The Germination

Post 6 of 8 :: Mixing Metaphors: One Artist’s Passage from Humming Child to Singer-Songwriter Recording Artist

Michelle Shocked Tour

Rich Armstrong told me when he hired me to the US west coast tour with Michelle Shocked in 2011 that it would change my life. He tends to hyperbole, so I didn’t quite believe him, but he was right. Rich is the persistent and wildly generous friend who hauled me out of the musical pit I found myself in the spring of 2009. He has literally toured the world with Michelle (and many other name artists). I think the main reasons Rich hired me to the tour are that he saw that

1. I have talent

2. I work like a dog at it

He hired me to play cello and sing backup … at the same time. This involved figuring out how to

1. electrify my cello so I could plug into the sound board

2. rig the mic stand so I could play cello and sing at the same time (from behind, over my right shoulder)

3. play cello and sing at the same time (which I had never done)

4. learn Rich’s songs (I backed him on cello & vocals during his opening set)

5. learn Jesse Brewster’s songs (I backed him on opening sets in Portland & Seattle)

6. learn not only Michelle’s songs, but also how to work with the unusual climate she brings on stage.

I don’t know why I was not more freaked out by the prospect of this tour (although in truth I was pretty freaked out). There are *so* many crazy stories I can tell (which I generally reveal only in person), but there are also many things I learned while on tour:

1. Never stand when you can sit

2. Never sit when you can lie down

3. Never stay awake when you can sleep

4. Never pass up an opportunity to pee, even if it’s just in the grass on the shoulder of Interstate 5 with people you’ve just met in god-knows-where California at 4 in the morning

5. Never pass up a chance to eat, even if it’s just a bag of Cheez-Its from a gas station

6. Michelle’s zip code (from pumping gas with her credit card)

7. Bring a black Sharpie

8. Bring another black Sharpie

9. Pack your shit up quick after a show

10. It can rain a hell of a lot in California in March

11. I can make amazing things happen on stage

12. I can get on stage like I’m getting on a bus; it can be that natural and normal

13. A talented sound engineer is worth their weight in platinum and should be acknowledged, cherished, and celebrated

14. I can make amazing music on next to no sleep with a day/night body clock that is completely upside down

15. If I get tired enough, I can sleep nearly anywhere and in nearly any position

16. Sleeping in a fully prone position is a luxury that should never be taken for granted

17. I play and sing best in bare feet, preferably with bright red toenail polish

18. I have what it takes

19. A touring musician’s life is insane

20. The insanity of a touring musician’s life is utterly intoxicating

Most importantly, I came away from the tour sure that I could write songs, and with a burning desire to do so. This desire, which was seeded during my time with Bev & Greg and took root while I was with the Soul Providers, sprouted during the tour. As much as I loved what I was doing, I keenly wanted to create my own music rather than spending all of my time singing other people’s songs. There are many things I could say about Michelle Shocked (and I’ve said some of them here), and I am very grateful to her for saying yes to having me on tour. But it was her tiny quote, “Make your own music. It is possible” that hit me in the face and stuck with me (I’ve blogged about this, too). I wanted it more than I can say, yet somehow it was even scarier than trying to be a “just” a singer ….

I can’t say enough about how Rich helped, encouraged, and pushed me. I am certain I would never have had the audacity to do anything musical I’ve done in the last 8 years without his influence. Thank you, Rich!

To learn more about Rich Armstrong, please visit his website here.


My new album, THESE HANDS, is available wherever you like to buy and listen to music. Click the button below to listen to the album, and please consider a purchase if you like what you hear. Thank you!


The Rebirth

Post 5 of 8 :: Mixing Metaphors: One Artist’s Passage from Humming Child to Singer-Songwriter Recording Artist

The Soul Providers

My persistent friend mentioned in my previous post who insisted on plucking me out of a dark, self-imposed silence as a vocalist is Rich Armstrong, a true pro’s pro and working musician in San Francisco. He was putting together a school of rock cover band for parents from my children’s school, and he needed a lead singer. I don’t recall him actually asking me if I wanted to join the band; he simply started sending me the rehearsal reminders and cajoling me to make sure I showed up.

