Audra Mariel, of the looping project Martin Howth, remembers the first time (and, in her mind at the time, possibly the last time) she played Strauss Mansion in the Atlantic Highlands.
“I was so nervous performing the song, and I totally bombed,” says Mariel. “It was terrible, it was so bad, and I couldn’t look anyone in the face after that I was so embarrassed. My friend John came up to me after the performance and he told me, ‘Don’t give up on this,’ and I didn’t. I was so discouraged and embarrassed, but I didn’t give up on this.”
An EP, and a lot of performances later, Mariel returned to the Strauss Mansion this past year to record part of her upcoming album Distant Dissonance. But the road from failure at Strauss Mansion to conquest was a long one that took Mariel out of the state. After that night in the Atlantic Highlands, Mariel bought a loop machine and left the Garden State to play open mic shows in Pennsylvania and the South.
“I was so embarrassed with what had happened that night that I decided not to play in the state of New Jersey until I felt ready for my friends and music colleagues in New Jersey to hear it,” explains Mariel. “I went on this open mic tour in the South, and then when I came back to New Jersey, I only performed in places an hour from my house.”
Mariel had moments of bombing similar to what she faced in Monmouth County while on her journey, but her love of performing kept her going. The fact that she didn’t have to worry about ever playing cities like Atlanta or New Orleans again helped as well.
“When you are connected to what you are doing, it gives you a high,” says Mariel. “It feels good, and when I’m performing or rehearsing by myself, it gives me that feeling to carry on. There were moments on that tour where I bombed so hard. I bombed so hard in Atlanta, and I walked out and I was like, ‘Look, I never have to face these people again, and I never have to play again in Atlanta.’ I got in my car and drove to New Orleans and the next performance was OK.’’
Mariel describes herself as “easily discouraged,” but for some reason, she continued to find courage to play music, despite all the roadblocks. A major turning point for her was her first performance back in New Jersey, at the National Hotel in Frenchtown.
“I remember being nervous, hoping I wouldn’t see anyone I knew, and I probably wouldn’t because Frenchtown is an hour and a half away,” Mariel says. “I eventually struck up a conversation with my now-friend Cat Dolan, and we became fast friends. The show was one of the few times at that time in my life where I played that I wasn’t so nervous that my vocal chords would tense up and make it hard to sing. I felt so relaxed during that show.”
After that show, Mariel started to work on her jazz looping project Martin Howth, and released her first EP, The Wayward Warbler. Mariel was introduced to jazz music by mix CDs (the good old days) that her friend would make for her in high school. Mariel grew attached to Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, but the theater kid in Mariel loves jazz for its unpredictability.
“The theatrical person in me and the person that loves everything happening for the first time every time enjoys that aspect of jazz that allows room for improvisation,” explains Mariel. “It is about listening and it is about give and take. There’s something about jazz that is different from other musical performances because you have to be engaged listening to what your partner or bandmates are giving, and you take from that. It’s cool and unique.”
It’s the communication musically with other musicians that pushed Mariel to start Martin Howth. Mariel got started in music later in life and Martin Howth was her way of getting better at communicating in music terms, and the way she spoke was in loops.
“I don’t have a music education background,” explains Mariel. “One of the reasons why I started doing this is because I knew I wanted to write, but I had trouble communicating with other musicians because I lack the language to communicate with them. But I can hear something in my head and hear the line and create it. That’s essentially what I do.”
Even though Mariel felt like she had trouble communicating musically, there is no trouble understanding what the songs on her first EP, The Wayward Warbler, are about. Mariel explores the themes of falling out of love throughout the EP in both the music and the lyrics; take the song “Here We Go” for example.
“Lyrically that song is about being in a relationship that you know is on its way out,” says Mariel. “The first line is, ‘Here we go when one of us grows tired,’ and it’s about knowing what is coming and preparing for that. It’s about falling in love with the idea of a person, but not a person. You put somebody on a pedestal and no one is capable of that. The song ends with ‘prove me wrong, but I know you probably won’t.'”
Mariel describes the song as a “happy accident” in terms of how the song was constructed musically.
“There’s a layer in the song that I laid down and when I was in the process of writing the song I didn’t stop recording and I brought the fader down on the loop, and when I brought it in again at the end, I recorded everything that I laid down up until that point and I loved it so much. It was this happy accident that I made it a part of this song.”
Continuing with the theme of the EP is the song “Hearts,” which is about finding love at the end of a relationship. Mariel was engaged at one point and made paper flowers for the wedding. The wedding didn’t happen, so she and a friend took them to Central Park to give away.
“There is a line in ‘Hearts’ that says, ‘If we cast our pearls before swine,’ and my mother would always say that I would give away the best parts of myself for anyone, and she told me I should stop doing that because that is how you get hurt. So I started with that line, and overall the song is about getting caught in a romantic entanglement and by spreading love around, you can feel love growing within yourself. The act of giving these flowers away was born from a love experience that was a negative one, but by spreading these flowers around, you build these experiences for yourself,” Mariel says.
For Distant Dissonance, which will be released in the summer of 2022, Mariel focuses on “life, death and everything in between,” with a specific focus on the “what if’s” in life, but in a positive way.
“It’s not like ‘what if’ in an anxiety-producing way,” says Mariel. “The theme isn’t so much love and loss like The Wayward Warbler was. This album is more encouraging, positive and fun.”
Mariel recorded the album in two separate areas of the Shore region; half of the album was recorded in the Strauss Mansion, where Mariel used to book and perform shows at, and the other half was recorded in Lakewood at Georgian Court University. On top of that, one of the stipulations that Mariel had for the album was that each song had to be recorded in a different room, and that meant recording in some atypical spaces.
“It was a dream,” says Mariel about recording at Georgian Court University. “Those spaces are so amazing and we got to record in the swimming area, and on the tennis court. The tennis court was the most reverberant space.”
While the aesthetics of the 114-year-old Catholic university were dreamy, the recording process easily could have turned into a nightmare for Mariel. She recorded the songs live at both venues.
“What’s different about this album than the EP is that rather than tracking the way we did for the EP, I recorded live passes in each of the spaces,” says Mariel. “I had a direct line from the loop station to my laptop, and my partner Alex would stand somewhere in the room with a TASCAM so we could record the room sound and the lead vocals. So we had a direct line from the loop station, and the lead lines that Alex got. Each space sounds different, and it was cool to put those two together, and it sounds really real.”
One of the downsides that Mariel faced in recording the album live was that mistakes were hard to fix, but then she remembered advice that her mother gave her.
“My mother used to say to me when I would get nervous about playing in a show when I wasn’t trained or my voice would crack, ‘They’ll forgive you if your voice cracks if you feel what you are singing and as long as you feel it, they’ll forgive you.’”
Mariel will be showcasing songs new and old in a litany of shows coming up. She opens up for Bitch at the Saint on April 7, Ghost Harbor Creative on April 9, and on April 22, Mariel will be opening up for the Extensions at the Saint in Asbury Park. She looks forward to playing all of these gigs, but is most excited about the one with the Extensions.
“It’s hard as a musician to support other musicians because everyone is playing at the same time,” explains Mariel. “But what I love about the April 22 bill is that I love all of these bands that are on [it].”
Martin Howth will be opening up for Bitch on April 7 at the Saint, and will be back two weeks later on April 22, opening up for the Extensions. Ticket info can be found here.