Lee Martin - the interview,
One of my passions is writing the press releases for a local label here in New Zealand, AAA Records. Through my work with chief honcho, record producer, engineer and general dogsbody TeMatera Smith I have been introduced to some wonderful music and amazing artists. One who I had not come across prior to working on some PR for her, is the lovely Lee Martin. I was blown away by her EP, and have managed to see her play a few times, most recently at an At Home gig, which can be watched by looking at the videos on her FB page. During shutdown she has streamed a new video every day, and even set her PA up on her roof and has performed a couple of gigs for her neighbours from there! The time felt right to have a proper catchup, and this is the result.
Kev Rowland: Who, what, when is Lee Martin?
Lee Martin: Lee Martin is a free spirit, a searcher; forever searching for adventure, novelty, and beauty. I am a dreamer, daytime and nighttime, I love dreaming! I hate the feeling of being trapped or being isolated. Freedom to me is everything! (this is not boding well in the current circumstances)
I am a lover… I fall in love easily with people, art, nature, things you name it. I love seeking the beauty in everything. I don’t believe in black and white; I think there are innumerable shades of grey for every situation. My life philosophy is pretty much everything is good until proven otherwise and even when they do prove to be “bad” I always feel like there must be a reason and a back story. Life shapes us all and I love seeing the beauty in everyone, especially in the imperfections. I think that is why I love music so much. It tells stories, sometimes about things unthinkable or things condemned by society, but it is almost like there is a freedom or safety in turning it into a song. You can say things you would not otherwise be able to get away with.
I think music is so ingrained in me and such a big part of who I am. Music helped to raise me. I think in terms of lyrics, in every life scenario there is always a song that comes to mind, someone who has experienced something similar, who put it down in words and then turned it into something magical to listen to. Songs are story books condensed to 3-minute clips
I would say I am high energy and I feel a bit deeper than I guess the average person, when I love, I love hard, when I get mad, I get furious and so on ha-ha, you get the idea. Maybe passionate would be a good one-word description. Yes, actually disregard everything I’ve said so far and just use the word “Passionate”!
KR: Who first influenced you to start performing music?
LM: My dad has always been an incredible music lover with an extensive library of records, and later CD’s. I remember just absorbing album after album when we visited him fortnightly and studying the lyrics. If lyrics weren’t included, I would write them out by hand (not always getting it right ha ha). I used to buy a pack of blank tapes before every visit and I would fill them with all my favourite songs by the end of the weekend, and then continue to listen to it for the next couple of weeks leading up to my next visit. Favourites were Van Morrison, Dire Straits, Leonard Cohen, the list goes on.
When I was five years old, I decided I wanted to learn to play guitar and desperately wanted to be a singer/songwriter. I told my mother of this plan and she was told nine is a good age to learn how to play guitar. This is where the longest wait of my life started!! Finally, when I turned nine my single mother (on a teaching salary supporting two kids) took me to a pawn shop and we managed to get a $10 guitar that to our incredibly untrained ears sounded semi decent. It had the highest action and just about killed me to play. To my dismay at the time, the guitar lessons she enrolled me in was for classical guitar but after my mother took on an extra job after hours to be able to support this dream, I just sucked it up and gave it my all. My guitar teacher soon realized that I had to endure a lot of pain on the guitar I was playing, and he was quite confident about my ability and passion, so he convinced my mother to upgrade my guitar to a Yamaha after which I just took off.
Because of the classical training I found it easy to play chords and pretty much immediately started writing songs about love and other things I had no idea about. My mother was my biggest fan and loved listening to my new compositions (no matter how bad I am sure they must have been, she loved it). In primary school I forced family, friends and neighbours to pay an entrance fee to attend my house concert and in high school I had the odd music concert.
KR: What happened next?
LM: After school I went to The University of Pretoria in South Africa where I stayed in a hall of residence. Here I met and befriended my soon to be band mate Zanda Traut. We were both closet singer songwriters and immediately found a soul mate in each other. I feel like every spare minute we had we would jam together, listen and help shape each other’s new songs etc. This was an amazing time, the freedom we had to create and work on music with no expectation other than just pure joy was just incredible. We had nothing to prove and no one to play to or impress! But of course life had other plans and one of Zanda’s school friends was a local musician who played some pub gigs and he had a listen to us one day just jamming outside on the grass and insisted we do 3 songs before one of his gigs. Of course, this was cause for great excitement and our friends were there in their hundreds to support (probably in reality about 30). We were so nervous, but it was a great success, so we kept going back week after week adding to our repertoire with each passing week. Finally, our harmonizing duo was at a point where we could go off and find our own gigs. I still remember cutting out letters and images out of magazines to make our posters (like ransom notes) which we put up everywhere we could. People must have liked us as we kept getting booked for gigs and people kept showing up, whether for the music or the booze I’ll never know. We realized we needed some percussion and put out an add (probably in ransom note format) for a djembe player. Now this was a fun process having all these people come to audition. We immediately cliqued with Jonny (Jonathan Brueton) and the three of us were magic together. Eventually we found a bassist (this never a constant person it has to be said) and Johnny played the drum kit. We called ourselves Southern Soul, profoundly decided upon while working our way through a cocktail menu and this was the name of one of the cocktails. We eventually got booked at major festivals and as opening acts to big South African artists and we loved touring around the country. Miraculously we managed to find an investor, Nicholas De Klerk who helped fund our album, merch, travel, you name it! Our album ‘Package’ was a mix of Afrikaans and English songs and was released in 2006. This was a massive push in the right direction and eventually led to us being signed with Bowline records. It’s always interesting thinking back on these events and when you summarize it, it seems so simple, but it has to be said that this was spread over about five years. My entire Uni career and then some. It was a hard grind filled with passion, joy and heartbreak.
