In the Slanting Light
Music has been a central part of Frank Martin’s life since he picked up his first guitar, at age 13. Finding his own voice in the music, a style and sound and approach with which he could best express himself, has been a journey from the beginning.”I remember literally pulling out books and learning the Mel Bay method, note by note, and getting frustrated with that,” said the 44-year-old Martin, a Houston native who grew up in Colorado Springs, in a classical music family that included a violist mother, and two sisters, one who played piano and one who played cello. “Finally I found a book that had the Beatles’ ‘Help,’ and I liked that. “I learned to play to accompany my singing. That helped me to stick with it ? you get more gratification right off the bat from singing. You can sing a Cat Stevens song right off the bat, and your guitar-playing can catch up with that.”It didn’t take too long for Martin’s instrumental skills to develop. By his late teens, he was playing in a series of country-rock and bluegrass bands in Colorado Springs. Martin stuck with guitar, but branched out into lap steel, and mandolin, which became the main instrument of his early career. “It was easier to get into bands if you didn’t play guitar,” he said. Shortly after moving to the valley, where he studied photography at Colorado Mountain College, Martin founded Sneeker. The band played rock ?n? roll and r & b, and lasted into the mid-?90s.Throughout all those bands, though, Martin never found his own voice. He had written a few songs in his early 20s, but never thought enough of his writing skills to develop the songs or write many more. And Martin never bothered to make a recording of his music.Recently, Martin turned an artistic corner. When Sneeker was put to rest, Martin had spare time and energy, which he put into songwriting and building a home recording studio. Martin was satisfied with the songs that began to flow, and he went to work putting them on tape.Martin is not the only one pleased with his latest batch of songs. As he had for the past three years, Martin sent two of his songs to the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival, to be judged by the folks at the Songwriting Showcase competition. After failing to make the cut in his first three tries, Martin was selected this year as one of 10 finalists, out of some 500 entrants, in the competition. Performing live for the judges at the festival last week, Martin placed fourth, good enough to earn him $300 cash and a baby Taylor guitar. (Fellow local singer-songwriter Dan Sheridan took first place in the competition.)An even more significant result of the competition success was the release of “In the Slanting Light,” Martin’s first-ever CD. Martin has been working on the recording for a year and a half, and when he was selected as a Songwriters Showcase finalist, he said the time had come to stop working on the CD and actually release it. “When I found out I was going to be a finalist, I said it’s now or never for the CD,” he said. “I said, whatever it sounds like now, it’s done. It’s going out the door.”What has entered the world is a solid example of homemade music. “In the Slanting Light” ? the first box of which Martin had shipped to the Folks Festival site in Lyons, so he would have them available at the competition ? features Martin singing all parts. He also plays all instruments ? guitar, mandolin, fretless bass, percussion, and his latest passion, lap slide ? save the accordion, which Mark Gray plays on one track.Most important, “In the Slanting Light” features 10 songs written by Frank Martin, 10 original tunes that Martin is happy to have the world hear.”I tried to write when I was 19, 20, 21,” said Martin. “But at the time, I was unhappy with how it was turning out. Mostly it was that they sounded too much like other people’s songs. I know now that, even if I write something that initially sounds like something else, it will evolve and mature and become its own thing. Now, I can see that’s just one of those negative voices you need to shut down.” Maturity has been a key, said Martin ? maturity in the writing, the playing, and the attitude toward his own abilities. “It’s always been simmering back there. There are songs from back to ?95, ?96,” he said of the CD. “But a lot of it are things I don’t think I could have written until this age ? the maturity and the experiences. And in the songwriting itself, I’ve finally found what works for me.”Martin’s songs do, indeed, have a simplicity to them that seems to come with age and experience. “The Man Who Played Mandolin” is the best example, a song that looks back over a life with perspective and intelligence. “She Never Gave In” is a country-rocker that pays tribute to the resolve of a woman who has had a tough time in life. In “Rebecca,” Martin takes on the persona of a woman recalling her failed romance, and it comes off authentic and touching. “(I’m a) Freeborn Man” tells the story of a man overcoming the gloom ? “All this rain coming down, it doesn’t bode well” ? by force of spirit, and the lively Cajun rhythm is a perfect match for the lyrics.While it is Martin’s debut CD, “In the Slanting Light” also marks a trip backward for Martin. The album digs into the acoustic roots music that Martin played over two decades ago, and has no connection to the rock and r & b of the Sneeker years. Martin cites country-rockers Gram Parsons, Steve Earle and Robert Earl Keen as primary influences.”I’ve really found that voice and that style in the roots music,” said Martin, who performs at the Aspen Music Fair this Sunday, Aug. 25, at Aspen Highlands, and has a CD release party set for Sept. 13 at Steve’s Guitars in Carbondale. “I like the classic structure of songs. It allows you to deliver the content a little easier. And I’m drawn to the language of folk music.”Martin has learned not to let the technical limitations of his home studio deter him. “In the Slanting Light,” in fact, sounds just right ? a touch rough, but warm and homespun.”I heard [local musician] Matt Johnson’s music on the radio, and I just loved it,” said Martin. “It was his homemade recording, done with fairly crude technology. That didn’t stop me from enjoying the music.”At 44, Martin is, in some ways, just getting started on his music career. He’s got plenty of work to do in getting his CD into the world, but he’s looking ahead to making his next recording and, hopefully, making his mark as a regional performer. He doesn’t plan on giving up his day job as an art director at The Design Studio ? or his night jobs, playing with the party band The Sirens, and playing guitar in Matt Johnson & Boneyard. But he envisions more songwriting and more CDs.”This is very doable,” said Martin, a former photographer for The Aspen Times. “I learned at the Song School that you can do this and break even. That’s a good enough deal. These creative endeavors are worth doing if they pay their way.”
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