Martha L. Healy recently released ‘Keep the Flame Alight’, an album which led me to write the following, “‘Keep the Flame Alight’ is a truly wonderful album from start to finish. With real emotions, real people and real stories coming through in spades via Martha L. Healey’s emotive vocals, you’ll find it difficult to find a better album from these shores in 2018.” It was therefore fantastic to catch up with Martha this week and find out more about the album, her songwriting, her musical influences and life as an independent musician.
Hi Martha, I’d like to start by congratulating you on the release of ‘Keep the Flame Alight’. It’s an incredible listen. How long has this album been in the making?
Hello Belles and Gals! Thanks very much. This album has been about 3 years in the making, from when I started writing it. Everyone goes on about second album syndrome and I think I understand that a little better now.
You go through an emotional journey in the title track of the album and come out the other side. Was this the spark for the album?
To be honest, Keep The Flame Alight wasn’t one of the first songs I wrote for the album. In fact, it was probably one of the latter ones, from what I remember. I knew I was working on an album when I was writing these songs but I wasn’t sure how they would all work and assemble themselves and I kept asking myself, “what is it I’m trying to say? what is it I’m trying to convey here?” Then it came to me that lots of the songs are about resilience, survival, keeping going and not letting the world and lots of external factors bring you down and take you away from your road and purpose in life. The song, itself, was one I wrote in a day (never happens to me) so I figured it was something special and a good metaphor for the collection of songs.
In my review of your album I used the word ‘real’ over and over again. I find myself identifying with the songs, people and emotions, perhaps more than many other records I listen to. Could you attribute this ‘realness’ in your writing to your Scottish nationality?
Ha! That’s really nice of you to say. I’m not sure if it’s to do with growing up in Scotland with Irish roots….It probably is…we like to call a spade “a spade” in these parts and I’ve always been fascinated with real life and people and their stories. I am curious about people and their emotions. I’ve had a colourful work-life whilst doing my music: I’ve worked in TV; I’ve been a personal assistant; I’ve been a waitress; I’ve been an alternative therapist; I’ve worked for a charity. All of these have given me so much inspiration for my songwriting. I’m an observer and I hope some of the things in these songs ring true with others.
And you launched the album last weekend in your home town of Glasgow. How did it feel to give the album the full live experience?
Yes, I launched the album with a full band gig at Glasgow Americana Festival, which is an amazing annual festival of music. We played one of my favourite venues, The Glad Cafe, in my native south side of Glasgow. It was a sell-out and the band and I had a great time. I miss when I can’t take all of the band out to other gigs as I hear their parts in my head ha ha. It was a lovely atmosphere and great to see so many familiar, supportive faces in the audience.
The music industry seems obsessed with songs in neat little three or three and a half minute packages. Your album bucks that trend, as you’re happy to go five or even six minutes, with only one song fitting into the above ‘bracket’. Is this a conscious effort to build songs with more narrative, or is it simply the way you write?
I think the more pop side of the industry is obsessed with the 3-minute track for radio. I’ve never been one to buy into that as that’s not the side of the industry I am interested in. I have dabbled in writing for pitches and it’s something I’d like to do more of but – for my own material – I let the song tell me when it’s ready. I had the privilege of attending one of Gretchen Peters’ songwriting workshops and she said it’s important to get yourself out of the process and let the song take over – don’t worry about the market you’re going for. If it’s meant to be, that song will fly to wherever it needs to go. I love that idea. So, I always get a feel for when I have said what needs to be said or I go back and revisit and think, “that needs some more work or information for the listener”…….With the six-minute song, Sisters To Strangers, it was a therapeutic process for me and I had a lot to get out of my system so I just let it roll….
Have you got a set song writing process? Talk us through the process for ‘We Will Be Okay’ for example. Did the idea form first, or was it initially the music?
