Up Against All of Those Glass Ceilings: An Interview with Martha Velez

Martha Velez has had a long career as a musical adventurer. She grew up riding NYC subways to the Bronx High School of Music, and later to New York's High School of Performing Arts. Tour buses and airplanes eventually replaced Velez's subways, as music took her further afield: from touring the country in the early 1960s with the Gaslight Singers; then to England to record her debut album, Fiends and Angels (1969), with musicians that included Eric Clapton and Christine McVie. After releasing a pair of singer-songwriter albums, Hypnotized (1972) and Matinee Weepers (1973), in 1975 she was off to Jamaica, where Bob Marley and Lee “Scratch” Perry produced her reggae album Escape from Babylon.

Velez’s voice has taken her on a journey through an amazingly diverse range of genres: from opera, to the musical theatre stage; from folk, to blues rock, to reggae, and back to musicals again. Velez and I talked about her experiences in the studio, about being a young woman in the music business in the 1960s and 1970s, and about singing. As a singer myself, and as a scholar who studies singers, I find that conversations with performers like Velez can reveal how singers adapt their instruments to different styles and contexts, and use singing as an act of musical authorship.


Your early training was in opera and musical theatre. How did you end up making the shift from those genres to blues and rock?

I went to Long Island University where I joined up with a group of guys who were putting together a folk group called the Gaslight Singers. The Gaslights led me into touring right out of college. We toured for two or three years, and we recorded two albums for Mercury Records with producer Milt Okun, who produced records for Peter, Paul and Mary and The Chad Mitchell Trio, so we were in very good company. 

After touring with the Gaslights, I entered into musical theatre. I auditioned for a show called Mata Hari. It was my first ever audition for a Broadway show—and I got the part While we were in previews, the woman playing the lead came knocking on my door, asking if I could go on stage that night, and I just said ok! I played the lead for the duration of the run. It was a pretty amazing thing. From there, I went on to another show called I'm Solomon, and then I replaced Diane Keaton as the lead in Hair

Being in Hair led me to think that I could possibly go from classical music to folk music to blues and rock. When I was in Hair, I went in to record some demos for a songwriter. I could see these two execs walking around the control room and when I came out of the vocal booth, they said to me, “we'd like to sign you as a recording artist.” The execs were Seymour Stein and Richard Gotterher, the owners and founders of Sire Records, responsible for Madonna, The Pretenders, Talking Heads, The Ramones, etc. The next thing I knew, they sent me to London to work with Mike Vernon, who had produced for Cream, the Yardbirds, John Mayall, and all of those British greats.



Your London sessions led to Fiends and Angels, a blues rock record. Blues rock was a fairly new singing style for you at that point – what was it like to jump in?

I knew a lot of the music because blues is fundamentally folk music—it was very related to what I'd sung before, and shared this sense that something about it was visceral and primal. Chordally, you have three or four chords that you're playing with and the vocals can really fly through those patterns. And that's also what I loved about reggae:  reggae to me is a solid base for a lot of jazz feel, a lot of free-form exploration of what you can do with your voice.


Could you talk a bit about what it was like to work in the studio? You were surrounded by these fantastic musicians – it must have been an exciting experience, but also potentially intimidating.

Working on that first album was very intimidating – but I'm tall and that always helps. In those days I was wearing these tall boots that made me stand at least six two, so that helped me feel less intimidated. I'd walk in and there would be all these people: Christine McVie was there, and Clapton, Jack Bruce, and Mitch Mitchell from the Jimi Hendrix band. They were at the top of their game in that era, and I had not really done this music to that extent – I hadn't worked it, hadn't been on the road with it, I hadn't done anything but really have a fire for it. The experience of singing in Hair helped. There was a lot of rock music in Hair, and even though it was kind of Broadway-ish, it was very rooted in an enormous amount of visceral and emotional projection. That's what I think accomplished in Fiends and Angels: that kind of emotional projection.

We were working in the Decca Studios, and at that time it was set up for orchestras: bleacher style, where the instrumentalists would sit with the conductor standing on the floor level. It was perfect for me in a way because I was used to performing on a stage, and standing on the top section this was like standing on a stage. We'd just arrange things as if we just started playing and just didn't stop: nobody sat down and wrote out specifics for the basic track arrangements. That wasn't as important to me as really finding the groove with these artists.



So, a few years after Fiends and Angels, you went to Jamaica to make a reggae album with Bob Marley.  How did that come about? And what was it like to work with Marley?

