Singer-songwriter Toby Martin’s latest offering embodies his ongoing fascination with the way that environment affects music and lyrics. A recent four-year stint in the UK inspired the songs on I Felt the Valley Lifting, his third solo release.
“I’ve long been interested in the way that place affects my music,” Martin explains. “I love travelling, being stirred by different landscapes, meeting the people and hearing their stories.
“A few years back I moved to Northern Yorkshire for an academic position, lecturing in music. For someone born in Australia and used to living in the centres of Melbourne and Sydney, it was an interesting mix of familiar and foreign.
“We were living in a typically English village, surrounded by rolling hills and moors. But it was also very post-industrial, so there were also lots of crumbling buildings, overgrown with trees.
“There’s something stimulating for a songwriter to be an outsider in a new environment,” he says. “There are very literal ways that I respond to that – right down to putting place names in the songs.
“But there are also less direct ways of responding. Much of this album was written outside and that definitely fed its style and atmosphere. Many of the melodies are long and meandering, and they are based on modes often used in folk music.”
The new record doesn’t merely sound like authentic Celtic folk, however. It integrates traditional instruments and plaintive tunes with the clang and clatter of indie rock – not just on different tracks, but within the one track.
“I really soaked up all the folk music around me, both traditional and contemporary. But you need to know what you’re doing!” he laughs. “I’ve been in indie rock for 20 years – that’s what I know how to do. So I tended to put all the new folk influences over the top of that.”
The Aria-award-winning artist, who scored a worldwide hit with band Youth Group for their cover of “Forever Young” in 2006, says that songwriting is getting harder as he gets older.
“As time passes, you think about things more – maybe overthink them – and that has affected my creative output. When I was younger I didn’t really analyse the process. The songs just came out on a fairly intuitive level and I didn’t want to question that too much.
“When my second child was born, I didn’t write for ages. I started to worry about why I wasn’t producing new music.”
The breakthrough came with his second solo album, Songs from Northam Avenue, written and recorded in Sydney’s south-west using local musicians, and once again using locality to trigger ideas.
“I was literally writing in someone’s front yard in Bankstown within a tight time-frame. It forced me to write songs, without waiting for inspiration to strike,” Martin says. “It was a bit painful – but it was good for me. Sometimes with songwriting, you just have to show up and do it!”
Toby Martin will join Redfern-based folk-country duo Boy Torch for the SSH online concert/fundraiser, Local Stories Live! From 6pm on December 11. Join via Zoom: https://bit.ly/2ZPrUHT/.