Many great works are made in prison. Whether it be a prison of brick walls, a prison of melancholy or a prison of ill-health and pain, the hermetically sealed private world can create a universe of black planets or an efflorescent garden of delights.

Sydney singer-songwriter Liz Martin spent six months in a room recuperating from painful hip surgery, dealing with her father’s death, lying still. And that room became the garden from which flowered her third album Dance A Little, Live A Little. And what a garden the twelve track collection is – tropical vines grow around blood-red European roses, sunflowers sunnily melt snowdrop edelweiss. Varieties grow all over.

Proof that Martin’s spirit is a strong one is in the first tune, ‘So Long’ – a tune that seems to have grown out of a sunny childhood rather than a dismal sick bed. ‘I’ve been trippin’ along’ – it’s infectious and radiant, name checking Jiminy Cricket as it sweetly bounces down its afternoon road. The vibe continues through ‘Be What May’ with its New Orleans slightly tipsy brass.

The title track ‘Dance A Little, Live A Little’ is a piece of country rock’n’roll that is part mission-statement, part-call-to-arms. To think it was written and worked up while Martin was forbade to even tap a toe by her surgeons is pretty amazing.

Drummer Hamish Stuart and double bassist David Symes set up beautifully the spry groove for Martin’s cover of David Bowie’s ‘Sound & Vision’. The initial vocal lines are sung by guest Mr Percival to great effect – so that when Liz Martin enters the piece goes to a new place. As faithful in verse form as this is to the original, this version is truly Martin’s – a delight of jazz-pop lounge swing.

But not all is sun, fun and Low covers. The moodier pieces on Dance A Little, Live A Little are entirely captivating and deeply effecting – one can hear the isolation they were created in. ‘Olives and Wine’ with its lovely uncurling, softly crying viola line is intimacy itself. ‘Night Time’ is ragged shards of raw dead black guitar hung on a black sky. ‘Darling’ is one of those preciously held moments where a singer and a song are all you need for a few minutes.

Martin and arranger-producer David Symes have framed each piece perfectly – whether piano and strings, Allen Toussaint swaggerin’ horns or rock guitar trio – each song is given all it needs to live. The musicians who make these arrangements spark and roll are among Australia’s finest – jazz go-to guy Hamish Stuart shines on everything he touches here and Stu Hunter’s piano goes beyond ideas of restraint and colour to organically breathe through its teeth throughout the album.

Liz Martin is touring Dance A Little, Live A Little national wide over the May and June with a crack band featuring Dirk Kruithof and Elana Stone. It will be a pleasure to hear these songs that were born is a small, shaded room played in bigger, brighter rooms all across Australia.


Liz Martin’s website is www.lizmartin.com.au     

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Prior to posting this review, TheOrangePress asked Liz Martin six questions about Dance A Little, Live A Little. Here are her responses.

1. Where did the songs on ‘Dance a Little, Live a Little’  come from?

They come from a particular time when I was hanging in my room for quite a while… around six months.  I’d had some tricky hip surgery done and was told to keep still for quite a while, so it could all set.  I know the walls of my room very very well.  It was a strange time.  And quite a lonely, physically uncomfortable, painful time.  The best thing for distraction, the one thing that could hold my attention and keep my mind off the pain, was writing and recording these songs, adding little horn lines, string parts, experimenting, harmonies.  Just playing.  That was my only intentional thought really.  To be playful and not get all angsty with my situation, but to step outside, to let music be a place of time travel, imagination, to take me outside of myself.  And it worked a treat.  Now that I look back at these songs, they surprise me.  Tom Waits talks about grabbing a song by the tail as it wizzes by, that sometimes it comes out word for word all backwards.  In many ways it’s true.  They have their own life.  You just sit quiet, try not get in the way too much, and…

2. Some of the arrangements are huge – strings, horns etc. Do these arrangements come to mind while writing the song or is it a process conceived later while recording?

Some of the ideas came while I was writing and recording in my room.  I’d sing little horn lines in, play string parts, bass lines, etc.  A lot of the classier arrangements were written by Dave Symes who co-produced the album with me.  His solo string line he wrote for ‘Olives and Wine’, the string quartet for ‘Darling’, the crazy horns on ‘Be What May’ and ‘Long Bad Day’, absolutely beautiful.

3. What prompted the cover of David Bowie’s ‘Sound and Vision’? And why did you have Mr Percival sing on it with you? 

I wanted to have a go at doing a cover.  I’d not really done that many covers in the past – I’d definately never recorded one.  It takes a certain skill to be able to interpret someone else’s song, to bring something new, and to do it well.  Some people are incredible at it.  Nouvelle Vague for example.  And David Bowie’s ‘Sound and Vision’ seemed to sum it all up perfectly, my strange little time in my room, the music, the quiet, the mystery –

‘Blue, blue, electric blue
That’s the colour of my room
Where I will live

Pale blinds drawn all day
Nothing to do, nothing to say
Blue, blue

I will sit right down, waiting for the gift of sound and vision
And I will sing, waiting for the gift of sound and vision
Drifting into my solitude, over my head

Don’t you wonder sometimes
‘Bout sound and vision”

And Mr Percival, he and I had crossed paths a few times in the few months prior to the actual recording of the album and he was the perfect fit.  His voice is warm, but light and playful.  He’s currently doing the rounds on The Voice.  Fingers crossed for him x

4. You have some of Australia’s jazz heavy hitters on the album. Do you prefer to work with jazz musicians? 

No, no preference.  Although it was startling! These guys are amazing players who have total respect for the music.  It’s all about the song, bringing the best to the song.  The album is probably half big jazz heavy weights, and the other half some of Sydney’s finest gypsy players like Veren Grigorov and Dirk Kruithof.  It was an interesting mix.  Basically friends of Dave Symes, and friends of mine, coming together bringing their own elements to the songs, bringing the songs alive.

5. The cover art is particularly striking. What drew you to these Paola Talbert images?

I was looking for an image, an idea, something that would match the spirit of the album, the playfulness, the sensuality, the idea of dancing a little, a quiet celebration… And it was Jacqueline Amidy who is touring with us as special guest, releasing her stunning new album ‘Cut’, who suggested the idea.  Not everyone could suggest I get into the freezing cold waters of Little Bay with nought by a little tiny shiney material and some pearls.  But Jacqueline, whose music is charged, emotional, sensual, rich, of great depth, Jac is just the right sort of person to be able to push, encourage, convince someone of the brilliance of such a plan.  And so it was.  A brilliant idea.  And the result is beautiful.  It’s magic.  The process was freezing, scary, confusing, fast, confronting and a little exhausting.  The end result is dreamy, graceful, titillating (ha), timeless, and free.  Perfect for “Dance a Little, Live a Little”, an album written during scary, uncomfortable, lonely times, and the end result, this beautiful, tender, surprisingly playful album.

6. Do you realise how much fun it is to sing ‘Let’s do the Time Warp again!’ to the chorus of the title track?

Yes!  Nicely spotted.  Totally.  A complete chordal rip-off.  It’s all there.  The tight pants, the ridiculous hair.  We do what we can to join them.  It’s weird… you don’t realise these things at the time… and then a little while later, listening, it’s like,… hang-on… that’s! and yes, it is.  An unintended slip back to another time.  A time warp all of its own.

 

Published May 2012 on theorangepress.net

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