In addition to a ridiculous measure of musical gifts (to list them would take up this entire blog post), Rich has the most sweeping and genuine gift of encouragement that I have ever experienced, musical or otherwise. Making music himself (his trumpet playing is swoon-worthy) may be the only thing he loves more than teaching and, most importantly, empowering others to make and love music.

As might be expected when coaching a singer recently ejected from a praise band, Rich had quite a bit of work to turn me right side up as a singer, much less to craft from that mess a lead singer. During an early one-on-one coaching session when he was trying to squeeze Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary” out of me, he stopped me, threw up his hands in exasperation, and shouted, “Loosen up! You sound like a church girl! Dirty it up!”

Mind you, I had not shared details of my most recent failure with Rich; he only knew that I was musically wounded. Then again, this was obvious. In any case, I was startled by his clarity about what ailed me. Rich prescribed “medication” for my illness in the form of a trip to the “Sunday’s a Drag” show in San Francisco, which I blogged about at the time. He was insanely patient and encouraging between well-deserved ass kickings to help me get over myself. When the first performance rolled around, I more or less nailed it, at least as much as a person who is completely terrified to the point of soaking through her clothes in a copious, stress-induced sweat can nail anything. No one ever sweat so much in an outdoor performance in December.

After that sweaty day, I decided never to look back. I practiced every day for several hours, whittling and whittling away at my vocals until I found myself in as much of a pocket as I could accomplish in every song. This was a challenge, because we did everything in the original key, so I had to stretch my concept not only of my capabilities, but also my range. I complained bitterly in my head, but I kept working, and slowly, I improved, and my vocals grew stronger.

On stage, I began deeply and abidingly to relish every moment, squeezing the juice out of every note, every song, every performance. It was the Soul Providers and Rich’s belief in me that molded me into a lead singer with the sort of stage presence I always knew I had but had never been able or allowed to access. Rich demanded that I give myself permission to pull out all of the stops, and my final performances with the Soul Providers proved that I could get damn close. Please enjoy a playlist of my favorite videos singing with the Soul Providers here.

Being in the Soul Providers taught me that I had and could continue to develop the vocal chops needed to be a convincing lead singer. It also solidified my faith and resolve that anything can get better with practice. I also learned that I could command a stage while wearing just about anything (it was a *costume* cover band, after all). Most importantly, I was reminded that doing music is fun … insanely so. I have Rich and my Soul Providers bandmates to thank for that.

I ended up leaving the Soul Providers to start my own band, which is the subject of an upcoming blog post, but first, just one more post about Rich and his insane ability to bring amazing musical experiences to me. Stay tuned ….

To learn more about Rich Armstrong, please visit his website here.


My new album, THESE HANDS, is available wherever you like to buy and listen to music. Click the button below to listen to the album, and please consider a purchase if you like what you hear. Thank you!


The Chrysalis

Post 4 of 8 :: Mixing Metaphors: One Artist’s Passage from Humming Child to Singer-Songwriter Recording Artist

The Praise Band

One part of my story as a musician and singer is the time I spent in a church praise band and the unfortunate way that it ended. I thought long and hard about whether to include this piece in my story, but I could not leave it out; it is too central to my musical journey. It is a tender story, and not just to me, so I will do my best to tell it with honesty while staying firmly in my own lane.

I loved singing in the praise band. There were times during those two years that I experienced some of the greatest joy making music in my life. It brought together my faith and my need to do music in a way that met me more deeply than I can express. I am intensely grateful for my time there and what it taught me. I learned that I am most alive when performing music, particularly when singing. I learned that I am a good musician. I learned that even though I did not yet have the skills, I definitely wanted to be in the front singing lead, not in the back singing backup. I also learned that my scope needed to be much larger musically, culturally, and spiritually than most Christian music allows, particularly if you are a woman.

Getting kicked out of a praise band raises ugly questions, and it’s safe to say that it was devastating in my small world, both personally and musically, not to mention spiritually. To be fair, I was invited to stay on as an instrumentalist, but I was uninvited to continue as a vocalist. Given where my heart was, this felt like being thrown out, and I was so crushed that I left and decided never to sing again. Fortunately, God had other plans for me, including a wedding gig singing for friends a few weeks later from which I could not back out (thank you, Richard & Maria!), and another persistent friend (who appears in the next blog post) who dragged me out of a very dark place to be a lead singer for a cover band he was pulling together.