Life unfortunately took us on some different paths and the band ended up breaking up. A lot of personal trauma happened to me during this time and I also had a backlog of songs that were begging to be recorded. I visited my Grandmother one day (as I often did, an incredible and wise woman) and she informed me that she wanted to give all of the Grandchildren a chunk of money now rather than as an inheritance later. She also wanted me to record my solo album with that money as she wanted to be able to hear the finished product before she passed away. Well what can I say, I hope one day I could make someone’s dreams come true the way she did mine. I jumped straight into studio and started recording. I performed under Lee Martin but had my backing band which Johnny was often a part of. That album titled “I Know You’re Sleeping’ was released in 2008, another mix of English and Afrikaans songs. One of them specially written about my Grandma. She passed away on my birthday in 2009.
KR: ‘I Know You’re Sleeping’ came out in 2008, so what was next on the musical journey and how did you end up in New Zealand?
LM: 2008 was a massive year for me and a few months before my album was released, I had a bit of a traumatic event in my life. My boyfriend at the time and I had just broken up and in the weeks after that I noticed some suspicious behaviour around me. I had the undeniable feeling that I was being watched and that they were probably planning a home invasion or attack of some sorts (something not uncommon in South Africa). I value my intuition immensely and even more so after this event. I started locking the internal door to my bedroom and on one night I forgot but had this nagging feeling to just get up and lock the bedroom door which I thankfully did. On this particular night I got woken by a slam on the bedroom door. The handle kept being jiggled and someone was trying to get in. Of course, I realized instantly what was going on (having half anticipated it) so I called my ex who must have thought it was a 3am post break up call. He didn’t answer so I called another good friend of mine who lived a few blocks away and asked him to call the police too. The person kept trying to break the door open and after what felt like eternity it went silent. I knew I had to get to the living room to be able to buzz my friend in (ironically I lived in a gated security complex) so I decided to open the door; I know, this is the girl running upstairs in a horror movie.
As you can imagine the intruder was just waiting silently on the other side of the door with a big machete hoping that I would do exactly that. My weapon was pepper spray which I borrowed from a friend of mine when I started getting the feeling of being watched. It felt like we were sizing each other up for hours so I decided to make the first move and spray him but to my horror nothing came out of the pepper spray canister and his face went from neutral to a spine chilling grin. He then lifted the machete and presumably aimed for a decapitation, but I managed to slip back into the bedroom, but his arm slipped in before I could shut the door. I then proceeded with all my might to try shut the door fighting his body weight on the other side and trying to dodge the dangling arm with the machete coming at me, all the while trying to get the pepper spray to work again, which it thankfully did, but on my face. The feeling of relief was more than the feeling of pain and I started spraying through the opening in his direction. He retracted eventually and there has never been a feeling of such utter relief than the feeling of hearing that door shut again and being able to lock it. He must have run away, and my friend and police finally arrived.
I was severely traumatised by this event and suffered from insomnia for about a year. I had the album to keep me busy and I released “I know you’re sleeping” later that same year. One of my good friends, Charl, was an amazing support to me during this time and the subsequent months we grew closer and eventually started dating. In 2010 we got engaged and married. That same year he was headhunted by a company in New Zealand and although my music career was going great and I was a bit apprehensive, we decided to move to New Zealand and travel around for two years before returning to South Africa. So, in November 2010 we found ourselves on the other side of the world in NZ. This was a scary time and we knew absolutely no one. In 2011 I fell pregnant with our first son, and in 2014 the second, then life just took a completely different turn. We ended up deciding to stay in NZ and eventually became citizens. I used to wake up crying having had nightmares that I will never gig again but as a few years passed and my two boys grew out of the baby phases I slowly got back into gigging and started over in NZ where I was a complete unknown but managed to become active on the scene. I re-released some of my solo music together with some live recordings in 2016 on an album called ‘Late Night Sessions’.
