Ronnie Martin: There’s been a lot! It probably began with a relocation, from California to Ohio where I entered full-time pastoral ministry, and what came with that was a couple of rounds of seminary and some degrees, and really just establishing myself in church planting and ministering to pastors and just learning and growing, just doing a lot of things that before that the Lord had been leading me into, and then He fully pulled me into that world. With that came a lot of new relationships and experiences, and a parallel step into the publishing industry, writing some books and coming at things creatively from that side…that is a very brief overview: pastoral ministry, writing, now the lead pastor at Substance Church in Ashland, Ohio.
Ronnie: There’s been a lot! It probably began with a relocation, from California to Ohio where I entered full-time pastoral ministry, and what came with that was a couple of rounds of seminary and some degrees, and really just establishing myself in church planting and ministering to pastors and just learning and growing, just doing a lot of things that before that the Lord had been leading me into, and then He fully pulled me into that world. With that came a lot of new relationships and experiences, and a parallel step into the publishing industry, writing some books and coming at things creatively from that side…that is a very brief overview: pastoral ministry, writing, now the lead pastor at Substance Church in Ashland, Ohio.
Ronnie:That’s a great question, and I’m not sure the best way to phrase that…I’ve always been a songwriter, and so whether I’m in the studio or not producing music, I’ve always been writing songs. I think I got into many seasons of busy-ness where I was growing and learning some other things in ministry, so the ability to get into the studio and have the mindset of producing tracks to go along with my songwriting—it’s always a two-step process for me—it just wasn’t in the cards for a while. But there was always a sense where I was going to rebuild my studio, figure out what I wanted to do next, and really just dive back in. So I don’t think it was ever a step away from music, as much as just waiting for the right time to dive back in, and then figuring out, how do I maintain some of the elements of Joy Electric but then move on with some new things so that I can grow and advance in my own musicality. I was just waiting for a moment and I finally found a moment.
Ronnie: Well, I was on a ministry sabbatical in 2018, and I had three months where I got to really just reflect and think, get some good downtime, and experience some renewal and restoration, and a lot of ideas for what I might want to do really came flooding back to me. In the midst of that, I had a meeting—I was in California—I connected with Jeff Cloud [of Velvet Blue Music], we hadn’t really seen each other in the flesh for a few years. And I said, how would you feel about a solo album, and he loved the idea, he was really receptive. And I said, okay, but you’re going to have to give me a minute because I need to rebuild my studio, I need to figure out what I want to do, but I need to know that you want to do it. And he said, I’m a hundred percent behind it!
It took me a couple of years to get my studio rebuilt, which I finally did, and then COVID hit in 2020—but what it produced was a really inspired year of songwriting, and when I got to the end of 2020, I had a handful of songs, and a window opened for me at the end of 2020 where my studio was done, it was waiting for me, and I finally had some time to get in and start producing tracks again.
Ronnie: I think it was a chance to start over, to have a blank slate. The circles that I’m journeying in these days, it’s my name on books, my name on blogs, my name on articles that I write. The work that I do is just my name and Joy Electric isn’t really connected with any of that, other than if I come into contact with people that used to listen to the records. So I’m not really in the same state of mind or in the same season of life as I was when I did Joy Electric, but I’m in a Ronnie Martin season and stage of life. So it was a chance to just start over, embrace my name, and do something based on that. I know that there’s risks in that because I released so much music under Joy Electric, but I really needed to make a break from that and start over.
Ronnie: I didn’t want to do something so stuffy—there were so many rules and regulations with Joy Electric. I broke away from that a little bit on Dwarf Mountain Alphabet, but still everything has to be monophonic, everything has to be analog. I had just established a rulebook, which I enjoyed, and it was about making records that were very pure. But I thought, I’ve done that, I’ve made many records that were like that, and I wanted to expand on that, I wanted to advance a little bit.
I was really listening to a lot of polyphonic analog synth records from the early 80s—records like Talk Talk, maybe some Peter Gabriel. So a couple things influenced it: first was a big polyphonic analog synth sound; I’ve always loved that, I just never dove really into it with Joy Electric. And then I wanted to do a record that had really big expansive drum sounds, from that particular era of pop music 1984-85, where the drums were mixed really loud on a lot of these records, and I’ve always loved those records. Believe it or not—and this will be blasphemy to people who love the back catalog (laughs)—I love digital drum sounds, I always have! I started in the 80s, my first drum machines were digital drum machines, and I love those sounds, so I thought: go back to your original vision for making music, which wasn’t even Joy Electric but was before that, and step off from that point. That’s really all I did: what would it be like to make a record influenced by Talk Talk, Peter Gabriel, those types of records.
I actually got one of the original digital drum machines I used back in the 80s for the drum sounds, because I really wanted that sound, and I augmented it with sounds from the Moog One. The foundation of it is the big digital drum sounds, and I would add analog sounds on top of it to make it even bigger and create different textures. So it was a combination of the two but it was mainly the old digital Roland drum machine.
