Sunday, April 16, 2023

Being Between: a Selina Martin Interview (with John Wright/ Nomeansno/ Dead Bob tie-ins)

Selina Martin at the Lido, Vancouver, March 30th, 2023, by Gordon E. McCaw, not to be reused without permission

It was John Wright who turned me on to Selina Martin, apropos of his first post-Nomeansno album release, Dead Bob's Life Like, which drops on bandcamp on April 21st (John and I spoke a bit about the album here, which I used as a teaser for an Invasives feature, since Byron and Adam Slack of that band are also involved in the album. There is more to come, but it is not yet online). Selina's music has very little to do, on the surface, with Nomeansno - as you'll see below, the Talking Heads, Kate Bush, and Jane Siberry are more common references dropped by journalists - but when Ford Pier posted that he would be opening for her at the Lido, a couple of weeks ago, I knew I had to check her out, since she was the only collaborator of John's on the album who I didn't know at all (I'd even seen Rong), and since - as she is based in France - I knew she probably wouldn't be back this way for awhile. I stayed long enough to chat with Selina and record the second song in her set, "Your Face Goes Long," sung partially in French - but then I got a message from my catsitting neighbour that she had to go to bed and that our kitten was back in our apartment and had no food. It would take me nearly an hour to get home via transit, and Selina and Thomas, her bassist, were having a wee spot of technical difficulty, so... that was it; I got to see two songs, and a partial soundcheck performance of "The Spirit of Radio," 

Flash forward a week later, and I'm headed to Duncan for an Easter meal with my in-laws and wife, and discover that Selina is performing the night after we arrive at a small little artspace called Time & Space Continuum. Apparently there are enough young arty types in Duncan to merit having gigs there - often punkier ones than Selina's - and while my wife played a protracted game of Scrabble with her Mom and Dad - because she'd rather visit her parents than go to a show! - I snuck off to downtown Duncan to do Selina justice. 

It was a delightful show, quite intimate but with a crowd of people who really appreciated the opportunity for a night out. I shot video, again, of an easy favourite off Selina's newest album, Time Spent Swimming... and sent some questions to Selina via email, which she answered on a train through Ontario, as she finished her final two Canadian tour dates and prepared to go back to France. 

I am in italics, below, and Selina Martin is not. See her live if you can! 

Selina Martin at the Lido, Vancouver, March 30th, 2023, by Gordon E. McCaw, not to be reused without permission

Allan: I have this idea that Canadian musicians who go to Europe are going there because they are saying goodbye to Canada, giving up on audiences here for more enthusiastic and cultured crowds and access to a host of easily-driven-to venues - so I was surprised to get a chance to see you play live, and that you were including some fairly small towns in BC in your tour. Do you tour like this often, or was it exceptional, or...?

I like including small towns on tours. They often end up being the best shows. It's the people in small towns who are more enthusiastic, generally speaking, as they're not constantly offered a selection of concerts to see every night of the week. It ends up being more of a special occasion.

So yes I often include small towns on tours. And I don't really think about whether people are 'cultured' or not. People are just people. Last fall we played a number of what would be considered small towns in France as well. They have a similar vibe to small towns in Canada, or anywhere, really.
One other thing I love about small towns is that it just takes one or two people to make the town a cool place to live, and those are the people who I get to meet, because those are the people who set up local concerts for independent musicians.

I really enjoyed what you did, and thought both the Vancouver and Duncan audiences dug it, too, but I also wondered about the economics of it: the Lido had maybe 100 people in the room, but no cover charge, while the Duncan venue had maybe 35 people at most, paying $20 each... I hope I don't offend with the question - ignore it if so - but I always wonder how anyone affords to be a musician? After expenses, when you fly back to France, have you made money? Does the European scene treat you well enough that it is, in a way, subsidizing tours like this, or...? (Do you retain Canadian citizenship, btw? Is that part of why you toured here - do you want to keep a toe in the Canadian scene, in case you decide to leave France, or maintain eligibility for grants, or...?). Do you have a larger following in Ontario than here?

Firstly, thank you.

Secondly, it's very hard to afford to be a musician. I have always had day jobs to help pay the bills.
Yes the Vancouver show didn't really pay. Ford refused to take any money as the income (a percentage of bar sales) was so low. And he paid to print the posters, so I owe him. The Duncan show made a bit of money.

To go back to your first question, it's the smaller cities and towns that usually pay better, at least at the level that I'm currently at. Big city venues are more and more 'pay to play', as in you have to rent the room and pay for the sound person and door person, so it's a gamble if you'll break even.

