“Let me get this right. It was peanut butter, chocolate spread, mayonnaise, bacon… I’m sure I’ve left out an ingredient here. I might need to research this.”
LAURA J MARTIN is musing over the composition of the perfect Elvis Sandwich, a staple snack during the making of her latest album, On The Never Never. Under the supervision of producer Mark Nevers, the record came to life in a Nashville studio, helped along its way by an impressive roster of musicians including Brian Kotzur (Silver Jews), Duane Denison (The Jesus Lizard) and Matt Swanson and Tony Crow of Lambchop. Mark Nevers was also the maverick behind the sandwich, but take note: “It’s not the best thing to eat before playing the flute, let me just say that. I had to down a lot of tea to digest the bugger.”
With three albums under her belt, you may already know Laura J Martin for her ethereal vocals and intricately layered, looping compositions of flute, piano and mandolin. While she’s often filed under “folk”, her output is so diverse that it’s hard to pin down within one single genre. So what made her hop on a plane to the heart of country music?
“The plan was never to go to Nashville and make a country record,” she clarifies. “I just wanted to work with Mark Nevers because I like the sound of the records he makes. Even though I was across the Atlantic when I first wrote the songs, I already had snapshots in mind of what I wanted.”
“I made the last couple of albums pretty much in my bedroom and knew I didn’t want to do that again,” she continues. “I thought this would be a chance to set up a situation, surrender to it and see where it would take me.”
It’s interesting that she uses the word “surrender” here. Anyone who has caught Laura J Martin playing live will know that she’s used to running the show single-handed: a lone figure expertly steering her way through a smorgasbord of pedals. Even when at the mercy of challenging acoustics or inattentive sound guys, her composure remains unruffled, resulting in a sound as expansive as if there’d been a squadron of musicians on stage alongside her. Working a 35-hour week with a full team in the studio must have marked a departure from her usual autonomous approach, surely?
“I found it really good working live with so many great players, as it allows you to change things up really quickly. If something wasn’t working we could just experiment and work it out right away, so trying out ideas became a very quick process.”
She’s no stranger to trying out new ideas, of course. A natural storyteller, her lyrics abound with imagined scenarios: a shuffle through her back catalogue reveals a world populated by warlords and Japanese arsonists. On The Never Never, while no less visionary, takes a microscope to a few of the more ordinary aspects of life. This time, there’s a strong attachment to the idea of place, and some of the problems surrounding urban regeneration. Martin, who is originally from Maghull, had found that trips back to Liverpool would leave her disenchanted as she noticed more landmarks being stripped away with each visit. It was this feeling of upheaval that became her focus as she started composing the songs on the album.
“The one that pinpoints it mostly is Do It. It’s about buildings being knocked down in the name of progress, and what bulldozing individuality can mean for the communities left behind,” she explains. “Cities are being broken up and parcelled off, and faceless shopping complexes are appearing in their place. I know that progress can sometimes be a good thing, but so much of it is just a façade.”
“I’ve lived away from home for a bit and coming back from time to time has made me so aware of how things have changed. So many venues that I was very fond of have closed, including The Kazimier. Bright Phoenix [a play she wrote the music for in 2014] was about The Futurist cinema building in particular. That whole street used to be the pride of Liverpool, but now, what is it?” You can sense her frustration at this point, as she bristles at the idea of city gentrification. “When I started writing the album it was slightly more general, because this isn’t just happening in Liverpool, it’s happening to cities everywhere. But doing the play in Liverpool and hearing what Jeff Young had to say made me feel very close to the subject matter.”
Yet on a personal level, finding somewhere to call “home” can be equally problematic. “I guess I have to mention about the capital city being a bit of a brain drain, because everything ends up there. I’ve experimented with living in London a bit, though my intention was never to stay. So then when I’m returning to Liverpool, I feel like a bit of traitor.”
Similar tensions between putting down roots and feeling displaced are noticeable in her new album’s title song, On The Never Never, which opens with a deceptively jovial piano melody and lines about walking the dog and going on holiday, before contemplating gardening fees and cleaning bills, then finally lapsing into something closer to that 3am sensation of dread. “Who else will think of me/Why does it haunt me?” she sings on the track, adding that the song is about “the debt culture we live in now. People having something but not really having it, and wanting something only for the sake of it.”
Meanwhile the record’s closer, Nowhere Else, is an elegy to finding a place “to fight and love and live and die”. Maybe this is connected with the feeling of transience familiar to most people in their 20s and 30s these days; that, for all the sparkling apartment complexes and mire of letting agents on the horizon, home is still a psychological space that you just have to work out for yourself.
Modern malaise is also chewed over in the brilliant I Can’t Bear To Feel Myself Forgotten. Its video features Martin, saturated in pink lipstick and blusher, designing her own merchandise line to be wheeled out after gigs. Like a faded starlet reaching for one final stab at the spotlight, she flings her arms giddily around fans and gnaws on a teddy bear for photo opportunities. Behind the showboating, however, she’s transformed into a werewolf gazing, horror-struck, at her reflection. It’s a smart visual counterpoint to that of her own image beaming glibly from oven gloves, jigsaws and mouse-mats (and, ultimately, the bin). “Some of the merch didn’t survive because of what had to happen in the video,” she admits. “The glove’s a goner. And one of the frogs had to sacrifice himself for the team. He was the victim of a good dog-chewing.”
For all the warmth and wit on its surface, though, there’s a darker note to Martin’s songwriting which pegs a generation caught up in self-mythologising and the feverish desperation for “likes”. Neither of which bring real fulfilment, but instead mask a more universal fear: “I don’t know if this comes across in the video, but there’s a bit of death anxiety in there. In a nutshell – death anxiety and being an egomaniac. All the things that are totally the opposite of my true character. I’m joking!”
She laughs, and pauses to reflect, searching for the right words. “The song isn’t necessarily autobiographical, or a comment on my career. It’s more about people becoming obsessed with social media and always needing to say: ‘I exist’. But at the same time, it’s about the idea of being constantly connected – so that forgetting isn’t even possible. The digital detritus is always there.”
I can’t guarantee you’ll be lucky enough to pick up a wall clock with her face on it at her Folk Festival On The Dock show, but a bewitching and memorable show? You can bet on it.
On The Never Never is out now on Shape Records. Laura J Martin’s performance at Folk Festival On The Dock on Sunday 28th August at Albert Dock is presented by Bido Lito! Tickets are available now from folkonthedock.com.