Interview: Steve Martin
Tue, 30 Jun 2009 08:01:06
Steve Martin is a jack-of-all-trades.
From standup comedian to film star to writer, Martin has seemingly done it all. With the release of his bluegrass banjo tour de force, The Crow [Rounder], he really has!
For years, Martin has strummed his banjo on movie sets and at home, penning lyrics and melodies that would eventually set The Crow in flight. This collection of songs is dreamy, catchy and soulful, showing just how great of a songwriter the multi-talented performer is. Over the course of 16 tracks, Martin takes us on a journey through a simpler time with each bouncy and buoyant string pluck.
He sat down with ARTISTdirect.com in this exclusive interview to discuss making The Crow, songwriting and much more.
Were you on a real creative kick while making this?
I would have to say so because I hadn't really recorded banjo for many, many years. It was almost like a new thing. I'd recorded before, but I was working with all of these new musicians on all my own tunes this time. Every day was very interesting, challenging and fun for me.
Each song takes on a life of its own and tells its own story.
I think the songs are sort of narrative in their spirit. In fact, I was thinking of writing lyrics for one of the songs and my wife said, "It sounds like a narrative song without lyrics." I said, "You know, you're right." [Laughs]
When did you start playing banjo?
I started when I was 17. That's still late though.
It's surprising because typically kids start playing instruments at seven or eight.
Right, I was in Orange County, and there wasn't a lot of music around. That's when the music came into our part of the world and got me interested. I also said to myself, "It's hard to learn this but I'm going to end up playing for 40 years if I stay with it." So here I am [Laughs].
Is it something you've picked up and put down? Or have you always played on a regular basis?
More or less, I've always played, but there were periods where I didn't play much. If I was doing a movie, I'd take the banjo on the set with me and pass the time. It was great. There were some times when I didn't. Mostly I've kept it with me. One thing that helped was when I put a banjo in every room. That way I didn't go, "Oh, my banjo's all the way in the other room." I could just pick it up wherever I was, play and practice.
Do you feel like the banjo is an extension of you or a part of you?
Well, let's see. It's sort of a metaphysical question [Laughs]. I'm sitting here looking at it right now, and it does feel comfortable when I pick it up. I don't go anywhere without now. So I guess it's a part of my luggage now, definitely [Laughs]. Baggage!
What's the story behind "Late for School?" Was that something that happened when you were a kid?
Well, no, but I wrote the song first as an instrumental. I came up with the title "Late for School." We actually recorded it as an instrumental and finished it. While we were recording it, I started to think, "This song might take lyrics." I started jotting down some lyrics. Then I got passionate about it and finished it all off. I went back in and recorded the lyrics and re-cut the song because what we had recorded didn't quite fit the lyrics. There you go! The lyrics came way after the recording. On the deluxe version of the record, you can also get the instrumental of "Late for School" that I also think works. It's a song that really has two lives as an instrumental and as a narrative funny tale.
They sound different too.
Yeah, you get two separate flavors. In the banjo version, there are what I call, "little delays." You can't quite hear them in the other version of the song. So there's something there in the instrumental that stands on its own.
Would you say the album has got a summer vibe?
Yeah, I think there's something to that. I think of it first as a banjo record. I know there's a certain vibe that comes off it when all is said and done because the melodies are kind of cheery, sometimes they're a little melancholy, which does fit summer time. We're here. We're in summer, so that's good.
What was the process like behind "Pretty Flowers" with Dolly Parton?
I actually wrote that song while I was shooting Pink Panther in Boston. It was one of the few songs with lyrics where the lyrics came first. I was riding my bicycle around the Charles River in Boston and the tune started to come into my head. I went home and actually wrote down all of the lyrics that I would come up with on my little brand new iPhone. I figured out the tune and then put it aside because I wasn't smart enough to record what I had done. Now every time I think of a song I record it immediately so I won't forget it. I forgot the tune to "Pretty Flowers," and I was very frustrated by it. About a year later, the tune came back to me in time for the recording.
