How an unlikely songwriting duo created a roots-music gem.
STEVE MARTIN AND EDIE BRICKELL? These are two names that hardly seem to belong on the front of an album together. Along with all his voluminous credits as a comedian, actor, producer, and writer of stories/novels/plays/tweets, Martin has made his mark in the music world for his fine bluegrass banjo picking. Brickell, on the other hand, is best known for fronting the jam-rock band New Bohemians, whose sly and groovy hit "What I Am" captured the airwaves in the late '80s. In terms of musical style, age (Martin is close to 20 years older), and home base (Brickell has long lived in the New York area with her husband, Paul Simon, while Martin is the quintessential Southern Californian), these two would seem to have little common ground. And yet here we have Love Has Come for You, a superb and charming album of new traditional-sounding songs that pair Brickell's words and vocals with Martin's banjo tunes.
For both artists, this album represents a big musical step forward. Though banjo has been part of Martin's comedy act since the 70s, he released his first all-music album, The Crow: New Songs for Five-String Banjo, in 2009, scoring a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album. In 2011 he followed with Rare Bird Alert, collaborating with the young bluegrass band the Steep Canyon Rangers, who continue to perform in Martin's music/comedy shows. Over die years Martin has written some great songs, from "King Tut" (originally recorded with the Nitty Gritty Din Band) to the hilarious, gospel-style "Atheists Don't Have No Songs" (with the Steep Canyon Rangers), but the collaboration with Brickell marks his deepest and best composing to date. On banjo, Martin is stretching beyond straight bluegrass, with deft clawhammer playing and some almost classical-sounding melodies.
Brickell, too, wrote great songs with New Bohemians, delivering playful and often elliptical lyrics in her distinctive swooping vocal style. But she's kept a low public profile over the past 20 years, releasing just two solo albums and, more recently, singing with drummer Steve Gadd's band the Gaddabouts. Working with Martin's banjo tunes has inspired Brickell, for the first time, to tap directly into her north Texas roots (Martin was bom in Texas, too, but raised in California). She fills die album with colorful characters and voices, from the quirky breakup song "Siamese Cat" ("I like your Siamese cat / I like your cowboy hat / But I don't like your daughter") to the lonesome "Remember Me This Way" ("Painter, would you paint my portrait / Paint me wearing the finest clothes in town / Make me look like I'm somebody / Make me a little younger than I am now"). Martin's banjo proves to be a perfect partner for her lighdy drawling vocals, subtly supported on die album by strings, guitar, keyboards, and percussion. Produced by Peter Asher, the album includes contributions from such notable players as Nickel Creek siblings Sean and Sara Watkins, bassist Esperanza Spalding, and studio guitar ace Waddy Wachtel.
Early this year, as Martin and Brickell were gearing up for their first full performances together, and also scheming a musical based on the album, I connected with the duo on a bicoastal conference call to find out how this serendipitous collaboration came to be.
I've followed both of your careers since the beginning, and I have to say this is a duo I never would have expected.
MARTIN Neither could we, by the way. It came up in that way that no agent or director or anyone could ever put together. It was a complete surprise that one, we got together; two, that it actually started working; and three, that we just did it for fun but then started to think, hey, we might have enough songs here for a record - and they might be good enough for a record. It was a completely artistic enterprise from bottom to top. All the commercial aspect came after everything was written.
Edie, was this a surprise for you too?
BRICKELL Yeah. I've always been a big fan of Steve's. Paul got Steve's record [The Crow], we were driving into New York one night, and he said, "Hey, do you want to hear Steve's record? I haven't listened to it." Paul played the first track, and the way Steve ended the first track ["Daddy Played the Banjo"] as a songwriter, I thought, that is so smart. He turns it around on you right at die end [the lyrics depict a boy learning banjo from his dad, and finally admit the whole story is a lie]. I was blown away. I said, "He's a renaissance man. He can do everything. He's making us look bad over here."
When I saw Steve at a party the year before last, '11, I finally got to tell him how much I loved the record, and he said he had a tune he hadn't written any words to. I said, "I would love to write a song with you." That's how it began, and we just started writing a song about every week.
