By Jordan Reisman
Photo courtesy of Gabriela Martina.
They say that smell is the sense most associated with memory. While that may be true, hearing has a peculiar advantage. Specifically, hearing music, which can conjure up memories and images that might not have even happened in your own life. Even more specifically, some sounds might make you think of a speakeasy bar with a sultry woman singing jazz songs sitting atop a piano. Gabriela Martina fits into this reality. This Swiss-born jazz vocalist has been in the US for only five years now, and in that short time she has released a full-length record, a new EP and graduated from Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music.
Before attending Berklee, Gabriela had an already impressive Swiss resume. She played with Talking Loud, Soulvirus, Pinkbliss, aromat, not2help, and Luzia von Wyl. Of course, these names probably mean nothing to a US-centric music fan. The bottom line though, the girl’s prolific.
Switzerland is not a country that generally slips into everyday conversation in the States, aside from discussing things like chocolate and skiing, but certainly not music. Unless you’re talking about yodeling which Gabriela is classically trained in.
She tells BTR, “I grew up with yodeling. My family lives on a farm and my siblings and I, along with our Mum and Dad were performing as a Swiss Yodeling group. Sometimes it comes through in my improvisations when I really let go. You can’t really deny how you grew up.”
It doesn’t get much more Swiss than that. But hey, she’s got the market cornered in the American yodelcore scene!
Gabriela has had some difficulties in becoming a household Swiss name though, seeing as her music is a bit more eclectic and avant-garde.
“I’m actually just trying to get a publicist over there for my upcoming album and I have to say, with music like mine, it’s not the easiest thing in the world at all. There is a big jazz scene but funny to say, it feels to me almost like an unspoken rule of what is considered as ‘good contemporary jazz or free music’ these days rather than having an open ear as a listener, who leaves the artist enough space to explore.”
It’s hard for Americans to understand the strong convictions and dreams that foreigners have for coming to the States to play music, but it lived within Gabriela. She got accepted to Berklee and started to receive the training to become a professional musician. However, she began to see first-hand some of the hypocrisies of American music schooling.
“As soon as I got to North America in 2008, I began to gain a huge interest in the African American Culture and History. I started to realize, how divided this country called the ‘United States’ is and how obvious it comes through at an educational institution like Berklee College of Music. Everybody was talking about diversity and cultural exchange and in reality; students were all hanging with their own peers with their own language, gestures and type of skin color. It irritated me and with the little time I had during my studies, I started to found a group at Berklee called ‘The Cultural Leaders’ where we discussed certain issues about cultural differences.”
During her time at Berklee, she kept it real. It’s no easy task to try to bridge cultures together, especially in such a structured musical environment like Berklee. This is how she broke away from the mold of hopeful European foreigner entering the music biz. She saw contradictions within the system and she did what she could to change them. It would be no surprise to hear a Rage Against the Machine cover in her next set at The Beehive in Boston.
Not allowing her music or self to be exploited, Martina has avoided the struggles that many young female musicians face in trying to be taken seriously. She did this simply by playing with male musicians and letting her hard work speak for itself. Another way that Martina works within the system on her own terms. This time, the system being the male-dominated jazz and general music culture.
“I have always played music with more guys than women for some reason and I honestly have to say, I do not mind it at all since it feels very comfortable and uncomplicated to me. But that probably comes from having been brought up very close to my brother and because of that, I was exposed in playing the more ‘boyish’ games when I was young and got introduced to masculine habits and thinking early. One likes what they’re used to, don’t they?”
Martina’s newest effort, an EP entitled Empathie, tackles a number of different subject matters such as well… empathy but also inner struggle, obsession and the search for identity. The obvious single of the EP, “Narcissus,” is a story with the central story arc of a girl trying to find herself, but it’s more than likely that Martina is singing about herself. The songs are full of complex time signatures, vocal patterns that never fringe on the dull, and tasteful guitar work. This is not the jazz your dad listens to.
BTR asked if her two albums, Curiosity and Empathie, were centered around themes, being that those are two loaded human qualities.
“I’m a curious person by nature. I think it’s a good quality to have, but unfortunately the word has often been confused with ‘nosy’. To be curious means to me ‘to be open-minded’ but more in a way a child would open a box full of candies and then look at you with a smile. If you’re open-minded you can get far. You will discover many things and yes, you will also take the risk of failing and falling. But that’s life’s secret that makes you grow. Empathie (in French, I like the spelling better) is another quality that is very important to me. The better you understand people and feel with or for them, the easier it is for you to simply be.”
At times, with Empathie’s complex inner workings as a jazz album it may come off as inaccessible to modern pop or rock audiences but Gabriela does try to create music that can be enjoyed by everyone and not just jazz heads. However, when one is classically trained, their definition of “accessible” may be a little more biased and positioned. But, the record is still new and only has time to branch out.
“I think it is accessible. If you listen to ‘Origin’ or ‘No White Shoes’, you will hear the more pop elements; some vocal lines that seem familiar/catchy to even sing along help the music to not lose exactly that kind of audience. Not all of my tunes, of course, but some do have a potential of wanting to be being heard more than just that one time.”
When asked about the type of people who come to her shows or buy her records, she replied whimsically, “People who like to dream and day dream a lot, who like red wine and roses, who dance, who enjoy the sun and the warm wind. People who love to learn and grow. People who love to love.”
Sounds like Gabriela is with us in the 1920’s speakeasy fantasy. But, the moment she steps out of that, she joins the jaded masses. Like Gatsby reaching for that green light, Gabriela is always searching for another musical dream to become her reality. And really, isn’t that why we do this?