Happily, I now consider this moment as a colorful and essential part of my story. I am intensely grateful that I was kicked out because I am not sure I could have left on my own. This rejection propelled me into a much broader, richer musical world and ultimately led to my pursuit of songwriting. It also provided immense motivation to work tirelessly and steadfastly to improve and develop as a vocalist. I was not so much trying to prove them wrong as I was simply insisting on giving myself a faithful chance to become the singer I wanted to be.

Probably the most important thing I learned is that if someone thinks I suck, I can carry on despite this opinion even though at the time it felt like dying. I also learned later that even if I maybe do suck now and then, it’s forgivable, and it doesn’t mean I will suck forever if I work hard enough. And I work harder than almost anyone I know. This is one of the best gifts I have received in my musical journey.


My new album, THESE HANDS, is available wherever you like to buy and listen to music. Click the button below to listen to the album, and please consider a purchase if you like what you hear. Thank you!


The Seed

Post 3 of 8 :: Mixing Metaphors: One Artist’s Passage from Humming Child to Singer-Songwriter Recording Artist

Bev Barnett & Greg Newlon

Singing with Bev & Greg, Roudon Smith Winery, October 27, 2007

Bev & Greg spotted me at a church talent show when, having finally bought myself a guitar for my 40th birthday, I played and sang one of a handful of songs I had learned around the campfire – John Prine’s “Paradise.” They knew me already as a classical cellist with composing and recording experience. Not long afterwards, Greg called me and asked if I’d like to play a cello line on a song for their upcoming album.

Of course I said yes, and I made my non-classical recording debut on cello in their gorgeous and bittersweet (i.e. perfect for cello) song, “Eloise” from Any Doorway Will Do. It was during that recording session that Greg gave me a morsel I have pondered since and later became the subject of a blog post. The gist of it is that in order to do music well … anything really … you have to get over the fact that it’s you doing it. This is probably the most valuable thing I learned in my 2 years singing and playing with Bev & Greg over many shows, including several out of state.

There were so many firsts in my time with them: first time singing into a microphone, first time writing a cello part for a non-classical recording, first time singing backup, first time performing percussion, first time singing and playing percussion at the same time, first time getting paid to sing, first time traveling to perform music. I also learned how to write vocal harmonies, both in terms of proper pitching and proper musical arrangement, by listening to Greg’s painstaking work to write high harmony parts for me. This was the first time realizing that simply “pulling a harmony” on the fly is fun, but not always musically accurate or even advisable.

With this bucket of knowledge to draw from, I also became (and learned actually to believe that I was) a great backup singer. I learned how to blend, how to be present without upstaging the leads, and how to love every moment of being on stage and making beautiful music that moved people to grateful tears. Their music is that good, and the harmonies, so carefully crafted, are that sweet. You can see a selection of my favorite videos singing with them here.

I also learned from watching Bev sing. I had and to some degree still have insecurities about my singing, which are probably shared by other women who have the audacity to sing lead. My young female self ingested deep directives not to take up space, and singing lead is nothing but. Yet I watched Bev sing anyway, and beautifully. I asked her once when she realized she had a great voice. She laughed, then said she didn’t believe she could sing well until she was in her 40s. I took that to heart, and I credit watching Bev with planting a seed to try to write and sing my own music.

Later, after MapleDream (an original girl band I co-founded, the subject of an upcoming blog post) ended, and long after I sang my last show with Bev & Greg, Greg became a musical mentor to me. Over the course of about a year, he taught me about songwriting and chording, and he put several of my songs on solo guitar and thereby taught me how to do it myself, another subject about which I’ve blogged. In other words, he taught me how to be a solo singer-songwriter. Still later, it was Greg who, when I asked his advice about how to record an EP, steered me to Kenny Schick, my producer. Greg’s mentoring is tough and unvarnished, but full of a steady, encouraging love, and I am grateful to him and to Bev for everything they gave me.

To say that I owe Bev & Greg a lot is a massive understatement. I think it’s fair to say I positively would not be where I am today if not for them. Thank you, Bev & Greg … very, very much. And let’s sing again together sometime … I still remember my parts ❤️.


