Steve Martin is a writer, actor, author, standup comedian, master of the Twitter-verse and 68-year-old Grammy Award-winning bluegrass musician who has been developing his banjo style since he was 16.
Despite the credits, that latter entry on his CV is one oft-overshadowed by his prolific screen career. This month, Islanders have a chance to see the creative chameleon at two nights of music and comedy in Nanaimo and Victoria May 11 and 12.
Martin took some time out to speak with us about his ever-evolving career, the music-comedy connection and Love Has Come for You, a 13-track collaboration with Edie Brickell, written through a process of emailing iPhone recordings while the two Texans were living on opposite coasts. The partnership proved fruitful and in addition to their current tour dates with the Steep Canyon Rangers, the two will debut a co-written stage musical this September.
NN: What’s the experience of sending off your personal work and receiving an entirely new take on it? Was there any tension between what you had hoped for the songs and how she interpreted them?
SM: She always improved it, because a banjo song is just a banjo song. It could be a good banjo song, but it’ll always be a banjo song, so when she started adding lyrics and making the songs really viable, I loved it. Also, I never knew what she would come up with and I always liked what she was doing, so it was one of those rare things. Now we have much more give and take. She’ll say: ‘Can this chord change and I’ll say ‘Yes.’ And I’ll say ‘I think this line is a little hard to understand’ and she’ll fix it.
NN: Has the philosophy behind choosing your projects and your career path shifted over the course of your career?
SM: Yes. I was always involved in writing. I was going to say that I’ve become much more directly a writer, but there’s been nothing conscious done in my career, about I want to do this now or that. It’s always been on a train that’s moving along and events happen that lead me in a different direction. There’s no conscious effort. It’s just my need. When I was doing more movies, I’d say: ‘I need a screenplay. I have an idea.’ And on Roxanne I tried to get other people to write it and no one would do it, so I just did it myself. And that was my first solo screenplay.
NN: How does developing your own style or sound with the banjo relate to developing your own voice in comedy?
SM: Well, I very consciously, in comedy, tried to develop my own voice. I knew that was extremely important and that’s why when I was about 19 I got rid of every joke in my act and I started fresh with everything being something I wrote myself. I thought that was really important, that the audience couldn’t really have seen anything like this before. In terms of playing music, playing the banjo, there were so many great role models. It’s a lot of work just to learn how to play it, let alone develop your own style. Lately in the last five or six years, I’ve really be focusing on the banjo. I have developed my own style and people can hear it. They know it’s me and I’m emphasizing things that I loved about the banjo when I first started playing, which are things like its melancholy, its drive. I do feel like having the ability to play it and then knowing a sound you want in your head, that creates your own style – being able to play the sound that you hear in your head.
NN: How does self-consciousness or confidence in your art change as you move across genres?
SM: I just don’t worry about it. When I started playing a banjo on stage I thought: ‘I know what this looks like. It looks like a movie actor trying to become a rock and roll star, but I knew that wasn’t what I was doing and it didn’t seem to matter to people. When I wrote a novel, it seemed to be accepted rather than laughed at. I don’t mean it was always wonderful praise, but it was taken seriously and not as an amateur trying to spread his wings. So, I’ve been really lucky in what I’ve branched out in and haven’t received a terrible backlash.
NN: OK, so you’re not worrying about it as you move forward. Do you have any regrets or doubts about past work? Anything you might want to strike from the record?
SM: Everything can’t be great. I don’t want to name movies because people work on those movies and everybody works 100 per cent. They work very, very hard and sometimes they work out, sometimes they don’t. It’s almost something that you can’t even predict. So I’m not going to criticize past work. If you criticize past work, in effect, you’re criticizing the people you worked with, but certain movies have risen to the top. Let’s put it that way. They have an afterlife. That’s they way I judge the success of a movie: does it have an afterlife as an entertainment medium?
NN: The concert is pitched as a night of music and comedy, what will the audience be in store for?
SM: All of us are dedicated to doing the best and most entertaining show possible. I always try to blend the comedy with the music. We do serious songs. We do funny songs. We do a lot of chat, talk. Since incorporating Edie, the music has become much more lyrical than the type of music we were playing before. So, we might string three songs together then do some comedy. I think the show – whether you are aware of bluegrass or not – I’ve found it just doesn’t matter to people. They seem to enjoy the music, just hearing it live on stage. The musicians I work with, The Steep Canyon Rangers, are really, really skilled and they do a song on their own. It’s just a big variety show.
NN: For people who are interested in getting into standup or comedy writing, what’s the biggest piece of advice that you could pass along?
SM: The scene has really changed since I was in it, but the best advice I can give is perform every chance you get in every circumstance. Just keep doing it because the more you do it, the more experience you’re going to have. The more active little material you’ll come up with. You know, that one little ad lib that one night becomes a permanent part of the show. It’s really just: persevere, keep doing it every chance that you get.
NN: Do you still get nervous at all before performances?
SM: Oh, yeah. I wouldn’t call it nervous. I can sometimes be aware that I’m on edge, but it really has nothing to do with … You know it could be the Hollywood Bowl and I’d be completely relaxed and be at a club that seats 300 and be a little tense. So it has nothing to do with the importance of the event. It’s just sort of random.
See Martin at The Port Theatre in Nanaimo May 11 or May 12 at The Royal Theatre in Victoria. Tickets to the Victoria show start at $100.50. Full details available at hightideconcerts.net.