There’s a potted plant in the back corner of the Black Swan in Tivoli, some kind of floppy-leafed, tropical-jungle affair.
“It’s a banana tree,” says Michael Nickerson, the club’s affable owner. “One of the bartenders found it over the summer and nursed it back to health.” Despite the Bard student-populated venue’s reputation for welcoming warmth, however, on most January nights this bit of south-of-the-equator vegetation would, naturally, be very much at odds with the larger environment. It just doesn’t quite fit the bone-rattling wind, sub-20-degree freeze, and hard, icy snow just outside the front door.
But tonight is not a typical winter eve at the Black Swan. This particular occasion is the release party for Le Demimonde, Angus Martin’s sophomore album on Kingston’s Soluna label, and for the event the thin-trunked botanical specimen is pretty much the most perfect backdrop one could ask for. Actually, after a few minutes of tonight’s brand of music it begins to feel like the lone, four-foot-tall plant could use some company back there—say, a few frond-drooping palms or some cocoanut trees stocked with twittering macaws. Set up just in front of said shrub is Martin, on vocals, piano, guitar, and accordion, and his band—percussionist Reginald Jacques, bassist Josh Levine, and drummer Peter Barr—who are lightly coaxing up a balmy, meandering groove that transforms the snug Irish pub into a sun-drenched beachside cafe. The buoyant sambas, bossa novas, sons, cumbias, and other Latin-derived tunes hold sway over the jammed, tiny dance floor; so much so that, eventually, even your notoriously sober music editor can hold back no longer, stepping in to move as one with the fray (yes, it’s true, and there are many witnesses).
“That’s one big thing that has always struck me about Angus’s music: Everyone who hears it just can’t resist it,” says Soluna producer and engineer Kale Kaposhilin. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a college kid or a grandparent, right away they just love it. Even Zac Shaw [drummer of infamous Kingston sludge-punk duo Dead Unicorn] is a huge fan.” And the fact that Martin sings in several languages—and rarely in English—sure doesn’t seem to be off-putting to the shuffling student bodies in Tivoli tonight, either. Le Demimonde features lyrics in Spanish and Haitian Creole, as well as English and French.
“Actually, French is my first language,” says Martin, 38, who grew up in Marin County, California. “My mom is French and my dad is American, and we just always spoke French at home.” His jazz-loving father and classical pianist mother also introduced him to music, and at a young age he began studying blues and jazz piano, learning the rudiments of pop songwriting from Beatles and Bob Dylan records. After attending an experimental “hippie” high school and spending a few years as a landscaper in New Mexico, Martin enrolled at Bard “to get as far away from the West Coast as possible,” he recounts with a laugh.
At around the time he came east, however, Martin experienced another turning point. On a whim he bought a used copy of the self-titled 1973 LP by Brazilian bossa nova god Joao Gilberto, and from there the sultry sounds of Latin music came flooding in. “That record just opened up a whole new world to me,” he recalls of the legendarily influential album, which features the sparse, hypnotic sound of only Gilberto’s voice and acoustic guitar and Sonny Carr’s minimal percussion. “I’d had no idea such deep beauty existed. It was like how hearing something like Bach or the Clash for the first time must be for others.”
It’s here, however, that Martin’s musical globe-trotting really begins. While at Bard he also “fell in love with Italian,” studying the language and at the behest of his teacher transferring to Bologna to immerse himself further. “I took classes there, spent a few years traveling around Europe, drinking coffee and playing music,” he says. “Then I lived in Prague for a while, before I moved back to the US and spent some time in Wyoming, which was definitely a big a change.” Martin moved next to Seattle, where he studied Spanish, and, eventually, came back East once again, this time to New York. “When you live in a lot of different places and you don’t have a lot of money, you end up living in areas where there are a lot of immigrants,” explains Martin. “In Seattle I lived in an Ethiopian neighborhood, and in New York where I lived was mainly Caribbean. [In immigrant areas] you’re always the outsider, ‘that white American guy.’ But it’s cool because everyone knows you and you get to know everyone else. So I’ve been able to learn a lot about other cultures and other music by living in those places, and I’ve met and played with some amazing musicians and made a lot of friends that way.” In New York, Martin played in popular six-piece outfit Los Acustilocos which released one album and performed at such prestigious Manhattan venues as Carnegie and Merkin Halls and the 92nd Street Y.