Inside the Songs: Creative Writing with Jeffrey Martin
As a music writer, I get a fair amount of album submissions from hopeful musicians. I listen to them all, or as many as I can, but honestly these days most of my musical finds come from my own research or from friends. That said, every now and then and album comes completely out of the blue to blow me away. Jeffrey Martin's Gold in the Water is a perfect example. I'd never heard of Jeffrey Martin before getting a random email about him, but immediately, on the first listen, I knew this was special. Martin's a marvelous songwriter, effortlessly drawing out fully-fleshed stories and lush natural metaphors from a simple folk music structure. He's an incredibly rare find among today's glut of singer-songwriters: a songwriter whose songs are immediately affecting. These are the kind of songs that can change you. I listened to Gold in the Water over and over, and got the same feeling from his songs that I got from Cahalen Morrison's songwriting. Somehow his songs sound like they're coming out of a great novel, or that they're part of a larger work.
I checked into his background, and unsurprisingly he's a creative writing teacher in Eugene, Oregon. He doesn't tour very much, and his album isn't too widely known, even in the Northwest. But I can't imagine him staying hidden for long. His music is too good! I fired off an email to try and get more understanding of his songs. He wrote back about three songs I'd chosen and added some extra info too on his songwriting process. Enjoy!
Inside the Songs with Jeffrey Martin
How does being a creative writing teacher influence your songwriting (or vice versa)?
Jeffrey Martin: The greatest thing about teaching high school English is that it is impossible not to be constantly humbled by it. Young people are, by nature, testing the waters in all areas of their lives, with every word they say and everything they do. This results in a lot of stupidity, but also in a lot of creativity and genius. I haven’t had much experience teaching at this point, but I’ve already been floored more times than I can remember by what my students have come up with. As we get older we carve out grooves that we like to follow, in our thinking and in how we feel our way through things. I think those grooves are just less defined in teenagers. They are wild and free to try on perspectives that escape older folks entirely. Sometimes this is maddening. Most times, even when it’s maddening, I realize I’m holding on too tightly to the groove I’ve carved out for myself.
The second greatest thing about teaching is that I’m forced to read (and write) constantly. To be immersed in so many words and stories, edits and suggestions, keeps me primed for my own writing.
How do you keep from tapping out creatively, i.e. hitting a block because you're writing so much?
JM: When I was earning my BA in English I realized that you can’t approach creativity like it’s a finite substance. It’s not the oxygen, it’s the act of breathing. Even if there was no oxygen, you’d still make the attempt to breathe, and that’s what writing needs to be. And I suppose, if you were constantly concerned about the levels of oxygen available, you’d begin each new breath with trepidation. But writing is gasping; you have to be gulping things down, heaving, recycling all the time. So I think I just decided that something that carried so much passion and weight in my life as writing does can’t possibly be dependent on something that can be exhausted. On the flipside, I get exhausted often. Creativity can’t run out, but the muscles to wrangle it are muscles just the same as any other. I think it’s okay to lay down the guitar for a while, and the pen. Maybe they need time to rest also. I do a lot of carpentry on the side, and exhausting myself physically with manual labor is a perfect way to let the songwriter section of my brain get some sleep.
Jeffrey Martin: "Stolen from Them"
JM: I was living in Tacoma (WA), on Hilltop, and losing my mind when I wrote this song. I was working days and weekends at a country club, and living alone in this crummy little studio apartment with a hugely slanted floor, like a ship always titled to one side. The neighbor had a dog he wasn’t supposed to have, a big old muddy colored mutt with a bark like a gunshot, and across the street was a halfway house for pregnant young mothers (essentially a depot for late night ambulances). The song came entirely from the first line, something I jotted down in a poem, living in the city feels like crying in the rain / until you learn how to scream everybody looks the same. I stole the guitar part from a thousand different folk singers before me, it’s nothing fancy, just a podium for me to rest my elbows on while I get the words out. Or something like that. I felt swallowed up by concrete and fumes and noise and orange streetlights, and it seemed like the only way to be noticed in all that mess as anything remotely human was to scream out loud at people, or at the world in general. I wanted to get somewhere, to woods, the mountains, where there was no desperation to be noticed. Then the song (as they often do) became something else. It became this call and response between a boy (maybe) and his older wiser self (maybe.) It became a realization that I’m always assuming that I can think up a better outcome than what my life has produced at any given moment. If only I was hopping a train out of the city to the mountains, then I’d have some peace. If only I’d not been so scared to reveal myself to that woman. If only the world didn’t have such ugly corners, then it would be a whole lot easier to believe in God. If only I could be some place where I wouldn’t wish to be in any other. But all of these if only’s are answered by that other voice in my head, the one I should pay more attention to, that reminds me to take a breath, and own my failure, and see the human heart for what it is, fickle.
