Getting to Know Martin Swinger

How can you resist this description of Martin Swinger on his website?   “Robert Frost meets Tom Lehrer in ‘one potato chip’ songs that dare to venture into the worlds of Autism, Alzheimer’s, oysters, dyslexic theology, and the meeting of Betty Boop and Buddha.”  Martin is a Falcon Ridge Folk Festival Emerging Artist this year.

Falcon Ridge is celebrating its 25th anniversary the first weekend in August and the Emerging Artist showcase is always one of the highlights of the festival. The musicians are chosen by a three-member jury and are given the opportunity to perform two songs (not to exceed ten minutes).*  The audience votes for their favorites and three or four acts are asked to return to the main stage the following year.

Check out Martin’s comprehensive website for all kinds of information about him.

Here’s a video of Martin singing “Little Plastic Part.”

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Your choice of topics for songs is unlike most I hear …..   That’s a good thing!   Your comical songs kind of remind me of the one-liners that Steven Wright might come up with or the columns that Erma Bombeck used to write back in the day.  “Little Plastic Parts” is one such song like that.  How many people can’t identify with the situation you have outlined in that song—about how that one stupid little piece of plastic becomes your nemesis?  But writing a song about it!  Genius!  We need to know what makes your mind think—-little plastic part = a song.  

I want to be a unique artist so look for unique subjects and stories, then ponder (sometimes for years) how to make that story or idea shine and come to life in performance.

Honestly, the song, “Little Plastic Part” started with a vacuum we had which broke, and is described just as it happened in the first verse. That was the event that got me started thinking about the common experience we all have. I’ve griped about the ‘little plastic part’ for years. So I wrote a first verse and began working on the chorus and that’s when the larger picture started insinuating itself: that maybe that little plastic part was a metaphor. My mind turned to a relationship turned sour and the comparison grew in my head so as I wrote the chorus I knew I wanted it to work for the two very different stories. I wrote the last verse, then there were too many choices for how to merge the two, so I worked with my buddy, Jud Caswell to develop the second verse – he came up with the ‘good news- bad news’ and the whole ‘chintzy hinges’ scenario – which  were brilliant ideas from him.

Finally I knew I needed some way to bridge the turning of one subject into another and have always loved how Billy Jonas made a connection between plastic dinosaurs being replicas of their former selves, so I borrowed his analogy to create the bridge. It was serendipity that ‘Dinosaur’ and ‘Metaphor’ rhymed…

And on the other side of the spectrum you’ve got an incredibly poignant song about a friend with autism. What gave you inspiration to make the comparison to Pinocchio?  

I’ve always written about what moves or inspires me. What else should I spend hours writing about? Gene Marcus I met through a friend who works with people with special needs. She introduced me to him and turned me on to a series of articles he had written

In one he compares himself with Pinocchio and the way the puppet thought of himself as real, but no one else did. Gene also reflected how Pinocchio’s ‘father’ Geppetto, loved him unconditionally and wanted him to be a real boy — just as Gene’s parents loved him and insisted he be allowed to attend school with all the other kids. Gene’s article is posted on my website at the bottom of the drop down menu and is titled ‘Wooden Boy.’  It will rock your world, just as it did mine.  The story was too compelling to ignore.

I grew up in employee housing on the grounds of the state mental institution in Georgia (my dad worked there) so I’ve always been comfortable around people with special needs and those were my first jobs. I recognized in Gene a sweet young man who just wants to be treated as tho he is ‘normal’ — because other than his genius, he IS  ‘normal’.

Do you have a songwriting discipline?  Or do you wait for the songwriting muses to visit you every now and again?

I do not follow a songwriting discipline. I get inspired, I brainstorm ideas and lyrics in a notebook, I set it aside and wait for more information or an internal nudge to close in on a particular song. Some songs have taken years to process, others flop out fully formed – but that is rare. Many times the idea comes out fully formed but it takes years to figure out how to tell it.

