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Jeffrey Martin at the Pie Shop

Jeffrey Martin, an indie folk singer-songwriter and former English teacher hailing from Portland, OR, graced D.C. in early April with a stirring performance at the cherished Pie Shop, a spot on H St NE as well-known for its live music as it is for its pies. He's currently touring for his latest album, Thank God We Left The Garden, which delves into his introspective musings, the solace he finds in his garden and shed, existentialism, manhood, and atonement. I was lucky enough to interview Martin before the show and learn about his songwriting and development as a musician.

Ted: What was it like going from a writing degree and teaching to full-time touring? How do you tell that story?

Jeffrey: I think I spent a good chunk of time through my 20s not really grasping that music could be a thing that I could actually do. I played a lot of music and wrote a lot, but it was compartmentalized—free time of my life would be there, and then in the meantime I was doing construction for a while, building houses with a buddy of mine. Then I went back to school and became a teacher and was on this track to do what I felt was real legitimate shit. I loved teaching high school for five years, but in those five years that I was teaching, music started to grow, and it started to dawn on me that it could actually be a thing I could do. So things kind of came to a head where I was constantly telling all these high schoolers to just put their head down and chase whatever they want to do, and in the back of my mind, I was like, “Oh, I should probably go do music then.” So in 2015, I stopped teaching and just started full-time on the road.

Did your students inspire you to do that, then? 

That last teaching job I had, that was for a couple of years. I never really brought music into the classroom, right? There's so much embedded inspiration, I think, in teaching English, just because you're always in the words and writing and you're whatever and it's just, it was a pretty good well to draw from. 

Would you say that a lot of your songs are about the idea of manhood and maturing?

Yeah, definitely. I had this record called Dogs in the Daylight and that one especially was a moment in my life where I was trying to figure out what kind of man I wanted to be. I think I didn't realize that, but it's so clear to me now in the writing of all those songs and how much is in there. At shows, that album gets bought by men way more often than by women, and guys have a lot to say about what those songs meant to them. It was interesting. It wasn't an intentional thing at all. But I think it's a little bit of—especially right now—a neglected area. There's a lot of shitty songs about manhood that are selfish and stereotypical, and these stupid-ass tropes, but there's not a whole lot of deeply internal songs about manhood.

What are some of those stories about manhood that you think you've told?

Someone actually told me recently, in a show, that they felt like there was this theme of resistance to vulnerability in characters in songs that I write, and then finally just being vulnerable. [They’re] resisting and resisting, and then maybe [their vulnerability] builds into something bad because of all that resistance. Or a song like “Coal Fire” is about essentially not being real and not being vulnerable and not talking to people in real ways in your life, and then seeing the damage that that does internally. [I’m] just trying to be real and say the scary stuff.

Can you tell me more about the story behind “Paper Crown?

I wrote that one from a place of feeling like I had all this anxiety—I still carry a lot of anxiety about like, am I doing it right in whatever area of life, and there's a lot of pressure in the game of comparison and especially with social media and other bullshit. You're seeing these curated versions of other people's lives. And then money comes into it, especially because there's this whole culture of young people, especially young men that are like, “you should be making lots of money” and “buying all the cars you want.” And it's like: “here's how to make your money” and “here's how to do whatever”—and it's just all snake oil and bullshit. I think it just makes people, especially young people, feel like they're constantly not measuring up to some arbitrary standard of success. And in the end, we all end up in the dirt anyway, and "Paper Crown" is like, whoa—I understand, we all got to make money—but it's all bullshit at the end of the day.

“Red Station Wagon,” what's the story behind that song?

It was really just a moment. Even though I grew up going to church and stuff, my experience of church was really gracious and open. But as I got older and met other people that grew up in church or were connected to church of all kinds, I realized that there's some really, really narrow perspectives out there and it causes a lot of hurt in people. And I have a friend who—that song is not based on him at all—but it was definitely in my mind writing it because his experience of his being gay and coming out to his family, who was very religious and their response to it was, “alright, we're going to send you to like the gay camps and get it fixed” and, “you know, you can still be a good person you just can't be gay,” and all this like crazy shit, right? So, it's kind of written with that in mind, but I really wanted to tell the story from the voice of the person who was small-minded in the beginning. So the song came together in my mind almost like correspondence between these two old friends, maybe even letter writing or something, where they hadn't seen each other since high school or something. And this one guy that the voice of the song is in was an asshole to this other friend who revealed this thing to him that he was gay or whatever. And he just shit all over it, because that's all the language he had at the time, and then as he got older, he found a better way to be in the world, then wanted to atone for that a little bit. So the song is the story of somebody that just wanted to make a change and did,  and then wanted to confront who they used to be, in real ways and not skirt around the ugliness of it.

As Jeffrey Martin continues to captivate audiences across small-town America and big city life alike with his beautiful songwriting, he reaffirms his place as an talented artist in the indie folk music scene.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 


Ted Bergman is INDY Suggests editor and a first-year in the College.


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