Steve Martin AND Edie Brickell
Rodgers, Jeffery Pepper, Acoustic Guitar
How an unlikely songwriting duo created a roots-music gem.
STEVE MARTIN AND EDIE BRICKELL? These are two names that hardly seem to belong on the front of an album together. Along with all his voluminous credits as a comedian, actor, producer, and writer of stories/novels/plays/tweets, Martin has made his mark in the music world for his fine bluegrass banjo picking. Brickell, on the other hand, is best known for fronting the jam-rock band New Bohemians, whose sly and groovy hit "What I Am" captured the airwaves in the late '80s. In terms of musical style, age (Martin is close to 20 years older), and home base (Brickell has long lived in the New York area with her husband, Paul Simon, while Martin is the quintessential Southern Californian), these two would seem to have little common ground. And yet here we have Love Has Come for You, a superb and charming album of new traditional-sounding songs that pair Brickell's words and vocals with Martin's banjo tunes.
For both artists, this album represents a big musical step forward. Though banjo has been part of Martin's comedy act since the 70s, he released his first all-music album, The Crow: New Songs for Five-String Banjo, in 2009, scoring a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album. In 2011 he followed with Rare Bird Alert, collaborating with the young bluegrass band the Steep Canyon Rangers, who continue to perform in Martin's music/comedy shows. Over die years Martin has written some great songs, from "King Tut" (originally recorded with the Nitty Gritty Din Band) to the hilarious, gospel-style "Atheists Don't Have No Songs" (with the Steep Canyon Rangers), but the collaboration with Brickell marks his deepest and best composing to date. On banjo, Martin is stretching beyond straight bluegrass, with deft clawhammer playing and some almost classical-sounding melodies.
Brickell, too, wrote great songs with New Bohemians, delivering playful and often elliptical lyrics in her distinctive swooping vocal style. But she's kept a low public profile over the past 20 years, releasing just two solo albums and, more recently, singing with drummer Steve Gadd's band the Gaddabouts. Working with Martin's banjo tunes has inspired Brickell, for the first time, to tap directly into her north Texas roots (Martin was bom in Texas, too, but raised in California). She fills die album with colorful characters and voices, from the quirky breakup song "Siamese Cat" ("I like your Siamese cat / I like your cowboy hat / But I don't like your daughter") to the lonesome "Remember Me This Way" ("Painter, would you paint my portrait / Paint me wearing the finest clothes in town / Make me look like I'm somebody / Make me a little younger than I am now"). Martin's banjo proves to be a perfect partner for her lighdy drawling vocals, subtly supported on die album by strings, guitar, keyboards, and percussion. Produced by Peter Asher, the album includes contributions from such notable players as Nickel Creek siblings Sean and Sara Watkins, bassist Esperanza Spalding, and studio guitar ace Waddy Wachtel.
Early this year, as Martin and Brickell were gearing up for their first full performances together, and also scheming a musical based on the album, I connected with the duo on a bicoastal conference call to find out how this serendipitous collaboration came to be.
I've followed both of your careers since the beginning, and I have to say this is a duo I never would have expected.
MARTIN Neither could we, by the way. It came up in that way that no agent or director or anyone could ever put together. It was a complete surprise that one, we got together; two, that it actually started working; and three, that we just did it for fun but then started to think, hey, we might have enough songs here for a record - and they might be good enough for a record. It was a completely artistic enterprise from bottom to top. All the commercial aspect came after everything was written.
Edie, was this a surprise for you too? …