Emphasizing her unique genre-blending approach and the inspiration behind her upcoming album STATES, Vocal Jazz alumnae Gabriela Martina ’21 MM shares insights into her creative process, NEC’s influence, and perspectives on the power of music to transcend boundaries and spark meaningful conversations.
When Vocal Jazz alumna Gabriela Martina ‘21 MM came to New England Conservatory in 2019, she knew exactly what she was looking for from her master’s experience. Martina, a vocalist, composer, and bandleader, grew up in Switzerland, yodeling and immersing herself in other musical traditions. After a rich lifetime of music, which included an undergraduate education at Berklee College of Music and the release of her acclaimed 2016 album No White Shoes, Martina was ready for her next step as a performer.
“I have a different background from an academic standpoint because of my life experience,” said Martina. After graduating from Berklee and receiving acceptance from Pennsylvania America International School to pursue a Master’s degree in social studies, she considered stepping away from music entirely. She then worked for several years as a freelance musician and founded the booking agency Red Velvet Sounds in 2014. “There was a long time when I was just working as a musician and building my own business. I was in a different time in my life when I went to NEC, which was a dream for a long time.”
NEC offered Martina access to amazing mentors and musical connections that would help grow her career. More than that, she selected NEC because of its “melting pot” qualities, drawing in talented musicians from around the world from a rich variety of backgrounds, styles, and cultures.
This access allowed Martina the chance to identify the mentors she wanted to study with and, in her own words, “dig deeper.” In the Jazz Studies Department, next to her studies with incredible mentors such as Jason Moran, Cecil McBee, Miguel Zenon, Dominique Eade, Ken Schaphorst, and Jerry Bergonzi, she found pianist and composer Frank Carlberg, who instructs students in jazz performance and composition and leads the NEC Jazz Composers' Workshop Ensemble. The two had such a great working relationship—despite the COVID-19 pandemic and the swift move to online learning—that they still collaborate on projects, such as a Performance Plus Grant Martina won from Chamber Music America.
Though the project, which is currently broadly centered on womanhood, sexuality, and empowerment, is still in a nascent stage, Martina expresses gratitude for Carlberg’s input. When asked about the collaboration, she says, “[Frank] is super easy to work with, open-minded, and sensitive to my own writing process. If I needed guidance with a piece, I wrote him an email with the track and my questions and shortly after we’d have a Zoom meeting. He is my artistic mentor for this grant project and he'll be there this December when we'll rehearse my new compositions and record my new album for two days, which is going to be a tremendous help. With Frank, I feel one hundred percent supported.”
Despite the welcomed guidance and support of mentors like Carlberg, Martina is also highly self-sufficient, having recorded all her previous albums independently. Her work typically integrates several genres simultaneously, as evidenced by her latest album release, Homage to Grämlis, which tells the story of her upbringing on a dairy farm in Switzerland through a mix of R&B, soul, jazz, and Swiss yodeling. For Martina, music is less about labels and more about creating something that “moves'' her, which means she’s often pulling in multiple genres, hoping to convey that feeling to others.
“I’ve never considered myself a typical jazz vocalist, whatever that means,” she says. “I started yodeling, and then I joined classical choirs, participated in a musical, became the lead singer of a pop/rock band, many funk/soul bands in Switzerland, an a cappella duo project with loops, an electro-urban project…What I'm currently working on will be very slow music, comforting, soulful, and heartbreaking at the same time.”
The newest edition to Martina’s impressive and diverse catalog is STATES, with an album release tour in Europe in May 2024. This album comes after Homage to Grämlis, which she wrote as a way to pay “homage” to the Swiss family farm, Grämlis, she grew up on and as a thank you to her family. In STATES, Martina writes about states of mind, states of being, and the political and social environment of the United States.
Much of STATES was written during the COVID-19 pandemic while working on her master’s thesis, though Martina believes that listeners can relate to the music’s meditations on new beginnings, endings, political tensions, liberation, and shifting concepts of “states.” The making of STATES brought up a lot for Martina, and she hopes that it does the same for her listeners: “[My hope is that people] have discussions about [the album] at home, with friends, with family, with loved ones.” STATES may surprise new listeners because, though Martina is a vocalist, not all of her tracks have lyrics.
Other tracks on the album are written in English but place an emphasis on sound as opposed to grammatical correctness, much like American novelist and poet Gertrude Stein. Martina explains, “When I write music, especially vocal lines, what I’m singing first ends up sounding something like ‘English’ but can also not mean anything at the same time. Out of that gibberish, words might take shape later…Sometimes it doesn’t make ‘sense,’ but to me, musically, the sound and texture of it make complete sense, and that's why I often end up leaving it the way it originally was, with minor adjustments."
Martina encourages audiences not to be intimidated by her style. For her, there’s no right or wrong way to enjoy her work. “Whatever you hear is right. You, as the listener, are a different person with a different background and will perceive it differently…I know why I wrote it, I know what it means to me, but you might hear a different thing and have a whole different movie going on in your mind. That’s perfectly fine. That’s beautiful.”
While Martina’s newest album, STATES, comes out in 2024, she’s already written 9 compositions for her next album, she'll record this December in Boston together with Frank Carlberg as her artistic mentor and her incredible longstanding band with Kyle Miles on bass, NEC alumnae Jussi Reijonen on guitar, Maxim Lubarsky on piano, and Vancil Cooper on drums. She describes that album as “completely different.”
Stay up to date with Martina and her work on her website https://www.gabrielamartina.com/.