The adage 'strength through diversity' has been run into the ground. Used ad nauseum by self-help books, religious characters and others of a similar ilk, it’s one of those phrases that’s lost its power through over-use. But every now and then it’s a good phrase to use – take Sydney singer songwriter Liz Martin, for instance. Laid up for months after painful surgery on her hip, and mourning the death of her father, she took the opportunity to write her third album Live A Little, Dance A Little. Rather than becoming a meditation on pain and loss, however, Live A Little… is a joyful work, a celebration of light and love; poppy, lively and elegantly poetic.
Speaking over the phone whilst drinking a coffee and preparing for her upcoming national tour, Martin sounds excited – upbeat, energetic and quick to laugh. She started down the musical road at an early age, and this new album of hers is merely the latest chapter in a life that always celebrated the creation of something out of nothing. “I started writing music when I was seven or eight, and I really liked the magic of writing, and putting something together,” she informs gracefully. “The actual singing and playing of guitar has always been a really beautiful personal connection for me. Playing live, well, I’m still kind of learning! Until fairly recently, it’s always been pretty dreaded, but now I can enjoy it. It definitely helps when you’ve got a great band you’re looking forward to playing with!” she says with a laugh.
Back in the ‘90s, she was a regular on the burgeoning Sydney folk scene, playing in bars and cafes, showcasing her lush and beautiful voice with achingly sweet acoustic guitar. It was while visiting a nightclub that truly aided her in spreading her professional wings. “I used to go to a club, Club Kooky,” she fondly recalls. “I just loved this place; the music was bizarre and it was electric and it was weird, and the crowd was really diverse. You could go any which way you liked and it was free and liberating … a beautiful thing!
“So I started hanging out there a fair bit, being exposed to a really different type of music; I guess it was around the same time that I began hanging out with Paul Mac.”
It was a fortuitous meeting for both of them; Martin ended up helping Paul Mac out on his first album, and the resulting sessions were an eye-opening lesson for Martin. “He and I recorded a whole bunch of songs, and just watching him work and use electronic sounds and making these pop songs and ballads – it was just mind-blowing!” she gushes. “He can do it so fast, on the fly; it’s a whole other level of instrumentation in producing sound. It was just so exciting, and I started getting myself more and more into working with electronic sounds, as well as acoustic. That first album (2006 debut Beneath The Stars) was quite a mix-up of the two, so it was just fun and interesting, experimenting with new sounds for me!”
And it’s this celebration of experimentation that helps define Martin’s output. In 2007, she switched gears on her sophomore album, Night Music – resulting in a dark and moody guitar-driven “angst-y” record. I mention to Martin that I was a little surprised that her painful surgery to replace a hip-replacement that was a result of a “one in a million” medical condition she suffered from didn’t result in another album of darker material. Was Live A Little … a bit like therapy for her? “Well the word ‘therapy’ freaks me out," she laughs. "But it was a very conscious decision. I’d written heaps of angst-y stuff before with that whole grungy, dirty guitar and lots of slow songs – and when my father had passed away, I went out and stayed with him for the last month with the rest of the family.
“And [my father] was just so peaceful and calm and accepting … he had this dignity, and that influenced me; I didn’t want to mope or groan about what was going on; I wanted to find another place. And rather than use music to wail through, I would use it to take me to other places and other times and really distract myself and make me think of something else.
“It would work for this,” she continues. “You can latch on to something and spend hours and hours and hours quite happily, tinkering away with these ideas! It was a luxury; it turned out to be a really special, amazing time, even though it was a bit lonely. There was something about it that was really freeing.”
So she has under her belt the electronic album, the brooding and dark one and then of course her new record, full of life and upbeat as all get-out. Which one, does she reckon, reflects the “real” Liz Martin? She lets a quick laugh escape before thoughtfully intoning, “Well, I’m definitely still a bit moody! They’re all different, but they’re still me, with the same voice. I imagine the next couple of albums are going to sound different again!”
BY THOMAS BAILEY
Catch LIZ MARTIN when she and her fabulous band visit The Grace Darling Hotel on Sunday May 27 with special guest will be Jacqueline Amidy. Live A Little, Dance A Little is out now through Vitamin Records.