To learn more about Bev Barnett & Greg Newlon, please visit their website bevandgreg.com


My new album, THESE HANDS, is available wherever you like to buy and listen to music. Click the button below to listen to the album, and please consider a purchase if you like what you hear. Thank you!

The Question

Post 2 of 8 :: Mixing Metaphors: One Artist’s Passage from Humming Child to Singer-Songwriter Recording Artist

Michèle Sharik

Michèle Sharik is an insanely talented handbell soloist, which is pretty much just as amazing as it sounds. I once played (and recorded!) with her a piece that was commissioned for her called Relentless, which in the classical music world we affectionately call a “pan-banger.” In this piece, she plays two full 8-foot tables of instruments (handbells, chimes, percussion), while I simply play … my cello, but in highly unusual ways. You can find a recording of it … done playing together in one full take … here. You can also hear another recording I did with Michèle that I love love love, Gounoud’s Ave Maria, here. And just one more little gem I did with her on that album … La Paix by Handel here.

Playing Gounoud’s Ave Maria in concert with Michèle Sharik, 2007

I remember the first time she asked me to play with her in a concert … and offered to pay me. It reminded me of New Years 1984, when a highly attractive Canadian chatted me up in a bar in Brussels, Belgium. He was so good looking I was sure he was talking to someone behind me. In my defense, it *was* dark ….

That’s how it felt when Michèle asked me to be her cellist. I had never considered myself good enough at any type of music to be paid, much less featured. I remember the first time we performed Relentless together in concert … I laughed after the last note because I was so delighted that we had ended exactly together (it’s a tricky ending). I *think* she found that endearing since she asked me to play another concert with her shortly thereafter …

Michèle and I played several concerts together, and I was the featured cellist on the three tracks of her Chimera CD I mention above. My work with her opened the door to playing with Bev Barnett & Greg Newlon (the subject of my next blog post) and recording on their CD Any Doorway Will Do as well as other cello recording projects.

It may have gone no where with the handsome Canadian, but if it were not for Michèle’s surprising and life-altering question, I would not be where I am today. I am intensely grateful to her for asking.


To learn more about Michèle and her work, please visit her website thegoldendance.com.


To listen to and purchase Martha’s new album THESE HANDS, please visit her page on Bandcamp.com or click the button below. Thank you for visiting and reading!

The Call

Post 1 of 8 :: Mixing Metaphors: One Artist’s Passage from Humming Child to Singer-Songwriter Recording Artist

Classical Origins

I asked my then 10-year-old daughter what she thought after seeing me perform as a lead singer in an over-the-top costume cover band (the subject of an upcoming blog post). She was old enough to be able to process her mother’s doing something that outlandish, but fortunately not yet old enough to be mortified by it. She answered with the direct, clear-eyed honesty of her age: “You were doing exactly what I think you are supposed to be doing.”

Just like every girl growing up in the 70s (or so I imagine), I wanted to be a folk singer. My parents listened mostly to classical music, but also to Simon & Garfunkel and the Kingston Trio, and I knew every song in detail – melodies, harmonies, and lyrics. I also grew up around campfires where angsty college students with guitars – almost all of them young men – poured out Neil Young, Eagles, and America like water, and every girl in the fire’s glow lapped it up. That felt like the closest thing to real life.

Ballard High School Orchestra Rehearsal, Louisville, KY, 1981

At my house, however, music lessons were classical, and they started with the neighborhood piano teacher. By high school, I was playing piano concerti by Mozart and Beethoven. I also took up the cello in the sixth grade, and I was always the kid in choir that got the solos, so I started classical voice lessons in high school, with plenty of Caro Mio Ben and Sebben Crudele to feed the agony in my pubescent psyche.

My classical training was not what I had in mind back when I was singing wistfully around the campfire, but I am grateful for it because my it allows me to understand music and musicianship in ways that I would not otherwise. I even considered auditioning for music conservatory instead of applying to college, and for many years, I regretted not trying. Now that I am writing, recording, and performing my own music, however, I realize that this is where my heart was all along, and I wonder if conservatory might have steered me so far from this path that I may never have found it.

My daughter’s vision into my heart, even though my performance that day was far from perfect, reminds me that I am on the right track. Thank God I asked.


To listen to and purchase my new album THESE HANDS, please visit my page on Bandcamp.com or click the button below. Thank you for visiting and reading!