not in a very hopeful way. There are lots of songs about losing somebody. There’s a song by Van Morrison that I’ve always loved called “Into The Mystic.” It’s about looking forward to the next world. That’s quite a strong theme in most of the great faiths of the world, but it’s not something that we talk about in contemporary society.
I had it in the back of my mind that one day I’d like to write a song like that. At the time, I didn’t know why I was writing it. The guitar part came to me and made me think of the next world since there was something mysterious and beautiful about it. The lyrics started to flow and the song kind of fell into my lap. Then it became really meaningful to people, whenever I started to share it, and it became clear that people really needed this song. They had recently lost somebody or were getting ready to pass on themselves. We need so much emotional support to deal with that reality, and it’s not really there. I’m writing that song to remind myself of my own beliefs. I do believe in an eternal soul. I don’t pretend to understand it. [Laughs]
I was raised in the Bahá’í faith and the way that it’s taught is that moving from this world to the next is kind of like coming into this world from the womb. The baby is in the womb but doesn’t see the world, and isn’t ready for it yet, and we see that as a metaphor for the next life. We’re here developing qualities that we’re going to need for the next world. Actually, it’s already there, but we can’t quite touch it yet or understand it. It’s a mysterious thing, and I’m trying to convey some of that mystery in the song. I do like to leave it up to the listener to find their story, though.
AH: Yes, I don’t see the song as proscriptive thing, but there is a sense of wonder. It’s very open, and the doors that are left open in the song are particularly interesting. Also, your metaphor suggests that we are continually developing throughout our lives and every stage is significant, which I think brings more meaning to people, too.
MK: I think people are really craving deeper meaning and some relevance beyond Instagram filters. I have plenty of that stuff. I’m 40, I have three kids. I know I’m not a hot, young thing, but most people aren’t, either. We’re craving a real connection with other human beings and to be able to talk about the things that matter. I think if you keep being true to yourself, you’ll find the people who want to connect with that, and that’s what I’m trying to do with this album.
AH: I can see some of that sensibility in the song “A Long Drive.” Again, it can apply in many ways, but this idea of needing to shift one’s situation to see more clearly makes sense. Driving is therapeutic, but so is travel.
MK: I love to travel. I’ve been to 36 countries now. Most of my travels were in my youth, when my parents would take us traveling whenever they could, even if that meant sleeping in the car at the side of the road as we drove around Europe. I loved seeing new places and I loved seeing the world as a place of friendship and possibility rather than something to be feared. That feels like a real gift that the parents gave me, that the world is my home, and the people who I haven’t met yet are friends in waiting. I try to raise my kids the same way. I built up a lot of pent-up desire to travel in the past couple of years, and that really comes out in these songs!
AH: That upbringing must have helped you in your street performing. Depending on how you think about it, street performing is the most brutal approach to music! [Laughs]
MK: Yes! This is actually how I managed to make a career of music, and I’ve been full-time for 16 years now. The first year, I tried to do what everyone else was doing, make an album, put on a release show, book a tour. I barely broke even that first year, and I noticed that everybody else was barely scraping by with day jobs. I wasn’t really enjoying it, either! A basement of a bar on a Wednesday night wasn’t really where I wanted to hang out.
I started taking my music out on the street where people were gathered already. I found some really cool farmer’s markets where there might be 10,000 people on a Saturday. I just put music out there. People aren’t expecting to hear good music from a busker, usually. If you can bring them something really beautiful and make it easy for them to support you, which is key, it can be a great way to make a living. I try not to mention that I was on Canadian Idol, since nothing really resulted from it, though I made it into the top ten.
It taught me an important lesson, that exposure is not all it’s cracked up to be, and real, sustained success is going to be built on meaningful connections. I doubled down on street performing after that. Most of the gigs that I’ve had in the past 15 years came from people who saw me on the street, from house concerts and weddings to opening for Sarah McLachlan at a stadium show.
AH: The title track also feels like a significant song on this album, and I also think it’s unique. Usually, when people tell us what’s troubling them in their lives, we feel obliged to solve those problems for them. Here, in this song, the speaker instead takes a step back in a vote of support and belief, and acknowledges their own limitations.
MK: It was one of those songs that wasn’t really hard work at all. This one felt like it dropped out of the sky. I had the opportunity to send a song to the CEO of Nettwerk. I needed to send him something new, so my manager booked me a day in the studio for me. The day came, and I hadn’t written anything that I liked enough. I dropped my kids off at school and was driving to the studio. It was 9 o’clock in the morning and I was stuck at a red light. I was having a massive panic attack.
I thought, “I haven’t got anything to say. And even if I did, why should anyone listen to me?” And then I thought, “Maybe I should write about that. Maybe I need to get honest. Maybe other people feel that way, too.” I literally sang the chorus to myself in the car and recorded it on my phone. When I got to the studio, the Producers were waiting there for me, who are my co-writers on that song. I sang it for them, and they wanted to write that with me. Two hours later, we had a finished demo which is very, very similar to the version we’ve released. What you hear on the record is what we did in those two hours.
What you got from it is very much my intention. It was something I hadn’t heard anyone say before in a song, and I love finding those things. Also, my friend Michelle was on my mind, since she knew she wasn’t going to be able to beat her cancer, and had three young kids. It made me wonder, “If I had to say goodbye to my kids, what would I want to say to them?” The advice in the verses is from that perspective. If you just had one chance to tell the people you love something, what would it be? In the end, I wanted to say, “Trust yourself.”
Great advice! Thanks very much for chatting with us, Martin Kerr!
You can kind more information and tour dates on his website here: https://www.martinkerrmusic.com/