Martha Redbone talks with Pollstar about her Roots Project album, working with Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s John McEuen and how she drew inspiration from her own Appalachian roots as well as from the words of 18th century British poet William Blake.
Presented as an offering from “Martha Redbone Roots Project,” The Garden Of Love – Songs Of William Blake isn’t quite like anything you’ve ever heard. The R&B/soul singer who once worked for Parliament / Funkadelic has drawn inspiration from her Native-American mother’s family lineage as well as her African-American father’s ancestral history to come up with a unique collection that combines the songs she wrote with her husband / writing partner, musician Aaron Whitby, with the poet’s immortal works.
But you won’t need a Fine Arts degree to appreciate The Garden Of Love – Songs Of William Blake. Filled with rustic Americana charm, the album offers up visions of coal mines, simple living and her Shawnee and Cherokee ancestors living at one with the land.
Or, as Redbone, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., likes to describe the album –“Appalachian folk and blues, what we would call ‘music from the holler.’”
Your new album is dedicated to Zachariah. Who is Zachariah?
Zach is our 4-year-old son. Initially, when we made the album, I actually made the album as a tribute to my mom. Black Mountain in Harlan County, Ky., is her home, my grandma’s home, my great grandma’s home and so on. We’ve been there forever and ever.
I got the inspiration to make this album, initially, six years ago. I finally got around to doing it after being on the road, taking time out to become a mom and all this sort of stuff. During the final mixes of the album, my mom passed away very suddenly. So I decided to put a dedication to her at the album, in the booklet. But I thought it would be good to dedicate it to the future, not only to our ancestors but to the descendants, who is Zach right now.
Your family definitely has roots in Black Mountain. Were you the first to leave and strike out for the big city?
No. My mom was the first to leave. We went back and forth and when I turned 11 we came back here to Brooklyn.
And when your son gets older you’ll make sure he gets a good look at his family’s heritage?
Oh, yeah. After my mom’s passing, we went back the following year. It’s a part of who we are and we have a lot of family there.
The album was produced by John McEuen from Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Working with a longtime artist such as McEuen, what did you learn from the experience?
So many different aspects of things. My husband and I kind of brought the songs to him. What I wasn’t aware of was his incredible arrangement skills. Some of the arrangements of the songs on the album are absolutely gorgeous. That I really admired. It was great to see how his brain works, in a way.
Also, recording with him. We recorded this [album] within three days. From the time we brought him these songs, five weeks later we were in the studio in Franklin, Tenn., with David, recording with Byron House and Mark Casstevens and John. For me, it was very similar to how I recorded my previous two albums with my band here in New York. We’d take the instruments, lay down the tracks and that’s it. So I really enjoyed learning that we had that in common with each other.
I think for me the recording project, that part isn’t magical so much, I think it’s pretty straightforward. I’ve always been pretty practicable and sensible and try to make use of our time. Just kind of a no nonsense type of person. And he’s also the same way. He’ll laugh at this but he’s not as neurotic as he thinks I think he is. He’ll crack up at that [laughs].
And what was co-producer David Hoffner’s role in the production?
It was David’s studio. He set everything up and he played the pump organ and all the keys on the album. He’s playing very minimal stuff but really tasty things. And all the original sound came from him.
How do you take something as wondrous and broad as one’s heritage and narrow that down into a song cycle for an album?
For me, it’s all roots music. It’s blues, traditional instruments, rhythm and chants. I think the foundation of American music … I think our ears are subconsciously conditioned to hearing all these things. [There’s] a familiarity whether it’s through the media or firsthand.
On my previous records I did the same thing but with rhythm and blues music. The poetry, the poems we actually selected to set to this music, I specifically looked for things that spoke to me about the mountains and kind of set the imagery, for me, of what I think Appalachia is, what had to do with scenery as well as things regarding religion, spirituality, and calls to the ancestors and things like that, which William Blake wrote a lot about.
There are so many poems we went through. We looked at, easily, more than 150 poems. And of those 150 I chose, we whittled them down to about 50 and then down again to 25 and then down again. One poem I’m not singing a lead vocal on and is actually recited by a friend of ours, Jonathan Spottiswoode, that poem inspired me because he’s saying, “Why should I care for the men of Thames?” He’s talking about his disdain for colonization and slave trading that went on in the 1800s. He says, “Though I was born on the teaming banks of Thames, it’s the Ohio that will wash his stains from me. I was born a slave but I go to be free!”
For me, the Ohio is exactly Shawnee territory which is where we’re from. So I thought, “Well, this is perfect. I can write about this and sing a traditional Shawnee stomp song.” And kind of have it as a ghost or spiritual thing going on behind the recital.
To me that made sense. When you do these things you just do what feels good to you. You figure, well, there are how many billions of people in the world and I’m one percent of that. I like it, Aaron likes it and John likes it. Divide that into the world and I figure at least three million people might like it.
You were in Los Angeles recently where you appeared in the “Strong Women, Strong Voices” project. What was your involvement with that?
We did a concert performance, [a] grand performance, in downtown Los Angeles and that was a fantastic night of music. There were a couple of places where we performed around the country where people have really great themes and that was one we did. We performed with an African a cappella singing group [that was] really magical.
We got a phone call. Somebody had this theme and thought we would fit the bill. It was the roots of Africa … roots of America and a contemporary group. Past present and future kind of theme.
It sounds as if you’ve been exploring all aspects of your combined heritages – Native American as well as African American.
I don’t know. I haven’t gone right back to Africa yet. But I certainly went to my dad’s roots for a minute. Growing up with parents where one is Native American and one is African American, you listen to all kinds of music. When I came back to Brooklyn at 11 years old I always made the joke that, “I was probably the only 11 year old in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, who knew or cared who Conway Twitty was.”
