Martin Zellar – Growin’ Up
The Many Moods Of Martin Zellar is something of a misnomer since its songs are centered around a consistent theme, with a couple of exceptions. “All I Need”, for example, a menacing, rockabilly-ish blues, is narrated by a man desperate to hit the road, and “Marching Beside Him” is an ironic, Randy Newman-styled number from the perspective of a servant of the Lord who’s psyched for bloody battle. But the album’s remaining eight songs all feature characters struggling to communicate with one another, and usually failing.
On one of the finest songs of Zellar’s career, the opening “Blown Kisses”, what’s meant as a gesture of hope only winds up breaking the singer’s heart. In the banjo-driven “Clues”, the only hope for connection remaining to a couple is that the singer is willing to admit he’s “completely in the dark” and needs some help.
The record feels as if it’s bouncing between many moods, though, and that’s due to its eclectic, yet regularly rootsy, arrangements. Zellar is quick to give primary credit for the album’s ever-changing musical settings — the most varied and adventurous of his career — to producer Patrik Tanner, the lead guitarist for his crack band the Hardways.
“I wrote what became the horns on ‘Goodnight Meridel’,” he explains, “as sha-la-la’s; then Patrik came up with the idea of turning them into kind of an organic, Stax-Volt horn sound. He came up with the string arrangement on ‘Carolyn’ too. I mean, I’m not a great player; I write a skeleton — the words, the melody, the chords, and arrange it as far as structure — but as for parts, I always give players a lot of leeway. And the Hardways are all great players.”
While the themes of miscommunication and of trying to find the strength to change a fucked-up life (as one Gear Daddies song put it) have been present in Zellar’s work from the beginning, his songwriting has also seen significant changes through the years. While his earliest songs were filled with the all-or-nothing passion of youth, his newer compositions, besides bearing greater attention to craft, tend to be smaller in scope. Consequently, the anxious intensity of a young man’s questions, like “Why doesn’t anyone understand me?”, have evolved in Zellar’s latest songs into more complex queries: “Why can’t I understand the ones I love?”, for example.
“Yeah, I think that change can mostly be written off to my age when writing most of those Gear Daddies songs,” Zellar says, “and that sort of broad brush angst they had…because when you’re that age, it is angst; you don’t understand. I mean, those songs, even though a lot of them were recorded when I was in my early-to-mid-twenties, were written when I was 19. A couple of those songs on Let’s Go Scare Al were written when I was still in high school….But as you get older, you start looking outside yourself more, developing more empathy; at least I did.
“I’m finding too,” he continues,” a lot of people…think the songs are all just a guy girl-thing, but I didn’t write them that way at all. Some of them are written about my parents, or my relationship with my siblings. I guess I write a lot about relationships because everything else pales in comparison to me. But people try to boil them down to boy-girl love songs, or songs of contrition or whatever, and actually some of them were written to my father, or about my mother….To me, [‘Blown Kisses’] is amongst the saddest songs I’ve ever written, the most personal, and audiences just think it’s a love song. But it’s a song about my childhood, it’s a childhood song, about separation. I guess a love song can be written to anybody.
“You’d be surprised, too, how many people think my songs have to be autobiographical. I think the only CD I’ve ever recorded that was completely autobiographical was Let’s Go Scare Al. From that point on, it became a combination of autobiography and storytelling and putting myself in other people’s shoes, or they’re partially autobiographical songs that I’ve expanded to make it more interesting. I don’t know if it’s unique to my career, but I certainly find people feel as if every song I write has gotta be coming, word for word, from my own life.”
When I tell him that, considering the consistently heart -wrenching subject matter of his work, I’m glad that’s not the case, he laughs hard and says, “Yeah, no lie! No lie.
“I’ve certainly been accused of a sameness of topic. But each of the songs on this album is about something, someway, that happened in my life or that I saw happening to someone. So if it seems cliched, or repetitive, so be it. That’s my life. Relationships are my life. I guess I think they’re everybody’s life.”
ND contributing editor David Cantwell is a Kansas City, MO, based freelancer who may very well never love another band as much as The Gear Daddies.