by Steve Desroches
Amber Martin is a one-woman K-tel album with a variety show soul. With a powerhouse voice, a slapstick wit, and a sense of stand up and out creativity all covered in honey-drizzled nostalgia for the 1970s, Martin is a veritable force of nature forging a path all her own. Having attended every Afterglow Festival, with the exception of last year, Martin has quickly become a Provincetown favorite with her wild and free performances that continually surprise as well as renew confidence that in a culture full of Kardashian blandness, there are still people like Amber Martin creating whole new worlds.
Born in Janis Joplin’s hometown of Port Arthur, Texas, and raised in nearby Nederland, Martin still has a southern twang to her voice along with the rebel heart of the most famous resident of her birthplace. And in a couple of days she’ll travel from her New York City home to Portland, Oregon, to perform Janis: Undead, a tribute to the iconic rock star, a person she identified with growing up an artistic weirdo in a conservative oil refinery town. But when Martin comes to Provincetown this week she’ll debut A.M. Gold, her first album, featuring all new and original music written by Brett Every, with influences ranging from Stevie Nicks to Laura Branigan. Whether it’s her dead-on Reba McIntire impersonation, as a frequent guest performer at Night of 1000 Stevies, or as a featured vocalist on a Scissor Sisters single, Martin’s unique talents have her resume resembling an episode guide for The Carol Burnett Show.
“It comes from growing up as a only child in the 70s in Southeast Texas,” says Martin. “I’d have to entertain myself. I’d get bored. So I’d create my own commercials, you know, like Brenda Vaccaro selling tampons.”
Martin, along with performers and Afterglow alum like Lady Rizzo and Bridget Everett, has become the voice and face of downtown New York’s neo-cabaret scene, featuring a thunderous stage presence and a soaring sense of liberation. Permission is never requested or required when it comes to the process of creation and presentation for Martin. Her personal tastes and obsessions know no boundaries and such is the case when it comes to her own projects. Categories are for Jeopardy and encyclopedias. When it comes to art, it’s the idea. Let others decide if it needs a label, if at all.
Two years ago at the Afterglow Festival Martin, along with Nath Ann Carrera, performed Witch Camp, a phantasmagorical cabaret featuring the music of Sandy Denny, Led Zeppelin, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Yoko Ono, and more in a savagely clever recreation of a nouveau pagan gathering conjuring up big laughs, rock and roll riffs, and the perennially autumnal spirit of a 1970s horror movie. It put the duo on the underground map giving Martin a platform to also take her solo work around the country to venues craving something new and different. But despite so many artistic achievements it’s this new album and show that have Martin breathing a sigh of relief and excitement. It is, perhaps, her most personal project to date, and true to form, it defies categorization, though it most closely resembles the record collection of her youth.
“The feeling for each song is so different it’s almost like listening to a K-tel album,” says Martin. “It doesn’t have a genre. It’s a genre-hopping album.”
Seeing Martin live is a true experience, and Provincetown will have the unique opportunity to hear these tracks for her first recording here before anywhere else. In her first appearance at the inaugural Afterglow Festival in 2010, Martin bounded onto the stage in a black spaghetti-strap evening gown striped with black velvet and dark sheer material. Then, when the spotlight hit her, it revealed she was naked underneath, with the transparent parts of her outfit strategically placed to reveal all. It was a declarative entrance that left an impression in Provincetown’s storied performance scene. But it was when she sang that people really took note. Here was a fearless artist about to take flight.
“I’ve never been afraid,” says Martin. “I do get nervous every time and I might pee a little before going on stage. I think that’s a good thing. The day I don’t get nervous before going on stage I should change careers.”
Since leaving Texas at 18, Martin lived in Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon, before moving to New York in 2006, an experience she says was akin to “jumping barefoot into a blender.” But with her indefatigable spirit and boundless energy she soon became the doyenne of downtown, especially once she made connections and friends in the LGBT community. Friends and colleagues like Angela DiCarlo, John Cameron Mitchell, and Jake Shears proved invaluable as she took on Manhattan. And in particular, her friendship with Mitchell, who along with Quinn Cox founded the Afterglow Festival, introduced her to Provincetown and landed two of her singles from A.M. Gold in his upcoming film How to Talk to Girls at Parties. Martin, like many of the Afterglow participants, says the annual September event is a lovefest among the performers and audiences, with the biggest spot in her heart reserved for the town itself.
“I have definitely fallen in love with Provincetown from the very beginning,” says Martin. “It’s a magical place. There’s really no place like it.”
The Afterglow Festival presents Amber Martin in A.M. Gold at Paramount at the Crown and Anchor, 247 Commercial St., Provincetown. For tickets ($30) and information, go to the box office, call 508.487.4569, or visit afterglowfestival.org.