Having previously written for a plethora of renowned artists, singer-songwriter Norma Jean Martine releases her debut full-length this month via Virgin EMI Records. Depsite the love-central themes of the record, Only In My Mind strays from typical heartbreak-heavy pop tracks, blending together blue-inspired guiatar pop with strong vocals and emotive lyrical work.
Marking the release of the album, we caught up with Norma Jean to talk American Idol, influences and music industry pressures.
Having previously auditioned for American Idol, how do you think the experience affected your career?
When I was a little girl the only pop stars I really had were very plastic, Britney, Christina etc. I always liked singing but I always thought being an actual pop star was reserved for special people and not something just anyone could be. When I saw Kelly Clarkson win American Idol, and I saw the whole process and story of her go from a waitress in Texas to a superstar, I realised for the first time that it was something I could do. When I finally auditioned, I didn’t even get through the first round. As you can imagine I was devastated. I was separated from my family and friends that I came with and was sitting outside the stadium hysterically crying, when a woman came up to me and gave me a hug, she also didn’t make the first round, and she said, “It’s okay honey, it’s just TV.” And I instantly felt better. I didn’t want to be on TV, I wanted to be a singer. From then on I decided those shows weren’t worth worrying about, and it fuelled me to find my own way. I started going to more open mic nights, and writing more songs, and developing as an artist. I went to Nashville for university and hustled the entire time, networking, writing songs, doing gigs… I was even promoting and hosting gigs, because I knew it was a good way to meet other writers and artists. Then I moved to London, where I landed a management deal, and everything sort of went from there. The experience of American Idol definitely affected my career because it made me realise that superstardom is something that will seldom be handed to anyone. It’s something you have to work really hard for. If you think of the people who have been on the shows, it’s a small percentage that actually make it when the show is over. I think success in music is a lot about self realisation and understanding, and carving a corner out for yourself. Its not just about having a good voice, you have to have something to say. Those shows give so much false hope to people, and focus on all the wrong things. Music is about the soul, not big flashy lights.
Do you think that having a background in song writing has impacted the way that you write your own songs?
I never go in and think about who a song is for, it’s all one and the same to me, so I would say no, it hasn’t necessarily effected it, I just always try to write a great tune.
Tell us a little bit about the recording and production process.
I suppose the hardest part of making a record is being able to see yourself from the outside and having the self awareness to know what makes you different as an artist. This vision really effects the music both production-wise and in choosing which songs would be included on the album. I wrote about 200 songs before going in to record, which sounds daunting, but we had a short list for the album the whole time, so really it was always about writing a song that was better than my top 12, which was a really great way to work, because I was always pushing myself to be a better writer, and sort of “beat myself”. It’s hard to know who you are, especially when you are in your early 20’s, a time when no-one has a clue. I used to get pretty frustrated because I’m a bit of a musical chameleon, and I have so many different reference points, that it was hard for people to put me in a box, and for that reason, I often felt I didn’t fit in – especially in the UK music industry, where so much is based on trend. But it wasn’t about genre, it was about, “how does that melody, those words, and that feel work together to give me this emotion,” and that’s what I worked with, that was the puzzle I was always trying to solve.
How did you cope with the pressures of writing a debut record?
Once I went into a record label and they said “you have an amazing voice and write amazing songs, and the last person that came in like that was so and so (big album selling artist), but we are confused.” That was a hard meeting, but I knew they had answered their own question. I don’t think I felt as much pressure making the record as I did trying to find someone to give me the money to make it. Getting a record deal was tough, and came down to much more than my music. In the end, I got signed for the same songs I had a year before when everyone turned me down, but in the process I felt a lot of pressure to lose weight, change my style of dress, and pigeonhole myself. The industry is very sexist. I saw countless men wearing flannel shirts get signed time and time again, but when it came to me, I had a to “pick a decade” to dress like, or “be sexier”, or “swear more”. Someone even told me I could become the next Katy Perry if I sang more about sex. It’s not easy, and I shed a lot of tears over it, but it’s made me who I am, and it’s made me feel much stronger as a person. I know who I am, and that isn’t something that you can put in a box, no great artist ever was. After I got my deal I got nodules (perfect timing), so a lot of the vocals on the record are from the demos when I originally wrote the songs. On some of the vocals I actually still had nodules, and was being very naughty singing through them. They give it character though, and even though when it happened it felt like the worst thing in the world, I think it saved my career. It meant that I could write a few more songs, some of my favourites on the record, and know my voice better… I know when it’s getting too tired and when I need to rest it, and I’ve learned how to feel my voice vs. needing to hear if I’m singing the right notes.
What was it like working with Joel Pott (Athlete) and Danton Supple (Coldplay)?
