– Photo via http://www.rebeccamartin.com
Artists – musicians, painters, writers, you name it – have to live in the world, just like everyone else. Of course they do, but beyond, say, experience as grist for the mill, there are those who take an active role in improving the world around them. Take Rebecca Martin, musician/vocalist extraordinaire (that’s not me being glib – she’s exceptionally good at what she does). In addition to recording and releasing seven, going on eight albums, she’s also served as the first Executive Director of the Kingston Land Trust, “a formidable force for conservation, green spaces, and community building in the city.” Beyond that role, a New York Times piece from 2013 refers to “a period of community involvement so stressful that she lost her voice, using songwriting as a path to recovery.” And judging by her responses to the questions I posed recently, a lot of her energy still goes toward sustaining and improving life in Kingston.
I mention all this because, when I asked what she was reading, it didn’t occur to me that she’d be so deeply involved in civic affairs that it would color her responses. My guess was that, as a songwriter I admire, she’d tick off a stack of beloved poets and writers, and I’d nod and say, “Yes, of course! I can see that in your songs.” Now, it turns out I’d overlooked a piece from a few years ago in which she discussed books which matter to her. On the list? Great stuff, not surprisingly. May Sarton’s journals, Journal of a Solitude in particular, though my personal first choice was After the Stroke, which I picked up, fittingly I suppose, after my mother’s stroke. She also names Anais Nin’s Delta of Venus (and nods to Henry Miller’s attractiveness as a potential lover) and wishes for time to reread Steinbeck, whose humanity we need now in America more than we have in a very long time, I can’t help thinking.
I actually asked her these questions because I’ve been listening to her music, I’m a little bewildered to realize, for about twenty years. She was briefly almost famous, during the n0w-almost-unimaginable ‘90s, as half of the duo Once Blue. That made her part of the first Lilith Fair, but in many ways that feels to me like a footnote to what she’s done since – half a dozen albums, ranging from original compositions to jazz standards, most recently the spare and reflective Twain (2013).
– Twain cover image, via http://www.rebeccamartin.com
She recorded Twain with her husband, the bassist Larry Grenadier, in the bedroom of a Brooklyn apartment, and it’s tempting to imagine you hear that intimacy in the purity of the arrangements and forthright vocals. I don’t mean this to devolve into music criticism, though. It’s pure endorsement on that level. Better still, there’s more to come on that front. Rebecca Martin’s new collaborative recording with Guillermo Klein (that features Larry Grenadier and Jeff Ballard) The Upstate Project will be released on Friday, April 14th on Sunnyside Records. And now, those questions. Her responses weren’t what I expected, but they carried the gratifying surprise of the meaningful work she’s doing in addition to her music:
1) What are you reading?
In tandem with making music for the past decade, I have been a community organizer in the City of Kingston – a Hudson River city about 90 miles North of NYC. As a founder of KingstonCitizens.org, most of my reading has been municipal charters, process and the laws that are in place to protect the citizens in our community (and as of late, the region). In addition, these days as a consultant working for great organizations such as Riverkeeper and the Kingston Land Trust, new reading includes tributary and river water body studies as well as rail trail management plans. From prose to technical papers! Good for the mind.
2) Why are you reading it?
As early as I can remember, I was always making music and organizing an array of businesses in each closet of my childhood home. It is rewarding to have created my work life developing both of these skills in the way that I have. Given what I view as a critical time period in the world, it has been important to me to take responsibility as a citizen with a focus on local government. To do that, there is much reading and research that is necessary to be effective as an organizer, and to write about as well as to share good, factual information with my community.
More on Rebecca’s work in Kingston:
VIEW: A Jazz Singer Fights Niagara Bottling