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::: New! :::
Jeff has been meandering his way through life with songs and stories for many years. Finding the humor in unexpected places and delivering it in a way that only Jeff can. Connecting the dots, or maybe helping to erase them. It is a delightful blend of music that has flavors of blues, gospel and hints of The American Songbook.
For a new twist on some old yarn....
Read more here.
I play bass guitar (currently a five string "MTD").
I've played in churches (I'm part of a folk group in a Catholic church at present), pubs - nasty and nice, concerts, coffee houses and assorted other environments.
I've played in duos, full bands (three, four, five piece) and other configurations. I've had the good fortune to be part of a number of recording sessions as well.
I play by ear and use chord charts frequently. I am learning to "read" but am at a beginner level in that regard.
There are very few types of music that I don't like. I've played rock, country, gospel, reggae, folk and even some classical at a semi-serious to pretty serious level.
I'm a sucker for a great melody, a cool riff or a worthwhile lyric. If all three elements converge in a song great; I will, however, settle for one or two of them. :-)
Read more here.
"Encountering (Mennonite) Singer-Songwriters: J.D. Martin and Cate Friesen." By Jonathan Dueck.
In Sound in the Land, edited by Maureen Epp, and Carol Ann Weaver, 159-78. Kitchener: Pandora Press, 2005.
Bigger and Bigger Containers: JD Martin
I spent two evenings talking with JD Martin on the telephone, speaking from his home in the Colorado mountains. A particular theme which emerged in Martin's story is the way in which geographic moves to different centers correlate with an expansion of his songwriting palette, and parallel enlargements of his worldview, and of networks, communities and social connections.
Martin described the sounds of his early childhood in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Martin's father was a Mennonite minister. Martin remembers singing in church, by plain-clothed and cape-dressed Mennonites, and church-music sung at home by his parents.
Martin credits the beginnings of his basic skills as a songwriter to the piano lessons he received at the age of 8 in Harrisonburg, from a local (Mennonite) teacher named Norman Kreider. Martin told me, "I was always good at picking out things by ear, like a melody, you know, sit at the piano and pick out a melody, but he showed me how to play chords with that, and that was oh, a wonderful thing, to find out about." Martin described his way of performing the popular music he heard on the radio as a high-school student: he would remember the melody, and transpose it in his mind to the key of C, so that he could visualize it and form chords for it. This visualization was a physical, embodied understanding of the melody, rooted in the experience of playing the piano; when I asked Martin if he visualized "notes on a page or fingers on a keyboard," he replied "More like fingers on a keyboard." Even today, Martin continues to write songs in this way, thinking of the melody in mind, and the chords as "fingers on a keyboard."
From the relatively conservative environment of Harrisonburg, Virginia, Martin and his family moved briefly to Elkhart, Indiana and then to Eureka, Illinois, where Martin's father worked as pastor of a local church. Martin's hymn-singing activities in church continued, and he also learned basic conducting patterns and began to lead singing in church. Eureka's high school had a choir, in which Martin sang. In Eureka, popular music was more acceptable, and Martin could buy and listen to LP records; he remembers especially the records of rockabilly legend Johnny Horton and the folk and country close vocal harmonies of the Browns. Martin remembers telling his high-school conductor that he wanted to be a pop-music singer, and the conductor advised him to consider becoming a music teacher, as singing would be a pretty hard job.
Martin pursued this career recommendation in college, first at Hesston College (1966-68, in Hesston, Kansas), then at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, and finally at Goshen College (Goshen, Indiana). He took music education classes, and classical voice lessons, singing art songs, Lieder, and other classical repertoire, as well as in choirs. His move "out of the box," in his words, to Millsaps and the South brought him into contact with many non-Mennonites. Then, Martin's senior year at Goshen College (1970) was the beginning of an enduring love Martin bears for the vocal sounds and the piano styles of African-American gospel music; Martin particularly remembers hearing a Mennonite choir, with both Latino Mennonite and white Mennonite members, from Chicago's Lawndale Church, with that "gospel sound."
