we Interview Selina Martin about her wonderful new album ‘I've Been Picking Caruso's Brain; I Think I Have the Information We Need to Make a New World'
NBTMusicRadio: First of all talk us through the cover art and the costumes etc., there is quite a retro feel to the design for such a forward thinking album , were you playing with audiences expectations here?
Selina: I think the costumes and cover art are a mix of retro & future. I had that outfit made based on a retro gym suit my mom used to wear when she was in high school (early 60’s retro). & I added a white panel to make it a little Kaus Nomi-like (early 80’s retro). I added the look of the stockings and socks because it reminded me of the Devo knee-pad thing (late 70’s/early 80’s?). I always liked the look of that. It’s sort of sporty, too, like the gym suit. the go-go boots are definitely 60’s retro. But I think the whole outfit together looks sort of futuristic and ‘other-worldly’. Simple looking at first glance, yet made up of a number of complex elements. That’s what I was doing with the music, also. I worked for a very long time to distil the songs to their most basic elements. These, for the most part, are the simplest songs I’ve ever written. But then we (myself and Chris Stringer) built them in the studio to be sonically complex. It took a very long time and a lot of experimenting to get the songs to feel the way I wanted.
Back to the visuals for a second.. the painting by Douglas Walker is also a mix of retro and future, simple and complex. It’s from his collection called “Other Worlds”, which blew my mind. All blue. & white. simple. But when you look up close, and when you’re in the presence of them, you see & feel whole other worlds.
NBTMusicRadio: The Opening track ‘Your Secrets Sleep With Me’ starts with subtle distortions juxtaposed with a ‘pure’ vocal which is then kind of roughed up (oh we get so technical here at NBT ) and reminds me a lot of the work of Jane Siberry for example. There is a feeling of disconnection running through the track which makes it a brave opening statement, tell us a bit more about the song and its Production.
Selina: This song is perhaps the oldest song on the record. I wrote it first. I was commissioned to write a song based on a Canadian novel for an event called “Torn from the Pages”; part of an authors’ festival here in Canada. I chose a book written by a friend of mine, Darren O’Donnell, who is mainly a theatre artist and a self-described “social acupuncturist”, and he wrote this book and I fell in love with it. The feeling of disconnection is something that I like to explore, along with the feeling of connection. Living in the world is like trying to find connection while mostly feeling disconnected. I’m glad you noticed that. When I sing “You are the same as me, you just don’t know it. I am different from you, though I don’t know it”, that’s exactly what I’m talking about. & I like that the first word you hear when you play the record is “hello”. It’s lonely, it’s welcoming, and it’s an invitation to connection.
The melody is mostly two notes. - What I call the “doorbell” interval. This is deliberate. I’m ringing your doorbell to say ‘hello’. (We also recorded the sound of my phone ringing & added it as a track in the bridge).
The percussive loop at the beginning and also at the end is a track taken from my first home demo recording of the song. I was in my apartment hitting little round rocks on a drinking glass. I like using non-instruments to make music. I remember trying a whole bunch of elements until I found the right sounding combination. After the bed tracks were recorded the rest of the song was built in The Cereal Box, Chris Stringer’s home studio. He’s got some amazing gear. I would bike up there (he lives 1/2 hr uphill from where I live in Toronto) and we would try different things with the track for hours upon end. We spent so much time on it that we both lost perspective, so Stringer sent it to Josh Van Tassel - an amazing musician friend who also played drums on my last record - & Josh created a couple more really great loops to add & was also very encouraging, which helps.
(I have one Jane Siberry record on vinyl that I used to listen to over & over).
NBTMusicRadio: You have stated that ‘’The Addicted’’ was the most difficult track on the album to ‘make’, why is that? And how do you play such a track live (btw I love how it’s quite an almost traditional punky head banger at its core )
The Addicted took even longer than Your Secrets Sleep With Me. It made me lose my mind a little.
I started writing this song in Vancouver, on the west coast of Canada. I was playing with space. I wanted to leave as much space as possible between words. I wanted to leave as much unsaid as I could. I think that’s more interesting than filling all the space all the time. It was an experiment.
