Listen to this track by 60s Greenwich Village-meets-60s-British-Folk-scene trio The Caretakers, actually a group of musicians from Hamilton, Ontario. It’s ‘Daddy Laughed’, a song about childhood memory, and sourced from the band’s EP of the same name. The track also appears on their full-length debut Unfinished Thoughts.
In our 21st century, when war and greed are still very much active when it comes to the shaping of our times, folk music that connects us to our own experiences, as well as finding commonalities in the experiences of others in other countries, is still very potent. Bandleader and songwriter Jeffrey C. Martin (vocals, guitar) understands this very well, and along with his bandmates Lena Montecalvo (vocals, percussion), and Norm Van Bergen (vocals, 12-string guitar), we’re reminded that this musical connection is still very much alive.
Among other things, I spoke to Jeff about songwriting, the importance of community among musicians, about causes, and about how art and political engagement can still converge in a more jaded and media-overloaded time.
The Delete Bin: You come from a marketing/PR background, and wrote and performed music on the side. Now, you’ve refocused, and are working on your music full-time. What was it that inspired this move?
Jeffery C. Martin: I’ve been writing pretty much all my life – since I was a kid in fact – poetry, lyrics, short stories, plays. I gave up a very lucrative, well-paying career to be a songwriter. The switch wasn’t for the money, and it hasn’t been an easy adjustment. By 2007, my disdain for the corporate world had grown immensely. At the same time, I started teaching in a college post-grad PR program. One of my students was an excellent writer. We hit it off and eventually he joined me and another friend, Norm Van Bergen, who had been singing with me and was an original member of The Caretakers. We had regular jams in my livingroom on Friday evenings. Something inside me came alive in those days and nothing since has made me feel as good. It’s a high all on its own.
March of that year, I finally approached producer Glen Marshall in Hamilton. Glen had worked with Feist, Peter Yarrow, Apostle of Hustle and a lot of great musicians. I brouht a dozen or more demos to the studio and before I knew it, I was on my way to recording the first three songs of our album. Because Lena, Norm and I all had full time jobs, and the fact that we were really new to the studio, the recording of our album was done in phases. Today, I’ve scaled back my traditional PR work to a couple of select clients, and spend the majority of my time focused on The Caretakers.
DB: “Daddy Laughed” is one of my favourite tracks off of the record. It’s a co-write between you and vocalist Lena Montecalvo. What inspired it, and how did the c0-writing process differ when compared to songs you’ve written on your own?
JCM: “Daddy Laughed” is one of our favourites too. The melody was infectious, and I knew right away this song was going on the album. The song is about some very happy times that Lena, as a young girl, and her father shared on the Grand River in southern Ontario. It was the last song we recorded for the album, and everyone recording with us loved this new song. We recorded it off the floor in the studio with the help of some of our Hamilton music scene friends. The “Daddy Laughed” session was one of our most memorable and exciting studio sessions.
Usually, a lot of my songwriting starts in my livingroom. I write lyrics all the time – I always carry paper and pen wherever I go. I’m often inspired by news and stories I read in magazines – I’m a news and political junkie, so I get a lot of ideas for songs, at least my protest songs, from what’s going on in the world and how it’s being reported. (In this case) I played Lena a chord arrangement I had been working on and a bit of melody. We played through the chords for a while. Then she just started singing some of the lyrics that became the first verse. We’ve got a few other co-written songs we want to finish for our next album and add to our live shows. I really love the collaborative process of songwriting.
DB: You financed your EP and then your debut on which ‘Daddy Laughed’ appears. Your marketing background must have helped when it came to making a plan. Do you feel that marketing/PR is now a part of what it means to be a professional musician?
JCM: I think with the implosion of the music industry – thanks to the Internet, Apple, and greed and ignorance of the former big label execs – artists and musicians can get their music to people without having to have a label contract. And with the decline of CD sales everywhere, you don’t have to release your album beyond digital. Regardless, you have to take control of how your music, your band, your image is conveyed to your fans. The labels use to take care of all the marketing and PR, and it left most musicians in the poorhouse, relatively speaking.
Now it’s up to the individual artist. And you have to do it – whether you do it yourself or hire someone to help, it’s critical. And it’s not about having some massive marketing plan, rather it’s about putting a simple plan together of what you want to do as a band or artist, how you’re going to do it, with some timelines and goals. It can be simple, a couple pages. But it does provide you some direction. So Lena and I both bring these skills into the band and it has helped immensely. In fact, we’ve been working with several Hamilton-area musicians and bands with their own marketing needs, and writing bios and media releases for them. So although we’ve left the corporate world behind, the marketing/PR and writing skills are very transferable to making music.
