Our regular feature Songwriting 101 is devoted solely to the craft of songwriting. So whether you're a seasoned pro or just starting out or simply interested in hearing songwriters talk about their creative process then we hope you'll enjoy the series.
Two weeks ago we posted a candid two-part interview with Glen Phillips of Toad the Wet Sprocket. Other songwriters have included: Mason Jennings, Mark Doyon of Waterslide and New York indie songwriter Alina Simone, among many others. Each songwriter has explored his/her influences and the manner in which he/she "makes music." Some even offer friendly advice to aspiring songwriters.
Today, we'll be chatting with a good friend of ours, Martin Rivas, about his latest record, Reliquary, which will be released on July 10. We've featured Martin several times. In fact, we published his journal entries for the making of the new album.
In this special interview, Martin will discuss an array of subjects ranging from the writing and recording of Reliquary to New York radio DJ's, his second chance at life, stealing from the Clash, Police and Pretenders, channeling Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and wishing he had written Todd Rundgren's "Hello, It's Me." Read on...and enjoy!
On “Drum Set, AM Radio and Tears,” you sing about being confined to your room as a kid (I assume). What was the first piece of music you heard that made you want to make music of your own?
I was spending a lot of time in my room at home in the afterglow of the dissolution of my parents' relationship. I had a radio with one speaker and a cassette recorder built-in. One of the ways I occupied myself was by pressing record and twisting the dial at random times. I loved the sound between stations. I still do.
When I decided to see what that little "FM" toggle would do, it was like stepping through a dimensional doorway. I was constantly recording songs off of WNEW and WPIX. I fell in love with Rock & Roll, and I'm still in love. Songs like "Hello, It's Me," "Born to Run," "Bohemian Rhapsody," "Sir Duke," "Roxanne," "I Want You to Want Me," "Got to Get You Into My Life,"…I recorded all of those on cheap cassettes from Radio Shack, and the DJ's banter would be part of the intro or outro of every recording: Scott Muni, Frankie Crocker, Carol Miller. I can still clearly imagine Pat St. John talking at the end of "Hello, It's Me" every time it plays on my iPod. That might've been the song that first made me say, "I wish I wrote that." It happens plenty nowadays, but I think that was the very first time. I still wish I wrote it.
What was the first song you wrote that you were proud of?
I think I was more proud of being able to figure out how to play parts of songs on records than I was of writing. Writing came around as a byproduct of figuring out how to play. I'd be playing parts of Clash and Police and Pretenders songs over and over and over and eventually it'd morph into something that I guess was pretty much mine.
I've always been drawn more to sounds than to lyrics, so I had a lot of "songs" that were more advanced sonically than they were lyrically. I think that's why I like bands like Can and Liquid Liquid as much as I do. The voice serves as an additional instrument.
Early R.E.M. always sounded that way to me. Stipe's voice was mixed so far down that you couldn't figure out what he was saying. I'm not sure that I had a song that I was really proud of until this song called "The Difference," when I was 18 or so.
I’ve never heard you more exasperated than you are on “C’mon While We’re Young.” What was the source of your irritation?
What's funny is that I perceive it as determination with a pinch of elation. That song was the first to come to me for this album. It speaks of getting back to living, being alive and reveling in it, after nearly being irretrievably lost. Getting a second chance, and wanting to see and do everything with full knowledge that there's only so much time to do it. I wanted to start the album with it to close the "convalescence" chapter of my life, and leap back into living again.
Alex Wong’s production is flawless. Can you discuss the collaborative process?
Alex and I had been talking about doing an album together since I released Sea of Clouds in 2009. I had a couple of medical complications get in the way between then and now, but I can't complain as I got an EP's worth of songs out of the medical stuff. Alex's contribution to this record is so gigantic. I was trying to keep my demos as minimal as possible, knowing that these songs were going to have the opportunity to be filtered through Alex's mojo.
Rather than going into pre-production and saying, "OK, here's what the bass will play, here's what the drums will play," we started with voice and either guitar or piano, and then let the songs dictate to us what they wanted in them. I can't overstate how critical Alex was to the feel of this record.
I just found out that the studio that we tracked Reliquary at, Angelhouse in Williamsburg, is going to be demolished this autumn. Lots of great albums made there. I'll miss not being able to go back.
Whose idea was it to include a theremin on “Meet Your Father”?
I intentionally didn't demo "Meet Your Father" past vocals and guitar. Alex had some great ideas for adding color to it without pushing it into the traditional full-band realm. Alex found Rob Schwimmer, who came in on a Sunday morning in desperate need of coffee. We all needed coffee actually! He nailed the part within two hours. Look up Simon & Garfunkel's "The Boxer" live on YouTube. You'll see Rob playing the horn solo for them on theremin. He kicks that solo's ass too.
I’ve never heard you raunchier than you are on “Drum Set, AM Radio and Tears.” Who or what were you channeling?
That song channels so many feelings and places for me, but on the recording we imagined it being played by a pissed-off Sister Rosetta Tharpe on a back porch somewhere in 1949. The main guitar on that song is a red Gretsch Wild West Sweethearts acoustic guitar that I brought along to the sessions without expecting to use it much. It ended up being the most heard instrument on the album other than my voice.
We mic'd it up close with an SM57, from afar with a Neumann M49 (I think it's an M49), and we duct-taped a contact mic to it and ran that into a Fender Champ. The three blended tones created one of the absolute most raunchy guitar sounds I've ever heard. The best part about that guitar is that it belongs to my wife. Her guitar is all over this album. I gotta ask her if I can borrow it for the tour in September.
There is quite a bit of reflection on this album. Can you talk about that?
I really am a little afraid of how much of myself is in this batch of songs, but I can't bring myself to do it any other way. As long as I've been writing songs, they've been my little therapy sessions, but the combination of my last EP and this album are one massive bout of healing for me. I'm ready for another batch to find their way to me…maybe these'll be a bit less intense or something. Give a fella a break. I'm just really glad that I can account for every moment that happens on this album. The last couple, actually. I'll get into a fistfight for this record.
What’s the significance of the album’s title, Reliquary?
I was on tour in the UK last summer, and after playing at Glastonbury with Chrissi Poland, I had a day or two off before resuming the tour. I had seen ads for an exhibit at the British Museum about religious relics. So I went. There were these artifacts and the beautiful containers constructed to contain them.
We are essentially reliquaries of each other. We all carry a bit of each other within us. When we’re gone, the memories that live on in those we leave behind serve as the perfect relics. That sentiment opened the spigot that brought forth nearly all of the songs on this album.
Are you working on new material? What’s next musically?
The material on this album still feels so new to me that I'm still getting to know it. Melodies and ideas and stuff are always smashing into the side of my head, and I'm jotting down or recording those little bits into my notebook or voice memo thingy, but I'm not in full-on songwriting mode at the moment.
I've still got to get the rest of the Kickstarter duets album out to fans, and then post it at Bandcamp. The album comes out officially on July 10, then I'm staying close to home for the summer with a couple of local shows sprinkled in.
I head out in September for a couple of weeks in the southeast and midwest doing a double-bill tour with Bri Arden (who will be featured next week (7/5) in Songwriting 101). There may be a west coast run in October, and maybe even another UK run over the winter. I'm just really enjoying how I feel at the moment.