For more than 10 years, Martin Kerr has been a fixture of the Edmonton music scene - in coffee houses and clubs, as a regular busker at the city’s farmer’s market, and on the private house concert circuit, performing more than a 150 shows a year. He has carved out a niche as one of the most talented, approachable, connective and inventive musicians in the Alberta capital.
With the release of his new album Better Than Brand-New, the U.K.-born singer-songwriter is looking to take his stellar reputation as an entertainer of profoundly egalitarian appeal, and insightful, thought-provoking songcraft to the next level.
“I have always wanted to take my music to the people where they are. I watched other musicians playing the same venues for the same people late at night and not making a living, so I thought I would try something different. I decided to play pretty much anywhere people gather, no matter their ages or backgrounds and performing for them when they weren’t expecting it. I think if you surprise people with something of quality, passion and sincerity, people will remember it and support it. My strategy has been to exceed people’s expectations and surprise them with something beautiful,” said Kerr.
His hard work has paid off in a big way. In May 2017, Kerr sold out the most prestigious concert hall in Edmonton, the 1,700-seat Winspear Centre. The show, which included Kerr with a 9-piece band and a 100-person pop up choir situated in the audience, was unprecedented for a local, completely independent musician. He also landed himself the opening slot for legendary Canadian songstress Sarah McLachlan at Edmonton’s NHL arena, the 20,000 seat Rogers Place on Canada Day 2017.
“I have been lucky to have had so much support from the Edmonton community. In 2010, the Edmonton Journal ran a series called 52 Reasons to Love Edmonton and the second thing they chose was ‘Listening to Martin Kerr at the Farmers’ Market’ and did a double page spread on me and my music”. Kerr explained. “The thing is I never saw it as just busking. I thought of it as an opportunity to make new fans that would lead me somewhere else.”
Although he has released a number of albums in the past (consisting of original material, cover song projects as well as a few children’s albums, and selling in excess of 20,000 copies in all) Better Than Brand-New sees Kerr stepping up his game on all levels.
The album was recorded and produced by Juno-nominated producer Stew Kirkwood at his own Sound Extractor Studio and Kerr said working with someone with Kirkwood’s experience and pedigree helped get the most of out of his songs. The collaboration also helped bring about a lush fullness to some of the tracks that Kerr was seeking.
“Stew really helped me be a bit more ambitious in terms of sound. In the past I played things safe in terms of a modern folk sound with all acoustic instrumentation. He urged me to add a few layers and go bigger on some of the songs. We share an admiration for artists like Peter Gabriel and Radiohead and decided to emulate some of those more epic soundscapes that we loved from those albums,” Kerr said.
“At the same time there is quite a contrast on the album. There are also a few songs that are incredibly intimate with just my guitar and voice, while others have that full band feel with synths and big drums, electric guitars and full-on production.”
Kerr is an artist who believes that music has the capacity to change hearts and minds. Imbued with a deeply-held social conscience, Kerr wants his audiences to not only be entertained, but to be moved.
“I try to make my songs matter as well as be honest with what I am saying. I really like intimate, confessional music but also stuff with that social conscience. That’s why I fell in love with artists like Tracy Chapman and Cat Stevens; they write very personal songs about their own lives but with an aspect of social commentary; which I appreciate and try to emulate, as well as aspirations for a fairer society,” he said.
His song Not in Stores is indicative of his approach. It has a pop-oriented feel, one which would appeal to those with a broad musical palate, but scratch beneath the surface and you get a forceful dissenting voice against the modern culture of disposability and instant gratification.
“Obviously it’s a bit of a rant against consumerism, but musically it’s quite upbeat and easy to sing along to. I find that even really young kids enjoy singing along to the chorus. I grew up in Western society, but I have also been exposed to spiritual traditions and cultures from around the world and have traveled to places where people don’t have a lot of material goods. What I saw was that often these people were actually leading more fulfilling lives and have richer communities. I wanted to say something more explicitly about how the things that are being constantly sold to us are actually making us unhappy. What we really want is a connection with each other and a nobler ideal in our lives,” said Kerr, who said the song Little Screens takes the concept of disconnection ever further.
“Little Screens was born out of my own frustration because I find I have been wasting so much time and getting so distracted in my life by this amazing little device in my pocket that can seemingly do anything. But what it’s actually doing is taking me away from my life.
Without that focus and without a real connection to my community, I could become easily isolated. And I know lots of people also have this love/hate relationship with their technology where they’re pretty addicted to it.”
Following in the traditions of the great folk music storytellers of past generations, Kerr’s incredibly poignant and well-crafted acoustic song Mr. Liao, tells the tale of a down-on-his luck migrant farmer trying to eke out a living for his family.
“I met the family when I was teaching in China. They lived on the other side of a wall from me. I was living in a foreigners’ compound and there was this 10-foot high wall with sharpened glass on top that kept poor people from getting in, which made me very uncomfortable because I had gone there to be with ordinary people,” he said.
“On my time off I would go outside the gate and meet the migrant farmers and got to know this gentleman, his wife and son. The song tells the story of how this family got to be where they are. It’s a really tragic story and almost everybody I have played it for has cried.”
Each show and each song from Martin Kerr takes listeners on an authentic and powerfully emotional journey. Much like life, there is joy, there is sadness, there is injustice, there is love and loss all presented through songs that are imbued with melodies that stay with the listener.
Martin Kerr’s connection to people of all ages, all background and all tastes, cultivated through his many years as a fearless, friendly and talented street performer has allowed him to develop his craft as a songwriter - and especially as a live performer - in ways that are truly unique and organic. With the release of Better Than Brand-New, he is set to do the same with audiences on a national level, and with a little luck, on an international scale.