David Martel: “Ground control to Martel…”

“Ground control to Martel…”

Montreal singer/songwriter David Martel makes far-out tunes with feet barely touching the ground

The first email came the morning of May 5, 2008, shouting that an artist I’d never heard of was releasing his debut album later that month. The next, dated May 22, and entitled "Discover David Martel," informed that David Martel’s I Hardly Knew Me was about to be released in stores, and that its official launch was forthcoming. There was an email a few days later, and another a few days after that. Around this time I received I Hardly Knew Me, and had my first chance to get acquainted with the guy who had a very determined group of people hustling on his behalf.

The best way to listen to music is through quality headphones in a dark room. That’s how I first listened to I Hardly Knew Me, felt its massive heart wash over me like the summer sun after a five-minute storm, and heard Martel’s powerful voice rise and hang in the air like Michael Jordan shooting that famous jumper. Built on a folk, singer/songwriter base, and permitted vacation time in the worlds of rollicking rock and soul-inflected pop, the recording boasts a mastery of contrasting styles all tethered together by that mighty voice. Warm instrumentation, convention, invention, song craft, music that oozes passion and pathos, that sprinkle of je ne sais quoi – I Hardly Knew Me has it all. But it was only on June 5, at his release show, that I truly discovered David Martel. For once, discovery actually felt like discovering, like witnessing something. It’s still the best set I’ve seen all year.

If only because of that show, you should take a moment to meet David Martel.

SON OF A PREACHER MAN

A Wikipedia-style bunch of factoids about Martel would tell you he’s the son of a pastor and an occupational therapist, and changed addresses a lot as a kid because his dad was "starting churches." It’d tell you that he moved from St-Hubert, Quebec, to Lachute, Quebec, to just outside Hawkesbury, Ontario, where he finished high school. It’d tell you he went to Loyalist College in Belleville, Ontario, to study radio broadcasting, and that he eschewed a career in that field.

It might explain that the musical germ came from his mother, who taught him his first three guitar chords. "She showed me how to play a D, a G and a C, and Johnny Cash, that’s all he played all his life, so you can make a living off those three chords," he says. Older brother Marc, who performs in Gospel Music Association Covenant Award-winning band Downhere, also inspired a young Martel to fall in love with music.

Thing is, it’d leave out the good stuff, like the contradictions. It wouldn’t tell you that he was voted "Best Partier" in high school, or that he has a profound personal relationship with Jesus. It would leave out bands called Dental Toe and Fry That Boot. It wouldn’t explain his former inability to make good first impressions, why he signs off emails with "I’m David Martel," or describe him as "the epitome of the middle child, the black sheep in every way," as he himself does.

"I am on stage probably for a reason," he admits. "I’m pretty self-absorbed and an attention seeker. I’ve always [wanted] to be the centre of attention, and loved performing for people."

THE WIZARD OF "AH!"

The "real" David Martel live show, which features a large group of musicians billed as The Friend Ship, is kind of the linchpin of the enterprise, the thing to behold. Sure, Martel’s bright and engaging to talk to, and articulate and effective playing solo, but everything falls into place when he’s steering The Friend Ship. Those shows are full of sparkle, wonder and whimsy, what little kids call magic. At the album launch, Martel played conductor/mad scientist, cajoling seemingly lifeless bodies into action like the sorcerer’s apprentice animating brooms in Fantasia. Then he was the shining nucleus of the operation. As they absorbed strength from him, he drafted their energy like a stock car racer. It’s this energy that slingshots the show over the top.

"It was Jean Leloup who told me [that] you have to demand people’s attention when you’re performing," Martel says. "If you’re not going to demand their attention then they’re just going to go to do something else. So I guess I just get up and demand attention. I give 150,000 per cent.

"I always find it unfortunate when you go see a band, you’ve heard their record, and you go to the show and it’s just like listening to the record. So, any chance I have to be bigger than that, to give some, you know, bang for their buck – especially if they’re paying 15, 20 bucks to come see the show – I think they, the audience, deserve it. I try to make every moment count for them."

It’s also probably not that hard for him to get enthused to play. Material like the stuff on I Hardly Knew Me commands largeness. Reduced to its essence, Martel says that if there’s a message on the record, it’s "I’m hurting, and you probably are too, but it’ll be okay." Call it hopeful feel with universal appeal.

WEIRD IS AS WEIRD DOES

With apologies to the photographers whose shots adorn this story, my favourite photo of Martel is one journalists mistakenly received a few months back, showing Martel reading Chomsky in a bathtub. Sounds normal, until you factor in that the bathtub was filled to the brim with empty brown beer bottles.

Then there’s the one that was featured in Voir in which Martel is shown to be levitating with a "What? This is completely normal… for me" look on his face.

Then there are the still frames I’m memorizing as he sits across from me eating lunch. Martel is all tiny tics and enthusiasm, tickled nerve endings and inside jokes he’s telling himself. "You’re really weird," I tell him, knowing it’s precisely this tinge of eccentricity that makes him so captivating on stage. The oddball stuff transitions so seamlessly into greatness.

"It’s probably part of being ‘the self-absorbed guy,’ you know," Martel says, explaining his eccentricities. "’Look at me! I’m not like the others!’"

"If you go and look through the scrapbooks, or the pictures, there is not one picture of me with a ‘normal’ face. And what I didn’t get is that it drove my family insane. They’re like, ‘Dave, put on a normal face,’ and I’m like, ‘But I don’t have a normal face on when we are not taking pictures, so why should I pretend to be somebody else when we are taking pictures?’"

He tells stories about doing the old gag of answering a banana like it’s a ringing phone and having extended conversations in public. "My favourite thing is to make people react to something," he says proudly.

So yeah, he’s a strange guy, but when performance time comes, Martel’s antics are muted. The passion takes hold, the showman takes over. His odd qualities are his carnival barker, the thing getting you in the door, maybe. Once you’re there, it takes a smoke break and the unadorned performer stands tall, the one whose songs can stoke fires in stingy hearts, whose zeal and talent are only outdone by how damned grateful he seems to be when playing for you.

Our city’s music scene yields us an embarrassment of riches. Here, it’s easy to get overwhelmed, miss the trees for the forest. But once in a while you get a chance to see something, meet someone, truly inspiring and original.

He’s David Martel.

David Martel
w/ Black Diamond Bay and Courtney Wing
At La Sala Rossa (4848 St-Laurent), Nov. 6

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