By the time I worked with Bob Marley, I'd recorded 3 albums, and two of them were singer-songwriter albums.  I'd done a couple of reggae tunes on one, Matinee Weepers, and I'd written this reggae song called “Money Man,” that Richard Gottehrer liked. I had no thoughts of working with Bob Marley himself, but Sire told me they'd sent him a couple of cuts from my album and he'd loved my voice and was interested. By then my sense of what I wanted to do with music and wanted to say within music had evolved in a different way. Working with him, I was really trying to say something and yet not be too pretentious about it, because my life was very different from his life. We finally did get into a groove but I ended up doing a lot of my vocals up in New York. It was simply because some of the equipment in Jamaica used an electrical current that wasn't compatible with US currents, so we were getting all this strange sounding distortion.

After that album, Escape from Babylon, I really wanted to do more reggae, but even though that album did well and found its niche, the record company wasn't interested.



I'm struck by the stylistic diversity of your music: you've done rock, reggae, musical theatre, opera, and blues. I'm interested in how you navigated these genre shifts with your voice.

Somewhere along the line I learned to trust what my vocal instrument could do. There's this transition where you're trying to sing opera, and you're trying to sing folk music, and you're adapting to what the genre requires.  But somewhere along the way I thought: this is where my voice can go more readily and easily. It's my fingerprint, and my imprint is there in the way my voice can hit that note, even if I don't hit it in the way somebody might expect. It's about really trusting that your high range will be there and that you can move through it without fearing. It's never perfect, that's for sure, but I can only say this: it's never perfect but it is hopefully true.

What it comes down to for me is this: if you know you can hit that note, and you're emotionally invested in the song, then you're going to hit whatever version of that note exists for you and is true. That note may not be right for anybody else but it will be right for me. I've been formally trained; I've had to disregard a lot of that but at the same time I've embraced a lot of what was taught to me. It’s in my DNA.

I feel, that as a singer, the exciting part is to try all these genres. I'm always pleased to see people who have been singing, challenging themselves to do another genre, and hopefully, doing it well or as well as they can, and not cheating the genre or themselves. In that sense I still am shamelessly courageous: it's what artists do. If we're not pushing the envelope all the time then we're not doing what we were meant to do.


Your career spans a period that has seen considerable shifts to the amount agency that women have in the music industry. As someone who started making records as a young woman in the 1960s, do you think gender shaped your music and career?

I think it has. When I started out, I didn't know many girls out there doing rock music or trying to push the envelope with the voice. Most of the women I was aware of were singers with bands: Janis Joplin, Grace Slick, Chrissie Hynde, Blondie. Now, having been a singer with a band, with the Gaslight Singers, I kind of knew that was a fantastic comfort zone. The guys wanted it as much as you wanted it and you got to be the featured girl. But when you approach it all on your own, as a solo artist, it's a different game and people have a different perception of you. One of the things that I consciously did, was to avoid intimate relationships with the people that I worked with. I felt it was important to maintain professional respect because I didn't want to be that girl who was in the studio because of that. I wanted to be the girl that was there because my musical approach was respected and, hopefully, equal to the boys. These players and producers, all of whom had incredible egos and were wonderful colleagues, they weren't going to be performing on your record unless you had something to bring, I can tell you I was always very self conscious, insecure, and intimidated by that fact. Stepping up was a challenge and a difficult one, but I was there to do it, so I had to do it.

I have nothing but incredible respect for all these women who are successful—these young singers who are challenged by the music industry and who are bringing in millions of dollars for various people. They have to keep it together, they have to be pretty, their voices have to be strong, they have to perform, and they have to do all of this while being a female person up against all of those glass ceilings.


So you've been working in theatre again—this time as a playwright. What projects do you currently have underway?

About a year ago I decided to write this piece called American Heartbeat based on a play that I had written in 1992, about a construction worker, Vietnam Vet with PTSD who ends up on the street corner because of the recession of 1992, alongside the Mexican illegal immigrants he used to hire. I decided to rewrite it because, unfortunately, not that much has changed socio-politically. It's a play with music: I pulled songs from my albums, and I've written a couple of new songs to move the narrative forward. It's a very exciting project we're doing it here in Florida in May. We’re looking at a New York presentation in July, and are in consideration for a Pulitzer Prize—a long shot, but sweet.


As if your career hasn't been wide-ranging enough, beyond your work as a musician, you earned an MA in Clinical Psychology and a PhD in Depth Psychology and Cultural Mythology. Do you find that your musical work informs your work in that field, or vice versa?

I gravitated to these disciplines because of my work in theater and in the arts. I'm interested in psychological interiors: what's behind the story, and what's deeper. Music and art are fundamentally about the art of being a human being, and the different approaches we can take living our lives. Hopefully, the artful approach is something that makes the individual more beautiful and the world more beautiful, exponentially.  That idea was really my push towards being in a community of people who explored a more abstract way of thinking, a cohort that were more conscious of the liminal spaces of life, working in between consciousness and the unconsciousness. For me, it broadened the thinking that was possible and I feel very blessed. I'm incredibly grateful for what I've been able to experience in my life and the people that I've been able to experience.



This interview was conducted on December 9th, 2014 and has been edited for length and clarity.


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