I don't know if this tour will pay for itself. I haven't had a chance to tally everything or properly estimate.

Being a good business person is never something I've excelled at - I probably need a manager - though I am trying to get better at this. Euro tours do not at this time subsidize CDN tours, no. But keep in mind we're all still trying to wriggle out of the confines of Covid-19, concert booking is still quite challenging, and I haven't actually had very many shows in the EU with this current band. I'm just getting started trying to re-build an audience.

I love Canada and I miss Canada and I miss my creative community in Canada and yes I'm a Canadian citizen. Even if I wanted to be a French citizen, which I don't currently, it's quite a long and difficult process to get citizenship, and I wouldn't even qualify at the moment.

I'm not sure where I have a larger following. I toured a lot as a solo performer in BC with Tom Holliston, which was really great. He took me to lots of large and small towns which expanded my west-coast audience considerably. That said, we just played a sold-out show in Toronto last night, so. Not sure.

Selina Martin at the Lido, Vancouver, March 30th, 2023, by Gordon E. McCaw, not to be reused without permission

Did your choice to settle in France have to do with the reception of your music there, or do you like the scene, or were there other factors...? (Was there a "honeymoon phase" that has worn off, as I gather can happen when you relocate...?). Do you get reverse culture shock, at all, coming back here? (or, like, "Oh yeah, I had forgotten this part...")

France is where I went because I had a fairly solid base in the language. Or so I thought, anyway. Most of what I know I learned since moving there. There wasn't a honeymoon phase at all. It was the opposite, as it's quite difficult to get a residence permit and quite difficult to even be approved to rent an apartment as a foreigner. For the first eight months I couldn't even unpack my bags. It was like I left, I took off, but I wasn't allowed to land. I sold or gave away most of my possessions, bade farewell to my friends and family, and stepped out into the unknown, but then wasn't allowed to touch down, or settle. There was no ground beneath my feet for a very long time. A lot of the themes in Time Spent Swimming (including the title) came from this feeling of being between places, or states; neither being here nor there. It was a very long period of limbo, which I'm not even certain I'm fully out of.

You sing in French, a bit, in "Your Face Goes Long," for example. What does it mean to "put a little hole in my ocean?" I wonder also about the I am here/ you are there lyric, given that you have a foot in France and a foot in Canada; is that what you are referring to, or is it an image of alienation from the person you love, or...? (Do you have more French in your live set when performing there? Do you speak Quebec French of Parisian French? I gather that the "French French" don't think much of Quebec French... is that ever an issue, or did you learn French IN France?).

For some of your last questions see the response to your previous question.

"put a little hole in my ocean?" - I like to let people interpret lyrics their own way, but in general this one is referring to an ocean as a vast loneliness, and I'm asking for a little less of this. Je suis ici, tu es là = same theme. I am here, you are there. We are not together. We are separated/separate.

I did (with the help of a French songwriter friend) translate all of Something Wide Awake into French. Though I haven't yet had a chance to perform this in France, as that song just recently got added to the set for this Canadian tour.

French-Canadian French is apparently similar to a very old version of France French. So I like to think of it as more authentic, rather than less. It's strange to me that in public school in Canada I was taught Parisian French instead of Canadian French, but that's what happened, so it's easier for me to understand French in France. Canadian-French films are subtitled in France. True. Cuz the France French have a hard time understanding it as well. But they do support and appreciate French Canadian culture.

Selina Martin at Time & Space Continuum in Duncan, April 7th, 2023 by Allan MacInnis

Did you also live in Tangier? (I actually don't know much about that, tho' I do know about Burroughs and Gysin and Bowles and Brian Jones being drawn to North Africa - but I don't think they were coming there via France, which has its own history with North Africa...) What were the draws for you there? Had you lived in France before living in Tangier, or...? If we followed your career with a line on a map, where are the dots?

I lived in Tangier for one month. Exactly four weeks. And the only reason I went there was that I was on the verge of being an illegal alien in Europe and I had to exit the continent. (see earlier response about difficulties getting a residence permit). It was quite last minute. My brother has a friend who has a friend in Tangier who had a little riad/ hotel and that's where I stayed for my first few days until I found another place. I was floating. It felt like I was just floating in France anyway, I had no apartment and was living out of a tiny suitcase and so instead of going back to Canada I decided to float further, and to see what inspiration or education or information I could gather in N Africa.