MARTIN By the way, I never told you this, Edie, but I used to listen to your record "What I Am" constantly. Just so you know.
BRICKELL Thank you.
What was the first song you worked on together?
BRICKELL It was "Sun's Gonna Shine."
MARTIN I had this tune I was working on, and I didn't have any lyrics for it. We met at Edie's apartment in New York, and I played it for her. I was a little nervous because we didn't really know how the collaboration was going to work. I didn't know if I was going to contribute to the lyrics, or how she worked, or whether we were going to sit there and work it out together. And then it quickly evolved to, she liked to work on her own on the lyrics, and I worked on my own on the banjo tunes. I would record the songs and send them to her. We got into a groove, and it was kind of beautiful.
BRICKELL When Steve first came to my apartment, I felt really shy. I was accustomed to jamming with a band. It took me a while even with New Bohemians to get used to [writing with] those guys. When somebody else came up with a guitar riff or whatever it was, I would just start singing. When I realized they weren't listening anyway [laughs], it just opened me up to say whatever, and then I could narrow down my choices. I could look for mat moment where I knew it was a real song, and then sort of craft the lyrics around die essence of the expression.
With Steve I started to do diat, but because it was just the two of us and he was actually listening, I said, "I just want to take Ais and work on it," so I could sing through die song until it landed in the right spot. I didn't want him to think, oh my gosh, it's so dumb. But when he sent diem through e-mail and I was by myself, it wasn't hard work at all. I immediately heard a melody, heard a song, and saw images, and all I had to do was try to put words to these images and these stories. They came. I'd send [the song] back to him, many times the next day, and he would send me a tune two days later, sometimes even the next day. It was so thrilling and exciting, because we were on this roll.
Did you fiinction at all as each other's editors?
BRICKELL No. The only time we edited or anything is when we'd say, let's add - let's double up the verse here to make die story work. He would send me back a banjo track with an extra verse on die top. Especially with "Love Has Come for You," it helped to tell the story.
MARTIN I still marvel at the lyrics. Even now when I listen, I go, how did she do that? I listen to "Sarah Jane," "Thrown off die bridge to the river by the ridge was the Iron Mountain baby," and I go, well, that's perfect. Or "Love Has Come for You": it's such a simple line and still so eloquent and poetic. It's great to have a partner that you're impressed with.
BRICKELL I'll say! It was a matter of really tuning into his banjo tunes, trusting what I heard, and just letting it flow out.
Steve, you obviously work with words all the time. When you came up with a banjo tune, did you have some idea of a story?
MARTIN That's an interesting question, beobviously I've written lyrics. The trudi is, in these songs, I knew there was a story; I know what it was at all, and Edie found it. I've always felt the banjo carried emotion, from the first time I heard it. It's taken me 50 of playing to be able to play in a way state those emotions, and this record has me to do that. So I feel like the tunes wrote were circling around the emotions of and these stories, and Edie was able translate them into words.
Do you two have any sort of shared playlist of artists who helped provide a musical or lyrical vocabulary for these songs?
BRICKELL I don't know if we have a shared playlist.
MARTIN Edie and I know very little about other, and I think we have this unspoken that we don't want to know too much it might ruin something. So actually have no idea what kind of music she likes.
BRICKELL I came from a big family, a real family. My grandmother was one 11, and we hung out with her and all of her sisters and my mom. They were all from Paris, Texas, and they were rough but sweet and loving and clean [laughs]. They told it like it was, and I heard a lot of funny stories and an authentic sense of humor about life. When 1 started school, everybody seemed a little phony to me. I would watch television like Leave It to Beaver, or great love stories in the movies with Jimmy Stewart and everybody, and I thought, diese people are so sweet and innocent all the time? They're not fussing and fighting and arguing? What kind of world am I living in? I'm not saying [my family] was mean or abusive, but it was a wild bunch, and 1 miss 'em.
My mother listened to a lot of soul and R&B, but when I joined a band they were more into rock, and I just sort of adapted musically even though it didn't really represent my roots or where I came from. I love all music, essentially, and I didn't have one particular genre that I wanted to express.
