By Brian Ives
In 1989, Edie Brickell was riding high off of the huge success of her debut album with her band the New Bohemians, Shooting Rubber Bands at the Stars and its smash single “What I Am.” That same year, Steve Martin was coming off a string of great films Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Planes Trains and Automobiles, Roxanne, Little Shop of Horrors and Three Amigos and was starring in the classic film Parenthood.
And so, the idea that over two decades later, the two of them would be an enduring musical duo, would have sounded funny at the time.
But that’s exactly what happened. Martin and Brickell released their debut effort Love Has Come For You in 2013, and they won the Best American Roots song GRAMMY for the title track. Today (October 30), they release the follow up, So Familiar. They’re also working on bringing their musical, Bright Star, to Broadway (it’s already had a run in San Diego). So despite their mutual histories, they are both very much living in the present, and were happy to talk about both projects earlier this week on the phone with Radio.com.
When you guys first started working together, did you think there was going to be a long term plan that would include multiple albums and a musical?
Edie Brickell: I thought I was going to do one song with Steve!
Steve Martin: [Laughs]
EB: This is thrilling!
Were you surprised by the response to Love Has Come For You? Winning that GRAMMY must have been a thrill.
EB: It’s astonishing to me. When they called our names we were both like… we couldn’t believe it.
SM: I remembered when Edie sent me her music and lyrics for “Love Has Come for You,” I said, “Edie, that sounds like a hit song!” [Winning the GRAMMY] kind of hits you afterwards, when you’re home. Like, we wrote a GRAMMY winning song? Actually, I thought, “I wrote half a GRAMMY winning song, I can’t believe it!”
Steve, you had done a few solo albums backed by the Steep Canyon Rangers before doing the albums with Edie. But after years as an actor, and a comedian, was it hard to get people to see you as a “serious musician?”
SM: Because the first two records I did were essentially for a bluegrass audience, they already knew I played banjo, they were very welcoming. They didn’t treat me as an interloper or a dilettante. And I also happened to be working with a great band, the Steep Canyon Rangers. I was very pleased that there was immediate courtesy extended, I didn’t have to “overcome” anything.
What about you, Edie? Do you find that people still attach you to the era of Shooting Rubber Bands at the Stars and Ghost of a Dog?
EB: I think that’s the main reference people have for my name and my music, so it’s been fun to re-emerge with such a class act as Steve. Steve says he was welcomed by the bluegrass community, I feel like I was welcomed by Steve’s community. It’s so fulfilling. But it always surprises me when someone identifies me in any certain kind of way, I still can’t identify myself yet (laughs).
This album sounds a lot different than the last one, and I know you’ve credited producer Peter Asher for that.
EM: Peter Asher is a really big artist in this mix, he takes our songs and elevates them with his imagination and his production choices. It’s so subtle and it’s so present, all at once.
It doesn’t feel like a bluegrass album, it feels like a popular music album with a banjo on it.
SM: Right. I actually have envisioned the banjo, knowing that it is a bluegrass instrument, but that it has another side, that it can work with other instruments. It can be more “airy.” Like, bluegrass is constantly moving. And I’ll call this a different style of banjo, where you don’t have to be too fancy all the time. Part of the thrill of bluegrass is is the driving, fancy banjo. But I always felt that the banjo also had a highly melodic side, which is on the new record, and even the last record. And it can be combined with orchestral sounds. That combination really works for me.
I like the banjo, I’ve always loved the sound of it. And the sound of it is often enough for me. And when you apply a melody on top of it… that’s exactly the way I want to play now.
So the “Won’t Go Back” video is really fun. Describing it sounds like a joke: “Two musicians, a Rastafarian, a ballerina and an Orthodox Jew walk into an elevator and then…” Whose idea was that?
SM: There were a couple of ideas flying around and I said to the director, what if we did this? When you do something like this, you’re always worried about the cost of it. The original idea was to have us sitting on the sofa with a dog.
SM: I don’t know that song that you’re talking about. On “Won’t Go Back,” Edie wrote the vocal melody and the lyrics and I played a baritone banjo, so it doesn’t really sound like a regular banjo, and it has a deeper, thumpier tone. and that contributes to the rhythm of it.
I thought you may have known the other song because Mike Einzinger [of Incubus] plays guitar on that, and he plays on your album also.
SM: Edie and I recorded our parts, just the two of us, and then Peter took that and put all of the other stuff on it.
I noticed that things were recorded in different places: is it strange to record your parts, and then have Peter send you back a finished recording?
SM: I prefer recording alone, rather than having nine musicians recording in the room. That could be a different type of album. I haven’t played on stage in five years. I prefer to do my own takes, without the pressure of the other musicians there.
EB: We captured the organic sound of the song as it was written and then it grows from there.
Talk about “Another Round,” which is the one song where you did work with the Steep Canyon Rangers.
SM: That’s a true bluegrass sound and the banjo that I play there is a very bluegrass banjo. When Edie sent those lyrics, I was knocked out. They’re just amazing. And I remember when I first sent the [Bright Star] script to Barry Edelstein, who runs the Old Globe Theatre. We sent a so-called script very early on. I wrote this little tune, I sent it off to Edie, and while I’m talking to Barry, I get this song coming back, and I said, “Barry, listen to this, this is going to be killer in the show.” And I didn’t even have a way to put it in at that point. I love the lyrics of that, they’re so dead-on accurate, emotionally. “If you’d seen the things that I’ve seen and if you had the life that I had/You would never stand there in judgement/You would sit down fill up my glass.” And, “I’m not gonna do this forever, I’m gonna do it for one more day.”