Through my gigs I met so many amazing people and even got an investor, Russell Martin, to back my next recording and I only needed a producer. This is where Chris Ward appeared on the scene. I had a gig out in Pegasus, and we were double booked, and when he was about to set up he saw me getting ready to sing so decided to sit back and watch without telling me about the confusion. After my gig he came over to talk to me and introduced himself as a producer and he told me he would be very keen to record my EP. He contacted me soon after and we met up a few times to discuss the project. After the third encounter with him I just had a feeling that he was the right guy for the job and boy am I glad I decided to work with him. Time in studio with Chris and Tom O’Connor (Sound engineer) was just incredible, my favourite recording experience to date. Chris was involved with AAA records and TeMatera and he connected us, and I guess the rest is history. I then got signed by the amazing AAA record with my EP “Lost Girl”
KR: Talk us through the songs on the ‘Lost Girl' EP.
LM: Track 1: Thinking About You
This is probably my most upbeat song, such a fun singalong. It was the quickest song I have ever written. I had a line in my head and quickly grabbed my guitar and within 30 minutes it was done. I always describe this as something else taking over because I have no idea where it comes from. Other times I will be trying and trying to write a song, and nothing comes!
Track 2: Lost Girl
This is title track to the EP and one of my favourites. Lost Girl is one those songs with a strong lyrical focus. I wrote this about the human tendency to self-sabotage. It is about how we are continuously searching for meaning in and around ourselves and test the boundaries. The second verse is my favourite as it paints a real picture it goes “Lost boy, broke off the arm of your favourite toy, it was all that you had brought you so much joy…lost boy”. He has no one to blame but himself but you still feel sorry for him as I think everyone can relate on some level
Track 3: Whiskey and Red Wine
Ah whiskey and red wine, my two favourite drinks haha. This, however, is not a drinking song. It is written about that very time in my life that I told you about before. The opening line “There was a slam on the door, and it came out of nowhere, there where sirens and screaming but it all came to pass” is written about that time in my life when I had the intruder but also just about being young and carefree in general, no ties, obligations and no real worries (aside from of course that fateful night). It is how everyone shapes their own path in their own time having their own unique experiences. A big theme is also how time heals.
Track 4: Falling Down
This is my favourite song! It is about people these days preferring an online ‘ideal’ presence as opposed to making real physical connections. So much of our self-worth is based on something that is not real. I worry that we do not notice the hurt in others as everyone is so self-consumed and occupied with their own image and phones. My favourite lyric in the song sums it up “I stared at a woman on a subway train, she was crying black tears and her make-up stained. Kids getting off at the next bus stop, they’re all looking down, no they never look up”. It kind of describes how someone could be crying in front of you in plain sight but if it is not happening on your device you won’t notice. “Falling Down” has been turned into a one of a kind 360-degree music video which allows the viewer to choose which part of the video they wish to view at any given moment. What makes it even more interesting is that there are multiple different “Lee Martin’s” in the video at the same time doing different things. This is one of the most technologically advanced music videos in New Zealand and the first of its kind. Tematara Smith and Jamie Crerar at AAA records are the masterminds behind the video. I can’t wait for it to be released!
Track 5: Dream On Little One
When my little boy went to school for the first time, I wrote this song about how kids grow up and eventually follow their own path. It’s a letter to him really, telling him to follow his dreams and explaining that life will bring heartache and tears but also laughter and joy but through it all, as he spreads his wings to fly without me, I will always be right there if he needs me.
Track 6: A Way Out of Here
I was sitting in a coffee shop one day watching people and I just started writing down what I saw. I adore observing people. This song is about people, different characters, all with one basic thing in common, we all want to be seen. We all have a story.
KR: What's next?
LM: I had so many plans this year and I've had to accept that now in this current climate I just have to roll with things. Heaven knows I'm used to unexpected life turns. First of all, my new music video for "Falling Down" was going to be released but has been pushed back so as soon as this lockdown is over, they'll be able to finish it and I'll put out a release date. I cannot wait to see the end result of this 360-degree video myself! Another thing I was looking forward to was my tour to the States in August this year, I was going to start off with a week in New York and then move down to Chicago, Detroit and Flint. This will have to be postponed now and dates are a little uncertain, but it is definitely going ahead. I am very ready to record my next full length album, I believe I have all the material ready and Chris Ward is already busting with ideas for my new songs, hopefully we can see a release for this in 2021.
KR: Where can we find out more?
LM: I just revamped my website and I've done a lockdown song a day video series on my Facebook page with about 35 songs requested by people. I would love people to subscribe to my newsletter on my website and I'll e-mail a downloadable link to all these lockdown songs.
So that was the end of the interview, and we were just chatting and then Lee happened to mention that during lockdown (New Zealand has been on severe movement restrictions since 26th March, we are hoping they may be lifted after May 11th) she has been entertaining the neighbourhood every Friday afternoon. She has also been having weekly live stream shows, putting a video out every day of her performing a different song at home, and later that day she was going to be doing a live stream gig to the elderly at Nurse Maude Hospital that afternoon. She really is a lovely lady.