It was one of those happy accidents that could only happen because of the Internet. I don't even remember the exact details as to how it happened, but all of a sudden, I found myself reading about this amazing young woman who was making music on her own terms. Martha Redbone, is of mixed African and Native American heritage, with her feet planted comfortably in both worlds. On her most recent release, Skintalk, she was equally at home singing around the big drum as she was pushing the big beat of funk.
Like many strong-minded individuals of her musical generation, Martha has chosen the creative freedom of the independent route over the supposed security of signing with a major label. Along with her co-creator (they both write all the original material) Aaron Whitby from London, England, she has formed her own label, BlackFeet productions, to produce her music.
After I had read whatever article it was that I had read about her, I dropped over to the Martha Redbone web site. I was intrigued enough by what I saw and read there to write them and ask for a copy of Skintalk to review on these pages. It was after hearing and being impressed with Skintalk that I contacted Martha and Aaron to see if I could chat with them.
Life can get complicated for all of us, and reality can be nasty. Touring and the illness of an old friend kept this interview on hold for a while, but unlike others, Martha makes an effort. I received her answers to the questions I emailed her today – and here they are in their entirety – unedited or abridged. If you haven't met Martha before – please allow me to introduce you to one of todays most dynamic and gifted young performers, Martha Redbone.
1) Can you tell us a little bit about yourself ; where you were born and any other biographical detail you feel like talking about.
I was born in New York City and raised in both Brooklyn, NY and South-eastern Kentucky, where I lived with my grandparents in a coalmining town. I've lived in NYC pretty much since I was 11 years old.
2) Was there music in your family when you were growing up - if not where did your interest in music come from?
My father had a beautiful voice; he grew up singing gospel music in church and played piano. He & my uncle sang together in a gospel group that performed for many churches, they sang for pleasure, and enjoyed it throughout their lives. My mother loved all styles of music; being from Kentucky she appreciated gospel, blues, country, and rock.
3) A number of people I've talked to have known at a fairly young age that music was what they wanted to do from fairly early on in their life. When did you first start to consider creating music as a means of creative expression?
I had music lessons as a kid, piano, and guitar. I was a very shy child, quite introverted, and music gave me freedom to escape. I guess I still have the same feelings about music, I get a strong sense of freedom of spirit, singing heals me, it cures anything that might be on my mind, I'm happiest when I am singing.
4) Was there any event in particular that you can remember, sort of like a revelation, that made you think, hey this music gig is for me? Or was is it more of a gradual evolution into understanding that this was how you wanted to and would be able to make a living?
My very first session was the revelation for me that THIS is what I am meant to do, I am a vessel, and this spirit of singing is how I am meant to express myself. I was so nervous at the session, and also so shy that it was difficult for me to relax, but the joy in my heart to this day still cannot be described clearly. For me, it was the biggest buzz and I have never looked back. Music is my calling! Singing is my calling!
5) For a lot of people family play a critical role in their development, have yours been generally supportive, or was there any of the "When are you going to get a real job" or "What are you going to fall back on when that doesn't work out" stuff?
I think that sometimes family members say these type of things because they worry about the welfare of their child, no one wants to see their children struggle in any way, financially, emotionally, etc. And they are right, the music business is a tough one, but so are other fields of work. Some of my relatives are professional musicians and they are very encouraging and very proud of what I have accomplished so far. Overall, my family are very supportive of my music career, though there have been times when they have been nervous for me.
6) When you first began to create your own music, did you find that people had expectations of what you should be playing because of your Native heritage that differed from what you wanted to play, and if so did that make things difficult for you in getting gigs or doing recording?
As a contemporary Native musician, I feel that the musical expression is most important, not the ethnic background of the musician making it, therefore I write music that moves me, filled with influences of what is going on or has transpired in my life and the world we live in today. My roots are deeply imbedded in the spirit of my parents' background and also my grandparents, so the roots music is always included as part of the sound of our music. I have always honoured who I am and where I come from in my music and everything that I do.
You also must know that the music does not solely come from me, the sound of our music is a collaboration between myself and my partner, Aaron Whitby, who comes from London, England, so here we have another big musical influence from his musical history. I never really concerned myself with what people in the business thought I should be doing. Just when they think something is a certain way, it all changes, so might as well write and play what makes you happy. I have the luxury of being an independent artist, so I guess I am fortunate not to have my musical direction dictated to me by a corporation. What a blessing, eh!
7) Can you tell us a little about Black Feet Productions. Did you form that strictly as a means of guaranteeing your freedom to create as you wanted, and not as other people thought you should, or do you have any greater purpose in mind with it as well?
Black Feet Productions was formed because I wanted to have my own label with the freedom to express music in our own vision, and also to have other acts who choose to do the same. I hope to build our label to the point where we can sign super-talented musicians who have a similar vision.
