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Singer Daphne Lee Martin stays true to her roots

Published 08/15/2012 12:00 AM

Hear Daphne Lee Martin and Jim Carpenter perform live at The Day.

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The home singer/songwriter Daphne Lee Martin shares with her husband, Rich, in downtown New London is historic, artsy, lovingly painted and bright.

But their basement is right out of a rock 'n roll documentary.

Strands of lights hang down over posters behind the stage, casting glints of light on the drum set. Stuffed sofas are arranged around a low coffee table. It's the kind of setup a teenager dreams about.

"Everyone says, 'when I grow up I'm going to do this,'" Daphne smiles, glancing around.

"Well I grew up, and I did it."

That's not all she's done. A homeschooled student, she finished high school at 16. She left college to move to New York City in 1998. She spent two seasons living and working at sea. Now, in addition to being the lead singer and songwriter for the American roots band Raise the Rent, she serves as treasurer of the Hygienic Art performance venue and gallery and co-owns The Telegraph record store and The Telegraph Recording Company on Golden Street with her husband.

"New London is lucky to have her," said Sue Menhart of the Sue Menhart Band, adding that Daphne leaves a "lasting impression" on those who work with her.

"She's all music all the time, and inspires others, including myself, to push harder, go deeper, and strive for excellence."

While Rich grew up in Mystic, Daphne hails from Roseville, Ohio. But in separate interviews, both said they fell in love with the artistic climate and energy in New London.

"Neither of us come from a background where we had a lot given to us," said Rich, who serves as Hygienic's managing director.

"We really had to make it for ourselves. And that's something we find attractive about our lives and living here. We do have to do the hard work. But the satisfaction of that is you've got something wholly of yourself and your community that a lot of people can celebrate in."

"Our lives here — this is by design," Daphne said. "We live downtown; we walk to work. The Hygienic and the shop are within 40 feet of each other. This is all very composed. We wanted our lives to look like this for a long time and we put those pieces into place."

Her parents and sister are now all living in Florida. Daphne also has a two-year-old nephew there, and is "plotting and scheming a tour" to visit them.

In the meantime, she's figuring how to marry the running of a small business with the life of a performing musician.

"We've got a few interns at the shop to help out with things," she said. "Although we have had to resort to 'rock n' roll emergencies,' where we just put a sign up on the door at the shop and say 'Due to a rock n' roll emergency, we are unable to be open. If you really need to get in, call our cell phones.' We try not to do that more often than we have to."

They also get by with a little help from their friends, including Daybreak's Saturday columnist Stephen Chupaska.

"I think what surfaces with Daphne is that she's authentic," Chupaska said. "She's been playing folk music for as long as she's been alive — but she doesn't stray into the closed off and boring world that some traditionalists inhabit. She also is good at atmosphere in a song. I think "Saratoga Rain" is perhaps her best song and I haven't once listened to the words, which is odd for a writer. There's an exquisite, gemlike shimmer to it."

Grace caught up with Daphne to find out how she's following up "Dig & Be Dug," Raise the Rent's first album. What we got was a dialogue about what it really means to have a vocation in life — to see and know your purpose, and the personal, even spiritual commitment it requires on the part of the artist.

Grace: You've said that you see yourself as a translator for bygone sounds — gypsy, Appalachian ballads, tin pan alley tunes, etc. How did you arrive at that place where you said, 'This is where my heart is.'

Daphne Lee Martin: Growing up I listened to a lot of traditional music ... I loved the traditional forms, and I could see it years ago, that there was this huge disconnect between the music I grew up playing, and the music everybody seemed to be listening to. I felt like a whole lot of people really needed to bridge that gap and I would definitely be one of them.

I knew I was going to be bored out of my skull if I tried to do one kind of music for the rest of my life. I never wanted to get pigeon-holed into a particular genre or style.

Is there a price to pay for going against the grain?

My folk music community growing up freaked out — like, Dylan '65 freaked out — when I picked up an electric guitar for the first time. When they heard my record they were like, "What are you DOING?" Not that I'm blacklisted, particularly, but it's definitely not their thing.

It must be odd when you can identify a gap in culture, where you feel like 'I'm not hearing this kind of sound or seeing this kind of writing...'