Anyway, fast-forward way ahead, and here I was freezing in New York, and I started to put on country music in the winters to warm me up and remind me of home. I'd tired of all the old country music of the 70s - George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn, etc. I'd heard it too much, and I went back back back and I heard Bob Wills, and those lyrics startled me. They were so funny, and they reminded me of all those [Texas relatives]; and I thought, I would love to get a chance to express in this way. And then boom, there's Steve Martin and these gorgeous banjo tunes, and that was my opportunity.
MARTIN That's a sweet tiling to say. But my story is completely the opposite. The music of our household was elevator music essentially - the most boring kind of music. I found my music outside, which was rock 'n' roll radio in die '50s and '60s. I'd been hearing all the "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?" kind of stuff, and then suddenly there was Chuck Berry singing "School Days." It was like contraband; I was in Orange County, and you had to tune into San Diego to get it. And dien I started hearing folk music and die banjo, and I just flipped. I loved die modal sound of Irish music, Scottish music, and Appalachian music, and that's essentially the music I still love today.
But I went through all kinds of music. I listened to classical guitar and Segovia, and almost nothing else, for about two or tiiree years.
BRICKELL You know, diat shows in some of diese tunes. I was wondering how you had diat feeling so naturally. Anyway, it's beautiful.
Steve, how would you compare the sound and style of this album with what you do with the Steep Canyon Rangers?
MARTIN Well, this is different. With the Steep Canyon Rangers, who are so great, diat's a band; everything we play on diat record, we can reproduce onstage. And this record is more produced. I've long had a dream - / have a dream - that the banjo can play well with others, meaning chamber orchestration, but it has to be done right, and I think Peter [Asher] pulled it off.
When I was first starting to play, the banjo was sort of hot because of "Dueling Banjos." A lot of records came out with a banjo used in all kinds of different ways, just to capitalize on it. There were records coming out where the banjo would front an orchestra, like they'd play '3ohn Henry" with just one banjo playing the tune single string. I actually copied that in die '80s when I did some banjo music on the back of one of my comedy records. I thought it was gorgeous, and it stuck in my head, and the banjo hasn't really been used much that way. Bela Fleck does a whole concerto with the banjo, but it's very different - it's a real finger buster.
I think there's a new element here where the banjo is really blending well with these other instruments. It's not just a bluegrass configuration. It's also expanded through strings, piano, celesta I'm not playing the banjo all the rime three-finger style. There's air.
Even though the album has other instruments, to me it sounds like a conversation between the banjo and Edie's voice.
MARTIN Well, it actually is. All our demos were just the banjo and Edie. The few people who heard it actually fell in love with just the banjo and Edie. When we made this record, everybody said, don't interfere with that, and Peter Asher was very cautious. He did an amazing job. I don't really know the term for this orchestration, but it does seem to me like a conversation between Edie and the banjo supported by these other beautiful instruments.
BRICKELL It's like a sonic hologram. He doesn't lose the central image. He just creates depth around it.
Edie, in these songs you sometimes sing the same melody as the banjo plays, but not always. "When You Get to Asheville," for instance, is more like a vocal/banjo duet. In that case did you overlay a new melody?
BRICKELL That's how everything was written. Usually because I'm very busy around the house, I would walk around the kitchen. I think the best way is to sing in a distracted manner, while you're doing something else, and have a recorder standing by. So I was cooking and that song came through, and I put the computer up on the kitchen counter and pressed play and started singing along while I cooked, and then there was a song.
MARTIN She would often find a new melody against the banjo.
BRICKELL I didn't mean to. I thought it went with it. I'm not conscious ofthat kind of effort. I just sing what I feel. I don't know what I'm doing [laughs].
And since you're busy you don't think about what you're writing at all.
BRICKELL No, I'm just enjoying singing to something. That's what it is - singing opens my heart. I can feel it, I'm uplifted, and I love to get any piece of music to sing to. His were so special because there was a story.
I was already conscious for about a year or two that I was very tired of singing from my perspective: I feel this way, I think that. I realized that is so boring, and it's so much more fun to hear a story and colors and imagery, so I did have that in my thoughts as an intention, as a way to write. I would step aside from what was going on in my life, singing about me me me all the time, and just [sing about] what interests me about our lives and what can happen in them and how people feel. It's so much more interesting, because I think as a witness, you take in so much more.
