Touching the sky
Musician Kristi Martel on flying solo
By Brian Jewell
December 14, 2006
Rhode Island singer/songwriter Kristi Martel released her first album in 1996. "On a cassette tape," she giggles. "Made at home by hand. I think I made 60 of them. I hand wrote the labels."
Kristi and her label, Sealed Lip Records, have come a ways from the days of hand-written stickers, but her determination to chart her own course remains. "I never really considered trying to get on an established label," she muses. "I have an intense vision of my work, and I wanted to have control."
This fall saw the release of her sixth CD, Ravengirl, and the music press has started to take notice. It's tough to pin down the album's sound; it exists somewhere between jazz, folk and pop, with new influences bubbling up in each song. Comparisons are a little easier: Martel's vocal range, flair for drama and experimentation, and introspective lyrics call to mind Kate Bush and Tori Amos. It's cliche to call songs personal, but that's the first word that comes to mind about Ravengirl, a beautiful and beautifully honest examination of the death of Martel's partner.
Martel brushes aside the notion that this is brave work. "I would have been afraid to not put all this out there. My work has always been very personal, and I've always known from a young age that it's not good to be silent about pain and trauma. Silence gets you stuck. Breaking silence and making music really saved my life, and I knew that Littlebird's death would eventually come out in my music. Even though I couldn't write songs in the immediate aftermath, I started a list of things I wanted to put into music. About half of Ravengirl is from that list."
Working from a list is not the only unusual point of departure in the album. "A bunch of mediums came into my life when Littlebird died. I had never thought about mediums and talking to spirits before, and I was very skeptical at first. But Littlebird was persistent, apparently. Many people came to me saying they had messages from her, and I had to believe it. There was just too much to ignore. I really came to trust one medium who came to me and said Littlebird was singing to her. She said Littlebird wanted me to write one more song for her. And so the first song I wrote was 'Littlebird's Flight,' and the lyrics are what the medium told me. And that experience helped me find closure. That song is the answer to all the heart wrenching questions about why she took her own life."
"Most people think it's a sad song," she continues, "but I'm so grateful to have that clarity. To me, it's a joyous song. And this ties in to the song 'Ravengirl.' I was shocked to find that I could still feel joy. I was in so much pain every day, but I could still feel these moments. They were like little gifts and I held on to them. I started to joke that I must be a superhero to still feel happiness, so Ravengirl is my superhero name. It's my goofy way of talking about the whole experience. You know, we all have the capacity to feel joy but I'm not sure everyone knows that. So I'm trying to get the word out, I guess, and I'm so happy people are responding to that song."
The world seems to be responding to Martel's energy and optimism. She'll be featured on NPR soon, and Curve magazine wants to interview her. She'll also be stepping up her touring schedule, and has big ideas for the future.
"This has been a long time coming," she sighs. "It's great to be getting some media attention now. It's tough, you have to be so fucosed as an artist. I used to do more experimental, theatrical things, performances with dance and a cappella singing. But I set that aside because you can't pay the rent that way. And I do love the music more, but someday when I'm rich and famous I'll be able to go back to the other stuff. One of my dreams is to start a school that combines performing arts with cultural studies and feminist theory. That's another idea on hold. You just focus on your work, and the work takes you where you need to be."
Kristi Martel plays at Felt on Thursday, Dec. 21, at 9 p.m. Cover $6, 21+, 533 Washington St., Boston. Visit www.kristimartel.com.