In the Studio with Folky Soul Singer Martha Redbone
It’s been five years since her last release, and as soul singer Martha Redbone puts the finishing touches on her third album, tentatively titled Garden of Love by Martha Redbone Roots Project, she is clearly ready to get back in the game.
Don’t get the wrong idea: She and her husband-collaborator Aaron Whitby have hardly been idle. “We took some time off and made a baby,” she says. “Not a musical baby—not a record—we made a real, human baby.” The youngster, now two years old, wasn’t quite born in the back seat of a Greyhound bus, but he hit the road almost as soon as they cut the hospital ID bracelet off of him. “He was a real tour baby,” Redbone says. “We were playing shows when he was five weeks old. Friends would hold him off stage in Coeur D'Alene, or sometimes he'd stay with my mother at the hotel.”
Redbone and Whitby have been making music together for 18 years, and met when they were both writing songs for a large music publishing company. For a decade, they wrote music for other artists while trying to launch Martha’s career. Redbone was—and still is—an anomaly, to say the least. On her mother’s side, she is Cherokee/Shawnee/Choctaw from Appalachia; her late father was an African-American from North Carolina. (Her performing name, Redbone, is a sometimes derogatory slang term for a person of a red-and-black racial mixture.) Her musical DNA has always been complex and genre-defying. She’s mostly a soul singer, but she’s also influenced by the folk and Native music of her youth, which was spent in Kentucky coal-mining country. Despite her obvious talent, her loyalty to her roots sometimes made her a hard sell to the mainstream music industry. “We were talking to this one guy, a big time producer,” she recalls. “And he said, ‘Why do you want to put Native American stuff into your music?’ That’s what he called it, ‘Native American stuff.’ He said, ‘Native Americans aren’t even alive anymore. Nobody cares about them.’” Redbone made her case that the “Native American stuff” was part of the package, and the producer came back at her with a bizarre condition: “So he said, ‘Well, if you insist, then when we take the meeting at Columbia Records, I want you to go in wearing buckskin and a feather. You won’t say anything and you’ll smoke a peace pipe.’”
She said, Thanks, but no thanks.
It was the late 1990s—music and media companies were merging left and right, and Redbone and Whitby were seeing colleagues lose their jobs. Frustrated by the resistance and tired of waiting around, the couple decided to do it themselves. They founded Blackfeet productions and in 2002 released Martha’s debut album Home of the Brave. “It was kind of soulful and wacky,” she says. “People dug it. It got good reviews. We went on tour and we played everything and everywhere. Grand Rapids, Michigan one week, the Quechan rez at Yuma, Arizona the next. We played little coffeehouses—we even played a yoga retreat. We played one show at a little club in Hoboken for four people. But I sang like it was Madison Square Garden. It was two couples, and in one of them was a manager for a fancy New Jersey country club who invited us to play a few weeks later for an insane amount of money. In the other couple there was a TV producer, and we got a TV gig out of it. So that little show turned out to be very useful. And that’s one of my rules: When you’re playing, give it your all. Doesn’t matter if it’s four people or forty thousand. You do the best show you can.”
Redbone’s second album, Skintalk, found her drawing even more on her Indian heritage. “I wanted to have more than just tinges of native music,” she says. “I wanted to have Natives. So on ‘Children of Love’ I had the infamous AIM leader Dennis Banks singing and Gyosi Ross rapping.” “Children of Love” became a dance hit in the UK. “The DJs would tell me the club kids loved dancing to the tribal beats,” she recalls. “To hear that, for me, was so rewarding.” Influential British music magazine Mojo gave Skintalk four stars. “I was like ‘Whaaaat?’” she admits. “I thought the critics hated everything. When people get it, that’s your dream. I want people to understand it and respect it.”
