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Finding Her Center

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Vicci Martinez brings her ‘not-poppy’ sound to Houston Women’s Music Festival October 24.

By Nancy Ford
Photo by Jim Cecil

VMartinezWhen Vicci Martinez spoke with OutSmart, she had just returned to her home in Tacoma following a battery-recharging retreat to a hot springs hideaway in the mountains of Washington state. Good thing she snatched the downtime when she could: relaxation is an indulgence the 25-year-old singer/songwriter seldom gets to enjoy.

“Right afterwards, we had three days of gig after gig,” she says, audibly sleepily. “The gigs were pretty spread out, so it was a lot of driving.”

Martinez might want to pop some ginseng and bee pollen, because things are only going to get busier. In the two days leading up to her appearance at the legendary Houston Women’s Music Festival on October 24, she performs in Dallas (Oct. 22 at Sue Ellen’s) and then in Austin (Oct. 23 at Momo’s). Moments after she walks off the Houston stage, she boards an Olivia cruise to the Bahamas, again strapping on that big guitar the diminutive 25-year-old almost disappears behind.

Busy gal.

When she’s not touring or recharging, Martinez finds time to write music for Hannah Free, the highly acclaimed feature film starring Sharon Gless. She’s also filmed a slick public-service announcement bringing awareness to Tacoma’s homeless youth. And she works with another organization for youth, the Amala Foundation, based in Austin.

“I helped out at a camp there, the Global Youth Summit,” Martinez says. “What these people are doing is amazing. They sponsor kids from Africa and India and South America, bringing them here.

“These are refugee kids who have so much to be upset and mad and angry about,” Martinez continues. “When you see your parents die and be tortured in front of you, you kind of want vengeance. You want to react with violence sometimes. They were trying, basically, to heal their pain so they could go back home and have these tools to help their friends in the villages they were coming from.”

It’s no surprise that the intensity of Martinez’ volunteerism spills over into her songwriting. That same intensity found her on the music biz fast track, after wowing judges for Star Search and American Idol in 2000. Soon, she was opening for icons like Sting and Annie Lennox and was being managed by the same forces that brought Melissa Etheridge to rock stardom.

Ironically, it was the intensity of her songwriting that became a stumbling block—and a blessing—on that fast track.

Nancy Ford: Is there any particular theme to the songs you write? What do you most like to write about?
Vicci Martinez: In the past it’s been more about what’s amusing me at that point or what’s going on in my life at that point. But in the last year I feel like I’ve kind of come to a center. Of course, it’s going to be a rollercoaster. You know, that’s life. But I feel like I’m a little more centered than I have been in the past, and it kind of gives me an opportunity to write about the things that have gotten me to this center and meeting people that are kind of on their rollercoaster right now. Just kind of being able to observe it, as opposed to being in it, has been nice.

I don’t want to call them inspirational songs. I guess I’m just trying to help people be more in the present that they’re in right now, and embrace—if it’s chaos or if it’s calmness, whatever it is—just embrace it. That’s where we are, at this moment.

It sounds like you’ve recently kind of worked through some chaos.
Yes, I kind of have. I had a pretty well-known manager for a while who was also representing Melissa Etheridge. A lot of people said, “Well, okay, there she goes. She’s going to go to L.A., and we’re never going to see her again.”

But the whole L.A. thing was—as much as I stand up for being a gay woman and living my truth and not holding back—it was still, “Let’s mold you, let’s sell you. You might do things that you are not used to, but that’s going to sell.”

I was really turned off about that. I figured [Etheridge’s management] should understand a little bit more. But it was the same thing.

What were some of the things that made you think you needed to move on to different management?
It started becoming about sex and style. You know, “You’ve got to look sexy. You’ve got to be more catchy, more ‘pop’-py.” I mean, I do have a style, but it was like, “Let’s take that to the next step.” It was just really poppy.

Look at Sheryl Crow. I love her music. She doesn’t have to get too poppy. Sure, it’s a little poppy here and there, but it’s still pretty roots, and that’s what I like.

I understand. I was listening to some of your music earlier today, and poppy is definitely not a good description of what you do. Intense is a closer word.
Oh, yes. I think his mindset was, “Let’s get that one song, and then you can do whatever you want. We’ll get some fans, and then go back to whatever you were doing.” I think that goes against everything I’ve been trying to put out here.

Really, in a nutshell, I’ve really been trying to tell little girls to just be themselves. Grow up and be themselves and, just basically, don’t sell out, whatever they decide to do with their lives.

That was very brave, considering whom you were fighting against.
[Laughing] Yes, it was kind of rough. It was really scary. I thought, If I can’t make it with this guy, nobody’s going to want me. They’re going to think I’m too hard to work with or I’m not going to get to that next step. But really, I’ve been the happiest I’ve been in my life. I guess I’m taking back that control.

When did you take back that control?
In January, coming up, it will be a year. This has been my year of me calling my own shots, instead of having a guy saying, “Well, I think we should do this or do that.” I’ve been in so many other projects because of it.

Like the Hannah Free project?
Yes, exactly. That is something he would have shied away from, because that wasn’t in our agenda of what we needed to do.

Did I also read that you are writing the music for a ballet?
I’m partnering up with a girl here in Tacoma who is a ballet teacher. She runs a nonprofit ballet company in Tacoma for kids who can’t afford to pay for school. It’s a free class, and she’s got some great dancers. She also has her own company, and she uses some of these dancers, and they run a company and do shows throughout the year. She and I have gotten together, and I’m writing the music for her next project—seven songs, based on love. It’s not just about “relationship” love, but all kinds of love. It’s about going back to the center. It kind of shows a storyline of different kinds of love, and sometime how it can be a little bit chaotic. At the end it goes back to the whole universal love for everyone.

Well, it’s obvious why you don’t like writing poppy songs.
[Laughing] Yes, exactly. This is my life, and I’m blessed.

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