With his release of his first label-backed album in his discography, Dogs in the Daylight, hammer swinger Jeffrey Martin taps into a timeless and aching sound. It could easily have been recorded with a pop and a hiss in the one-take era of quintessential blues and songwriting with the likes of Son House and Mississippi Slim.
Though scattered with accompaniment from the likes of local fiddler Anna Tivel and Portland’s Sam Howard, the album, despite being heavy at times, is carried from good to great by lyrics and a voice for which Martin will be known from this point forward. We spoke with Jeffrey about his journey, the low points, and how he’s measuring success to this point in his career.
P: You’re releasing Dogs in the daylight in partnership with Fluff and Gravy Records, a label here in Portland. You’ve self-released a couple of albums before this one, so how did your partnership with Fluff and Gravy come about?
JM: A few years ago I played a local festival, and John and Chad just happened to be there. We became friends after that. Actually, I didn’t even know that they ran a label until a while after that, so I just started hanging out with them and playing music with those guys. We were friends for a while before we really talked.
P: So, this is your first record label partnership release. When did those first two albums come out in relation to Dogs in the Daylight? What kind of measurable or relative success did those first two albums enjoy?
JM: That first album, Gold in the Water, I put out in 2009. Then the following EP I put out in 2011. Both of them sold well at shows. I have a pretty solid fan base here in the NW, but out in the world and the press, nobody really heard them. This is really the first album with a bigger push, I’d say.
P: With your first two albums, were you just your own PR department? Just you hustling for gigs and press?
JM: Totally. I was sending albums out to radio stations, magazines, folks I’d met on the road, promoters, and whatnot. Trying to do it that way, and I was entering a lot of contests in search of finding my way in. That was pretty tiring.
P: What has gone into this album which gives it something special for you?
JM: It just feels like it’s from me more so than the others. Gold in the Water was my first attempt at recording anything. Those songs on that album were pretty freshly written. It was one of those deals where I wanted to record, but I needed to write more songs so I could make a full album. I was trying to find my voice, both vocally and in my writing for those first two, actually. When I go back and listen to them now, or someone tells me they really like something from those, it’s kind of odd because that’s not at all what I sound like live anymore. This one is the first album I have that I can listen to that still feels like that’s how I still play those songs and sing those songs.
P: You’ve got some great accompaniment in this album; beautiful fiddle and other instrumentation and vocals. Who were you able to bring on with this album that really fills out the sound you’ve captured?
JM: I was really slow to collaborate with people. I’ve never done that before, actually. It’s really hard for me to do. I find a lot of people who want to play with me, but more often than not they detract from the feeling I want to have when I’m playing. So, Anna Tivel played fiddle on the album. We’ve been playing together for years and we just hit it off right away. We met at a show and then ended up jamming together later that night. She is just the most intuitive player that I know. Then there’s Sam Howard, met him through the Portland music scene, and it’s the same with him: He only adds things. He never takes away. So, all those guys, they were people I very carefully picked because I’d jammed with them before and I knew that they had the touch. I wanted a fuller sounding album, but I didn’t want it to sound complicated or overproduced. It still sounds pretty simple and I really like that.
P: How did these 15 tracks come together for this album? Were these songs you had assembled over time or were they written with this album in the forefront of your mind?
JM: I put out that EP in 2011, and right after doing that I got my first real taste of music and doing some long, successful tours playing bigger shows, and meeting some bigger musicians and playing with them. It just inspired my writing to a different level; the last year and a half of writing, and being in it at an intensity that I hadn’t been before.
P: Your maturation process moving towards making this album has really come out of the doing, yes? The tours and the act of being a professional artist?
JM: [laughs] Yes. It has been a lot of miles in a lot of shitty cars. I remember a couple of years ago, I was heading out on this tour to the east coast. I was in this little Toyota Corolla and it was going to be two and a half months of sleeping in the car and camping. It was kind of the test, thinking to myself that if I can do this and still enjoy this life, then I should keep doing it. It did, and I just kept falling in love with it more and more.
P: You talk about your writing being the thing that carries you. There’s a quote I saw that you said if you could play guitar half as well as you write then you’d be wearing nicer pants. Where does that affinity and talent come from?
JM: I went to college and got a degree in writing. Before I’d even started writing songs, I was just writing all sorts of shit. I think when I got heavy into songwriting and found songwriters who wrote in very literary ways, I just didn’t know you could write songs like that; it just clicked with me. Finding in them an efficient way of writing, of saying very big this in not a lot of space, was very interesting to me.
