Nov. 26, 2022
an interview with Selena Martin
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This newsletter is an extension of the 2022 Summer Album Guide, and will evolve to include writing about the community, the city and the world in areas other than hot vinyl and vital music. But for now consider it a gesture to continue the art of the album review, forever disappearing from our print newspapers. - Dave Bidini
Time Spent Swimming
It’s always difficult – yet joyous and exciting – to suggest in this space records made by friends. But just because I know and have performed with Selina Martin doesn’t mean you shouldn’t hear about her new album, which I highly recommended, and which, I believe, I’d five-star even if I hadn’t crossed paths with her some 30 years ago at the old Bourbon Tabernacle Choir house on Dundas near Sherbourne, right across from Filmores’ hot pink neon. Unlike Selina’s other recordings – start with the jagged, emotionally rich Disaster Fantasies, if you’re curious – it took me a minute to find a knothole into this different-sounding album, one that presses upon more post-modern song constructs to tell its stories. Nonetheless, like any fine recording, once you’re in, you’re in, but instead of effusing at length over individual compositions I thought I’d interview her about how she put it all together. What follows is an edited email chat with the songwriter, whose unrelenting creativity in the face of challenging circumstances has produced the most unique and detailed record in her oeuvre.
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DB: We’ll start with the question of our times: How was this recording made during a pandemic? It’s also worth pointing out that you used musicians both in France and in Canada: How was that complication overcome? Or was it even as complicated as some might imagine?
SM: Me and my team were set to record in Spain before Covid hit. Flights were booked, the studio was rented, musicians from Poland (Sławomir Szudrowicz), Ireland (Gav Kenny), a Canadian in Spain (Wendy McNeill), a Canadian in Berlin (Maya Postepski) and Alex Gamble, my Torontonian co-creator, were all set to travel and make an album together. I had a car arranged and accoms booked in Andorra en route from France – because I got a deal on an off-season hotel and I’ve wanted to visit Andorra ever since I first saw it on a map. I was excited about it all. And then, suddenly, I was abandoning my apartment in France and flying to Canada with a hastily packed suitcase as borders closed and flights were cancelled. Mine was one of only two flights on the departures board that actually flew.
I moved in with my sister and brother-in-law near Ottawa and stayed with them for four months. I set up a workspace in my niece’s bedroom. I had my laptop and my Zoom mic/recorder interface. These two little things made most of the tracks for the recording. I had made fairly exacting demos for most of the songs in preparation for the Spanish sessions. I decided to use these demos as the foundation for the album. Alex and I started having remote sessions every week for four or five hours and I sent him the demos one by one in multitrack format. He could import them into his workspace and then share his screen so we could work together to arrange and make things sound the way I wanted.
When winter ended I moved into a run-down cottage next door to have my own space. I did quite a lot of writing and recording in that lovely, musty place. My musical saw was in storage in my sister’s basement so I dusted it off and recorded myself on saw for “Something Wide Awake” and “If You Were A River.” On my way back to France I stayed in Toronto for a few days and recorded drums in Alex’s studio for four songs with Evan Cartwright, plus some guitars, synths and vibraphone. I also recorded Julia Hambleton on bass clarinet in her apartment, again, from a safe distance.
Back again in France the weekly sessions with Alex continued for almost two years. They helped me to feel like a musician during the darkest parts of the pandemic, and I missed them a lot once we finally finished this whole lengthy process of tracking, arranging, and sound-morphing. The whole process was awkward and quite time intensive but ultimately I’m very happy with the result. I got to dive all the way into songs, pull them apart, improvise, get really specific with sound manipulation, and put them back together again. Sometimes repeatedly.
DB: You expressly set out to make a record that wasn’t just guitar-bass-voice, but, rather heavy on electronica and production and disparate parts. Did you think you achieved that? And if so, where does this mindset best shine?
SM: I achieved this, certainly, but some songs wanted this treatment more than others. I played guitars, though. I love my guitars, very much, but I also love making guitars sound like something other than guitars. I am admittedly a little tired of hearing the same types of sounds from guitars. So some of the things you’re hearing that you think are ‘electronica’ are probably my guitars played in a percussive way and heavily affected. There is also bass guitar in most of the songs. So those guitar-bass-voice elements are all there. Doug Friesen played bass, and he and I have the same taste when it comes to bass sounds and style. I never have to give him any direction. He just brings it exactly how I want it –both in terms of playing and in terms of the sounds he chooses.
At the same time, yeah, there are lots of electronic sounds and elements on this album. I think “Quarantine” and “Your Face Goes Long” showcase this the best. YFGL was a bit of a marathon to build, esp with five verses that needed to sound different from one another, and it’s the one that made Alex’s computer crash the most due to the number of tracks. Ironically, I played this one live a few times solo on acoustic guitar. It had sort of a ska beat, which wasn’t my intention, but that’s just the way the song wanted it. The audience always loved it, I think because it’s so exuberant, but I was never satisfied with this version. So I made an utterly different one.
DB: It’s funny how despite the fact that the album is so compelling in its aesthetic and how the song forms are, at times, dramatically amorphous and elusive, the song “Smile” is so conventionally exultant by contrast. That’s really a magnificent approach in conventional song craft – do you think that’s the result of thinking ‘outside’ on the overall record, refreshing what you had once taken for granted re: song composition.
