Cat Martino took five years to follow up her first full-length. This half-decade hiatus after 2004's Here Now had nothing to do with artistic burnout or a move from her Brooklyn home to a new town. She didn't get a fancy new job, and she didn't give up on music. Martino was brought down by her back.
Her perplexing condition, which her doctors compared to fibromyalgia, cropped up about seven years ago. For a full year, severe back pain kept Martino confined to her bed. For a long time after that, her mobility was extremely hampered. But after a combination of medication and other therapy, she's back on her feet.
"For me, the body is a really important part of my music," Martino says. She studied dance, as well as music and English, at Rutgers University in New Jersey. She moved to New York after school and spent as much time dancing as she did playing shows or writing songs.
"I'm definitely in great shape and great health now, so I'm gravitating toward music that's more about the body," she says. "A lot of times, when I'm writing, I'm moving around in some way."
Martino's 2009 sophomore effort, The Sea Closet, loosely chronicles her struggle, its elegiac piano anthems graced by rich guitar gauze and intricate overdubs of her entrancing voice. Her penchant for loop effects was inspired by her homebound isolation: She couldn't play out or meet new people to collaborate with, so she simply multiplied herself. Her vocal overdubs became her new choir, and her music became defined by layers, simple melodies built into powerful walls of sound.
"I really wanted to sing, but I couldn't do much," she recalls. "I had been playing with looping pedals and stuff like that, but I started to really bring them into my sound because I was just sort of alone at home in bed. I had discovered that with the looping pedal, I could create this chorus of sound, and I didn't have to do much to do it. I started to play with that, and that was really fun and sort of helped keep me company until I got well."
Somewhat ironically, 2012's Yr Not Alone—her first LP since she returned to good health—is dominated by the techniques she refined during her illness. Ambient electronics collect into softly swelling pools. Effects-enriched chants enhance the rhythms of minimal drum machines. It's a diverse and ethereal collection, grounded by Martino's voice—a spectacular instrument, capable of piercing and powerful belts that retain a disarming delicacy—as well as her vivid and emotional lyrics.
On Yr Not Alone, Martino's singing allows her to bolster textural soundscapes and emerge as the triumphant focal point. The chorus of "Hole in the Sea," set atop subtle, bass-heavy distortion, longs for suicidal solace at the bottom of the ocean: "Swallow me now/ Set my soul free." Bright but bitter, Martino is equal parts siren and sacrifice, calling listeners to follow her tantalizing example.
But she didn't emerge from solitude to record and play all by her lonesome. Soon after her recovery, she reconnected with musicians in New York, quickly finding new outlets for her talent. She spent a few years backing friend and fellow songstress Sharon Van Etten, at the same time recording and touring with far-ranging indie folk enigma Sufjan Stevens. Both situations cropped up organically: She and Van Etten became close after playing a show together, and she reconnected with Stevens at a party. When the two discovered they had both turned their apartments into labs for loop-pedal experimentation, she invited him over to jam. The vibe was relaxed. She made soup.
These connections brought with them newfound attention—not to mention new expectations. But Martino isn't bothered by newcomers hoping she'll sound like one of her famous friends. She's confident in her own abilities.
"Sometimes people will be like, 'Oh, you do vocal effects like Sufjan.' And I'm like, 'OK, that's cool, but I showed him how to do that,'" she says, laughing. "I don't put those people above or below me, and I don't think that they put me above or below them.
"We all are teaching each other something and learning from each other. Because of all the traveling I've done, I've met amazing people all over the world. Like, I'm excited to come to Durham because I met the Cook brothers in Megafaun through playing with Sharon. I'll be staying with them and hanging out with them. Everywhere I've gone, I've met amazing people."
True to that outlook, Martino's own music is becoming more collaborative. For more than a year, she's been touring and working with her friend Sven Britt. When she retreated to the woods of northern California for four months, he joined her for a few weeks. They recorded a yet-to-be-released EP that Martino calls "passionate and primal." Drawing on a recent breakup, it's more aggressive than her previous offerings. The songs were hers, but she and Britt shared playing and production. They may even issue it under a new band name.
"I really work well with other people," Martino says. "For a long time, I was playing alone with all the looping pedals, which is really fun to a point. Now, it's fun to have somebody else to communicate with onstage. It's just more fun when you have a friend in your band."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Back in the groove."