P: You mentioned the grind and the months sleeping in cars. With the release of your first label-backed LP, are you looking at this as an arrival or a success? What’s your metric for success in your career if not a milestone like Dogs in the Daylight?
JM: Success to me is in terms of how honestly I play a show, or not. This feels really great to me, I love working with Fluff and Gravy. I feel very supported in this collaboration, but that’s never been the goal. When I found out John and Chad owned a label, my first thought wasn’t that I have to get on this label. My goal has always been to be as honest as I can in my performances because I feel like I experience a lot of music that I don’t feel is very honest, and it leaves me wanting for more. That’s just something I want to hold onto.
There’s something this allows me to do, though. In a strange way, when I was on my own doing all of the promoting, it just took a lot of energy away from what I wanted to put on stage when I did shows. Lately, I feel like I can just show up and my head and my heart are in the right place, and I can do what I need to do. In that sense, it’s a huge success.
P: When you were grinding out there on the road and trying to crawl from obscurity as a great performer while being your own promotional staff, and everything that goes into being a one-man PR machine, were there those moments of self-doubt in the uphill battle that is a musical career? What did you do to get past those moments and keep pressing on?
JM: Yeah, there’s that doubt always. There’d be that show where I’d play in Nowhere, Montana for nobody and leave wondering what the point of that was. Then, the next night, play in Nowhere, Nebraska for one person who cried at a show. You leave thinking, maybe there’s something here. It was that back and forth for a while, then realizing that it meant a lot to some people, and it certainly means a lot to me. It helps that I’ve never set out to making a living with music. I’m pretty good with my hands, I can do a lot of carpentry. So, wherever I land I kind of pick up jobs between tours and swing a hammer to make money. I think that helps.
P: With your focus and pride being in your writing, any thoughts of getting out there and expressing yourself with a book of poetry or a book of some kind in the future?
JM: Yeah, I’d love to write a book someday. It’s something that’s always in the back of my mind, and more so lately. I think if I can get into a routine or a rhythm, hitting that kind of writing, I could crank something out. I’ve learned though, with songwriting, that any time I try to force something it comes out really contrived. I’m just waiting for that opportunity and that momentum to come along.
P: You can hear that in writing. You can hear when there is passion and when something comes across as stale or forced. Does your songwriting come in waves then?
JM: Yeah, it does. I read a lot and I notice, in retrospect, that a lot of my writing is influenced by what I’m reading. [pauses] I tend to write a lot more in the winter and the fall when things get cold, wet, and locked down. I crank a lot out in those times.
P: As we’ve discussed, there is a lot of you in your writing, a lot of honesty. When you’re writing and creating, is there any thought for the listener and how they will receive your work, or is this something cathartic just for you?
JM: I’d say both. First and foremost, it’s for me. Especially with this album over the first two, this one is so much more for me. Then once it’s done, I can’t escape thinking about how it will land with other people. What’s interesting is that these songs on this album, they’re a little less straight forward and there is more room for interpretation than my earlier stuff. It’s been interesting to think about how this will sit with people listening to it. Also, talking with people after shows and hearing their take on songs from angles and interpretations that I didn’t see. I definitely don’t write with that in mind though. I definitely don’t shy away from an idea because people might not want to deal with that or that it’s too big of a downer.
P: You mention that these are a bit more abstract songs, less straight forward. Do you still feel a bit naked on stage in some of your songs though, despite the space that the abstract allows?
JM: Yeah, it does all the time. Every show, when I’m on the stage singing, I feel completely comfortable. As soon as the show ends, I’m not too good in social situations to begin with, so it kind of hits me all at once after a show, especially a bigger one, that I’ve said all this shit and now I have to own it. [laughs] In that time after shows selling CD’s and all that, I realize I said all of these personal things to total strangers, and now what will happen? It always goes well, but it’s still a weird thing.
P: Well, you’ve just told strangers so much about yourself. They know more about you than you’ll ever know about them.
JM: Yeah, and sometimes songs that mean a lot to me mean more to other people. People feel obligated or comfortable sharing some very personal feelings with me. It’s just an interesting thing that happens.
P: How surreal is that? Those moments when you hear that something you made, something that came out of you, resonated with someone on such a visceral level?
JM: It’s humbling. It makes me feel like I need to take this seriously. I don’t want to put something out into the world that affects people, but then I don’t have something to talk about with them because I didn’t write it from an authentic place. It makes me feel like if they are going to be that honest with me, then I’ve got to be that honest with them.
For more, visit JeffreyMartinMusic.com
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