Selina Martin is doing two performances on Wednesday, one in the morning behind closed doors for a select group of medical people, and the other at night in a Toronto club before fans of her sneaky-beautiful songs.
The medical thing is a kind of one-person play, in which she takes the role of someone with a health condition so that the professionals can practise dealing with it. It may not be so far removed from what she does as a songwriter, when you consider that a song is often a record of some wound or surgery on the spirit, whether real or imagined.
But Martin's medical plays (all scripted for her by the University of Toronto's Standardized Patient Program) are something she occasionally does for a living, while her songs are what she does to live.
She's definitely a lifetime resident in the tower of song, to borrow Leonard Cohen's phrase: She's been making and singing songs since she could clear her throat and hold a guitar. Disaster Fantasies, her latest solo record, is fun to hear, and has at least one number that really should be on the radio ( Always on My Mind, a catchy tune with a real emotional tug), but the songs also feel like the heavy fruit of experience. Plenty of real-life drama, personal and imagined, has gone into this music.
"A lot of it came together during the elongated breakup of a 10-year relationship," she said. "I didn't write a record about that, in any way, but some stuff came out that was about it. Like Breathe In, which I wrote and only afterwards realized was about that whole scene."
The lyrics of this song, the most beautiful on the whole album (and maybe one of the best Canadian songs of the year), spiral through a wilderness of images that feel intimate and alienated at once, before reaching a chorus that's like an embrace of the air itself. "If you need a spine, I don't use mine, it's made of homemade wine, it's see-through and it bends with time and pressure," Martin sings in the verse, her strong clear voice hardening a little on that word "pressure." Maybe it's the same pressure that restricts that chorus to just two neighbouring notes, sung in a soaring voice while the chords underneath create the melody.
Another song, Rape During Wartime, wasn't about a personal experience but a military-political phenomenon that has felt personal to her for a long time. And for a long time, she couldn't write about it.
"It was just way too heavy," she said. "Nobody wants to hear a song about that" - though of course, she did. She found the way to a solution through Life During Wartime, the Talking Heads' dance song about brutality. She emulated that song's two-chord harmonic design and borrowed one line from the lyrics ("this ain't no party"), as she addressed the rape experience from the viewpoint of the man with the gun.
Another song, No Form, takes off from a sonnet by Leonard Cohen, in which he contemplates the blank page waiting for him to fill it up with meaning. "His thing was about talking to his non-existent sonnet, and mine is more turned in on myself," she said.
The disc has one cover tune: Rush's The Spirit of Radio, which Martin will perform this weekend during a Juno anniversary show at Toronto's Horseshoe Tavern devoted to Juno-winning music from the 1970s.
"I was never a huge Rush fan, but when I was a preteen growing up in Kanata [a suburb of Ottawa] I remember having some kind of epiphany while they were playing that song at the roller disco, with the lights flashing and the music really loud. And later, I'd be in these campfire sing-along situations, and someone would say, "Selina, why don't you sing something?" I just hated that, and it was always uncomfortable, so the way to kill the campfire sing-along was to do The Spirit of Radio, because nobody could play along!"
For her show tonight, Martin has "the best-ever version" of her five-piece band, which will take the stage after a set by the BidiniBand, run by her frequent colleague and ex-Rheostatic Dave Bidini, whose musical play Five Hole: Tales of Hockey Erotica toured the country a couple of times with Martin at the microphone. She can't say much about another stage project in the works with Vancouver actor Lisa Ryder-Cohen, though there's no doubt it will be far removed from the strict formalism of her performances as a Standardized Patient, from which she has gained one valuable experience.
"It teaches you stamina," she said. "You have to be focused and present for a really long time." Sort of like when you're creating a new song, pulling it together from the tumbling chaos of life and imagination.
Selina Martin plays the Piston (937 Bloor St. W.) in Toronto on Wednesday night.