Being first on, before a crowd that’s not your own, doesn’t just take guts – it’s something of an art in itself, a testing demand for any musician but also a welcome challenge. When nobody knows you, there’s only victory ahead – you can only attract more admirers to your cause. And if you bomb, hell, you’ll be at the bar before the sun’s fully set. Chalk it up to experience.
Norma Jean Martine is the singer charged with opening Clash’s stage at this year’s The Great Escape in Brighton, on May 8th. Our Thursday night bill at the seaside city’s beach-based Coalition venue is headlined by Little Dragon – but well ahead of the Swedes will come this rising 21-year-old singer with a truly head-turning voice.
“I’ve sung forever,” she tells us, all the way from Los Angeles where she’s currently working on a debut album. “When I was little, I used to sing at the top of my lungs, in the car with my mum every morning. She listened to artists like Janis Joplin, Carole King, Sheryl Crow, so I guess that’s where my initial vocal inspirations come from.”
Norma’s recently come off a tour supporting Lissie, which taught her a lot about how to handle herself on the road – not that she lacked experience ahead of the run. “I’ve played with The Weeks, with Tom Odell, Midlake, Gaz Coombes, and more – I love playing to different audiences, and winning them over. It was amazing touring with Lissie – I couldn’t ask for a more wonderful group of people to tour with, and each night was an inspiration. I learnt a lot off Lissie, she’s an incredible performer.”
Lissie’s crew did play a little trick on Norma, come the final night of the tour. “They put me in the laundry room, with a load of washing machines going at full blast,” she recalls. “I was cool with that, as I’ve had worse – but then I found out it was a prank. But those are the kind of things that make you feel part of the family.”
It was a member of her blood-related family, her mother, who guided the young Norma towards a music career. “She started taking me to blues jams, in upstate New York, and I would sing and play piano, performing angsty pre-teen songs. When I was 13 I learned guitar, because my boyfriend at the time did and I wanted to be like him. He got me into Cream, and Led Zeppelin.
“I used to skip school, to write songs, and got in trouble a lot. But I didn’t care, because I was doing what I wanted. I was picked on as a kid [before I started singing]. As I got older, I started diving into old soul and blues music, and really got into Billie Holiday, Etta James and Nina Simone. I’ve been rediscovering a bunch of things lately, to really study them. Things I’ve always known were amazing, but now I’m trying to understand why they are.”
Norma’s investigative listening is sure to inform the material that makes up her forthcoming debut album. Ahead of that comes her performance at The Great Escape. Of her show, she comments: “It’s all about songs and emotion, and a connection with the audience. That ranges from heartfelt ballads to up-tempo rock songs.
“I consider myself a blues-rock artist, which is all about honesty and true emotion. If I don’t feel it, I can’t fake it – I can’t sing or perform something I don’t believe in myself, as no-one else will believe it either. And I’m a rubbish liar.”
A rubbish liar, maybe, but one hell of an accomplished performer already, as sets with the aforementioned acts, as well as 2013’s Montreux Jazz Festival, have evidenced. If you’re after an act to ease your senses into this year’s Great Escape, you couldn’t ask for a better one.
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WHERE: London now, but Norma was born just outside of New York, and moved to Nashville for university.
WHAT: Heartfelt songwriting that doesn’t fit within any one fashion, any single scene. A little timeless, then. Says Norma: “I would never change my style for a quick buck.”
GET 3 SONGS: ‘No More Alone’, ‘No Gold’ (stream it above), ‘Mexico’
FACT: Norma used to learn the words to favourite songs in a fairly unusual way. “I took singing in the shower to a whole new level by putting CD sleeves in plastic bags so I could sing the lyrics,” she tells us.
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Words: Mike Diver
Photo: Josh Shinner