A Wink, The Kiss, The Goodbye Party
In the depths of the new depression, unemployed and in the dead of a desert winter, I sat sobbing to my father about the prospect of being published forever remaining an unrealized dream. Despite the obvious desperation in my ramblings, the old man quite calmly replies, “There’s a woman by the name of Martha Bassett…” He goes on to describe a musician who possesses the intelligence and articulation to carry a conversation with a distanced yet beckoning fragility, fringed with captivating and seldom-surpassed beauty and topped with a garnish of unembarrassed innocence. Transplanted in the desert as I am and so far removed from my roots in the southeast, looking into some sounds from the Appalachians seemed to be potentially a worthwhile distraction.
As I searched the Internet, stumbling like a challenged child, the musical history of this woman eluded me, and all I was left with were questions. Country music? Gospel and hymns? Has my father finally and completely lost his mind? Pressing on, I unexpectedly came across the sounds of structured jazz via an early Martha Bassett album entitled In Your Dreams, one of the most perfect personifications of the sadness and distance that is an ever-present force in lounge-style jazz. Intricate and resoundingly captivating, each song takes me further into a scene: ingesting intelligent conversation amongst smoke and divine food, swirling a glass of cabernet, all softly illuminated by haunting brass tones and a tall centerpiece candle.
After this introduction, I had to see and hear more. Her website (www.marthbassett.com) links to Kickstarter, a site designed to host various fund-raising efforts. Her newest album, entitled The Goodbye Party, was essentially brought to life by her fans through the donations she received on Kickstarter. Also on the site is a video of an interview with Martha that became my first introduction to her personal vulnerabilities. She bounces through different selections from the album with continuous and contagious laughter, darting between the emotions that each song evokes. She speaks of cows, loss, death and dance, all accompanied by varied degrees of the same vibrant and completely natural smile. The excerpts from the new album played in the background, seemingly pulling from all of the individual styles of the previous albums, and I decided that I must speak to her. The conversations that would follow simultaneously marked the next level of my admiration and curiosity, and the start of a great friendship.
Our first exchange began exactly as I anticipated it, with a barrage of questions—except I was not the one inquiring. She asked about my childhood, how many kids I have, what it’s like to live out West, waiting eagerly for every answer. Before I could realize what had happened, all my preconceptions of her approachability had fallen away and we were chatting like old friends. The endearing drawl in her words was almost as intense as the honesty, as she recollected the early influences of her family.
AW: Does music run in the family?
MB: Absolutely. I remember when I had to go to ‘The Pickin,’ where the men were playin’ and the women were gossipin.’ My mother sang with a gospel quartet in West Virginia, and my uncles played and sang both locally and on the radio in the 60’s.
AW: Who was the first to reinforce and push your desire to sing?
AW: Could you give a short summary of your life up to this point?
MB: I grew up in Mount Nebo, WV. It was a small town, and we were very isolated. A trip to shop or to go to the doctor took an hour and a half, but that’s all changed now. I married and started a family at a young age, and moved first to Kentucky then NC for school.
AW: Did having children effect your music in any way?
MB: I didn’t gig much until the youngest was nearly ten.
AW: I had two children of my own, also at a young age, so I certainly know what it’s like to postpone personal dreams for the sake of motherhood
MB: I honestly didn’t know what my personal dreams were at that point. I was essentially a classical musician and was performing a lot locally in that arena. I made most of my living teaching voice and directing choirs. It hadn’t occurred to me that I could use that “other voice” in performance until I was in my late 20’s. I’m a late bloomer.
Although she grew up surrounded by it, she proclaimed, “There’s no contemporary christian music here, ever.” We discussed, at some length, the necessary separation of religion from the sacred music style. While she recognized the specific power in (and of) gospel and hymns, she clarified by stating that she is most certainly “not out trying to save anyone.” Offering Elvis and Johnny Cash as examples, she explained how they executed the same sounds (and even songs) without being categorized in such a way. She makes a good point.
AW: Can you tell me more about your previous albums?
MB: My first two discs were with a swing band called “Martha and the Moodswingers.” The first solo disc was Mortal Flesh, a collection of mountain gospel and original folk. From there I released a disc of jazz standards, and finally Sinner’s Prayer, which is essentially original Americana.
AW: How was The Goodbye Party different, with respect to production?
MB: It’s much bigger. Pat Lawrence (bassist/producer) had a vision for this record, and I liked his ideas. I was not as involved in the day-to-day production work and giving up that control was probably healthy for me. It felt good to have some distance.
