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Calming Fields in Greyscale:The Atmospheres and Music of Babe Martin

by Liam Hansen (they/them)

associate editor


Courtney Rodgers (they/them)

photography


It’s impossible for me to shut up about music. Half of the pieces that I’ve written for Debate boil down to transcribing my madman ramblings about the E major scale, and half of the words I speak are recited paragraphs from egotistical Pitchfork articles. This is why I’m kinda hesitant to praise a song or an artist based on their ‘vibe’. It's not just me being pretentious, shockingly enough. I just think the term undermines the impact and effort artists place into their work. It’s so vague and light - like the work is destined to linger in the background, serving as a pleasant new filter added to your everyday life.


The music of Babe Martin is so much more than that. It’s incredibly soft and relaxing, but in the undercurrents of Tāmaki Makaurau-based singer-songwriter Zoë Larsen Cumming’s compositions and lyrics sits a slight unease and coldness. She brings listeners into her bittersweet, nostalgic memories, from the memory of the small town she lived in during her late teens OE, to the awkward last goodbye in an airport. It’s not just a vibe: it’s an atmosphere, painting the world of the listener in greyscale watercolours and bringing them the scent of forests in Switzerland. Fresh off of the ethereal release of her second single ‘Versoix’, I spoke to her about her process, collaborators and memories in the offices of 95bFM - her former workplace, ironically a perfect example of the bittersweet locations that bring back the old memories she missed.


Liam

How long have you been making music for? Did you have any musical projects before this one?


Babe Martin

Yeah, I did - I've been writing music for as long as I could, banging around on the piano when I was six years old, which continued on into me making solo music. But nothing that was so serious and collaborative. While Babe Martin is a solo project, I've been playing shows and recording music with lots of different people. The music stuff that I'd done before, that was just me. I had my first gig as Babe Martin in November last year, but there was quite a big build up to that. I'd been writing the songs for maybe a year before then. The name came at about the same time as the gig.


Liam

Ah, the classic "Yay, I've got a gig! Wait, oh god, I need a name!"


Babe Martin

Totally, I was umm-ing and aaah-ing about a name for so long. I was even gonna use my cat's name for a bit.


Liam

What's your cat's name?


Babe Martin

Fleur Boudicea. Maybe that's just an album title down the line.


Liam

As we're recording this, we're fresh off the release of your upcoming EP's title track, 'Versoix'. What went into this song?


Babe Martin

So I lived in Versoix, which is a town just outside of Geneva in Switzerland, in my late teens, and it was a hugely transformative time of my life. Before then I'd grown up in Australia, so it was a massive shift. I wanted to commemorate and have a memento of it all, so now when I hear it I'm thinking about that particular time in my life.


Liam

For me it straddles the line between being really calming and relaxing, but also there's an edge to it that's a bit sad?


Babe Martin

I've actually had quite a few people message me saying that it made them cry! My friend from Versoix messaged me with a voice note in tears. I mean, that's quite a wonderful thing to receive, but also a bit full on. It surprised me, because in my mind it's not a sad song at all.


Liam

Did you go into this song with the plan to write about Versoix, and that whole period of your life?


Babe Martin

The music came first. I had the whole song structure laid out, before I thought of the "when I was 18, what I most loved" lyrics. And then I was like, "What the hell did I love most when I was 18?” It really was the forest of Versoix down the road from where I lived. I'd go there all the time - by myself, with my friends, with my mum, and it was just so beautiful and distinct in every season. The rest of the song just really wrote itself, because I was just thinking of that time. I like to start my shows with it because it gets me into a really nice headspace.




Liam

Is that the usual method that you'd use for songwriting? Music first, then lyrics?


Babe Martin

I don't really have a process to be honest - whatever happens happens. Sometimes I'll just write random lyrics, and come back the next day to refine it. Sometimes it's just one song in one go. Other times, I'm a little more intentional about it. I love to read, so I'll flick through poetry books and find words I like.


Liam

You get slightly more abstract in your debut single, 'Knocked for Six in BHX', which feels a bit more relatable.


Babe Martin

It's so funny that you say that, because I was worried that it was too obvious when I was writing it. And when I released it, people asked me what it was about and I was like, oh.


Liam

It's actually something I've been wondering - is the link to Birmingham (which has the airport code BHX) based on real life or just poetic licence?


I've actually had quite a few people message me saying that it made them cry! My friend from Versoix messaged me with a voice note in tears.