Ronnie: I wouldn’t say it was an impetus—I was really shocked when that came out. I’m a minimalist, I don’t like a lot of gear. I’m in my studio, you can see I don’t really have a lot of gear, I don’t have walls of synths. But I love Moog products, I’ve been using them for quite a while now, and when the Moog One came out, it was like, here is the ultimate. It can do everything I’ve ever needed a synth to do, plus 20 things that I don’t need a synth to do. But it allows me to expand. I still only like analog synth sounds, and it allows me to make any type of analog synth sound that I have the ability to come up with, and I can do it all on one synth. It’s a pretty sizeable commitment too, it’s not an inexpensive synth! But it’s something that’s going to last a lifetime, and fill all my needs. So it wasn’t the reason why I began writing again, but it definitely was what I needed to fulfill my vision for the sound I was aiming for.
Ronnie: I think what was different was that in Joy Electric, I never started with drums, I always added the drums later, and in traditional rock and pop music you usually lay down the drum parts first, and then you build from that rhythmic foundation. Oddly enough with Joy Electric, I never started there. So I think what was unique for me was that I started with the drums here, I really wanted that to be an emphasis. They’re still relatively minimal and simple, but I spent time really crafting a particular kind of beat, I had all these big tom sounds going. I spent time making sure everything locked in rhythmically the way I wanted it to. So even though they’re still relatively simple, that’s how I began everything, and that made it the emphasis, moreso than in the past when I was using more analog Kraftwerk-influenced drums.
Ronnie: All the production was done here, in my studio, but I think some of the magic comes from Bob Hoag, who mixed the album. I had a conversation with him, because I didn’t want to mix it with him; I wanted him to mix it without me. Which is a little unusual, but maybe not necessarily in today’s world where you send things all over the globe and people do things separately. I sent Bob Hoag all the tracks, I had worked with him before on the Foxglove Hunt record with Rob Withem, and my thing with him was: nobody gets drum sounds like Bob, he really accentuates the drums in his mixes, which is why I wanted to use him.
He said, what do you want? I said there are really three things: I want you to wash out the vocals, I want there to be a lot of reverb on this record; I want the drum sounds to be prominent; and, there are a lot of synth sounds, I want you to help me create an ambient wall of sound with the synths, so that there’s not a lot of small, distinct sounds, but a lot of very large, wide sounds. And I said, it’s okay if you can’t find a lot of distinction, because I want it to be this big wash of sound. And he said, ok! And that was the only instruction I gave him, and we never talked about it again. And then he sent me the mix for, I think the first song he mixed was “Sing Among the Branches,” and I said—you got it!
Ronnie: Rob and I have discussed that—I don’t think we ever thought that would be the one and only Foxglove record. We had a new way of working that we were really interested in exploring, but that really coincided with my move to Ohio, and he got really busy, and we got lost in life.
What we really wanted was to move into more of a classic singer-songwriter partnership, like a Morrissey-Marr, Jagger-Richards thing, which we did with songs on the Built My Fortress EP—I come up with all the music ahead of time, I write the songs and send them to him, and he composed melodies and words over it. I said that if we do another record, let’s do it like that. I was really looking forward to seeing how that was going to progress, but like I said, we just got a little lost in life. I don’t preclude it from happening.
Ronnie: Probably a different branch. I love minimalism. It’s hard to do, and I’m not great at it. My favorite records in the world are all minimalist—Kraftwerk, John Fox, Human League. Those are all records that could be done on 8-track, there’s not many sounds going on. I love the cleanness and purity of those records. I think that where I come into conflict is that I love the musicality of those records, but I don’t write those kinds of songs—I write big choruses. The tension was that I was always so in love with that kind of music but still writing big choruses, and when you try to blend those two things, they don’t go well together. That’s the conflict in certain Joy Electric albums, because I was creating a type of musical background that didn’t really flow with the songwriting.
There’s a particular kind of euphoria that I’m always looking for—a sad, but happy moment with the way I do my melodic structures, and it really lends itself to a bigger production. So I finally said to myself, do a bigger production Ronnie, it’s time! Because at the end of the day I just want to write “The Sun Always Shines on TV” from A-Ha. From day one, that’s what I’ve aimed for: that massive beautiful, but sad and melancholic kind of feel, and I finally gave into it. I love minimalism, but this is not the time for that anymore for me.
Ronnie: Yeah, it was enjoyable to do that. People that listen to the record will hear all the familiar touchpoints. I always use the same chord changes because I believe good songs are formulaic. I probably use that two-chord progression on most of my songs because it’s probably one of my favorite progressions. I really view songwriting more as being a recipe for something good in the same way that, if you bake chocolate chip cookies and have this great recipe, for it to be good it has to be those ingredients, it can’t just be any ingredients. I can’t just pour a pound of salt into my chocolate chip cookie ingredients and expect it to be good. It’s all subjective, but from my vantage point, there’s certain chord changes that you hear on all the great songs that I love. I’m okay with being accused of repeating myself, because that’s all I’ve done my whole career is repeat myself. So you’ll hear those same melodies, because I’m pretty narrow in what I believe can be beautiful. That outro is such a familiar thing for listeners, but the production lends itself to feeling fresh.
