'Before country, my music didn't have a direction' - Singer and songwriter Joe Martin on how country music changed his life
Anna Colivicchi talks to a Lancashire-born country music singer and songwriter about his international success and his journey from the Ribble Valley to the sounds of the Music City: Nashville, in Tennessee USA.
When thinking about country music, it is easier to picture a group of middle-aged men playing banjos - but Joe Martin, a ‘country boy’ from Lancashire, is taking the genre on a whole new level.
Born 25 years ago in Chipping, Joe started to play classical music from a young age, encouraged by his dad, who worked in the entertainment industry.
“I’ve always done music, since I can remember,” Joe says, “I started playing the guitar when I was about 13, and my dad taught me some chords, but then left me to my own devices.”
But it wasn’t until he discovered country music that Joe found his true direction.
In 2012, the television series Nashville premiered in the US and soon became available in the UK as well, captivating the hearts of many fans over here.
The series, following the lives of rising and fading country music stars in the Music City, is particularly famous for its beautifully-crafted songs - which were a great source of inspiration for Joe, who was still looking to find his real music vocation.
He explains: “I didn’t know much about country music until I really got into it, the songs were so great and I thought, I really like this music, this is what I want to do.
“Before country music, I feel my music didn’t have a precise direction and it’s difficult to explain why I felt so drawn to it.
“It just felt right to do Americana.
“Perhaps it’s the arrangement of words and the storytelling side of it that makes this music genre so different from anything else.”
So Joe left Chipping to move to Leeds and attend the College of Music, where he founded a country music band.
He also started taking his songwriting more seriously, drawing inspiration from his own experiences, from tales of friends and strangers and especially from his travels.
He adds: “I feel that I write much more when I’m on the road, I meet new people and make new experiences.
“And then sometimes someone says something, and that becomes a song.”
His tunes are characterised by strongly emotional lyrics, and often focus on evocative moments of the past, missed opportunities and ‘what could have been’.
Listening to his first EP Small World is like listening to someone you have just met while they talk about their life, hopes and regrets.
After completing his degree at the Leeds College of Music, Joe travelled for the first time to Tennessee, to visit and he quickly fell in love with the place and its music scene.
Joe explains: “I was fascinated by Nashville - it’s a city where country music comes first and everything else comes second.
“And you meet so many other artists and musicians, and most of them are also writers, so you can literally write songs with anyone there. I threw myself in the deep end, and it was intimidating but very inspiring.”
A major centre for the music industry, and especially country music, Nashville is also home to the legendary club Bluebird Cafe, a prestigious and intimate venue which regularly features acoustic music by up-and-coming performers and artists.
The club appears in the television series Nashville, and it is where many country music stars were first discovered, big names such as Kathy Mattea and Garth Brooks in the 80s, and even Taylor Swift, when she was only 14-years-old.
Performing at the Bluebird Cafe had always been one of Joe’s biggest dreams.
When he stepped on stage to perform right where many other young and talented country music stars stood before him, it really felt like a “full circle moment.”
He says: “Playing at the Bluebird Cafe didn’t feel real - it was such a great feeling, and before the performance I got to meet John Paul White [an American singer and songwriter who was in the duo Civil Wars], who has always been an inspiration to me.
“And he gave me some advice before my Bluebird Cafe debut, and that felt so reassuring.”
The comment Joe often receives from his audience is that his music sounds beyond his years and he explains he is not used to playing a venue packed with students, or people who are his age.
Indeed, country music and Americana are not particularly popular among young people in the UK, and Joe’s choice to do this kind of music was driven by his passion for storytelling.
He adds: “Listening to country music takes more patience than listening to pop, for example.
“Some country music songs condense a lifetime in three minutes, and you need to pay attention to the lyrics to make the most out of it.
“I think that maybe young people don’t have enough patience.
“And this is not to say it’s easier to do pop music, that’s a completely different art.”
However, despite country music being a niche in the UK and in Europe, its audience is definitely growing, with more and more young people listening to it every year.
To those who would like to follow his footsteps and make a career out of their passion for country music, Joe says: “Dig into the history of this genre and immerse yourself into it.
“And keep writing - I know, it takes a lot of practice.
“While I think that writing lyrics can be approached in a more scientific and analytical way, melody writing is completely different.
“It’s intuitive and requires a lot of listening, but if you keep listening to what great country music artists have done in the past, it then comes naturally.”
After travelling to Nashville a few more times, Joe is now back to Chipping and has been gigging around the UK, as well as supporting other artists in their shows around Lancashire.
He says: “Chipping is such a beautiful place, it has inspired me to write a lot.”
Joe is about to release new music, and his new single Heartbreak Cult will be available on April 3 on Spotify.