The lyrics for that song ("Tangier") seem very concrete and possibly autobiographical - roosters crowing all day, the peeling of apricots... Is the line about being a "wayward astronaut" a riff on the title of your first album? The line about being mapless reminds me of the title of Life Drawing Without Instruction, as well... are you a wanderer by nature, or do you have a practical side that you are in revolt against, or..? 

A lot of those specifics in "Tangier" are based on things that happened. The roosters, yes. The collared doves, yes, all day long. (and I tried to mimic the song of the collared dove in the way I delivered that line). I did sort of fall in love/lust with a Moroccan guy who peeled the apricots while I told him all my thoughts. It was ridiculous. He spoke no English nor French and I spoke no Arabic. But I talked to him anyway. And we sort of understood each other, but only sort of. I decided to use him as a metaphor for his city. It was like a lover I wanted but couldn't have, nor could I even grasp/ touch, as the culture is quite different and I didn't know the rules.

There is no deliberate connection of wayward astronaut and mapless pioneer to my earlier albums, but perhaps you've touched on something that has been hiding in my subconscious.

Your bass player here (Thomas? Tomas? Tomasz? ...did not get his last name) does not seem to play on Time Spent Swimming, where the bassist is Doug Friesen - unless he's Tom Meienburg, who did the layout and took the insert photo...? What are your connections with both men? (Does Doug usually play live with you? How did Thomas end up filling his shoes?). Since Ox Fanzine is one possible home for this, what has Thomas done that German audiences might know? He did a pretty great job of fitting into very complex music that he apparently wasn't involved in the original making of, I thought...).

Doug Friesen played on my last three albums I think, and has done a ton of live shows with me, and just last night joined us on stage in Toronto, which was brilliant. We both miss playing with each other. We have very similar tastes in music and what sorts of sounds and playing style we find exciting.
Doug had home recording capabilities during the pandemic so it was easy to have him play on TSS as well. I would send him the songs in progress, and he'd send back his bass tracks. Very little direction was necessary.

I met Tom Meienburg (yes the same one who did layout and made the inside photo collage) at the very end of the (almost two year) recording process. And yes he does a great job of playing complex music that he wasn't a part of the recording of. He's got excellent musical intuition and ears. And he's now my husband. I got married. How about that?

At the Lido, you quipped (when you and Thomas were having a tech difficulty) that you had recorded an album that was impossible to play live, but by Duncan, it all seemed quite seamless, like you had "ironed out the kinks," so to speak (tho' there could be other explanations, like maybe the Lido wasn't prepared for what you were bringing...?). What exactly were the portions of the music that were NOT being played live? Were they actually also part of the studio tracks for Time Spent Swimming, played back, which you and Thomas were then playing over, or was it something more complex than that? I had expected - and even said to a friend who saw you in Vancouver - that you had really sophisticated studio music, but were probably going to "strip it down for live delivery," but you didn't, really! (Was it tempting to TRY for something more stripped down?).

Time Spent Swimming was created by arranging and combining real instruments with electronic instruments and found sounds and anything, really. It all goes into the pot. This is what making music is about for me. Anything goes. It's exciting. But you have to make it interesting and it has to serve the song. This is why the album is impossible to play live. Most of the recorded tracks are unplayable live on stage. A few of the songs on the album are playable as a solo performer or a duo, but most require some backing tracks. I wrote all of them in my room by myself on an acoustic guitar with a pen and paper, with the knowledge that they would be fleshed out with other sounds.

The technical problems at the Lido had more to do with a faulty cable.

When you introduced "The Spirit of Radio," you said in Duncan that you had to explain who Rush was to French audiences, which surprised me, as I thought that Rush was fairly well-known everywhere. Were you surprised to have to explain about them? I'm actually not a huge Rush fan, but I think "The Spirit of Radio" is one of the greatest songs to come out of Canada, and it always makes me really happy to hear it - especially when it gets played on the radio, which is a very pleasing irony. How did you come to cover that song? Are YOU a Rush fan? Did you ever have dealings with Rush - did they ever respond to the cover? Why cover THAT song? (BTW, do you ever get radio play?).

I love that song too. I played it once as a sort of joke with Dave Bidini (Rheostatics) and Dale Morningstar (The Dinner is Ruined), not knowing that Dale was recording it. We were in his studio on Toronto Island. I'm not normally a pot smoker but I am pretty sure we were all high at the time. I hated the recording but Bidini loved it and convinced me to do a full studio recording of it on my next album. So I did. But I made my own version which is quite different from the original, and some of my excellent musician friends played on it. Dave Bidini is friends with Geddy Lee, so he sent it to him. Geddy said it was beautiful. Alex thought it was pleasantly surprising that "chicks" were doing their music.