Ronnie: The wisdom literature—Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, those books—have meant a lot to me over the last decade. I’ve spent a lot of time reading those books and meditating on them. One thing that strikes you when you read those is how beautiful some of the poetry is. What I wanted to do is take some of the excerpts from that, which became some of the song titles, and create an abstract out of that. So you take a song like “From the Womb of the Morning, the Dew of Your Youth Will Be Yours” (Psalm 110:3), when I read that, it really struck me as something beautiful and poetic, and I can create something loosely based on the Scripture that it’s contained in, but just take it as a poetic moment and create my own sense, fill in my own colors and make it more like an abstract painting. It’s very loosely based; nobody can read these lyrics and think “This is how he interprets that passage of Scripture,” that would be way off base! It’s basically taking that influence and showing some of the shocking beauty of some of those titles. I love song titles, and I’ve been wanting to do that for a long time.
Ronnie: Oh man, that’s tough. I really do love the title track quite a bit, because that came together the quickest. I didn’t labor over it, it just happened—which is very rare for me, so I have fond memories of whenever that happens in the studio. There’s a lot of power behind that one. I really like “The Daughters of Song Are Brought Low,” that’s probably the closest connection to anything from Joy Electric. A lot of analog drums, and then it has this really massive progressive rock breakdown. That took a long time, I was really happy with how that turned out and I really like the chorus on that one. And I think production-wise, it’s not my favorite song on the record, but maybe musically the song that best encapsulates the record is probably “Snow Like Wool,” this big, super clean, massive 80s-influenced pop kind of thing. All the influences are really contained in that—oh, he must be a fan of New Order, Pet Shop Boys, all those bands from that era. That one really captures it for me.
Ronnie: People have been asking me that…I don’t really miss it, I don’t miss the live shows. I miss the community aspect of it. I love hanging out with people, and I love interacting. I miss that a lot, because that was my favorite part about playing live, just getting a chance to hang out with fans. I miss that terribly. I love performing, I love being on stage, but I’m much better with speaking now than I am with singing, my singing voice is not doing very well these days! So there’s parts that I miss terribly, but I don’t have any desire to be the old guy trying to go back and relive the glory days. There’s something about that that hits me a little strange.
We’ve recently gotten some offers, but it’s just not a good time so we’ve had to turn those down. I’m not against it. What I would be interested in doing is maybe playing with some other artists I really love that I would enjoy spending some time with. I would be all about being on a bill with Luxury, Starflyer 59, Fine China…now we’re just describing a fun night, I don’t even need to play a song, I just want to hang out! But I think that I would run into the same issues that I ran into 25 years ago, which is that we are not a rock band, we are not heavy, and that still seems to rule the day even for the nostalgia fests. We don’t fit into that.
Ronnie: Actually, two books this year. I do a podcast called The Happy Rant and there’s a book coming out in August based on that, and then I have an Advent book coming out in October.
Ronnie: For me, definitely an album is way more difficult to finish. A lot of people would have their own experiences, but writing has always come fairly easy for me. Not saying it’s because I’m great at it, but it’s just not anything I’ve ever had to labor over. Maybe because I was a songwriter for so long before I started writing books, but it’s generally a little more of an intuitive thing for me so I don’t tend to labor over it nearly as much, whereas with songwriting and production…it’s almost like unlocking a secret box. It’s like putting puzzle pieces together, just a way different process. But it also contains a similarity in terms of the satisfaction you get from creating something. For better or worse, here it is, it captures a moment in time, and I’m ready for everyone to read it or hear it. I just love putting stuff out, but I definitely get more of a thrill out of songwriting than any other type of writing.
Ronnie: What I’ll tell you is that this is the first of four records that are planned out, because that’s how I work through things—I don’t just do one, I have to have a vision. The next record has been written for quite some time, I’m probably 35-40% through the production of it. I’m going to put a pause on that right now because I’m finishing production on a Christmas album that’s going to come out this year. So that will be a Ronnie Martin Christmas album, and then the second solo album will drop some time in 2023.
The whole idea of the series coming from wisdom literature, that theme is going to continue, I’m still going to be thematically going down that road. I’m really excited about the next record. Anytime you do a second record, there’s a lot of possibilities, and I really love the songs, I think I have a better batch of songs the second time around. The songs on From the Womb were written in 2020, and there was all the mayhem of COVID, and I was writing something from a hopeful perspective: I hope things will get better, I want to believe there will be some relief and some end to this. This one is written in the middle to the end—I know we’re not to the end of it—but it’s going to deal with a lot of the grief and the pain and the disconnectedness that came out of that. I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s a darker record, it’s not, but those are some of the themes it will be dealing with. I currently have nine songs written that I really like, so it’ll be a little longer.
Ronnie: Thank you so much, that’s really kind and encouraging. It’s just so fun to be back, being able to do this, to have people appreciate it. The response has been way beyond anything that we were anticipating, so it’s been really encouraging. I really appreciate it!
Ronnie Martin's debut studio album, From the Womb of the Morning, the Dew of Your Youth Will Be Yours is available now
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