Right. There was the folk revival of the 60s — people like Pete Seeger and Joan Baez and those guys ... but then you wonder what's happened to the Appalachian folk stuff — no one is performing these songs, no one is performing them since that big movement. This year is the 100th anniversary of the birthday of Woodie Guthrie — so now there's a resurgence of Woodie Guthrie tunes which is awesome — but it takes an anniversary to bring that to people's consciousness? That's not how it's supposed to work. Some of these songs have been around for 300 years and the only way they're going to be around for another 300 years is if young people do them.

King James translated the Bible into English. Do you think that people would be reading the Bible the way they are today if it was still written in Greek? And I feel an urgent, religious power behind those songs that they need to be kept alive in the same way. And if that means giving it a different stylistic treatment, then that's what it means.

Why is it personally important to you that these songs are kept alive?

They are universal storytelling songs. People 150 years ago aren't so different from people living now. The human experience is a universal thing. People were just as lonely; people were just as frightened; people were just as righteous. [Through music] the continuity of the human experience becomes a lot more accessible.

And it's tough because I could make a lot of money if I played pop songs. Cover bands make sooo much money. And they play such great venues. But — they're not going to leave anything of note behind.

It takes a long time to convince people that your art is worthwhile if it doesn't speak to what they're used to seeing or hearing. That doesn't mean you shouldn't do it, it just means it'll take awhile.

When you're in the process of songwriting, how do you know when you've "arrived" at whatever it was you wanted to communicate?

I don't think I ever arrive. Like even when you get a recording in the can, and you feel like "OK, this song is as done as it's going to be for right now," that's really all it is.

And I feel that way about the old songs too. They're still changing. Almost like the old folk tales from any culture, they get embellished by each new narrator.

So how do you reinterpret your material — does this happen during live performances?

One of the things that I like to do is write songs where the verses can be sung in any order and still make sense. So I'll play around — of course sometimes accidentally, because I'll just have forgotten the order (laughs) so it's also a safety device, in a way.

It's interesting that you see your work as always evolving. In life — it seems people want to feel like we've arrived — whether it's with art or in a relationship, like, "OK! We're here! The work is done."

It's about living right day after day. You have to wake up and make the decision to live right. People do that about marriage. Like: "I'm married now, I guess I can be [terrible] to him. Or not care, or not work on it." But it doesn't matter what you do in life. You have to approach it every day as if you're trying to earn it all over again.

That's beautiful. You're very quotable.

I've had a lot of coffee. (laughs)

But that approach — it keeps your focus on what's important...

If you enjoy having to work hard for things.

So as you're doing the work, what sustains you, as an artist?

Collaboration is it, actually. Because I grew up doing traditional music, it's always been a social practice for me. I can sit and knit for five hours and not look up once. But I can't make music like that. It's not a solitary thing.

Something else that we were wondering — what was it that drew you to the ocean?

My mom is such a romantic — a complete romantic about the ocean. She grew up in Ohio and took off when she was 18 or 19 and ended up Virginia Beach, where she met my father. My grandfather too — he was a wild and crazy guy. He would take off for chunks of time, not really tell anyone where he was going, just say, "I need to get some sand in my shoes." One of the places he would go is Virginia Beach, and I think my mother picked up his wandering spirit. ... She took us up to Connecticut when I was 8 — my stepfather had family here. The visits out here were always our best times. ... and because of that we did a lot of traditional maritime music. We picked up sea shanties and that kind of stuff.

So where are you going with your music? What do you want to see happen?

The last record we did was very organic — lots of acoustic instruments, very traditional sounding. But I knew that these [new] songs we were working on would not be best served sticking to those things. And it would kind of be a boring follow-up. The EP that we're working on right now is a lot more 60s and 70s psychedelic folk kind of a vibe. A lot of organ and a lot of synthesized sound — a lot of ear candy floating around.

I try with my lyrics to be as timeless as possible, I try not to throw in pop culture references; I would like it to be transferrable to any time, as much as possible. But yeah, the sound on this one is a lot more modern. Maybe I'm working my way up through history? (laughs) I don't know what's next. I just have to let it unfold.