AW: It seems like you have created a lot of music with a lot of different people over the years. How long have you been with the guys who are currently in the band?
MB: I met Sam Frazier (guitar player and vocalist) first about ten years ago in Greensboro. He’s an incredibly gifted songwriter and encouraged my songwriting. Pat and I have been traveling as a duo for the past 3 years, and he and I basically created this group together. I knew I wanted to work with Sam, and Eddie Walker is a solid drummer that Sam had been in several bands with. Pat brought Ben Singer (multi-instrumentalist) into the band about two years ago. We’re all good friends and travel well together.
AW: Did you and Pat have similar thoughts on composition concerning the new album?
MB: My inclination has always been to approach recording from a minimalist stance. Pat’s vision was orchestral and dense, while keeping my voice as the focal point. I kept going back to sing more tracks until he was happy with them. We ultimately got a better product.
AW: When you say ‘a better product,’ what do you mean exactly?
MB: Well, we have a very versatile band, and are surrounded by great arrangers, studios, composers, and musicians in the Triad. Rather than the stripped down records I’ve always made, we wanted to do a glamorous record. Like the classic recordings of the 70’s when manpower was built into the budget, we wanted to use everything at our disposal to frame my voice with fat, luscious arrangements.
The Goodbye Party is nearly impossible to categorize stylistically. Bobbing between slow and melodic tales of sorrow touched with country harmonies, weaving through upbeat selections that explore feelings of rebirth and the empowering big-band sounds, classification of genre becomes ostensibly pointless if not completely limiting and unnecessary. The songs move from the twang of a banjo to a cranking electric guitar, but only after a sea of strings accented with a staccato of brass.
On a personal note, there is an equally palpable and familiar feel in each song that takes me back to my own southern roots. My most vivid early Carolina memories of summering in the country are accompanied by the contributions of various southern-based artists. I would sing to Tom Petty, and recover from heartbreak to Don Dixon and Marti Jones. I remember attending my first concert performance (R.E.M.) in the auditorium of a high school I would later attend. Later, other artists such as Ryan Adams and Clare Fader entered the scene expanding the variety of sound to which I had already grown so accustomed. The most endearing quality of the area’s sound is the wide spectrum encompassed by the music, as unpredictable as a schizophrenic but as heartfelt as a preacher’s sermon, and Martha fits right in.
AW: Do you feel part of the odd and funky North Carolina music scene?
MB: Totally. I cut my musical teeth in Greensboro and Winston-Salem. All my personal influences have been NC musicians. I feel lucky to have landed there.
AW: You’ve included Clare Fader in your new album; is she someone you know?
MB: She wrote the song Holly Golightly, and she’s one of my best friends. I had the pleasure of singing backup on her last record, and I’ve always admired Clare’s ability to make things happen.
Intrigued, I connected with Clare to discuss the song and her involvement. She explained, “I started writing that song in the days leading up to our friend Kelly Petersen’s wedding. She was a vibrant member of the arts community here in Winston Salem. Her wedding was a large and joyous affair even though she was very sick with cancer. At the time, she was living in a beautiful loft overlooking the arts district. I imagined her looking down and enjoying all the excitement and preparations going on around town. Sadly she died just a few weeks after her wedding. I finished the song in the days after she died and Martha sang it at her memorial service.”
AW: After experiencing excerpts from the various works of Martha Bassett to date, I noticed a distinct pattern. It seems that over the course of the last few years, you’ve steadily moved in a louder and more funky direction. What prompted that?
MB: My band. And it makes me feel like a kid. Pat has been encouraging me to go electric for a long time. Last summer, Sam took me to Fret Sounds in Graham to check out Brian Haran’s guitars. I fell in love with a ‘63 Kay Catalina that Brian had retrofitted. I love the power.
Following what seemed a barely visible trail at first glance, I was led to appreciate an artist from an area already dear to my heart. Along with her new release that has continued the soundtrack of my life came a tune that depicts perfectly the feelings I had at the very start of my introduction to Martha: “February Song.” She is the Mockingbird of which she sings, and she sings me all the way back to the East coast. Thankfully, we’re all invited to The Goodbye Party. Maybe Thomas Wolfe was wrong and you can go home again—even if you choose not to—but you’ll surely never escape it.
But my dad was right. There’s this woman named Martha… and she’s worth checking out.