Back in those days you had one radio station, I think it came out of Kingsport, Tenn., and that’s what we heard. On Sundays they would have gospel and spiritual stuff all day. But we had just one pop station so we got to hear everything. You’d hear The Doobie Brothers next to Dolly Parton next to Earth, Wind & Fire.
But that just doesn’t go for people in Appalachia, I think that’s for most people in the Midwest. One of our guitarists is from Chicago and they had the same thing. We have such a broad vocabulary. His family is originally from Kentucky as well. You’re just so well-rounded. In the Midwest you get to hear a little bit of everything.
With all of these different styles – bluegrass, country western, folk, rhythm and blues, what I learned is a respect for the melody, for strong melodies. That’s what I really enjoy the most. A great song is a great song is a great song. And a great melody is exactly the same. You can take a song that was written by Dolly Parton like “I Will Always Love You,” have Whitney Houston sing it and somebody else produce it and it’s just as powerful and beautiful.
Which is more difficult, coming up with a lyric or creating a melody?
I think they’re both [difficult]. I hear melodies and lyrics all the time. We read a lot. We don’t really watch TV at all. … There are things that you see or hear in conversation, a little catch phrase. “Oh, yeah, I must remember that, write that down.”
Recording an Americana roots album featuring guest musicians and such – Do you plan to continue within this genre?
I had two previous albums within the rhythm and blues genre – Skintalk and Home Of Brave. Right after we did the Skintalk album, I wanted to do this record because we had lost a few of our elders in the community. That’s when I first got the inspiration. I wanted to do the music I grew up with and honor them. So I started thinking about how to do this. I had been looking at the coal mining songs. My grandpa was a coal miner who came up to work in the mines in the late ’30s.
Then I remembered all the stuff I learned in music school, pioneering songs and all these things and thought it would be really great to do a whole bunch of [songs] like that. Then Aaron, he said, “People might get confused. The people who love the R&B music won’t understand why you’re doing this.”
And I said, “The few fans that we have in the indie underground scene already know about my Native and African American culture. That’s all over the previous albums. I’m a musician. I should play any kind of music I want.”
Part of being an independent artist as opposed to being told what to do by a major corporation is the freedom to explore different genres of music. So I thought, “In the end why don’t we say this is a ‘roots project’” because I wanted to open the floor to be able to do, maybe the music of the Mississippi Delta or do anything in regard to roots music. So I figured under that title, it will give me that freedom.
I can’t take credit for [the songs] on my own because Aaron is the other 50 percent of the creative process. He’s a nice Jewish boy from North London who grew up with soul music. He’s way, way more of a soul boy than I am a soul girl. Which is why we asked John to produce it for us. Because Aaron didn’t have that folk and country vocabulary. You can ask him anything you want about Duke Ellington, Quincy Jones, John Coltrane and he’s there. But ask him about Conway Twitty and he’ll say, “Who?” And I’m not ragging on Conway Twitty. I love Conway Twitty.
What’s next for Martha Redbone?
More of the same. For me, I wanted to make this roots record for many years. Now, being a mom and having lost a mom, I’m kind of looking at life … you’re creating an example for your children. For me it felt so natural to come home. So I think I’m going to stay home for a while, sit on my front porch and play some great music. I like how it sounds to me. It’s very healing. I’m playing the banjo – learning – and I know I’m getting better because my son doesn’t say, “Stop playing, Mama.” I really enjoy it.
For me, it’s healing. All music is healing. Singing is healing for me. But I really feel like I’ve come home with this music. It’s all soul for me. There’s soul in my voice. So anything I do will have the spirit of soul in it. I’m not so sure about doing another William Blake record, but there are a couple of poems that we set for music that may come out a little later. But I think I’m going to stay on the front porch a while longer.
“Part of being an independent artist as opposed to being told what to do by a major corporation is the freedom to explore different genres of music.”
Upcoming dates for Martha Redbone Roots Project:
Aug. 2 – Chicago, Ill., City Winery Chicago
Aug. 3 – Madison, Wis., Lake Farm County Park (Sugar Maple Traditional Music Festival)
Aug. 4 – Minneapolis, Minn., Cedar Cultural Center
Aug. 6 – Ann Arbor, Mich., The Ark
Aug. 10 – New York, N.Y., Lincoln Center
Aug. 11 – Arlington, Wash., River Meadows County Park (Festival Of The River)
Sept. 21 – New York, N.Y., Madison Square Park
Sept. 27 – Claremont, Calif., Scripps College
Sept. 29 – Iowa City, Iowa, The Mill
Oct. -5 – Iowa City, Iowa, The Mill
Oct. 9 – Edinboro, Pa., Louise C. Cole Auditorium
Oct. 11 – Burlington, Vt., UVM Recital Hall
Oct. 18 – Pullman, Wash., Washington St. Univ.
Nov. 2 – Raleigh, N.C., Titmus Theatre at Thompson Hall
Nov. 6-8 – Lafayette, Ind., Lafayette Theater
Dec. 6 – San Francisco, Calif., Yerba Buena Center For The Arts (YBCA)
Dec. 7 – Detroit, Mich., Detroit Institute Of Art
Jan. 10 – New York, N.Y., Apollo Theater
Feb. 1 – Oriental, N.C., Old Theater
Feb. 14 – Philadelphia, Pa., Harold Prince Theatre
April 25 – Washington, D.C., Atlas Theater
April 26 – Pittsburgh, PA Carnegie Lecture Hall
April 30 – Hanover, N.H., Spaulding Auditorium
May 1 – Hanover, N.H., Spaulding Auditorium
Please visit MarthaRedbone.com for more information.