MARTIN What's interesting is that when I was doing my comedy act, I decided to only talk about myself, because most comedians were talking about others - they were always putting down other people, or "a guy walks into a bar. . . ." So one of the big shifts I did when I started doing comedy was I only talked about myself. You are doing the complete opposite - you're talking about others in your songs, and that was a big shift. That's really good.
BRICKELL Thanks. I like it a lot better, because it doesn't get old that way. How we feel, or whatever stage we're in that seems so important or valid - five years later it's like, oh my gosh, I have to sing that stupid song?
Some of these songs sound so cheerful yet tell such sad, dark stories - like the suicide in "Yes She Did. " Were you consciously aiming for that kind of storytelling, reminiscent of traditional folk ballads?
BRICKELL Yeah. I always liked it, but really it was a response to his melody every time. When I heard the music for 'Yes She Did," I had this image of an old man, much like my great-grandfather by the time I knew him. After having 11 kids and living on a farm in Paris, he just sat in a chair in the living room and everyone came and kissed the ring, you know? I had this image of him there, and his eyes were glazed over kind of blue with cataracts. He was still beautiful, with a full, big head of hair, and he just gazed out the window. All of those sisters would sit on the floor around him, and he used to say, when somebody did something bad, 'Tell me she didn't go wreck that car," "Tell me she didn't yank those kids out of school and embarrass them." It was always a "Tell me she didn't . . ." and all the sisters were sitting around, putting their hand on his knee, saying, 'Tes, she did, Daddy. Yes, she did do that."
MARTIN Yeah, and when that song came back over the e-mail, I just thought, oh yeah, this is like one of those upbeat murder ballads. It was perfecdy done in the spirit of the genre.
For you, do these songs take place in a particular time? Sometimes the stories sound like they're from another century, but then you sing about e-mail in the opening lines.
BRICKELL I thought that was a neat way to bring in the present moment, to put e-mail in there. I like doing that, to make you sort of sit up for a second. 1 didn't want everything to be like I'm mimicking some old style. I wanted to honor what I loved about the old style, which was a super colorful lyric and a melody that's very singable, but I didn't want to pretend I was somebody else in the sense of putting on a caricature. So I wanted to reflect the authenticity of today in the same way that those people were doing back in their time when they were writing those songs. I think it's very important to be aware of your present moment and to express it. Otherwise you are just putting on some old-fashioned coat and trying to walk around in it and look good. I wouldn't want to do that.
MARTIN I was very happy when I heard that line, because you can't just keep writing songs about mines and trains and have people identify with them. It's starting to sound a little fake, even though there are still mines and trains.
BRICKELL And there's plenty of colorful subject matter, right now, here in the present moment. These are the good old days. But "Sarah Jane" is a train story simply because on the bridge [of Martin's banjo tune], I heard myself singing, "Whoo-oo-oo," and I thought, that sounds like a train. I remembered when I saw Steve in concert they played "Orange Blossom Special," and it was a knockout. It made me look at that song, and I thought the title of that song is extraordinarily beautiful. So I decided to look for the name of a train and put a real train name in there. I Googled trains, and the first tiling that caught my eye was Iron Mountain, and if you click on Iron Mountain, there's that little story about the Iron Mountain baby: this Civil War vet was walking under the trestle by this river, and he heard a baby crying. Somebody had thrown a baby off a train in a suitcase, and I said, you've got to be kidding me. His wife's name was Sarah Jane. What really interested me about that story was she was 70 years old, and her husband goes out looking for wood. You know, I imagine she's pretty tired, and he comes home with a baby? I thought, what is her story? That's a lot of work!
Steve, did these songs carry you into new territory in terms of playing style- frailing, tunings, anything like that?
MARTIN You know it put me deep into the heart of the way I love the banjo. It put me a lot into the double-C tuning [G C G C D], which I've always loved but hadn't fully explored. In the last three years I've really been concentrating on frailing, and I think the songs are about half frailing and half three-finger. I was also doing three-finger in double-C tuning.
Guitar takes more of a supporting role on this album, though you've got some great players.