DB: You hail from Hamilton, Ontario which is a solid working-class town. How has your roots there affected your approach to songwriting and performing in a classic folk-rock style?
JCM: I’m sure it has. Hamilton is indeed a working-class town and for some reason, it has had a powerful affect on the arts and culture of the city. There seems to be what a lot of us call a “grit” to Hamilton’s music scene, regardless of the genre of music. Maybe it’s the city’s heavy industry and steel legacy, maybe it’s the fact that Hamiltonians had to live in the shadow of the great metropolis 45 kilometres down the QEW highway – Toronto. And being the “less important” city always meant Hamilton had to fight for its fair share of the political pie and always be told how much inferior our city is. Yet a lot of social and political movements had their beginnings in Hamilton – the labour and co-operative movement, women’s rights.
Perhaps that’s why protest and the folk-rock genre are natural partners, and underlie much of Hamilton’s music scene. My love of politics, and the fact some of my biggest musical influences are also folk-rock (CSNY, The Byrds, Dylan) have obviously made an impact on much of my own songwriting.
DB: In the scenes that have inspired the Caretakers – early 60s Greenwich Village (Peter, Paul, and Mary), and even indie rock scenes like 80s Athens, Georgia (REM, Indigo Girls) – bands not only found success on their own, but also in cooperation with other bands on the same scene. As you’ve mentioned, this is true for you in Hamilton as well. Tell me more about the Hamilton ‘scene’ as a community of bands, and how that has positively impacted the Caretakers.
JCM: For decades, Hamilton has been well known for its exceptionally large and diverse music community. Perhaps that’s why protest and the folk-rock genre are natural partners, and underlie much of Hamilton’s music scene. If it wasn’t for Hamilton’s very collaborative and welcoming music scene, The Caretakers album might have never have happened. Right from the start, our producers introduced us to many musicians who have since become good friends, have recorded on each other’s albums, and played live together.
Many of them joined our recording sessions and have played with us live. We sometimes book gigs together as well. So it is indeed a “scene” and a very integrated community. I think Athens is a good comparison for Hamilton. For The Caretakers, everyone we’ve met has made us feel welcomed and appreciated, and have been so supportive of our music and causes.
DB: It can be argued that ‘protest music’, music tied to a greater cause outside of itself, is looked upon as something of an anachronism in the 21st century. Why do you think this is, and how have you repositioned it on this record for the modern age?
JCM: I think protest music may be an anachronism today, but it doesn’t have to be. There’s a lot of committed musicians and artists fighting for causes around the world. There’s so much more to protest today; it’s really a much worse-off world than it was in 1967. There is some protest happening, against the WTO, the G20, corporate corruption, anti-war movements. But this protest doesn’t seem to be making headlines, and it hasn’t connected with music and the arts as it has in the past.
I volunteered pretty much most of my working career with community organizations, and that’s where my ongoing commitment to supporting social and political causes was formed. Lena and I have both been active with a lot of community organizations and the not-for-profit sector. We knew from the beginning that The Caretakers would take an active role in some of these causes. It’s just what we are about. So I think our backgrounds have helped us to reposition or realign “protest music” in general, and certainly on our album. The song itself doesn’t have to be a protest song. It’s how you present your message to the public, to your fans. And there’s no question that lyrics play a pivotal role in The Caretakers’ music.
DB: Speaking of causes, a portion of the proceeds on the sale of Unfinished Thoughts goes to the War Child charity. How did you become involved in this effort?
JCM: We learned about War Child through friends in the music scene. Once we knew what the organization was about, what it did – saving and helping children in war zones around the world – we were sold on making it one of our main causes to support. The first complete song I wrote, “Dark Roads”, is a song about many things that we do in this world to hurt children. I called War Child Canada’s Toronto office and went in to meet some of the staff.
Although we were essentially a new, unknown band, we still thought we could make a difference. So we made an initial commitment of $500 to War Child – one dollar from each of our initial CD/digital album sales. We also did some “busking” at the recent Hamilton SuperCrawl Festival, the first time War Child had even done any event in Hamilton. We raised another $500 from online donations. And War Child Canada has a prominent place on our website’s homepage and people can make donations directly online through a link to War Child.
We want to record the song in the coming months with a lot of our friends from the Hamilton music community. Our idea is to release it specifically as a fundraiser for War Child, maybe a limited edition vinyl 45 record. We’ve just started our musical journey, and I’ve got a lot of ideas on how we can hopefully keep the protest ‘flag’ flying and make some great music at the same time. And maybe we can indeed make a difference. We’ve got a lot of songs ready to go and a lot of energy.
You can also hear more music on the Caretakers MySpace page.