Welcome to The T-Spot. This series is the official MUSTA Talent Spotlight where we highlight some really talented people, from different creative industries.
What started as a traditional T-SPOT interview devolved into a 40-minute musing on the cost of artistic commitment and the futility of capital. Come to understand a unique artist who has traversed multiple genres and mastered many styles, but stay for the hard-earned lessons from someone bruised and battered by the medium she continues to love.
How did you get into music?
I was born into it. My Dad already played the violin, my brother and sister already played the violin. My Dad came from a very musical family, all very classical music. We went to lots of concerts and stuff.
Apparently when I was four, I heard a piece of music on the radio, it was a cello concerto and I said, “that’s what I want to play!” Well, I said, “I want to play the violin that sounds like it has a cold.”
On my fifth Birthday, I remember coming down the stairs, opening the door to the living room and seeing my first cello on the sofa. That’s where it all started.
Is the cello still your favourite instrument?
Ooh, that’s a big question! I think probably yes! I mean the voice as well obviously…but as far as external instruments go, the cello definitely, yeah.
Do you remember what your first favourite song was?
Yeah. It was Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 2. We had this CD by Mischa Maisky, who is this Russian cellist, a pupil of Rostropovich, who was like one of the greats - he played when the Berlin Wall fell. It was a CD of his biggest hits, and that was one of the songs on there. When I listen back to it, it’s actually a very violent piece of music. But yeah, I was always so into that!
Singing-wise, there was a song by Simón Díaz called ‘Luna De Margarita’ and it was about the moon. I would sing it, but in my poor Spanish I changed a lot of the words. The lyrics are “luna de Margarita es”, so the moon is of Marguerite, and I made it into “luna de margarina”, so the moon is made of margarine.
How has your taste developed from when you first got into music, do you think this change is reflected in the music you now want to make?
That is probably one I don’t immediately have an answer for. I think our taste in music is very informed by what our parents listened to and what we grew up with. I think our ears get used to a specific kind of music, in the way that harmony works, in the way that rhythm works. When you start listening to other kinds of music it can be uncomfortable, because harmony is so specific to cultures. For example for me, growing up with mostly classical music, you have counterpoints-influenced music harmony, and I do still feel that in the way that I write and sing music. The way that I approach learning new music is a very classically informed perspective. In classical music there is a very firm set of rules, and when you are raised in that world you kind of learn to abide by them, and then to step out of them is a very uncomfortable process.
So, I guess my taste in music I don’t think has changed much. Harmony has always been the thing for me. If I find something with a pleasing harmonic progression, I listen to it over and over and over again. I listen to the same song for days - literally for days. At the moment, my hyper-fixation is the ‘Prologue’ from Into the Woods. Before that it was a song called ‘Love Flew Away’ by Laufey.
I always find things that have a harmony that…I don’t know…something that puts its hand down my throat. In a nice way.
It is interesting because there are clearly parameters for the other art forms that might make something good – like that is a good shot, that is a well-tailored outfit - but music doesn’t really have that. It is more amorphous in that way.
It is always very specific to people, how they listen to it. For me, as I say, it is the harmony. I become obsessed with it. I listen to four bars over and over again because I just like that little piece of orchestration. Whereas lyrics are just not my strong suit.
Also, for me language is such a complicated thing and almost a very secondary thing, I guess, because there is three of them for me.
I have been rereading all my favourite children’s books in Dutch. It’s so weird because there is this quality about the way that Dutch works that you can not imitate in English. There is this dryness that comes from the way we use diminutives or nouns, but also it is just a very dry language, it’s very funny, so short, so condensed. In Spanish there is obviously this kind of romantic quality, this warmth that comes with the language that it’s impossible to do that in Dutch or in English. It’s almost like whatever language I write in, there is always something missing. Something that I can’t quite reach.
As a songwriter is there an artist whose career inspires you?
Strangely enough, less and less so. When I started song writing, I mean I always wrote, but when I started doing it more professionally about seven years ago, I had all these ideas about how it works. I think most young people do, when they start song writing, when they go to college, when they go to open mics, they have this expectation of: I am going to be the next big thing! Because those are the only careers we hear about. That is often so unattainable.
I love Norah Jones for example, I would love to have a career like hers, but also you know, she is the daughter of Ravi Shankar. She is a great musician, but the fact is 99.99999 percent of success stories of musicians that get signed, that get fame, that get record deals - it’s because they know the right people, or they have a giant team behind them, or they have money. If you don’t have those things, it is almost impossible.
It is just accepting that it probably won’t happen, and that is OK. I think I spent a lot my time as a songwriter, disappointed in my career, because my idea of it was so different from the reality of it. You lose all joy because you are sending 50 emails a day, spending money on some kind of scam that is out there. Actually, if I would have been informed of the right expectations to begin with, and not this whole “if you work hard enough it is going to happen” it would have been different.
