We’re excited to launch our Interviews section here at Into the Airwaves with Edmonton’s own Martin Kerr. He has been a huge part of the Edmonton music scene over the past decade performing everywhere from coffee houses to farmers markets to clubs and more.
We caught up with Martin to chat about the release of his album Better Than Brand New, sharing the stage with Canadian legend Sarah McLachlan and so much more.
First off we’d love to introduce you to our readers a bit – can you tell us a bit about yourself and what drew you into the world of music?
Singing has always been my favourite thing to do, I have been performing since I was 4 years old. I picked up a guitar when I was 13 and started to write teenage heartbreak songs about girls who didn’t want to date me. I write about other things now!
Congrats on the release of Better Than Brand New! What’s the response been like so far?
The response has been amazing. As an independent artist I never would have expected to debut at #10 on the Canadian Album Chart but it happened. Every day I get at least one message from a fan telling me how one song or another has moved them to tears or inspired them, and that is what music is all about for me. When I write music I never think about how high this song can get in the charts, I am thinking – what does this song mean to mean and hoping that it will connect with somebody who hears it. Of course, it is nice to get in the charts too.
What was your favourite memory in the recording studio and which song did you most enjoy watching come to life?
My favourite memory was probably the recording of Lovers in a Dangerous Time. I have been playing this song at my shows for a year because the lyrics are very relevant for the times we are living in right now. So I knew I wanted to record this song but I also knew I didn’t want to re-record a version that had already been done. We sat down with the producer, (Juno-nominated Stew Kirkwood of the Sound Extractor Studios) and came up with some really cool new ideas for the arrangement, so it builds from intimate to huge as the song goes on. The guitar solo is amazing and probably one of my favourite parts of the whole album. I also invited my friends to come and sing on the track – we created a huge choir sound by layering harmonies, and it makes the end of the song really epic. I really hope this description is making people want to hear it now!
Who are your biggest musical influences?
Radiohead, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Passenger, James Taylor, I could continue forever. I was very fortunate as I was growing up that my parents listened to a wide variety of good music in the car and that really helped me to appreciate music and songwriting. My sister listened to A LOT of New Kids on the Block but I can say that there is no NKOTB influence on the new album.
You celebrated Canada Day in a big way by opening for Sarah McLachlan, what was that experience like?
It was incredible! If I could have pre-written the perfect day it still would not have been as good as it was. To meet and spend time with Sarah McLachlan backstage was a dream come true. I have always admired her music and the way she carries herself in the public eye. The things she does to give back to the youth is truly inspiring so to spend time with her really meant a lot. The performance itself, my first arena show, wow! People were singing along, lighting their phones and Sarah even stood at the side of the stage and watched for my whole performance. During her set she even called me ‘yummy’ which I actually missed as I was still signing CD’s in the lobby but everybody made a point of telling me what she had said. I sold 800 albums that night and got to #2 on iTunes the next day, for an independent artist – the whole weekend was very surreal, but I want to do it again! I was right at home.
If you could perform alongside any other Canadian artist who would you want to share the stage with?
Sarah McLachlan! To open for her was amazing and to have her say the things she said about me and my music was beyond a dream. We have very similar writing styles. We like to connect with and speak to people, turning large venues in to small intimate listening rooms through our songs and connection. It would be incredible to duet with her one day. I gave her my new album backstage and circled a couple of songs that she would sound great on… I am still waiting for a call! I’m really excited to share the bill with Bruce Cockburn at Canmore folk fest in a couple of weeks. I wouldn’t say no to Neil Young or Bryan Adams either…
You’re extremely active in the Edmonton music scene – can you talk a little bit about being a musician in Edmonton and how the city has influenced you?
Edmonton is my home, it is where my family is and where my career is. I am truly blessed to be in a city that really supports the local arts scene. We have some great music venues which are really helping to nurture some exciting younger talent. I took a different path and started busking/street performing as a way of connecting with people who went shopping not suspecting that they would hear any music that day. I found that to be very effective in getting people’s attention and I often had crowds of 100 people or more in the street and sold out of whole boxes of CDs. The result of that is that everybody in Edmonton knows somebody who has a Martin Kerr CD, and they also ask me to come and sing at their houses for birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, etc. So I began making my living and supporting my family through music. Exactly a year ago I began working with a new manager who was actually my friend for 3 years previously but had never heard me sing. Long story short, he believed I could do more with my career, we made some plans together and a year later we had sold out the Winspear in Edmonton (which seats 1700 people) won Male Artist of the Year at the Edmonton Music Awards, opened for Sarah McLachlan and had a top 10 album. It has been quite the year!
Do you have any advice for musicians who are just starting out in Edmonton (or in Canada in general)?
I would say go out and find your audience, don’t wait for them to find you. The music industry has changed and so many young artists are still chasing a record deal or a radio hit in order to ‘make it’ and one of the main reasons why me and my manager continue on so relentlessly is to hopefully inspire young artists to stop chasing the dream and build your own dreams. My music doesn’t really fit in any of the “commercial radio” formats, and I have no deal, agent, label, publisher, distributor, etc, but I sold out a 1700 seat theatre in Edmonton and had a top 10 album, and I firmly believe that is because I made it a priority to go on to the street and connect with the public. It is the public who really came through when I needed them to and I am not sure you can make that connection through a couple of radio spins. I would like to thank CBC, CKUA and any other stations that do spin my music. There is also something romantic about helping a guy you heard sing in your back yard sell out a prestigious music hall or get his album in the charts. People really feel like they are part of something special and that makes me happy.
What’s your song of the summer? (it can be a brand new track – or a classic!)
I really like ‘Something Like This’ by The Chainsmokerz/Coldplay. It’s very catchy with great lyrics. I can also appreciate the production and how Coldplay and the Chainsmokerz appeal to very different demographics but the track has been done perfectly so it appeals to both. When you are collaborating you have to be very careful to not alienate your existing fanbase and I think this song is a great example of how it can be done. If the Chainsmokerz are reading this, I am available!
What’s something fans might not know about you?
I speak Mandarin – I have had Chinese people say that I can speak it better than them – they are just being nice but my accent is pretty good.
What are your upcoming plans for the remainder of 2017?
So many! I would love a JUNO nomination for the new album of course. That is an immediate goal of mine. It’s funny, after the Sarah McLachlan show and the #10 album people kept messaging saying, ‘I bet you are happy to have some time off now!’ The truth is, now the time to work harder. I have another 50 gigs planned this year already, and will be playing both Canmore and Edmonton Folk Festivals this summer, and in the fall we will be applying for next summer’s festivals. I have some travel planned for December as I’d like to take a month off with my family. We will probably go to Arizona and possibly New Zealand, where my wife grew up. Then in February I will be heading to LA to play a few shows and meet with some producers for my next project. Our goal for 2017 was to get booked at Edmonton Folk festival and get a nomination for an Edmonton Music Award. We surpassed those aims with a top 10 album and an arena show, so I will sit down with my team soon and start dreaming up some bigger plans for next year.