Cat Martino not only spent the past year collaborating with the likes of Sufjan Stevens, Sharon Van Etten, and Doug Keith, but she found time to complete a stunning sophomore solo record as well. Yr Not Alone is a soulful, gorgeously enigmatic set — complete with surprising arrangements, inspired melodies, and multi-textured meanings that reward and unfurl with each repeated listen. In short, this record belongs on the same estimable shelf as recent efforts by the aforementioned collaborators you may have heard. In light of the glowing response we received to the LP’s title track, we’ve reached out for more information on the recording process, collaborating with Sufjan, her influences, and more. Give “Yr Not Alone” another spin while reading our Q&A with Martino below:
“Yr Not Alone”
The Age of Adz tour culminated with a pair of triumphant concerts in Brooklyn last week after a summer-long break in which you completed Yr Not Alone. How do you feel to be closing the chapter on such an epic — and potentially life-changing — collaboration?
Grateful is the main word. Now that it’s over it feels fine, because our last show in Prospect Park felt very special. Before, I was somewhat sad at the thought of it ending, since the show was just peaking, and the people involved were amazing. But now I feel satisfied being done and ready for what’s next. I was also prepared because I knew from the start “Age of Adz” was a finite tour, as Sufjan typically makes a work, tours it, then goes away for a while…
You have described “Hole in the Sea” and “We Belong” as containing reflections on personal experience in a way that recalls statements Sufjan Stevens has made about the cathartic influence of Royal Robertson on his new material. Did this potentially similar point of view help to make writing and recording with Sufjan an organic process? If so, how?
I suppose every artist has a moment or a struggle which brings about a transformation. Perhaps a certain likeness in experience perhaps brought Sufjan and I to be closer friends and great collaborators. It was a very organic process because we are both very open people, and are both very instinctual and playfully serious about recording. I feel like he is my outer-space brother or something, like Princess Leia and Luke Skywalker, ha!
I cannot speak for anyone else’s catharsis except for my own. I discovered that limitations can bring about newness, when 7 years prior I had a some severe back injuries that kept me in bed for an extended period. I remember one day I saw my boyfriend’s pedal board, and decided to put a microphone into it. It was such a changing moment, because I was unable to move much or play instruments at that time, but could instantly create layers of sound all around me. I was also scraping by monthly, and when I got healthy this set-up felt more productive and fun than spending money on rehearsal space in New York.
Sufjan and I both love improvising with various friends, and playing with F-X. In December 2009 he came over my house and I set up all my pedals and we’d just play and not talk for hours. I’ve been doing this since high school with my friends, and it remains my favorite part of creation, one is so present and free during these improv sessions.
Our jams organically led us to be recording on each other’s projects, and I organized a women’s choir for “All Delighted People” E.P., and he also asked me to record a great deal of my vocals on “Age of Adz”. In turn, he played on 2 tracks that made it to my album, and many more hours of our much wilder jams that are for the archives, or perhaps another record.
“We Belong” came about during a jam with Sufjan quite like spontaneous combustion, lucky we were recording or it would have been lost in the ether! That and “Hole in the Sea” lyrically reflects upon my past experience with illness from a healthy place, making a commentary on wishing to help several friends who were during that time dealing with dis-ease of sorts. I realized all you can do is provide support and care while someone else is going through their battle.
I love that these songs began within the limitations of an 8-track reel-to-reel and vocals on looping delay pedals. How did you know the process was complete once working on a limitless digital format?
It was our goal to record all on the 8 track. But in the digital world one can still be arranging during recording, which has its pros and cons, but in this case, it was needed for experimentation to occur with only 8 tracks on tape. It was the best of both worlds, to start simple and limited with the warmth of analog, and then be able to expand.
I had amassed a bunch of tracks, but I knew it was all in there. That’s when I got Brian McTear [of Weathervane and Miner St. Studios] to come in and organize and mix. I had met him recording with Sharon Van Etten. Brian is really for the artist, and we had developed a trust and understanding in what I wanted in mixing these songs.
With fall tour dates on the way, how will you approach translating Yr Not Alone to a live audience?
I will use a keyboard, a guitar, a loop pedal, various F-X pedals… When I perform solo I don’t try to fully imitate the record’s every single sound, but it bears a strong likeness. It is still very organic because I am creating loops live, nothing is pre-recorded at the moment in my set. I may introduce another musician or 2 for live shows, but I am excited about solo shows right now.
I hear a few Joni Mitchell-esque melodies in your work, but there seem to be a wide range of other influences as well? Who else might be well-represented in your record collection?
Joni definitely changed my world. My friend Zach Layton introduced me to her in high school and she made me want to start writing songs. But my influences are limitless. Soul music with a lot of harmonies is a favorite. The Burt Bacharach-Dionne Warwick collaboration always returns. Spin me some Aretha, Al Green, Ray Charles, Ronettes, Solomon Burke, and put a fork in me, Im done. Old folk and country, Beatles, The Beach Boys, Thom Yorke, Radiohead, Prince, Michael Jackson, The Cure, The Pixies, Patti Smith and PJ Harvey…
You’ve said, “Spending so much time alone writing and recording, in the end, I realized it was my friendships and collaborations that brought the music fully to life.” Can you describe further how these relationships helped your music become fully realized?
Nothing happens without influence. And I am particularly interested in things that could not have happened with only one creative mind in the room. It’s quite funny because I do so many hours alone, I retreat, write, record and love this process. But by nature I am a collaborator and enjoy lending to and feeding off other peoples energy and ideas. This is part why I love being in other friends’ bands as well.
On my record, Jack Petruzzelli helped a great deal in the studio, we worked out many sounds and ideas together. Jack and I took turns engineering, but he brings a great deal of character to the 8 Track which I love. All the other players on the record brought to the table. Jack and Brian McTear also helped me put a cap on it, as I have twenty others unfinished I could have used. They both aided to say it’s done, some tunes will be for the next record or an E.P.
In the end I am the only one losing sleep over a word in a song title. But I just recognize deeply what everyone else brought to fruition, and it would not happen the same without all of my friends support.
Lastly, are there any particularly interesting stories you remember from touring the world over the past year?
Ha, where to start? I LOVE tour! New Zealand was unreal. Also, taking a 10 hr. ferry ride to Poland with slot machines and a 90’s rec room stands out for sure. Warsaw was like a beautiful foreign planet. I always remember a gig by the food and the audience energy. Downstairs in the venue there was a 20’s style speakeasy type restaurant for the band. Ferrara (& Pumpkin Raviolis), Dublin (& Guiness), Paris and Berlin come to mind. In Dublin I climbed on top of a monitor and jumped onto the balcony to sing the finale, such an adrenaline rush! I would never do that in another show, but this one called for it; it felt like I was playing an outer-space cartoon version of myself. The tour evolved to be very experimental art punk rock thing during “Impossible Soul”. We made a lot of rules then broke them all!
I also loved touring September 2010 with SVE [Sharon Van Etten, Doug Keith, Ben Lord]. Such fun in the van, and I’ll never forget the good times we had sitting on a porch in Durham till the sun came up playin country songs and makin harmonies with Megafaun, Fight the Big Bull, members of The Rosebuds & The Bowerbirds, and Justin Vernon [Bon Iver] and all their amazing Durham-Raleigh friends. That was stellar, those N.C. peops keep it so real!
So, like I said, the whole year has been incredible, and Im just grateful, period. I am not completely sure all that is next, but excited to find out!
For more on Cat Martino, check out her official site. (Photo by Andre Constantini)