Name: Selina Martin

Nationality: Canadian
Occupation: Singer, songwriter
Current release: Selina Martin's Time Spent Swimming is out November 25th 2022 via Selma Records / Outside Music.

If you enjoyed this interview with Selina Martin and would like to stay up to date with her work, visit her official website. She is also on Instagram, Facebook, Soundcloud, and twitter.

Where does the impulse to create something come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play?

The impulse to create comes from the distillation of many things at once.

This for me is usually a mix of the things going on in my life with things happening in my community and surroundings with the general atmosphere I feel from the world. It all goes in the pot, some of it affecting lyrics, some of it affecting mood, some of it affecting the sounds I choose for the recording.

More often than not a song will tell me what’s going on as opposed to the other way around. Songs are sometimes psychic. They can also tell you what’s going to happen in the near future. It’s fascinating. Maybe we humans already know everything, we just don’t know that we know it.

Other forms of art are most helpful for me when a song is already in progress and it needs a little nudge, or when I’m completely stuck and need to see another perspective.

Although it was a Leonard Cohen song that engendered “If You Were A River.” Cohen’s “Sisters of Mercy” helped me out of a hard time.

It came to me one night and wouldn’t leave so I learned it and played it over and over. “River” is a completely different song, but it was born from that time.

For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas – or what some have called a 'visualisation' of the finished work? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?

I once started with a song title. Only once. It was “Rape During Wartime” (from my 3rd album Disaster Fantasies), inspired of course by the Talking Heads’ “Life During Wartime”.

My idea was to examine and talk about wartime rape. Why does it happen? And why seemingly without exception in all warlike conflicts? What happens to soldiers that they decide to commit this brutal act, on top of all the other brutal acts they are forced to commit?

So I did a lot of research and a lot of thinking and I worked on the song on and off for quite a long time, but I wasn’t happy with it. It all felt too heavy. It seemed too dour. The subject matter was making me (and the song) depressed, and I didn’t want to put something depressing into the world.

So then I finally decided to go back to the Talking Heads song and borrow some other ideas, such as making it a (mostly) 2 chord song, and making it danceable. And it worked. It took me over 8 years from the song title to finally finishing the song.

After this I decided not to plan what my songs would be about. I now let them tell me instead.

Do you have certain rituals to get you into the right mindset for creating? What role do certain foods or stimulants like coffee, lighting, scents, exercise or reading poetry play?

Something that has always helped me is writing retreats.

I used to occasionally have the opportunity to take myself out of my normal surroundings for sometimes as long as 3 or 4 weeks – to someone’s cottage or a house-sit or a cat-sit - and be all alone and just try to write. It’s a luxury I don’t often get the opportunity for these days.

Nota bene: I never got much actual writing done during these times. I would TRY to write, but I would also read books and poetry and play guitar or any other instrument available and cut firewood and cross-country ski or swim or hike (depending on the season and location). After getting back home songs usually come like a flood.

What do you start with? How difficult is that first line of text, the first note?

The first line that comes isn’t necessarily the first line of the song, but for me it generally comes like a gift, with the rhythm of the text (text rhythm is rarely discussed, but very important) and the melody all at once. And that little gift dictates the work to follow.

It could be an entire phrase or just a few words. With “Tangier” it was the first line of the song that came first, but the rhythm and melody that accompanied it were very different from my final version of the song.

I actually wrote a full version of “Tangier” based on that first inspiration, but it never sat perfectly where I wanted it to. So I rewrote the entire song, keeping the very first line of text.

What makes lyrics good in your opinion? What are your own ambitions and challenges in this regard?

Good lyrics feel natural and true, are sometimes surprising in that they can make you see things from a different angle, and they are never clichés. I don’t finish writing until it feels true. There’s always a little twinge of discomfort if I’m not being entirely honest with myself.

My challenge lately has been trying to write honestly, poetically, and truthfully in French, which is not my first language and I am still in the process of learning it. There’s a whole other culture imbedded in it.

I will never know it as fully / deeply as I know English, but I’ve managed to write a few lines for one song (“Eurydice”), a verse for another (“Your Face Goes Long”), and translate a third song in it’s entirety into French (“Quelque Chose Dans L’Air”) in my latest collection.
There are many descriptions of the creative state. How would you describe it for you personally? Is there an element of spirituality to what you do?

It’s a state of intense focus. If it’s relaxed intense focus, even better. The work follows you around all day, even when not at the writing desk. It follows you to bed also. It becomes like a companion, which is a beautiful thing.

It’s spiritual in terms of the amount of self-reflection and inner focus required, which in turn becomes outer focus. I never feel I have enough time for it, and most of the time I miss it.

Especially in the digital age, the writing and production process tends towards the infinite. What marks the end of the process? How do you finish a work?

“Sometimes you drive past the house” – this is a quote from my producer friend Michael Philip Wojewoda. It makes me laugh.

I have the tendency to be a workaholic. I think I drove past the house more than once on this new album, but then I kept driving. I kept going until I was around the block and back to the house again, this time with more things to bring. You just have to make sure you can be strict with editing.

“Your Face Goes Long” illustrates this. There are a lot of sounds (almost 100 tracks) on this one. But I edited them heavily so that they all work together to tell the story.

Once a piece is finished, how important is it for you to let it lie and evaluate it later on? How much improvement and refinement do you personally allow until you're satisfied with a piece? What does this process look like in practise?

With most of the pieces I’ve written this is very important. Perspective is everything, especially when you don’t have a co-writer. I can only think of a few rare songs where I didn’t ‘put it on the shelf’. I’m not sure if this is a good or bad thing, or due to workaholism.

As I think I mentioned earlier, some songs get completely re-written – the entire rhythm, melody, tempo. I might hang on to some of the text. “Eurydice“ is an example of this.

My earlier version (which was performed live a few times) had a completely different feel. I initially wanted to make the song feel like waiting, like purgatory, like limbo, with a really low bpm count and long held vocal tones. But I couldn’t keep it. It didn’t have the right type of energy for where I was at. The song title changed, too, when I rewrote it. It used to be called “Orpheus.”

What's your take on the role and importance of production, including mixing and mastering for you personally? How involved do you get in this?

I get very involved. I love production and mixing. It’s like the studio is another co-creator. It’s like magic.

I write songs using an acoustic guitar and my voice and a piece of paper and pen, knowing that things are going to drastically change once I start recording and mixing. I can sometimes hear (in my imagination) the other sounds I want, but sometimes I don’t hear them until I actually hear them, if you know what I mean.

These days a guitar sounds much more interesting to me if it doesn’t sound like a guitar. This can happen with playing techniques, with pedals, and/or after the tracks are recorded with plug-ins. Sound manipulation brings me joy. It’s like being a part of evolution.