Martin's "fooling around" with pop music began to be applied to songwriting in earnest when the famous Mennonite hymnologist and music professor Mary Oyer, at Goshen College, gave him a songwriting assignment. He wrote song lyrics, then wrote a melody and chorded at the piano to complete the song; Martin described this process for me: "finding a feel on the piano (it had that gospel 'thing') and then letting the words come out gradually." This song was later recorded by the Hallam Street Band as "Pentecost."
While the band considered themselves to be part of the "radical Mennonite movement," affected by hippies and political radicalism, the main focus of the band was writing and singing songs that asked: "what does it mean to be a follower of Jesus?" In other words, this band could be situated well within the networks of the Mennonite church in the 1970s.
Martin then moved to Indiana and worked as a teacher there. Teaching was difficult for Martin: "It was hard for me to live without the creative outlet... being a schoolteacher was good, but it was so different, I didn't have a really good chance to write songs." At the end of this teaching year, he called his friends from the VS unit in Colorado, and they invited him to come back to Colorado and join their new band, Tanglefoot.
Martin described the difference between the Hallam Street Band and Tanglefoot not as a conscious move away from a singular focus on Christian reflection in songwriting, but rather a broadening, a move towards simply writing good songs about whatever they liked, enjoying life, and becoming a successful band. This "open[ed] up the ceiling," as Martin described it, for his work as a songwriter. Again, the band lived together in a band house in Aspen. "Everyone was a songwriter," recalls Martin, in this "hothouse" environment. Nearly everything that was written by a band member was eventually performed by the band. The band's main performance networks were popular-music venues, such as clubs and bars, rather than Mennonite venues. However, one of the most meaningful memories for Martin from this time is of a song which he co-wrote with Ellen Stapenhorst, called "One More Home," which required a cello part as accompaniment. In 1979, Tanglefoot played at Goshen College, and Martin and the band wrote out this cello part for Mary Oyer, rehearsed with Oyer and then performed together for the Goshen College community. Martin describes this as "a wonderful kind of homecoming for those of us that had gone there [to Goshen College]."
In 1980, Martin moved to Nashville to become a professional songwriter. He worked as a staff writer for several music publishing companies there, first with MCA Music (which is now Universal), and then with Warner/Chapell. Martin worked in an office writing songs. If the song was promising, Martin would go to a studio in the same building and record it. Then an intermediary, called a "songplugger," would promote the song to recording artists, who would hopefully record and perform the song. This distance between songwriting and song performance meant that this was a time for "going to school," a time for the craft of Martin's songwriting to be developed; rather than writing songs which expressed his own deepest feelings, he worked to write songs that had good melodic and lyrical ideas which were likely to find their way to an artist. Martin enjoyed success as he co-wrote songs for artists like Reba McEntire and The Oak Ridge Boys.
Martin eventually signed a record deal with Capitol Records, but after recording for a short time the label dropped him. This experience precipitated a question for Martin: "What do I really want to say?" Martin describes this as a kind of re-enclosure, a re-rooting experience: "[it] got me back into my own body."
While places can be thought of in terms of their musical and social content, Martin's story of movement between major centers of the music world resonates with Arjun Appadurai's characterization of the world as a set of overlapping "scapes," which are routes that are travelled rather than places that are inhabited (Appadurai, 1996). For Appadurai, there are five "scapes," including finanscapes (money), ideoscapes (ideologies), mediascapes (sounds and images), technoscapes (technologies), and ethnoscapes (people). These various scapes have impact on the lives of people, but they are disjunct – they do not move at the same time, or from another viewpoint they are not moved through at the same. For Martin, the mediascape in which Nashville was once placed – where his songwriting ideas had once fit well – re-routed him to Los Angeles.
Musically, Martin was interested in pop-country music, but his style of writing was very different from the Randy-Travis-influenced sound popular in the early 1990's. The market for his music dried up in Nashville in 1993.
Martin moved to Los Angeles on January 1, 1994, immediately after a major; when I asked him what the experience of Los Angeles was like, he responded that the "lid [was] blown off, personally, spiritually... [like] jumping into a much bigger container." On a prior visit to Los Angeles, he stayed at the house of this friend Jamie Houston, and had a powerful dream that night. This dream provided the impetus to co-write, together with Houston and Wendy Waldman, a song, "One Heart," about connecting with the world of the spirit even after his complex and sometimes negative experiences with organized religion. This song was a part of landing his job in Los Angeles, again with Warner/Chapell.
