Martha D Lewis, composer & songwriter

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music? Who or what have been the most significant influences on your musical life and career?

My older brother and I had guitar lessons from the age of seven because my mother wanted us to be like The Carpenters (the brother and sister pop act of the 1970’s!). Our guitar teacher loved to sing and play folk songs of the 70’s and so my relationship with music began right there, both singing and playing the guitar. It never occurred to me that the two things could be separated!

The most significant influences on my musical career were the women who pushed the boundaries of gender expectation. Karen Carpenter was my first influence. As lead singer in The Carpenters, aside from her sublime voice, her USP was the fact that she was also the drummer of the band – singing from behind the drum kit. I’d never seen a female drummer who was also lead singer before and coming from my strict Greek background where my destiny, as a girl, was pre-determined to be a wife and mother, Karen showed me that women from other cultures were not restricted by their gender.

Next, I came across Patti Smith, who went a step further and offered a new image of a rock n roll woman, strong and in control. With her androgynous image and outspoken political edge, Patti shattered the boundaries of art, genre and gender.

On a musical level I have been influenced by so many artists and genres; beginning with my love of the vocal harmonies of Motown, the Beach Boys; the psychedelic blues based progressive rock of Pink Floyd, pushing the ‘song form’ genre; the simplicity of political Singer songwriters of the 70s-90’s; the study of Classical music in my music degree opened a whole new world of music to me; as did studying jazz singers and composers, and world music.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Evolving as an artist is and always will be my greatest challenge.

Of which works are you most proud?

In the late 90’s, I was commissioned to write a 30-minute piece of music by PRS, which was broadcast by the BBC in its entirety. This started a 15-year journey as a composer of world/jazz music. I am also proud of the 3 albums with my songwriting performing partnership ‘Martha and Eve’ and now this album ‘All That You See’ is another highlight. I have worked with incredible people on this album, and my greatest source of pride is that the album was mixed by engineering royalty Stephen W Tayler (producer and mixer for Kate Bush, Stevie Nicks, Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins…). That was an unforgettable experience.

As a composer, how would you characterise your musical style?

I’ve been a music maker since the early 1990’s and have been on a vast and varied musical journey. Beginning from singer-songwriter of acoustic guitar and voice-led songs to composer of jazz/world music, and now, this new album has taken me back to writing in song form, but this time with fuller instrumentation and production. This music has been described as Indie Jazz, jazz, singer-songwriter, art pop.

Tell us more about your new album, ‘All That You See’. What was the inspiration for this album?

In 2012, I was a presenter and singer in a feature film documentary about the first Lady of the Greek Blues – Roza Eskenazy. This led to my album of re-imagined contemporary arrangements of world blues from the 1920’s (‘Homage To Roza’, 2015) and produced around 5 years work in off-shoot related projects.

By 2017, unsure of my next direction and in need of stimulation, I put my career on pause for a year in order to study for a Masters Degree in Songwriting at ICMP. This course gave me an invaluable reconnection to my love of song writing. After the course, in 2018, I began writing a flurry of social political songs about the world around us. In early 2019 the writing abruptly stopped with the unexpected loss of my soulmate of 28 years. The loss deeply affected me and nothing would be the same again. Building a new life after grief, this album is a story of angst and losing faith, healing and gaining hope. So I would say this album – which is called ‘All That Your See’ – is a journey of love loss healing and social commentary songs.

How do you work? What methods do you use and how do ideas come to you?

Although I am not a pianist, I find writing at a the piano easiest as it gives the most potential for riffs and harmonic ideas to support the lyric ideas.  The guitar also works for me as a writing instrument. Sometimes the song writing is lyric lead, sometimes it begins from a chord sequence, sometimes it will be a riff.

The song writing course taught me to compile a notebook of ideas, both musical and lyrical, and to keep my ears and eyes open for inspiration – words on a poster, a phrase from a TV programme, these can serve as great starting points.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

As an independent artist, success means being authentic and free in your creativity.

What advice would you give to young or aspiring musicians/songwriters?

Being a musician and/or songwriter is self-employed work and relies heavily on self-motivation. During the severe Covid restrictions in 2020 when motivation dipped a little, I set up songwriting groups and classes and found that they were invaluable to musicians and writers of any age and level, as they set deadlines. Most creatives respond to deadlines, myself included. I strongly advocate writing constantly and collaborating regularly. It keeps you open to finding new ways of working, which in turn helps to avoid re-writing stale, same-old ideas.

What’s the one thing we’re not talking about in the music industry which you really feel we should be?

The main thing we should be talking about is income streams for musicians and writers. I am from a period of time where there were paid gigs by fully funded arts centres and festivals. Now the norm is that an artist has to hire the venue (at unaffordable rates) or get paid on a door split system only. The notion of a fully paid gig is disappearing and there is not enough noise made about that.

Adding to that, the shockingly low royalty that comes back to artists and writers from streaming services is now in discussion thankfully, but in my opinion the changes are not happening fast enough. This further loss of income is driving writers and musicians away from the business as the income is too little to support their families.

In previous years, for example, my record release ‘sales’ would ensure a reasonable income and, vitally they would supplement my tours to made them financially viable. Now the income from ‘sales’ is very little and the disappearance of this important income stream leaves a gaping whole in the budget of most Independent artist led projects.

Also, we’re not addressing the stark reality that still, in 2022, only 5% of festival line-ups are women-led projects, The gender balance in ‘live’ music work needs to be sorted.

What’s next? Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Next is the ‘live’ tour to support this record release, followed by a holiday! (or maybe a holiday first..)

I’ve been making music since I was 7 years old and I consider myself very lucky to still be making music in my 50’s. I have no intention of stopping anytime soon. In 10 years time, I’d like to think I would have released another two records…if the Gods and Goddesses will allow it!

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Relaxing  on a beach somewhere listening to music with a friend family or the one you love.

What is your most treasured possession?

My family and friends, although strictly speaking I don’t own them!

What is your present state of mind?

Excited for my new release, eager to get out there and play again to real audiences.

And if I’m honest I’d also say I’m quite exhausted… I think I will need some processing time soon for my head heart and body to absorb the immense and intense journey of the last year in the making of this album.

‘All That You See’ is released on 8th April 2022

Martha D Lewis continues on an ever-evolving musical journey and drives a spirited project of new jazz-infused songs for the new Album release ALL THAT YOU SEE, April 2022

Martha D Lewis’ high powered ensemble of top-class musicians and producers from the Indie and jazz music stage communicate her vision as a songwriter.

Read more

(Photo credit: Sheila Burnett)