Jeffrey Martin: Why Can’t I
JM: One night I was sitting in my car outside my girlfriend’s apartment, waiting for her to get home from a party. It was one of those off nights when you just can’t stand the quiet of being alone, and you drive just to move some place, or you browse through shops you’d otherwise not be caught dead in just to feel like you have a mission of some sort. I had a junky old garage-sale guitar in the backseat, all out of tune and missing the low E; but it had this perfect tone for the moment, like every note passed through a soup can, like a radio in another room. The song is just a question to myself: why can’t I just be? Why do I have to look at every instance and determine it to be good or bad, positive or negative? I was struck by the idea that the natural world exists apart from value and moral implication. A leaf falls from a tree, and it just does. It’s blown by the wind, and it just is. I had a rough day, and I pick it apart and dwell on it and trying to extrapolate the reasons for it. I definitely think there is great value in thinking about our lives, our choices; and I’m not trying to be one of those people who claim everything is what it is, and we have no responsibilities and we suffer no consequences. I just think there might be a balance to be had, and sometimes we should just let things be. I have a love-hate (no, not hate, more like love and let’s-just-be-friends) relationship with the song. I like the words, but sometimes it feels hokey to sing. I have this specific idea in my head that it should sound tinny, and old timey, something that would be playing on a scratchy radio on a Sunday afternoon in 1951 while everything is sweaty and metal and dusty. And when I do it live, it never lines up with how it exists in my head. Maybe I could tape a soup can to the mic, and put a pick-up in that junky old guitar.
Jeffrey Martin: Winter Place
JM: This song exists in a very specific time and place. It was written during one of those brief windows of time when that easy feeling comes crashing down through the muck, and it’s wonderful and life giving, but it doesn’t stay for long, and one morning you wake up and it’s hissed away. I love Christmas time. I like the cold and how people’s attitudes change into something more jolly (usually) while they are all bundled up and bouncing down the street. I like coming home after working outside (I was siding houses that winter) and getting warm and clean and buzzed on whiskey. But there is this obvious level of superficiality to Christmas (in the pop culture sense.) We all know everything isn’t so peachy as those jolly songs make us feel. We all know twinkling lights and ribbons and hot cider are just props for a very temporary season. But we embrace it for what it is. And despite the fact that the season is so temporary, and is based on so much fluff, we can still grab hold of such strong and meaningful memories that we carry with us throughout the rest of the year. Your girl dancing to your new guitar diddy while she makes homemade eggnog, for example. So Winter Place feels like a pop song to me. I don’t think anything about it, the lyrics or the melody, is particularly challenging or thought provoking, but that’s okay. We all know what it feels like to hope that it snows so deep we are stuck home from work with someone we love the next day, and that’s all that song is.
How does the natural environment of Eugene, Oregon affect your songs?
JM: Eugene is a beautiful town, and the beach and mountains and rivers and lakes are so easy to access. But nature doesn’t often find its way into my songwriting, at least as a main character. There are archetypes from my boyhood that will forever exist in my songs, mountains and rivers; and they serve as ancient places that I can always count on to bring me back somewhere I got too far from. I think the separation between the city and the wild is a really interesting concept. I think if you spend time in the wild with the city too much in your heart (if that makes sense) then you might as well not have come. And I think if you spend time in the city with the wild too much in your heart, then people will treat you like you shouldn’t be there. And it seems like so much of life is about trying to be courageous enough to claim what we are at our most raw. In the woods, a mirror can be the most terrifying thing. In the city, a mirror is a tool that we use for everything but examining who we really are. I think I’m getting way out there now, and I better bring it back down to the concrete. Yes, without a doubt, nature affects my songs, but more so behind the scenes, in the foundations.
Do you have a new album coming soon? Are you making new songs?
JM: I have a truckload, and a boatload, of new songs. Last year I had the chance to hang out with Martyn Joseph for a bit, and listen to some of his advice. Something he told me was that I should take my time in making albums. Everyone is always so anxious to make an album, to capture the sounds, but, according to Joseph, not enough folks give enough time to shaping their songs on stage before they get in the studio.
I’ve been playing a lot of shows this past year, and will continue to do that through the fall, and I really like how my songs have found a final identity. I’m currently recording an EP in Portland, six or seven songs that I can tour on this fall. And then this winter (January) I’ll be getting to work recording another full length album.
This post originally appeared on the Hearth Music Blog. Check out our website and roam through our blog and Online Listening Lounge to discover your next favorite artist! We're dedicated to presenting today's best Roots/Americana/World musicians.