[MUSIC: Interview] Toby Martin
To be very clear from the get go: Toby Martin’s debut solo record Love’s Shadow doesn’t sound a bit like his other band, Youth Group. That’s not to say he’s left them behind, though – quite the contrary. After returning from living in New York for a stint, the practiced songsmith moved his family to a house immediately across the road from Youth Group’s guitarist Cameron Emerson-Elliott. “We all totally sing ‘Kumbayah’ together of an evening, in a large circle of knitwear,” Martin laughs.
The songwriter’s vocals and colourful characters are the particular highlights of Love’s Shadow, which was co-produced by Tim Kevin and sees Martin step away from the indie rock territory so thoroughly trod by his other band. But ultimately, he explains, it was really just a matter of timing. “If Youth Group had made a record last year, a lot of these new songs would be on it; I was writing about what I was interested in at the time,” he says. “The main change is the production and arrangement, which are entirely different [from Youth Group]. The lyrics are foregrounded, they have more space, and they have more attention drawn to them. Overall there’s less musical dynamics, which means the lyrics have to carry the dynamics of the stories I’m telling. The lyrics are fairly present in the music, and I’m okay with that.”
Martin is uncomfortable, however, with the idea that he may have embraced a character-driven concept when writing the songs. “I’ve never been the kind of songwriter who writes songs with a particular intent,” he says. “I’ve always been the kind to let the songs emerge really instinctually. With this album I didn’t think, ‘Okay, I’m going to make a record with a whole bunch of characters’. I’d love to be able to do that one day, but the truth is that as the songwriting process went on, my favourite tracks were the character ones. There were a whole bundle of tracks that were less character-driven and they didn’t end up being on the record. I think the tracks give the whole package a nice personality.”
‘Postcard From A Surfer’ was offered as an online pre-release single, and enjoyed a particularly organic development. “It was a really different song for me to write. In some ways I was in an odd place: I was on the Gold Coast in Queensland, and wretchedly hungover. I was thinking some fairly negative thoughts, which I then proceeded to jot down. A year later I was in our apartment in New York and the rest of the song just came to me. I sat down and wrote it in its entirety in an hour. I think because it had been fermenting for an extended time it ended up emerging fully formed. It’s definitely one of my favourite tracks because the process was so mysterious in its evolution, even to me. I think that your brain has to be in a particular place for thoughts like that to emerge – though I’d love to be able to write like that all the time. It might take a while,” he laughs.
The album has been finished for some time now, following final mixing by Mark Nevers (Lambchop, Silver Jews). Nevers was recruited via the marvels of technology, and some good old fashioned manners. “I particularly like the sound of the Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy record Master And Everyone, which Mark worked on. I managed to get his email address and sent him a track and a polite request for him to listen. Next thing I know he emails back to say he’ll do it. I remember thinking, ‘I cannot believe it was that easy!’ So for two weeks I’d wake up every morning with a birthday present of a new mix in my inbox. It was a beautiful little process.”
The real test of the new material happens when Martin takes the show on the road. He’s not completely unprepared though, having opened for Seeker Lover Keeper on their tour of churches late last year. “Those were completely unlike any solo shows I’ve ever done in my life,” he says. “I’ve done a few solo shows but they’ve always been in small bars, or at parties for people I know. These were quite big venues, so it was a whole new thing for me, and the audiences were just lovely. They were very quiet, which was a new experience for me too. I thought the whole tour was amazing, particularly because I’ve played headline shows that people have had a good old chat through. To be playing songs that hadn’t even been released yet, and in such a stark, acoustic style – it was really nice to have everyone being so respectful.”
The upcoming shows will be a chance for fans to see tracks from Love’s Shadow at what Martin believes will be their fullest. “I’ve got a little band together for the first time as a solo dude. I literally cannot wait to play a full gig together as a group – it’s going to be great fun,” he says. “There are definitely advantages to being a solo dude, like turning up at the airport with just a guitar strapped to my back. But you miss out on the camaraderie. Important questions have to be asked, such as who do you have a beer with after the gig? Thankfully a band resolves any such issues, and they sound great too.”
What: Love’s Shadow is out on July 27 through Ivy League
With: Magnetic Heads
Where: The Vanguard
When: Friday July 27