In high school I was lucky to have an inspiring literature and theater teacher who led me to competing in ‘oral interpretation’ which is now referred to ‘Poetry Out Loud.’ I loved performing (and majored in theater/children’s theatre in college) but was inspired to read a LOT of poetry. I became infatuated with Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, e e cummings, Don Marquis and other American poets and playwrights.

I was working night shift at the mental hospital and would read poetry and plays all night. I learned about the music of spoken poetry (prosody) and the power of well chosen images and words and other literary devices. I’ve always had a musical ear and at 12 I was making up songs on my piano – mostly pretty crappy stuff I thought sounded like my heroes. At the same time I was being educated by my Dad playing jazz on the radio, my older sister playing classical music and my brother playing Three Dog Night and other rock albums on the stereo, as I took interest in Peter, Paul and Mary, Simon and Garfunkel and Harry Nilsson. All great musical influences and amazing songwriters.

I just felt compelled to write songs. I used songwriting to process some of the challenge of growing up gay in the South and to celebrate life. I loved songs with a message or a powerful story and want my songs to matter – to be meaningful and have a purpose. Sometimes that purpose is silly fun – which is a crucial tool for anyone hoping to be an entertainer.

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Have you had to work on your engaging stage presence or is it something that comes naturally?  Did you ever have any kind of theatrical training?

I majored in theater with a lot of children’s theater experience – which is invaluable experience for any performer. I’ve been singing in public since my first solo, “Away in a Manger” in the first grade! There are simple performance ‘tricks’ I’ve learned and am happy to share. Other lessons are more complex ideas about manipulating energy and have taken years to learn.

I loved reading the piece you wrote about discovering different aspects of your voice and learning how to use the capo to get to different places in your songs.  Was that a pivotal realization for you?

I continue to explore and learn about my voice with the help and guidance of many teachers. My voice is my ‘first’ instrument and its versatility is THE most important element of communication. I love exploring vocal work with Rhiannon (long-time member of Bobby McFerrin’s Voicestra), Ysaye Barnwell, Moira Smiley, Barbara McAfee and many others. I continue to learn from these teachers and process the knowledge they have shared and I love sharing those skills with others. I’ve learned to appreciate every aspect and flaw of my voice and use each element to convey emotional information.

Tell us about your experiences at Kerrville Folk Festival.  That’s a festival that I’ve always wanted to attend. 

Kerrville… HUGE subject!  Ask me in person and I’ll tell you the lengthy story of how I ended up there, but let me simply say to anyone who loves songwriting and the songwriting process, Kerrville is a great place to share and learn songwriting from some of the smartest songwriters in the business. Steve Gillette, Bob Franke, Peter Yarrow… everyone is supportive and accessible. Everyone wants YOU to be GREAT and is willing to help. Kerrville has been a huge influence on me personally and my work, professionally. I was led there by guardian angels.

 Not only do you perform but you often do workshops with adults and children.  Can you tell us a little bit about what kind of workshops you do?  Do you prefer working with kids or adults?  Do they both present different challenges?

I love sharing what I know about art. I guess I’ve always been a bit of a teacher. I love kids’ enthusiasm and creativity and I love seeing the light-bulbs go on when adults realize they can rise to a new skill or talent. I love sharing my love of writing with children – mostly because it was that writing processing which helped me through adolescence and still helps me process emotions and events today. I love teaching singing to adults because our education system has stolen ‘singing freely’ from most adults and I know ways to re-inspire singing, just as my teachers have inspired me to love singing.

I find joy in learning anything new about art, singing and songwriting and love sharing that knowledge with kids and adults because music makes me feel joyful, I see how it inspires and heals and I believe we need more of it in the world. I’m just doing my part to spread the joy.

*The judging panel changes year to year. Many thanks to this year’s panel, Carter Smith, producer of Common Ground Community Concerts in Hastings-on-Hudson NY, Dennis O’Brien, talent buyer for the Newtown Theater in Newtown PA and Kathy Sands-Boehmer, booker for the Me & Thee Coffeehouse in Marblehead MA now in its 43rd year of presenting great acoustic music.

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