Until recently, most of the songs Martha Groves Perry wrote were about her personal experiences. That changed during the pandemic. “I began feeling how short and fleeting life is,” Perry said. “This thought propelled me into speaking out like I’d never done. Before, most of my songwriting was introspective, sticking closely to my commitment to stay on my side of the street. Events outside me, as well as a personal request from a seven-year-old girl, gave me the courage to write songs I would have been too scared to record before.”
In October 2020, a girl in Louisville named McKiely saw Perry perform a pandemic livestream. Afterwards, she asked Perry to write a song about how terrible Covid is. “Despite not wanting to write anything about that subject, I tried,” Perry said. “I wanted to capture the horribleness of it, but I also wanted to give some hope, which I wasn’t feeling at the time.” Perry put her doubts aside and wrote “McKiely’s Song.” When she played it for her husband and daughter, they cried. That gave her the courage to write more songs about the epidemic. They’re all featured on Call Out, her latest album.
“I make demos to a click track from GarageBand,” Perry said. “I send them to my producer, Kenny Schick. He does a preliminary sketch with drums, bass, lead guitar, anything else he hears in the song.” After adjustments are made, Perry composes the vocal harmonies and gets ready to record. Call Out was recorded in two sessions: one with Perry singing live to backing tracks made by Schick, the second with Schick on a Zoom call, adding his feedback as the 12 songs took shape.
Although they deal with difficult subjects, Perry’s bright melodies and lyrical insights keep the mood upbeat. A heartbeat supplied by bass, piano and sustained synthesizer chords provide the backdrop for “You Might.” Perry’s vocal describes the chaotic political and personal events of the pandemic, leading to the uplifting chorus of, “I will sing.” Schick’s twang-heavy electric guitar brings to mind the sound of a Spaghetti Western on “Feel Something.” Perry’s tense vocal amps up the tension, describing the fears that brought the country to a standstill. “It seemed important to record these feelings,” Perry said, “so I could look back and feel grateful that this time had passed.”
Other notable tracks include “The Dare,” a fast rocker in praise of the risks one takes to find romance, with a refrain that wouldn’t be out of place in a girl-group hit from the ’60s, the Southern soul of “Blessed Avalanche” and “Purely Who You Are,” a slow blues that describes the love a mother has for a newborn child.
“I was musically precocious,” Perry said. “Before I was seven, I was singing solos in the church choir. I started piano lessons when I turned five. By the time I was 13, I was studying classical piano, cello and voice. I played Mozart and Beethoven piano concertos in statewide competitions. I wanted to go to a conservatory and become a classical musician. My parents dissuaded me, so I went to college and got a double B.A. in philosophy and English, and a Ph.D. in comparative literature from UC Santa Cruz.”
Perry met her husband along the way. They moved to Germany for nine years, started a family and moved back to California. “My son was the drummer in his middle school rock band,” Perry said. “I volunteered to help them organize shows and met his music teacher, Rich Armstrong. He’d played with Boz Scaggs and Michelle Shocked. He was putting together a cover band, called the Soul Providers, with some of the parents of the kids in his classes. He recruited me to be the lead singer. I sang and played keys and cello with them for two years.”
During that time, Armstrong connected Perry to Michelle Shocked, who hired her to play cello and sing backup on one of her tours. That experience rekindled the songwriting spark she’d had when she was younger.
She began studying songwriting and guitar with Greg Newlon. She sang backup and played cello with the group he had with his wife, Bev & Greg. She also started playing her songs at open mics. “I was comfortable on stage with the Soul Providers,” Perry said. “Playing and singing my own songs was a whole new level of vulnerability. Playing other people’s music, I could get on stage like getting on a bus. Now, my hands shook, my kneecaps shook and my voice shook. I was drenched in sweat.”
Between open mics, Perry worked a day job and attended songwriting retreats. “I met Kase Reis at one of them,” Perry said. “She invited me to jam with her and her sister, Sheri Luevano. We clicked and formed a trio, MapleDream. I wrote the songs and sang lead, but after a couple of shows, things fizzled out. That’s when I got serious about my solo career. I began to refine my songs. I still had a job, so I had limited time. A guitar is easier to lug around than a piano; it helped me get to where I wanted to go. When I asked Greg if he’d produce an EP for me, he introduced me to Kenny Schick.”
With Schick’s help, Perry recorded The Something Good EP and two albums: These Hands and Call Out. “I’m not necessarily interested in fame,” Perry said. “I want to keep making music as long as I am given music to make, and get it in front of as many people as possible. I don’t want to run out of time. Covid has taught us all that we don’t know what’s going to happen from one day to the next, so I want to get my music out there.”
Listen to ‘Call Out’ on Perry’s Bandcamp page: marthagrovesperry.bandcamp.com/album/call-out. Perry will perform live in the coming months, both as a solo artist with guitar and voice, and with her trio, The MGP Band, featuring Kevin Kriner on bass and Yuri Selukoff on drums. Details can be found on her website: marthagrovesperry.com.