Throughout her career, Redbone has been compared to nearly everyone who has ever stood in front of a microphone—if over-comparison can be an affliction for an artist, Martha Redbone is still awaiting a cure. The Windy City Times cited her “numerous forebears from Billie Holiday and Sly Stewart to Patti Austin and Vanessa Williams,” while British music website SoulJunkie.co.uk mused that, “she could well turn out to be a household name to rank alongside Macy Gray, Kelis and Des’ree.” Jonathan Widram of the All Music Guide wrote that, “if there were any justice in the music business, this emotional powerhouse of a retro-soul singer/songwriter would be up there on the charts with the Macy Grays, Sheryl Crows and Nikka Costas.” Indie-Music.com cited Roberta Flack, Patti LaBelle, Gladys Knight, and Prince, and Indian Country Today added Tina Turner and Lenny Kravitz for good measure.
In a Billboard article from 2002, Larry Flick waved off a couple of easy comparisons and offered his own simple and prescient diagnosis: “Redbone doesn't sound even a little like [Macy Gray or India.Arie]. She sounds like herself; an R&B singer/tunesmith with an undeniable affection and affinity for classic soul sounds. She also has a remarkable flair for crafting pleasantly sticky, completely original jams. It's a rare treat to encounter an artist so confident in her vision and not susceptible to the narrowcasting ways of Svengali producers or the A & R execs who hire them.”
This time around, she’s concentrating on the Appalachian music of her youth—that high, lonesome sound—but lubricated a bit with her innate soulfulness and accented with Native elements. She and her husband wrote the music, but the lyrics are from a different time and place. “They’re old poems—very old, mid-1800s,” she says, then makes us swear not to get any more specific. In exchange for our silence, she lets us listen to a couple of unfinished tracks, and what seemed like a potentially rickety concept solidifies in short order. It’s closest to bluegrass—“but don’t call it bluegrass,” she begs. “Bluegrass purists wouldn’t call it bluegrass. It’s Appalachian folk and blues, what we would call music from the holler.”
Yet Redbone’s holler was more diverse than others, and her Native roots will still be evident on this album. Native flute, hand drum, rattle and elements of southeastern stomp dancing show up here and there. The southeastern thing is one she’s acutely aware of: “In contemporary Native music, whether it’s rock or blues or R&B, when it comes to the traditional side we all incorporate, you hear the plains. The dominant sound in Native music is a plains sound. Since I’m southeastern I try to incorporate the music from my region, which is different.”
She considers Garden of Love a tribute to her mother and grandmother; the music (whatever it is) is descended from the music young Martha heard the mountain matriarchy singing. “Things from your childhood—especially music—can give you such a warm, gushy feeling,” she says. “I could feel my grandmother and mother there in the studio while we were making this record. I know they were there with me.”
Another essential presence in the studio, in the flesh, was John McEuen, a founding member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and a virtuoso banjo player. “This is an album I wanted to do for six years,” Redbone says. “But I didn’t know how to go about it living in Brooklyn.” McEuen, who is also based in New York City, turned out to be just whom she needed to meet, and at the right time. “It was a kind of kismet. He and I just started jamming together on some traditional songs. He invited me to come play at some of his gigs; I would have him play at mine.” When it became clear that this thing they were doing, this urban/native bluegrass that isn’t bluegrass, might work, McEuen “called his buddies in,” assembling a dream team of studio veterans that included Byron House (of Robert Plant’s Band of Joy) on upright bass and Mark Casstevens (who has played on upwards of 100 #1 singles) on guitar.
In March, the crew convened in Nashville for a week of recording; Garden of Love is currently being mixed in Los Angeles and Redbone expects a late summer or early fall release date, followed by extensive touring.
Time will tell whether this incarnation will be the one that sticks. Not that Redbone wants to be nailed down—if she had, she might have donned the buckskin for that meeting at Columbia Records over a decade ago. After having gone her own way for so long, defying classifications and comparisons at every step, she says the only real pitfall is self-indulgence. “When I’m singing this music, I hope that, for someone out there, I’m singing their song and telling their story too,” she says, “and not just doing what I want to do.”
With Garden of Love, she may end up doing both.