Booming, powerful and gritty

Posted by on 25 July 2013

The first thing you notice about Samantha Martin is the same thing her grade school teachers did: her voice. No, she wasn’t discovered by an A&R type — she was first noticed by a teacher, who raved to the rest of the school staff about her vocal capabilities. “I guess that’s when I knew I had a talent,” says Martin, who, despite her Toronto home, spent large portions of her youth in Edmonton. “But I’m not trained or anything. I’m just lucky that when I open my mouth, this is what comes out.”

Martin’s voice, though, isn’t honeyed, soothing or lilting. Rather, the typical adjectives ascribed to diminutive singer-songwriter types don’t apply to Martin — hers is a voice that’s booming, powerful and endowed with the type of grit usually earned by hard-living types twice her age. “It’s definitely surprised a lot of sound techs, who are like, ‘Whoa! We have to turn your vocals down,’” she says, laughing. “I guess they don’t expect it coming from someone who’s my size.”

That’s partly a dig at sexist sound techs — most female musicians I know have encountered their fair share — but frankly her voice is surprising: Her vocals can dominate (and haunt) a room, as she’s done countless times at Toronto’s Dakota Tavern, whether playing with her band, The Haggard, or Toronto psych-county vets The Beauties.

Her voice, in fact, had become notorious in her city far before she cut her self-titled solo album in 2012. Considering the ’50s country worship common at The Dakota — which she also manages — her initial batch of songs came as a surprise. Instead of leaning on all things Lee Hazlewood-inspired, she emerged with a full-fleshed studio album traversing the gulf between CCR-inflected southern rock, scuffed-up gospel and playful rockabilly.

“It’s a little bit of everything, and there were 11 people involved in the studio,” she says. As such, on her western tour, she had to adapt plenty of her songs. (Based on her touring setup, she says to expect more of the ragged gospel side.) But adaptation is clearly something Martin’s comfortable with — which is important, considering her workshops have her collaborating with artists as diverse as Saidah Baba Talibah, Nomadic Sound and The Wilders.

“I’ll listen to all their albums ahead of time, but I have no idea how people find the time to prepare for those workshops. You have to be really efficient with your time,” she says with a laugh. “Maybe we’ll all get together before the workshops backstage, but mostly we’ll just see what happens onstage. Because that’s where the magic happens.”