Joel is an amazing person and producer. ‘No Gold’ was originally a ballad that we wrote the first day we met. I didn’t even want to go write with him that day because I was so bored of writing songs and giving my soul to a new person every day. Cowriting can be very exhausting, ask any artist! Anyway, the song was a ballad, and the next day we went in again, and he wanted to scrap the whole idea and write a new one, but I fought for it and said, “I think it just needs a different chorus, what would Jack do?” I was very into Jack White and blues music in general at the point. Then ‘No Gold’ was born. Joel produced ‘No Gold’, ‘Angels On My Shoulders’ and coproduced ‘Hang My Hat’ on the album and he did them amazingly. Joel is a musician so he’s really good at creating little bits that really catch your ear. Danton was a godsend and really brought the record together. He’s more of an old time scientist sort of producer. He has an amazing ear and a lot of patience and ability to direct. Ed Harcourt produced two of the songs as well, I think I found out a lot about myself with him. Neil Athale coproduced ‘Animals’, and he was the one that said I should make a “classic rock record that never happened”… I’m not sure if I’ve done it, but it definitely gave me a sort of corner to bat from. I owe a lot to all of them.
Only In My Mind comes across as an extremely personal record. What experiences inspired you to write the album?
Only in My Mind is very personal, but that being said, I guess that’s why the record is so relatable. The deepest darkest things that we think no-one else feels, that feel so specific to us, are just a part of the overall human experience. When I write I always try to go to that place. It took a while to write this record so there are songs from all seasons of love; being in love thinking it would never end, looking for love, learning to love yourself, sex and lust, love between parents and a child, love for someone who has passed, the love for all of humanity, and the love that binds us all together. It’s really about all of those things, so I think there is a little something for everyone on it.
Focusing heavily on the concept of love, do you prefer to write upbeat, happy songs, or sad and emotive songs? Why?
Everything comes back to love! I don’t think I ever go in and say, “Today let’s write a love song,” I just think everything is love. I don’t see upbeat and happy as one and the same… for instance, ‘Still In Love With You’, on the first listen sounds like a happy, upbeat song, but if you listen to the lyrics, it’s actually quite sad. It’s a song about your first love, and how that bond is forever, and how we never forget that person… and we always sort of think, “I wonder if I could go back there..” Whereas, ‘No More Alone’ comes across as a sad and slow song, but really it’s beautiful, and almost triumphant in that, “wow I found true love…” The only sadness in that is that it can’t be forever, because nothing is… or is it? That’s the question always. I like contrast, and juxtaposition. ‘Hang My Hat’ even… It’s about a one night stand… that should be fun, maybe even liberating, but the truth is, we’ve all been there when it’s not, and a lot of times it’s actually pretty empty.
Which songs do you feel will resonate most with the audience?
It always surprises me which songs are people’s favourites. My favourites always change. I suppose it depends on the person and what they are going through in their life when they hear the record. The good thing about the record is that every song is about something different, so I think there is something for everyone. It’s not like an Adele or Sam Smith style “just a break up record”.
What’s an average live show like for you? Can we expect a UK tour any time soon?
My live shows are pretty raw. I have a little band of brothers, pretty simple, bass, guitar, drums, and me on piano. Nothing too complicated. It’s starting to build now though that the album is coming out. I feel like we have to make it sound a bit more like the record, that being said, we aren’t too far off, because the record is so raw to begin with! A lot of my songs are vocal heavy, so I’d love to perform with a choir someday soon. There is a headline show at Oslo in Hackney on September 21st. There will be a proper tour announced soon after.
What do you feel have been the highlights of your career so far?
Writing with Burt Bacharach. Second to that would be performing with him. It’s one of those once in a lifetime sort of things; I mean how many 25 year old girls get to collaborate with a legend from the 60s? It was really a dream come true. He’s just a normal really cool super talented guy, so it felt normal when it was happening, but when I look back on it, that was pretty extraordinary. I feel so honoured to have had such an opportunity and he is such an inspiration. He lives to make music, and still loves it so much; it brings him pure joy, and that is so integral, and something I always have to remember. His work ethic is amazing too. Burt is a perfectionist.
How would you personally describe your sound to anyone who is yet to hear your music?
Lately just to dumb it down a bit I’ve been saying it’s like if Adele or Amy were to sing melodic rock music.
Which artists have you been listening to recently, and which artists had the most influence on the album?
I super super love Coldplay. I know Chris Martin gets accused of being a sap a lot the time, but I think he’s really just tapped into a higher source that those people don’t understand. His music is pure feel and he has a way with lyrics that always makes you think “YES THIS IS MY LIFE.” Only a few songs on this album were inspired by him, but a lot of the new ones I’m writing are more so. Jack White was a big influence for me on this record. I love blues music and grew up going to blues jams in upstate new york, so I always loved Jack because he was on of the few people of late that’s managed to bring blues into pop consciousness.
If you had to choose between writing music and recording music, which would choose and why?
Definitely writing. Writing is when I feel connected to God. Recording just feels more like solving a puzzle.
What can fans expect from you throughout the rest of the year?
My record. Everything else is still a mystery.
Only In My Mind is out September 9th via Virgin EMI Records.