I do get radio play. TSS is getting more than my previous recordings, so that currently feels nice.

You came to my attention as a result of John Wright and Ford Pier, because of this new Dead Bob project, but I'm reading online that you toured with Tom Holliston, as well. So that's a lot of Nomeansno/ Show Business Giants connections. What's your history with their music? Had you recorded with them before?

I met Ford a very long time ago and we've been excellent friends ever since. It's due to Ford that I met Tom Holliston in 2018 I think, and due to Tom that I met John Wright. Nope. never recorded with them before. They're all brilliant writers and performers and I'm honoured to call them my friends.

If I recall - I haven't gone over all his answers - you are the lead vocal on "Life Like" and that you sent him the tracks from France, but I'd love to know any and all details - what other songs are there that you contributed to? Did you help with any of the lyrics? How "collaborative" was the project, for you - was John giving you pretty specific directions about what he hoped for, vocally...? I haven't heard the Dead Bob version of "Life Like" yet - did you know the song before John got you involved? Did you borrow from Rob's approach at all, or completely go your own way, or...?

Yes, that's right. I sing lead and some bg's on "Life Like," and yes I sent the tracks from France. I didn't contribute to anything else on the record.

I wasn't familiar with "Life Like" before John sent it to me. I think it's a great song. He sent me a guide track of his own vocals to follow. I thought his vocals sounded great, so it was difficult to get started doing my own version, but eventually I found my way in.

John has sent me some new music that he wants me to contribute lyrics to at some point, though I simply haven't had time to do it yet. I look forward to it, regardless.

I see that you've done stuff with Fred Frith, as well, and can see some similarities between your music and his more "pop" stuff, like Cheap at Half the Price; and I keep seeing people mention Bjork, Jane Siberry, PJ Harvey, Kate Bush and the Talking Heads, too, as comparison points. Do you find some more apt than others? Do any get frustrating? 

Totally honoured to be mentioned alongside/compared to all those artists. I'm flattered also. They're all true originals in my opinion. Perhaps that's where the touchstone is.

Just a curious detail but the bandcamp page and the vinyl have a different sequencing of tracks. Why? Does one have primacy?

Neither have primacy.

I didn't want the vinyl to be too long, as the sound quality diminishes the longer the sides. So I removed one song and sequenced Side A and Side B the way they felt the best.

I spent quite a long time working on sequencing and spacing between songs for both CD/ digital and vinyl. For vinyl each side has to tell its own story, so to speak. and for CD it has to be one long story, and it has to have a shape; a beginning, middle and end.

Tell me about your titles? The Caruso one - is that the opera singer you're talking about? (Is there some sort of Fitzcarraldo reference there? He's obsessed with bringing Caruso to the Amazon, as I recall). Since I'm buying it off you, why
Disaster Fantasies? Why Time Spent Swimming?

"i've been picking caruso's brain; i think i have the information we need to make a new world" (or "caruso's brain" for short): My Vancouver friend Patsy Klein posted this line on social media and I immediately fell in love with it. She was talking about fellow musician Matt Caruso.

Disaster Fantasies - I was hoping to coin a phrase . I think all humans have disaster fantasies. like, if your partner is late coming home you might imagine they had a car accident. I don't know why, but there's something that makes us imagine worst case scenarios, unless we're actually experiencing the worst case scenario. My life at the time of writing that album was morphing into a certain type of worst case scenario, which I managed to extricate myself from, eventually.

Time Spent Swimming - it's about being neither here nor there. I alluded to this or mentioned this earlier. It's about not having your feet on the ground. It's about being between states or places. Floating. Limbo. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. I think we all ended up here during the pandemic, though I had the title before the pandemic started.

But also, time spent swimming can be a pleasant thing. My favourite part about the south of France is floating in the sea. It's like meditation. The sea takes your troubles away, even if just for a few minutes. It's like a reprieve from being on land and just like, doing things. You don't really do anything when you're in the water. You just float. Or sink. Or swim.

The "front" of the venue by day - it's actually around back, down the alley and downstairs

Visit Selina Martin's bandcamp page here, and see her live if you can!  

1 comment:

Gord McCaw said...

I had never heard of Selina before that gig at the Lido, thanks for this informative interview...