Babe Martin

No, it's absolutely based on real life. My family lives in the UK, so when I was visiting them, and then leaving them it was via BHX. I just felt that feeling of both not wanting to go and knowing you have really good things waiting for you on the other side. That pull has been quite a theme in my life.


Liam

I think that's why it's more relatable to me. All the little aspects you mention that other people relate to hit so much harder. I think that you did a really good job with that on ‘Knocked For Six’. How did you write that tune?


Babe Martin

Gosh, I think 'Knocked for Six' just sort of happened. That's a really common thing for musicians to say, but I'll just be sitting in my feels, and I'll start to think of ways to express it. The line “Where's my sister, Where's my brother?” was literally just me missing them.


Liam

I mean, the compositions themselves are quite sparse, which is great for creating an atmosphere that's sad yet comforting. Is that a conscious choice from your end?


Babe Martin

Yeah, it is. I like to keep things simple - it's the same for the lyrics. There are other songs that I've written that have more full on arrangements, but I don't like making it difficult for people to think about. Not that I really think about other people when I'm writing, but I know that it would be nice for people to just calmly sit and listen.


Liam

Is that atmosphere what you're trying to create with the whole EP?


Babe Martin

The songs that are on it do have a similar theme of space; not universe space, but space between people and times. They all toy around with it in different ways.


Liam

I almost visualise each of the songs in my head as stepping into a massive open field in greyscale, with the wind passing through your hair.


Babe Martin

You're describing an upcoming music video! I don't know if it's a secret or not. But I've just shot some stuff with my friends.


Liam

You've been working with some incredibly fantastic and influential Tāmaki Makaurau based musicians to put this EP together, like Jazmine Mary. What have those collaborations been like?


Babe Martin

Working with Jazmine was really nice and very easy - we gel really well together. It's hard taking such personal music and sharing it with other people, so the vulnerability they hold in their own songs made me feel way more comfortable. We invited some really cool people to play on the tracks as well. On Versoix, we've got Jazmine on guitar, Courtney Rogers on drums, and Antonia Barnett MacIntosh on cello, while I'm on keys and singing.


Liam

How about the people you've been performing with live?


Babe Martin

My first couple of shows I just played solo, but then through a friend I met Kat Tomacruz, who is a fantastic cellist. For my release party of 'Knocked For Six in BHX'. My friend Harry Thompson-Cook played guitar, which added another level too. I might just slowly build up the musicians who play live with me.


Liam

Hopefully over time, there'll just be a full orchestra behind you.


Babe Martin

That's the dream.


Liam

You've signed with Sun Return Records, which is an incredible label based in Tāmaki Makaurau. How's that been?


Babe Martin

It's been great. I've been a fan of Sun Return for ages, so when their owner, Zac, asked if I wanted to release it through Sun Return, there was no question about it. I just love the music community here, cause so many of these people are just my mates.


The songs that are on it do have a similar theme of space; not universe space, but space between people and times. They all toy around with it in different ways.

Liam

Has your previous role as the breakfast producer at 95bFM informed your music at all, coming into contact with so many people?


Babe Martin

It hasn't really changed my songwriting itself, but I've become a part of the music community through bFM for sure. That is a gift to anyone who's involved in the student radio network - it's such a special place. But in terms of if I've approached music any differently, no. Do I have more friends to reach out to and ask if they want to do something? Yes. But I think my music would still be the same.


Liam

How did your approach to the music itself change between the live performances and their compositions on the recorded tracks?


Babe Martin

The tracks were all recorded before I played any live shows. They're not that different in the live shows but they're their own thing. I guess my approach to performing live is informed by my history as a piano player and singing in choir. I just want it to sound beautiful and be something that people can just sit and chill and listen to.


Liam

Yeah, for example there's more of a melody in the live version of 'Knocked For Six'. Was that there initially?


Babe Martin

Yes! But when we recorded it, I just wanted there to be the searing cellos. It's a similar approach to theatre, where you see a different performance every night. Of course, it's going to be like that for music, because you're a different person, every performance.


Liam

What do you think is coming up next after the EP release?


Babe Martin

Oh, wow.. What's next is recording an album, but that is way down the line. I've got a lot of writing to do, so for now I'm just seeing where it goes. I don't have a five year plan or anything for music. I'm very organised in every other aspect in my life, but for Babe Martin I just want to put my emotional drive first.


The Versoix EP will be released via Sun Return Records on the 7th of September, 2023 - If you'd like to learn more, you can go to

@babemartinmusic.




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