I don’t have a set process, no. Certain things work for me: observing life, paying attention to people, paying attention to my feelings and emotions and being analytical about why certain things make me react emotionally……Usually, if I have a powerful reaction to a person or a place or something I’ve witnessed, that means I am on to something. For “We Will Be Okay”, I co-wrote this with my good friend, Wendy Newcomer. It’s the only co-write on the album so slightly different process from the other songs. I was in Nashville in 2016 for 3 months and Wendy and I met up regularly as friends with our husbands in tow. We decided to try and write some songs and a date was in the diary to work on another song we had started.
It was the evening after the Presidential elections and Wendy opened a bottle of red wine for us and we just started talking about how nothing was certain any more. I had the melody of the chorus and some lyrics from a while back and I played them to Wendy and she said we should write that song and finish it. Wendy is not only a great songwriter, but she’s a music journalist so she’s fast to work with. We spoke about whether we should make it more specific and about individual characters, but we agreed that we would keep the song universal to allow listeners to identify – no matter what they were going through. It’s one of my favourite messages on the album. When we are all long gone, the sun will keep on shining and the grass will keep on growing and we just need to hold on as best as we can. In terms of arrangement, we also knew we heard emotional strings on this track and we wanted to have Eamon McLoughlin on there. Eamon plays in a band with Wendy (50 Shades of Hay) but he’s also the go-to fiddler for Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris. When he was recording his arrangement, I was in tears!
What were your musical influences growing up? Not every girl from Scotland ends up veering towards Americana/Country?
I think you always pick up musical influences from your parents and what they play. My dad was into The Eagles, Bruce Springsteen, The Fureys, Billy Joel and some bad 80s ballads. My mum was into ABBA and used to sing in choirs. Then I had three Uncles with varying tastes from Bowie and Hawkwind, and Aretha Franklin and Randy Crawford, to Irish folk music. So it was eclectic! However, when I picked up the guitar to start learning in my teens, I found country music easiest to play and I loved the way they sang and told stories. I think it spoke to me in a way that was honest and painful! I still love that about it. Most kids were into grunge and, latterly, rap and dance in the 90s when I was a teenager. I was in my bedroom listening to Sheryl Crow, Dolly Parton, Dixie Chicks, Beth Neilsen Chapman, Martina McBride and Faith Hill. And Alanis, don’t forget Alanis…
You’re an independent artist, which obviously has its challenges. However, you must feel a whole load of freedom in that independence? And what are the toughest challenges?
Being an independent artist is a catch 22. You get to write the songs you like, work with a producer you choose, you put them out how you like and grow a support network of people who enjoy your music for all the right reasons. These are great things.
On the tough side of things, it can be all-consuming. I don’t have a manager so most of my time is spent doing admin, emailing, harassing people for gigs and planning travel and more harassing and then some knock-backs and some glorious moments of playing with like-minded people in between. There are continuous ups and downs, as any independent artist will tell you, and the disparity between independent artists and those on major labels with big budgets for PR is one of the greatest injustices in my opinion. I’ve had some amazing support from radio djs for this album, but I think the big influencers and the big broadcasters need to make it more of their mission to support new and unheard talent.
At Belles and Gals we feature many artists who are just starting out on their musical journey. What would you advise to someone just starting out?
Know that it is not always going to be an easy road. You will make many sacrifices. You will make many mistakes. You will meet good people and bad people. You might be unlucky or you might be lucky. The quicker you learn how to suss out the good people, the better. Always know yourself and be true to yourself. People will find you out if you’re not yourself. Work hard at writing and don’t ever think you’ve learnt all you need to learn. Keep searching and travelling and observing. Nothing can come close to making music with friends and people who lift your spirits up. It’s magical.
On a practical side, join a song writing club or go and do as many open mics as you can. Meet up with other musicians, they are your biggest asset and support. Attend workshops and take time to listen to music and play and get to know your instrument.
To finish, what’s next for Martha L Healy?
More of the above! I am looking forward to continuing my tour around Scotland. I’ll be in London and hoping to do more dates in England and Ireland in 2019. Also, some exciting festival dates are on the boil. Generally, I’ll be trying to “Keep The Flame Alight” in any which way I can.
Interview conducted by Nick Cantwell (twitter.com/nickbelles_gals)