SM: Firstly, thank you. I’m proud of “Smile.” I had a lot of different verse structures and formats and lyrical lines going all at once in my brain when I was writing this. It was like a puzzle. When the pieces finally started falling into place it was immensely gratifying.
I think I hinted at this earlier, but it’s often the song that tells me what it wants to be. And I think you’re right about “refreshing what I once took for granted”. I’ve spent so long trying to metamorphosize traditional forms, that perhaps now I am able to return to the basics, at least once in a while.
Though for “Smile” we did morph Annelise Noronha’s accordion into an electrowash, which I love. And I think this might be the first time anybody’s heard a percussive vocal track that goes “him-him-him-him”.
DB: “If You Were a River” is, in many ways, a new way of exploring familiar terrain – to me, it’s a real neighbourhood song, and the hook that comes at 1:05 is classic Selina, and also classic in that it doesn’t nearly happen enough for me (I always find one song on your records that skates by parts that make me delirious with joy lol). On the record overall, did you consciously push away hooks and riffs in favour of textures and space? Or is that me projecting?
SM: It’s not a conscious thing that I deliberately push away hooks. I feel like my music is quite hooky. I love hooks. But also I don’t like repeating myself. It sometimes doesn’t feel genuine. Though, that said, there are songs that I love that manage to repeat a hook or a refrain in ways that feel true and honest.
DB: Then again, the riff on “Tangier” is very memorable— like the subdued cousin of “Rape During Wartime.” [from Disaster Fantasies] Were you inspired by anyone or anything or any approach in particular when writing this one?
SM: This song was inspired by a last-minute four-week stay in Tangier, when I was on the verge of being an illegal alien in Europe, before I had my paperwork sorted, which was all quite complicated. I didn’t travel around Morocco, I just stayed in Tangier the whole time, because I wanted to get as much of a feel for the place as was possible. I did some research on Arabic music and scales. I found a bar (not easy to do, as alcohol is sort of not legal) where live music was played by a solo guy on an organ/synth in a dark corner. I didn’t even know he was there at first; I thought I was hearing the radio.
I also found a mint teahouse (easier) where a traditional band played every week. Both scenes were very different, but with many similarities. There are some samples in this song that were made from my cellphone recordings in Tangier. Everything I heard and experienced there contributed to the song in some way. The part that I call the second bridge has a different time signature from the rest of the song, it’s the instrumental part and it uses one of the Arabic scales that I found that I really liked. I didn’t want to write a Moroccan-style song. I wanted to write my own type of song, inspired by the things I heard and learned.
DB: Am I wrong or is the sequencing on the album different than the CD?
SM: You are not wrong. The CD is one long ‘playlist’ as it were. The LP has 2 sides, as we all know. Therefore I spent quite a bit of time deciding which songs went where for both, as well as deciding the exact spacing between songs. I know most music is streamed these days and each song is separated and people make their own playlists, but sequencing and spacing is still important for me, because albums are like stories, and silences are as important as sounds.
I also shortened the LP by one song so that the sides weren’t too long, for a better audio experience.
(I also have a not-yet-released 10” EP that includes the song not on the 12”. It’s less than 10 minutes per side. If you have a good stereo system you can really appreciate the difference in sound quality).
DB: My LP ends with “Leopard Skin Vespa” (I think), which gives the listener the feeling that, as someone who makes music and lives both here and there, there’s a celebration of European life in that song. Are you content making music in France? And what is the strategy for getting this record heard there (and, I suppose, here)?
SM: Music marketing is not one of my strong points, so my strategy is just to make the best music I can, and play it the best that I can. However I have hired a publicity team in France to help spread the word.
For Canada I am contacting the people I know in the business myself as best I can. It’s been a bit piecemeal. Again, marketing is not my thing. But so far the responses I’ve received in Canada and in France have been really great. This is quite gratifying. When one spends so much time making a thing it’s easy to lose perspective.
And yes, LSV is about living in this particular part of France, and about desire and not having, even in a land of abundance, and about living in a strange world that is not my own.
DB: Do you write mostly in the day or at night? Do you have a perfect writing environment?
SM: Day is generally better for ideas. Nighttime I work on honing things. Though sometimes things come in the middle of the night and get me out of bed. I need time and space to write, two things that are difficult to come by.
DB: What is frustrating about being a Canadian making music abroad and what is refreshing about it?
SM: I miss my peers. I miss people around me who have a similar cultural history and similar sense of humour. I miss laughing. I love laughing. Music is a very hard business. If you can find people you love or at the very least you feel comfortable with to make music with, who you can laugh with, it makes things much easier. You feel less alone in the world.
On the refreshing side, being able to leave a place you know for a place you don’t know cannot help but open up your perspective. Being exposed to other ways of doing things, other styles of music, other tastes (culturally, not food-wise), expands your palette, so that the colours of your compositions can be a little richer.
It can be lonely, but loneliness sometimes leads to good art.
you can fine Selena Martin’s new record, Time Spent Swimming, on streaming and bandcamp HERE
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