That's a long time for it to be dormant!
It was gone! The only way I remembered it was by recalling where I physically placed my fingers on the neck. It was a physical memory of where I started, and that's how it started to come back to me.
What was it about biking around the Charles River that was so inspiring? It's pretty, but it's also a really dirty river!
[Laughs] Well, it was a very pretty time when we shot that actually. It was summer or spring so it wasn't freezing cold. It was nice. I think it was just the structure of the lyric—the way that each line is telling a little story. I selected each line from one of the verses, repeated that and then the other person answers. It all just came sequentially to me. I didn't know what the ending was until I got there.
What was it like working with Dolly Parton?
It was an incredible experience for me to not only work with Dolly but with Vince Gill. They're two of the most beautiful voices in this kind of music. To have them even respond to the song was thrilling for me. To hear them bring such emotion was incredible. They made the emotion that I believe was in there so tangible. I was really excited about it. As they were singing, I found myself really moved by their rendition, which could be a better sign for me.
Was it especially fun collaborating with so many different and dynamic performers?
They were really fun and really professional. It was all very fast too. They really worked it out. I was like, "Oh, they've done this a million times before."
Is there a certain learning curve that comes with collaborating with people you've never worked with before?
There can be, but there wasn't in this case. I just shut up and let them do it. When people are nice people and nobody's got a big ego, then it's very easy to collaborate.
At the point where you all are as professionals and musicians, it's probably easier to focus on creating art.
You know, I'd met Vince Gill before, not very much. We weren't close friends or anything. I'd met Dolly before. There's a certain level of—I don't know what you want to call it—celebrity, where you don't have to get to know people so much because you've been through so much that's similar [Laughs].
Do songs usually start with a banjo lick?
It varies. "Pretty Flowers" had lyrics first. "Daddy Played the Banjo" also had lyrics first; I wrote it as a poem. I thought it could take some music. In other cases, "Calico Train" and "Late for School," I wrote the lyrics after we recorded the song. In other words, there are a million different ways. Sometimes, it starts with a little lick on the banjo. I'm like "Oh, that's kind of nice" then I try to figure out what can follow it.
Why did you call the album The Crow?
"The Crow" was one of the early tunes I had written. I started the whole project because Tony Trishka asked me to play on his album Double Banjo Bluegrass Spectacular. I played the song for him and he liked it. Because that song kicked off the whole revitalization of my banjo career, I thought it was an appropriate title. The album cover was brilliantly designed too.
Do you have a tour planned yet?
I am going to do a short tour just to see if I can do it. That will probably be in October. I don't have the details just yet. It's easier than comedy!
You can get lost in the songs themselves. There's probably less crowd interaction than when you're doing stand-up.
Absolutely, and that's what's nice about it. A song lasts three minutes while a joke lasts six seconds [Laughs]. So you're not always trying to redo yourself every five seconds. It's interesting. When you're playing a song, something can take over and you can suddenly feel it starting to work. It's an interesting feeling. It's something I'm not used to.
Does writing essays and prose come from the same place as songwriting?
It does, although I think they're completely different enterprises. Nevertheless, I do loosely compare songwriting to writing paragraphs. When I'm working on a song, there are individual little licks that I relate to words and sentences. You're putting sentences together in paragraphs, and you're putting paragraphs together in an entire essay. Everything has to mean something. You just can't be frivolous. With an essay, I wouldn't have anything in there just to kill time. I wouldn't do that in a song either.
Well with an essay you're telling one story whereas in a song you're using the music and lyrics to tell a story.
Ideally or mystically, the song is telling the same message as the lyrics. I know that's a stretch, but you aim for that that. I think the lyrics for "Pretty Flowers" really portray what the song is about.
That narratives encourages fans to listen to the whole record from start to finish.
Thanks! That's great. I don't know if I could pull that off again because these songs were collected over 40 years of writing. If I wrote anymore, they would be collected over just one year [Laughs]. We'll see!