Tuesday June 25th 2013 at Toronto’s Rivoli nightclub, Martha and the Muffins lead vocalist Martha Johnson is on stage with another Muffin, hubby Mark Gane plus a select group of musicians who are debuting her first solo record Solo One at this old fashioned CD release party.
Gane glances over to his spouse to see if she’s holding up but Johnson is in fine voice, steady and assured – quite a feat for someone who has spent the past 13 years battling the progressive debilitating effects of Parkinson’s disease – the same disease that has afflicted Michael J Fox.
“I have my good days and my bad days,” allowed Johnson from her summer cottage retreat. “Sometimes, my voice isn’t as reliable as it should be so I need plenty of rest between gigs, but other than that, I am determined to stay active.”
The spark which ignited her solo project came in the form of a chance meeting with Carpet Frogs and Ron Sexsmith guitarist Tim Bovaconti at a coffee shop in Johnson’s Toronto Riverdale neighbourhood. “Tim recognized me, introduced himself as Ron Sexsmith’s guitar player and I mentioned I had always wanted to write with him. Next day, I get an email from Ron saying he’d love to write with me and next thing I know he comes over to my house and we wrote three songs together.”
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“Writing song with other people is something I had never done before yet I found the input and influences of these people made the songs so much different than if I had written them by myself,” allowed Johnson. “I mean I had the lyrics to `See Saw Eyes’, Ron went home with them, returned the next day and had the melody and the chord changes for that song. I was pleasantly surprised to hear what he had done with the lyrics. He completely took me out of my comfort zone.”
Next problem was what to do with those three completed songs. “So Ron says; `why don’t you record a solo album’? I had a few other lyrical ideas, so I thought why not,” explained Johnson “. At that point I started working with producer Ray Dillard (former Nexus percussionist). Working with Ray was a dream. He is the best producer I have ever worked with who paid attention to my lyrics to make such my voice and the lyrics co-ordinated with each other. He’d take a line and say `that sounds like it would be difficult to sing so let’s pick another line instead that expresses the same emotion.”
The resulting 11 tracks on Solo One reflect a more stylish, sophisticated production with introspective lyrics and strong, jazz-based arrangements on a number of songs – a 180 degree departure from the dance-infused Martha and the Muffins releases.
“I am not trying to make a deliberate separation between myself and Martha and the Muffins on this record,” allows Johnson. “It’s just that I had things to say that were very personal. The subject matter and style of singing is a departure from M+M. For the first time I am in complete of the melodies and how I wanted to sing the tracks.”
Without the financial support of a major record label, Johnson and Gane went the Music Pledge route to fund her album and successfully raised the capital while being able to make a donation to the Michael J Fox foundation. “Many of the pledges came from the United Kingdom, Europe and the United States and I would love to travel over to London to perform my album for our fans over there if my health will permit me.”
Johnson and Gane have a strong affinity with England. It was at the famous Manor Studios in Oxfordshire in 1979 that the pair along with bassist Carl Finkle, Martha Ladly, Brother Tim Gane on – drums and saxophonist Andy Hass – collectively known as Martha and the Muffins recorded their debut “Metro Music” album for Virgin spin-off label Dini Disc. Produced by Mike Howlett, this debut captured the spirit of the growing new wave movement that was spreading globally and their debut single `Echo Beach’ proved to be a huge hit in both Europe and North America.
“Echo Beach proved to be both a blessing and a curse,” allowed Johnson. “It was so successful that we couldn’t possibly follow it. I mean the song is what it is. A monster single right out of the gate which meant that everything we recorded afterwards was compared to `Echo Beach”’.
This of course meant that the band’s second album “Trance And Dance”, recorded in 1980 at the record company’s insistance, flopped without any singles, leading to the inevitable departures of Finkle and Ladly. New bassist Jocelyn Lanois joined and she mentioned, she had a brother Daniel, who might be available to record their next album. For course Daniel Lanois would develop into one of the world’s top record producers, but at that point, Virgin Records weren’t that convinced of his talents.
“Virgin told us they would have to cut our record budget if we insisted on using an `unknown producer’,” laughed Johnson. “But we did anyway, and Daniel produced our next three records.”
Lanois’ first collaboration with the Muffins produced the 1981 release “This Is The Ice Age” which featured `Women Around The World At Work’, a minor Canadian hit. Their label, Virgin were not impressed and decided to drop the band from their roster.
Soldiering on (with RCA now on board), the band (now minus Tim Gane and Andy Haas) released Danseparc in 1983 – which did little. But the follow up album “Mystery Walk” album in 1984 caught on in the U.S when one track `Black Stations White Stations’ was adopted as an anti-racism anthem – hitting as high as No 2 on the U.S dance charts.
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Johnson and Gane decided to pare the band down. change their name to an abbreviated M+M and move to Bath England to record “The World Is A Ball” with Peter Gabriel producer David Lord. Johnson and Gane loved the city so much that they decided to live there and it was in their bedroom in Bath that they recorded “Modern Lullaby” in 1989.
Johnson and Gane returned to Canada to promote the new album, M+M but their efforts were hampered when their indie label, Intrepid, went out of business. At that point, Gane and Johnson shut the project down as they diverted their collective attention to their new daughter Eve.
What followed in subsequent years were a few reunions; they sang Echo Beach live on the Mike Bullard Show in 1999 to promote their Greatest Hits “Then Again” compilation and a CFNY sponsored double bill with a reformed Parachute Club on May 14th 2003. Johnson also found time to record “Songs from the Treehouse” children’s record that won a 1996 Juno as Top Children’s Record.
As Johnson’s Parkinson’s disease started to take hold, M+M recorded their first record In 18 years when they released “Delicate” in 2010, to a basically indifferent response. Old friend Daniel Lanois did remark that Johnson’s song `Love Began With Eve’ “was one of the most beautiful original songs I had ever heard”
“The musical climate has definitely changed now,” noted Johnson as she came to grips with promoting the new release. “It’s all about live performances and social media – and unfortunately in my condition, my ability to tour and perform is quite limiting.”
Johnson was able to summon the stamina to appear at the SXSW music conference in Austin Texas in March to preview her new record and is hopeful she can handle a few more dates this year to push her release further. “It’s very frustrating. I should be doing a full tour, summer festivals, that kind of stuff to push the record but I’m just not up to it.”
In reflection, Johnson is proud of her bands past achievements. “Every time we here `Echo Beach’ on the radio I feel proud of that accomplishment. Hopefully people will be hearing that song for years to come. It’s always popping up in commercials and on soundtracks.”
As for the band’s legacy, “I do believe we were ahead of our time,” concludes Johnson. “ I look at bands like Arcade Fire and Metric and I’m thinking, `that’s what we were doing’. We were always moving forward with our music but our record label wanted more of the same and that’s not how we operated”.
As for her personal battle, Johnson remains optimistic. “Yes I have to take a lot of medication, which is draining and my balance isn’t that good, I’ve started using those Nordic ski poles to get around. Yet in retrospect, I may be losing something – but I’m gaining something else.”