8) On your most recent release Skintalk you incorporated a traditional drum group into one song, "Children Of Love"; and you don't shy away from talking about Native themes. Have you experienced any resistance anywhere along the line to wanting to sing about that part of your life?
There are some people who think that Native people no longer exist, and that we are only depicted in Hollywood films. For this, I feel that I need to represent as much as I can, sadly today, people only seem to recognize us when we're in feathers and fringe. "Children of Love" was a wonderful musical infusion. I had always had this idea of blending the old with the new, the only other band who has done anything similar are The Neville Brothers, who also share a similar heritage to mine. I wanted to honour our people and this seemed like a really cool way to do it. The two styles fit perfectly, the roots music of America married together... I love it.
9) Obviously you draw upon your Native heritage for source material for some of your songs on Skintalk, but where else do you find inspiration for your songs and the music?
My inspiration comes from everything around me, things I read, or watch on the tube, life experiences, either my own or friends or family. I practice trying to be as open as possible so that I can appreciate all things in the world, and hope to have the ability to reflect on these things in song.
10) I wanted to ask - the credits list both you and Aaron Whitby as writers for all the songs. Is there any specific division of labour between the two of you - one of you responsible for lyrics another music - or do you each do both?
Aaron & I share all creative aspects of the songs, he obviously stronger in music and I in lyrics, but the ideas come from both, I may hear a music riff or a rhythm before I hear the top line, and he vice versa. We are lucky to have an easy collaborative vibe.
11) Here's an artsy/philosophical question for you. Well actually, it's sort of two parts and it deals with your creative process. When you sit down to write a song do you do so with a specific intent in mind, or have you had some blinding zot of an idea that's made you have to stop and start jotting something down on paper it inspired you so much? Part two is do you have an overall objective, something you want to accomplish, with your music?
When I sit down to write, it is usually after a long period of imagination and inspiration. By that I mean, we used to write every day like factory chickens, we wrote for other artists when we were signed with Warner Chappell Music Publishing, we really churned them out. But I learned that although it's cool to do this, it's also good to let ideas ferment in the mind for a bit, I like to write when I know I can hum the melody clearly. Sometimes the songs flow easily, and other times, we work and re-work a song, be it re-arranging, or re-writing to get the best out of the song. We are not precious about our music; we both definitely have respect for the craft of song writing.
12) I've always loved really well played Funk music, which is one of the reasons I like your disc by the way. My love of it came from seeing Sly and The Family Stone's performance in the movie =Woodstock back in the seventies - when did you find Funk, and what made you say yeah, that's for me
My father played in local funk bands in the late 70s & 80s; he played club dates, mostly for fun. But the music he always played at home was old school, Sly, Stevie, Marvin, Ray Charles, lots of blues and down home soul, he loved those raw voices. I must have inherited his ears because this is what turns me on as well.
13) I was interested to see Dennis Banks was singing with the drum on "Children Of Love". How do you know him and when did you two meet?
We were invited to perform for the children at the Anishinabe Canoe Race in northern Minnesota, an annual event hosted by Dennis. We have participated just about every year since, donating our time to help the kids, water patrol, making lunch for everyone, etc. Dennis does a lot for Native youth, we've become friends: he's an uncle to us all.
14) I hate the word image, and I apologise for even implying that you portray one, but I found it interesting that you were photographed for Skintalk both traditionally and modern - is that an accurate representation of what you try to achieve personally and artistically? A balance between the old and the new?
Exactamundo! I get many emails from Native women who thank me for bringing an image of a strong independent Native woman to the forefront. Women have been in the back for far too long in Indian Country, and it's so cool to see other women taking charge and embracing independence and strength. We live in two worlds, and we take time to honour where we come from, many people paved the road for me today, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Rita Coolidge... I would not be here representing contemporary Native music if it weren't for these wonderful and powerful women who opened the doors for us. I hope that we are making them proud.
15) What's next for you, anything special that we should be watching out for?
We are working on album #3, due out sometime in 2008 and of course lots of gigs all over. Our website always has what we're up to, so people can look us up online, drop us a line and say hello.
I want to take this time to thank Martha Redbone for sparing some time out of hectic life to sit down and do this interview. She talks of Buffy Sainte - Marie and Rita Coolidge being an inspiration for her – paving the way for her generation. Martha doesn't need anyone to pave any highways for her anymore – she's one of the ones who is clearing the way for the next generation. It's a good and strong Red Road that she's making and anyone with eyes can follow it. Let's hope there is soon a parade of people of all colours walking along it, because the road is not just about music, it's about being true to yourself and what you believe in.
Of course, it doesn't hurt that it's got a good strong heartbeat, and a pulsating back beat for parading to. Emma Goldman said something along the lines of " If I can't dance, I don't want any part of the revolution". In the revolution being led by Martha Redbone and Aaron Whitby you'll never have to worry about that – the road to believing in yourself might be hard at times – but it doesn't have to be boring.
(Originally posted November 2007)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.