Re:Generation is a monthly column about yesterday’s heroines today, revisiting some of the women who have helped map out musical history but have since, for one reason or another, fallen out of the spotlight. Over the coming months, Wears The Trousers will be speaking to these influential figures as they make their way back into the public sphere. For our seventh piece, Val Phoenix speaks to Martha Johnson, singer and keyboardist for Martha & The Muffins.
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Back in 1984 a giddy New York teenager, chaperoned by her aunt, attended her very first gig: Eurythmics, supported by Howard Jones and M+M at Forest Hills Tennis Stadium. This formative experience, in a roundabout way, led to this very column, and so it makes sense that Martha Johnson, half of M+M (née Martha & The Muffins), should feature here.
The Toronto band emerged from the city’s art-punk scene of the late ’70s, exploding onto the world stage in 1980 with ‘Echo Beach’, their resounding ode to job dissatisfaction and longing for something better. Thereafter followed numerous personnel shifts, a name change, record company shenanigans and a period in the wilderness. Now slimmed down to a duo of Martha Johnson and her partner Mark Gane, Martha & The Muffins are back with Delicate, their first studio album in 18 years. From her home in Toronto, Martha emailed some thoughtful answers on topics ranging from her roots in the city’s Queen St West neighbourhood to the collapsing music industry and the band’s new album.
Though Martha & The Muffins have had something of a turbulent career, Martha and Mark have maintained a stable personal relationship; their 18 year old daughter, Eve, figures on Delicate, singing backing vocals and as the subject of one song. It was Eve’s birth in 1992 that prompted the shelving of the band, not helped by the disappointing reaction to that year’s Modern Lullaby. But, as Martha explains, “Mark and I never stopped writing. Some of the songs on this album go back 10 years old or a lot further – we had a version of ‘Even In The Rain’ in the mid-’80s. We had tonnes of things in drawers, on cassette tapes and, later, on CD-Rs, just piling up.”
In 1997, Martha won a Juno award for her children’s album, Songs From The Tree House, but it wasn’t until 2005 that they started recording again as MatM, including some basic tracks they laid down in their home studio, The Web, which is, despite its name, strictly old-school. Explains Martha, “It’s got mainly old, analogue gear and some tape decks which have been mothballed for the last few years. We never jumped into the digital revolution at home. Mark would open up the digital software once in a while and go ‘Yuck’, then go outside and do some gardening.” The couple contributed scores to television and films, but still the songs were calling.
For Martha, the core of the band is the two songwriters. “There have been really good versions of MatM over 30+ years, but the main writers have always been me and Mark,” she says. “Though we’ve experimented with many styles of music, the writing has a consistency because of the writers’ sensibilities. Both of us grew up as outsiders and we observed things, which is the first step towards creating something. Also my voice, which is not technically amazing or anything, but is distinctly recognisable.”
It was that voice, with its slightly arch, deadpan delivery, that became known via the worldwide success of ‘Echo Beach‘, written by Mark. But, in a way, Martha & The Muffins were always unlikely pop stars. Starting out in the boho neighbourhood of Queen St West, which also spawned Parachute Club and other acts, the band had its roots in art-punk, not pop. Mark and other band members were art students, while Martha studied drama and psychology.
The area was definitely an inspiration, she explains: “All big cities have areas that have seen better days and it’s those places where the low rents and availability of space attract creative people. Queen St. West was like that in the early/mid-’70s. The Ontario College of Art was nearby and The Beverley Tavern on Queen St. was the student hangout and venue for many of the early punk/new wave/art-pop bands. As the growing music and art scene became trendy it attracted other businesses, and now the street is a major commercial shopping and entertainment destination for Torontonians and visitors alike. The bohemian element hasn’t disappeared – it just keeps moving west along the street as the rents get higher.”
The band’s diverse interests dovetailed over seven aspirational records, including three produced by the then-unknown Daniel Lanois, brother of the Muffins’ bassist, Jocelyne. Moving beyond the synth pop of their early recordings, they explored the beats, sounds and textures that interested them, but didn’t provide a follow-up smash. The closest they came was in 1984, as M+M, when Martha’s song ‘Black Stations/White Stations‘, which decried musical segregation on radio station playlists, became an underground dance hit.
Delicate finds the two exploring themes of loneliness, alienation and coping with life. Martha says her writing is mostly observational. “Generally my songs come from my relationships with other people and my own personal struggles. Just about anything can trigger a song idea if you are open to what’s going on around you. You have to observe and absorb everything.” The album’s emotional centrepiece is ‘Life’s Too Short To Long For Something New‘, a gentle, haunting piece delivered with a big sigh. For Martha, it sums up the record: do it now because life’s too short and, eventually, it’s over.
Perhaps this sang-froid also applies to some of the loose ends that attend the band, such as their rather goofy name. “We’re stuck with it because of a quick decision made in October ’77,” explains Martha. “We needed a name for our first show and it didn’t get changed until 1984 when we briefly called ourselves M+M, so Mark didn’t have to be called a Muffin. It just totally confused people and it turned out everyone liked the old name better, so we went back to it on Modern Lullaby. It’s probably stopped a lot of people from listening to us. The music is cooler than the name but, at this point, Mark and I accept that it’s here to stay.”
While Martha & The Muffins are inextricably linked with Toronto, they also have a close association with the UK. Having signed to a subsidiary of Virgin Records, they recorded their first album in Oxfordshire, and, in the late ’80s, they relocated to Bath for a time. Describing the city in quasi-mystical terms, Martha has clear memories. “We walked and we walked and we walked everywhere. We didn’t have a car and didn’t want one. At every turn there was something beautiful, from the cows in the fields, to Sham Castle up on the hill, to the way the soft winter light hit the buildings. Our flat was beside the townhouse Queen Charlotte lived in and there was talk of a hidden stairway that led into our place so she could come and go unseen. At the other end of the street was Jane Austen’s townhouse. Ghosts were all around us. What more could you ask for?”
Now re-settled in Toronto, they have played a couple of gigs and special appearances to celebrate the release of Delicate. Out in Canada at the beginning of month, the distribution of the physical record is a work in progress. “It’s what you might call ‘organic’,” says Martha, explaining that they are releasing songs on their Myspace and using their YouTube channel to promote the record (also available for digital download).
Given that the music industry has changed beyond all recognition since their last release, what expectations do the duo have? “It’s all a guessing game as to how this release is going to be received,” says Martha. “We worked on Delicate in a tight little bubble with a few musicians for several years, during which time the music industry, as we once knew it, fell apart. We think we have a good album, but time will tell if our fans agree. At least there’s no record label to screw you anymore – there’s a direct link with our listeners and what’s exciting is that we’re now attracting much younger fans. There are young girls going around singing ‘Women Around The World At Work’, a song that’s almost 30 years old. It’s fantastic.”