I was nervous about presenting it to the band because structurally it’s not like anything I’ve ever written, but they really liked it. The really tricky part was how to make it interesting with all that space. I asked my friend Brodie West to improvise on saxophone. I asked my friend Peggy Lee to improvise on cello. I wrote a clarinet melody for my friend Julia Hambleton to play. I spent WAY too much time self-recording vocals and background vocals at my friend Michael Phillip Wojewoda’s studio. At one point I had a week-long anxiety attack because I suddenly realized I didn’t know if the song was in E major or E minor. I had been singing background vocals that were in both keys. & the clarinet was in both keys. I started making a “map” of the song to see where it switched from major to minor and to figure out which background melodies and clarinet notes (and guitar and bass) I should ditch to make it all one key. Finally my lovely friend and bassist Doug Friesen talked me down and convinced me it was OK that the song was in two keys. That’s just how I wrote it.
After and during all this craziness I would take the tracks up to Stringer’s place & we would experiment with how to fuck it up & make it sound the way we wanted. Lots of editing. Lots.
The song grew and grew, in terms of how many actual tracks were on it (over 80 tracks at one point), to the point that Stringer’s computer would crash every time we tried to work on it.
In addition, The Addicted is sort of ‘modular’, as in, some of the different sections of the song could be moved around and it would still work, but this made things take even longer cuz I had to decide what would go where, and I kept changing my mind. This continued even to the point of when we were in the mixing studio. Everything was finally done, but then it wasn’t. At the very last minute I decided to ditch an entire verse and two other smaller sections of the song. Then things had to be rearranged again.
So, I have sort of a love-hate relationship with this song. It’s like the interesting but difficult child. Plus, lyrically it’s about my apparent & unfortunate proclivity to be attracted to addicted people. - something I noticed in Vancouver, where I started writing it. Prior to that I spent most of a decade in a relationship with an alcoholic (another interesting but difficult child).
NBTMusicRadio: The ‘remix’ of When the City Fell is one of my favourite tracks on the album, how did that come about? And were you pleased it takes you to a very different emotional place than the original but still retains the originals poignancy, though making it somehow more carefree in a way.
Selina : I love that you love that one! I made that one with Dan Werb, aka Grapes Godly, and electronic producer here in Toronto. I wanted to experiment more with electronics on this recording and Grapes was recommended to me by my pal Rich Aucoin. We also did a second version of “Lay Down Your Arms”, which will be a bonus track available on iTunes on Oct 30, when the album is released in the EU.
I recorded the lead vocals for these versions in Calgary at my friend Lorrie Matheson’s studio. I was in Calgary performing in a musical theatre show at that time, while trying to keep things moving on the album back in Toronto. Strangely, those vocals happened before the other ones. In fact I think I changed the text a bit between the time of recording the vocals for “When the City Fell (again)" and recording the vocals for the “When the City Fell”.
And yes, I’m very pleased it takes you to a different place than the original. Part of the reason I wanted two versions of a couple of songs was to show listeners behind the scenes of music-making. To show that the same song can be two different things, depending on the production. I did that also when I recorded a cover of “The Spirit of Radio” by Rush on my last album Disaster Fantasies. It’s an interesting and challenging endeavour to try to make something work within an entirely different context.
NBTMusicRadio: One of the overall themes of the album seems to be about a pretty isolating and dark future but there is a lot of hope woven in. As a musician involved in creating a brave pop album that takes a lot of sonic detours how do you see YOUR future from this album on?
Selina: Interesting question. Tough to answer. A little scary.
Firstly, my job as an artist is to try to absorb the world around me, and to try to express how it feels to live in it. Traditional forms of music no longer convey this. Not for me, anyway. But yes, I am hopeful. Despite how ridiculous we are, I love humanity.
My future? This is very difficult to predict. The music industry is nuts. I hope with the release of this album I gain more recognition, more audience, meet more interesting artists to work with...
And then, you know : world domination. ;-)