MARTIN Woody Piatt from the Rangers- he plays the greatest rhythm bluegrass guitar you've ever heard, just so big. Waddy Wachtel is a notorious studio player. And Sean Watkins - fantastic.
I wanted to ask about performing. Edie, I remember seeing New Bohemians in San Francisco, on one of your very early tours, and you seemed so shy- you spent much of the show with your back to the audience.
BRICKELL You know I only stood with my back to the audience with New Bohemians because I thought it was really important that the emphasis be on the music. It embarrassed me when we first went out, because it was all about MTV I just wanted to make sure people were checking out the music and not somebody mat they saw on TV But I didn't mean to be rude. I realized years later, that's not very respectful to people who paid a ticket. I'm learning as I go here.
What do you anticipate it'll be like to perform with Steve?
BRICKELL We played already. We did a benefit at Radio City Music Hall, and I was more comfortable than I have ever been onstage. I've , never played with a band where you can really hear yourself, and those guys harmonize so beautifully. I'm just standing there, I can't believe this is so pretty, and then Steve is in charge and has the focus and handles it beautifully, and all I have to do is just sing. I don't have to think about entertaining or anything crazy like that. Steve's got it handled.
MARTIN It's going to be new, because our show with the Rangers is an hour and 50 minutes of music and comedy. It's essentially what I grew up on, which is you do a funny intro to a song and then you do a serious song, and then you do some joking around and do a serious song. But we're going to cut that back a little bit. We're going to bring out Edie and do a bunch of songs that we haven't ever really played onstage before. We've got to rehearse, and I've got to relearn how to play all these things; some are easy to play and some are not. So I'm a little worried about that. I've been downstairs practicing them with the headphones on, playing | them over and over and over.
We have to work up some new material to talk about, or we might just go song to song. I don't know. I've never done that. And hopefully the audience will have heard the record because it will be this gigantic hit, and they'll applaud and stand after every tune. AG
WHAT THEY PLAY
BANJOS. Martin uses five banjos onstage. "I play in several tunings and styles and don't want to take the audience's time to retune, but I also like the sound of different banjos on different songs." he says. Until recently, his main banjo was a 1936 Gibson RB-18 top tension with an arched fingerboard and original five-string neck. For stage use, Martin found the RB-18 very heavy and burdensome, so he's switched to a Nechville banjo that he loves.
"For clawhammer, I use a new Deering open-back Mark Johnson model, tuned to double C," Martin says. "For three-finger, in double-C tuning, I use my old 1927 Gibson Florentine archtop that I used to play in the '70s in my stand-up act. For three-finger in open-D tuning. I use a 1926 Gibson Granada, ball bearing." On the album with Brickell, Martin played the Gibson RB-18 and the Deering.
ACOUSTIC GUITAR: ? have a wonderful guitar made by my friend Danny Ferrington," Martin says.
AMPLIFICATION: External mie.
ACCESSORIES: GHS medium-light banjo strings (.010, .022, .013, .012, .010), a BlueChip thumbpick, and "some old Dunlop fingerpicks that have been in my case for 40 years," he says.
GUITARS: Late 1940s Gibson LG-2. "I have been passionate about learning fingerstyle guitar and have been really into writing songs with that sound," Brickell says. "I played 'Wicked William' and 'I'm a Van' on the last Gaddabouts record. I also play a gorgeous Taylor that they made me back in 1990." At home, Brickell plugs a Fender Strat into a DigiTech pedalboard for "lots of fun sounds."
AMPLIFICATION: "I have not played shows, except one-offs, for a long time, and then I just use a DI for the acoustic." she says. "I used my Matchless Phoenix amp on my tour of shows for Volcano about ten years ago."
STRINGS: D'Addario EJ16 light-gauge phosphor bronze on the Gibson LG-2.
"You can't just keep writing songs about mines and trains and have people identify with them. It's starting to sound a little fake, even though there are still mines and trains." - Steve Martin
"I didn't want everything to be like I'm mimicking some old style. I think it's important to be aware of your present moment and to express it. Otherwise you are just putting on some old-fashioned coat and trying to walk around in it and look good." - Edie Brickell
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