Q&A: Martha Johnson of Martha And The Muffins
You are in the process of recording your first solo record, Solo One, what prompted you to record a solo effort at this point in your life and career?
A number of things happened. I’d been writing a lot on my own over the last few years and also wanted to compose music with other songwriters. That started when Mark, (Mark Gane, my Martha and the Muffins partner), and I co-wrote a song called “No Man’s Land” with Hill Kourkoutis which she recorded for her Hill and the Sky Heroes album.
Also, my manager Graham Stairs organized a few songwriters’ weekends where he had artists he’d worked with over the years get together to collaborate. Out of that came the song “Bye Bye Love” which I wrote with Will Whitwham of Wilderness of Manitoba and Alister Johnson of Grand Analog. Then, Ron Sexsmith and I got together and out of that came three songs at which point Ron said I should do a solo album and so I did! It turned out to be a great process. I would come in with about a dozen finished lyrics and then together I’d write the music to go with the words with all these talented musician/songwriters. I really think my expression of some very intense emotional experiences was the birth of this album. I hope that intensity is felt when people hear the songs.
With the music industry being what it is today, many artists are turning to crowdfunding platforms to help bring their records into fruition and to bring the fans into the experience. You’ve recently launched a campaign with Pledge Music, as an artist, how do you feel about the idea of crowdfunding and do you think we are going to see it become a more integrated part of the industry moving forward?
I think the crowdfunding concept has great potential. This is the first time trying it for me and so far it’s working really well. At this point I’m over 75% towards my goal and the response from fans, friends, and family has been fantastic. The music industry as it was when Martha and the Muffins started in the late seventies is dead. The few major labels that are left are not willing to take the time or risk of supporting artists in the long-term. Any independent band or artist who has a strong sense of who they are has to go their own way and do for themselves all the things the record companies used to do. The crowdfunding model brings the artist and listener together in such a way that could not have existed until the Internet.
This past weekend, you took part in an exclusive taped performance at the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Toronto, which featured you playing the famed 90-year-old Casavant Freres Opus 1034 Pipe Organ. What drew you to the organ and to partaking in a performance of this nature?
There was an article a month or so ago in The Globe and Mail about a church in the west end of Toronto that was being converted into condos and the developers, much to their credit, were trying to find a new home for this beautiful organ. Mark and I thought this would be a great location for a viral video and the developers kindly gave us permission to shoot one of my videos there. I wasn’t the one playing the organ, that was Marty Smyth, a very talented multi-instrumentalist.
Even though this is the unsung era of digital music, it seems that we are seeing a resurgence of interest in more traditional sounds and musical elements like the organ, why do you think that is?
Everything comes and goes in popularity. With all the airbrushing and auto-tuning surrounding us, a lot of people want to reconnect to something real. Real people playing real instruments.
Martha and the Muffins rose to New Wave prominence during a time when the musical landscape looked quite different. Having experienced what you did as an artist, what do you think independent artists struggle with the most today, and how does releasing a record today compare?
One of the biggest struggles for indie artists today is not the making of their music, but getting it heard. Anyone can make music now and for better or worse, there are a lot more people releasing their efforts than ever before. It’s not about whether it’s good or bad, it’s a very crowded field and the challenge is getting yourself noticed.
In the old days, the record company took the risk of funding an artist, put the money upfront for the manufacturing, distribution, marketing, promotion and touring. They typically kept 85% to 90% of any profits and you would only see your 10% to 15% if you paid off the cost of all these things, which often never happened. Now we do it all ourselves, or hire people to take care of certain things. We assume all the risks but have complete artistic freedom. It’s not a business for the faint-hearted.