Art is fundamentally at odds with capital, the pressure to make money from art is often unsustainable. As a result, there are so many great artists we never hear about.
Yeah, it’s interesting because I just had this conversation – I am starting to work with an organisation called Stream By Stream. They are a non-profit organisation and essentially what they do is they take on artists, they promote them, and my part of paying them for that is donating however I choose to planting trees. It is such a brilliant initiative.
I was talking to the woman who set up this organisation and she said that the main thing I found out is that musicians are terrible business people. I guess we don’t want to be in a certain way, we want to dedicate our time to our art, but that does mean that it is kind of this self-perpetuating thing where we are being told: “just work hard enough on your art and you will make it.” So, you spend all your time on your art and none of your time picking up the actual life skills that you need. What happens if you come from an unstable background? What happens if you lose your job? What happens if you are in a bad relationship, and you’re traumatised? You don’t stand a chance! So many things need to go right for you to get something.
The process of writing the art or performing the art is really the tip of the iceberg.
It really is! My partner says this interesting thing sometimes: as artists we are in a toxic relationship with our art. Most of the time I struggle and want to quit, but then I have one performance…you know, in a good week I perform for eight hours and then I am like “oh yeah, this is why I do it!”
It’s a good point! I wonder if you have this too, but a lot of the time the world doesn’t make sense to me, so the reason I keep going back to that creative thing - for me it’s film - is because that is what makes sense and everything else is scary.
If I look at my peers, those that are having a bit more commercial success its those people that are stepping outside their comfort zones I suppose. But that in itself…I mean, it is easy to say to people “just step out of the box! Just push those boundaries!” but like I mentioned before, I don’t think we spend enough time talking about the circumstances somebody has to be in to be able to do that. Like it takes so much.
There is an internal stability you need to achieve.
Yeah, and personally I have a lot of self-guilt, where I’m like: “I’m not making it work because I’m not working hard enough, I just need to try harder!” When actually that could not be further from the truth.
What do you think is specifically hard about being a musician in comparison to other freelance creative pursuits?
I think you touched on it earlier. I think the parameters that decide what is good in music are completely warped. I really think that the way we make money from music is broken, like it really is broken, because it is so easy to get it out there. That has its beautiful sides, anybody can put something on Spotify, I could record my farts and make a song out of it...
From what I understand of writing, from what I got from my Masters [in creative writing], there is a certain way of submitting stuff. If you are a good writer and you submit to enough people, you will get published at some point. When? I don’t know, but there seems to be a system in place. Whereas with music, we broke that system! Like we had a system and then the internet came along, and it broke it.
Like I said before, there are many advantages to that, because it does make it more accessible, because that system that we had before was not perfect – it was classist, it was all kinds of fucked up. There are almost too many ways to do it. For actors you go to auditions, for writers you submit to outlets, in music we don’t have those outlets anymore, not lucratively anyway. Record labels they only take you on if they thing they can make money from you, they don’t take you on because they thing you’re good.
From what I can tell, in other careers, there is more a direct line from creative to outlet, with music there is this space between the musician and the listener where a lot of things can get lost in the mix.
I do think a lot of these problems can be traced to our culture’s propensity for this artist myth-making – this idea that someone is good enough, by themselves, to make it. Really you need 100 like-minded people behind you to make something work. The bigger you become; the more people you need to help support you.
Yeah, I do think that the last few years for me – they have been a few years of big change anyway – but particularly deconstructing that idea. I grew up doing young talent class with my Mum saying, “one day you are going to play solo and I’m going to be in the front row.” I grew up with teachers telling me I was going to be famous…but then, most of the people who become musicians have heard that their entire lives! And we can’t all be famous! Most of us can’t.
I do think that is one of the things David [my partner] means about being in a toxic relationship, its those little glimpses of hope. I played a gig for someone’s 40th Birthday party and afterwards someone came up to me and was like “oh, I can’t wait to see you at Glasto, you are going to be famous one day!” That is ridiculous, because this is some middle-aged, white man, completely off his face telling me that. But there was that part of me that was super flattered! Because that is what everyone wants - fame!
I think we have to change what others expect of artists. Like, if I see my family and they ask, “yeah, but, what’s the plan?” And I’m like, “well, I am a 30-year old woman playing regular gigs. That’s a plan.”
Are there any songs that annoy you when people request them at a gig?
I think what I hate most is when people ask for Michael Bublé. Often it is not that they want me to play Michael Bublé, they just want me to play ‘Fly Met to the Moon’ or something! So that does annoy me.
Connect with Mariska Martina on Spotify