Got Range

Kristi Martel can handle rock vocals, or folk, or the RI Philharmonic

SMIRK: Kristi Martel wears that near-grin much of the time. What's she know, we don't?

by Marion Davis
Motif, May 18-31, 2005

Kristi Martel finds joy in overcoming pain. Kristi Martel's got that grin again. It fills her whole face, girlish and disarming, like she's gotten away with something and you're in on her secret now. She grins when she's being goofy, but also when she's on stage, singing her heart out.

Kristi Martel loves life, and the joy she gets out of it exudes from her every pore. She can be singing about the darkest things in the world -- betrayal, self-hate, death -- and yet somehow, coming from her, it feels hopeful and uplifting.

Take one of her newest songs, "Ravengirl," about life since the suicide of her partner, Littlebird, almost two year ago.

"You made me the raven girl," she sings, "touched by death , touched by grieving."

It's a pop song, light and upbeat.

"'Ravengirl' is quirky and fun to me," she says when asked about it, grinning again. It's not about lamenting the tragedy. "It's, 'Oh my God. I've gone through all of this and I'm OK. Isn't it amazing that I've healed enough that I can be cheerful?' It's like, woo-hoo! I did it."

Martel, 32, has been through a lot, and it's all over her songs, which are as intensely personal as those by Tori Amos or Tanya Donnelly. Alone with her electric piano, or accompanied by guitarist Kevin Silvia, she retraces old relationships, family times, arguments and flirtations.

In "Even Free," one of her stage favorites, she sings about an 8-year-old black girl who loves Martel's red hair and hates her own.

"I try to tell her how I see her nappy hair braided and twisted and free," Martel sings.

But her own head tortures her the same way, shouting "ugly, too fat, too weak, too thin."

In "Silver," she sings about her grandparents, who "didn't even know what sex was when they got married. Can you believe it? They figured it out together. I want something pure like that. I want something that turns into 50 years, just like theirs."

And in "Harder Than Dying," she sings about returning to Rhode Island after Littlebird's death, to "this tiny state where the sky is smaller," and struggling to live on, which is "harder than dying."

She won't fly after her, she tells Littlebird, but "You are my truest home still."

Martel grew up in North Smithfield, the only child of a single mother. At school, she was "a complete outcast," she says, wildly unhappy. But her Meme encouraged her to sing since she was tiny, her mother signed her up for guitar lessons, and her father took her to the theatre in Boston, and bought her a piano for her seventh birthday.

She knew early on that this would be her life, Martel says, and she wasted no time: She enrolled at Bard College in New York, instead of doing her senior year of high school, and studied music composition, theatre and dance there. Then she moved on to Mills College, in Oakland, Calif., where she perfected her vocal style with an opera teacher.

All along, her teachers nudged her toward classical music, but pop was her passion; she just used their techniques to write better songs, and learn how to do vocal acrobatics like Kate Bush, whose work "was the first music I ever heard that sounded like the music in my head."

And like Bush, Martel enjoys playing with her voice, a deceptively girly little thing that grows on stage, into an impressive and versatile instrument. Its high, bell-like quality makes people assume she's a soprano, she says, but just this month, she was singing low alto as a guest artist in Carmina Burana, at Veterans Memorial Auditorium.

"I have this big range," she says, grinning again, "and I like to get to use it."

Her favorite performance venues, however, aren't big theatres or clubs, but small, intimate spaces such as Pawtucket's Stone Soup Coffeehouse. She likes it when people listen to every word -- and no, it doesn't scare her to be so intimate with strangers.

"I don't feel vulnerable," she says, or at least not in a way that bothers her. "I feel more present on stage and more alive than at almost any other time."

Kristi Martel's latest album, The Mule, is available through her Web site,, which also lists her schedule. She and Kevin Silvia are now recording a new album together.

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