In 2001, they moved together to Aspen, Colorado. When I asked Martin about this decisioj, he told me about a recent visit to Los Angeles where he read several "pitch sheets," advertisements from artists who were looking for material. About three-quarters of all of these pitch sheets described what they were looking for with the same word: "edgy." When I asked about what that meant, musically, Martin said, "You have to be part of that world, and I'm not," explaining that he was not angry but rather peaceful these days; nor was he writing for the twenty-year-old market, but for his own, reflective, middle-aged peers. What Martin himself wanted to say and what the market wanted were again at odds. He responded in part by writing and recording his own album, One Heart (2001), near the end of his time living in Los Angeles; on the jacket of the CD, he says: "In the twenty years I have been writing for other artists, these songs have felt like 'mine.'"
Martin and Garrett, now married for four years, had just purchased a house when I interviewed Martin. The house has big windows, not good for soundproofing but a "nice space to be creative in" – a songwriting room of their own. Martin continues to travel to Los Angeles and to Nashville to write. However, the business of establishing a niche for he and his wife's musical collaborations takes the majority of his time these days; this leaves relatively little time for writing new material.
The duo recently co-wrote and produced an album entitled I Dreamed of Rain (2003), and they are touring to promote this album. They handle their own booking, in part connecting with a network of spiritual communities, including New Thought churches and Mennonite churches. They also run their own web site and handle all order fulfilment for their albums. This is the first time Martin has worked so closely with the business aspect of popular music. He talked about it being particularly difficult to ask for money for what he does as a labor of love, and his attempts to re-imagine this business aspect of his work as providing him with the means to give an artistic and spiritual service.
Martin told me that an agent would alleviate much of this work, but that agents are hard to come by until you are an established artist. However, he sees his future in singer-songwriter work, because of the relationship between his own and Garrett's creativity and the marketplace for songwriting. Martin tells me that perhaps the most important thing he's learned about songwriting over the years is to be "emotionally honest." That honesty may be a liability in the marketplace for songwriting, where the taste culture which rapidly changes. Despite the risks of beginning their own business as a singer-songwriter duo, Martin sees a more stable future in creating music and finding his own audience for that music.
Martin told me that co-writing music with Garrett threw a particular light on each of their own songwriting processes, and demanded some accommodations. Martin described his general process for songwriting as making an appointment with someone, going to meet with them, and obstinately working and waiting until they have written a song. Garrett, on the other hand, waits until she is inspired, hearing a melody in her mind, and then works on the song. To write together, he waited until she came up with germ of a lyrical or musical idea; they then worked together on that idea until patience was exhausted, then took more time and space to work on their own, then worked together again intensively, and the process continued.
Martin at one point in the interview said that love songs could be called "secular... I hate that word." I asked what it was about that word he objected to, suggesting that the sacred / secular dichotomy could be seen as particularly Mennonite, as in the church versus the world. Martin responded that where he grew up, Catholics were seen as "the world," to say nothing of Buddhists and beyond. As a result, he does not claim to be Mennonite; he feels that this might be too limiting a label. However, he is please to be claimed as Mennonite, as he has been recently, invited to sing at Mennonite churches and present at Mennonite conferences. The big containers of Martin's religious openness and his musical activities continue to contain his Mennonite roots.
And – as he later explained to me, "a large part of my reaction to the word 'secular' is also because I've come to see all of life as 'sacred.' Songs about human love and work and play are no less important or less sacred than songs about the mystery" – Martin's containers include many other people, relationships, beliefs, places and sounds.
Quotations from Cate Friesen and JD Martin, unless otherwise noted, are from interviews with the author undertaken in the fall of 2004. I interviewed JD Martin via the telephone on September 20th and 28th of 2004; and Cate Friesen on October 3, 2004 in person in Winnipeg, and on October 26, 2004 via the telephone.
Appadurai, Arjun. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.