Back in 2008, I had the privilege of meeting and interviewing the great Art Garfunkel. He surprised me with his response to a question about his voice.
"It is my first friend, my singing voice. I noticed that I could sing in tune at 4 or 5, and it became my friend. And it was attached to my notion of God. Where did this come from? Given by whom?"
Garfunkel is 74. Singer-songwriter Kipyn Martin is 29, but she, as much as anyone, knows whereof he speaks. Martin writes intensely personal songs whose music and lyrics call to mind a young Joni Mitchell, but the first thing you notice, a la Garfunkel, is the voice.
She will bring her voice and a suitcase full of songs to Uncle Calvin's Coffeehouse on Friday night.
So storied is the mystery of her voice that it's even the subject of family folklore. For years, she has heard the story about being a baby, growing up in Charles Town, W. Va., where "before I learned to speak," she says, "I was apparently singing harmony. I don't know the full story, of course, nor do I even recall this, but my mother and sister were driving to the grocery store, and ... "
They had the radio tuned to the Mamas and the Papas, whose music Martin grew up hearing. "As usual, they were singing harmony in the front seat, but suddenly, one of them stopped singing, and yet, they could still hear the harmony. They looked at each other, as if to say, 'Was that you?' This was my mom talking to my sister, and then they look back at little me, sitting in the car seat."
It's a touching story, culled from a family memory, which speaks to the magic of Martin's voice as well as any. But then, you wonder about the power of her lyrics, and suddenly, abruptly, you hear a different story, as painful as the other one is sweet.
Martin has released one single (the spiritual, uplifting "Dance Across the Sky") and one album, Undercover Muse, which contains the beguiling "Undone."
"Undone" rose from a moment of tremendous pain whose movie of emotion also stars Martin's mother and sister. Sadly, these days, disharmony defines the relationship. Neither the mother nor sister is on speaking terms with the woman who was once the baby in the car seat. Martin maintains a close relationship with her father, who divorced her mom when she was 7.
"When one of the most important relationships in my life dissolved," she says, "I had the support of two individuals who came through as surrogate parents for me. I remember thinking, 'At this point in my life, I so need people who will have my back.'
"The song 'Undone' is literally about me feeling like I was coming undone but having people strong enough and kind enough to help me put myself back together. I consider the people who helped me do that to be two of my dearest friends. 'Undone' is for them."
One is Martin's mentor in musical composition. The other is father figure Pops Walker, a legendary singer-songwriter who hosts the annual Shenandoah River Songfest, which Martin has graced as a performer at least six times.
She also has won numerous awards, including Gold and Silver honors in the 2014 Mid-Atlantic Song Contest. She was named a Showcase artist at the 2014 Southeast/Northeast Regional Folk Alliance conference and received international attention in the 2013 United Kingdom Song Contest when "I Believe in You" from her debut album won a Gold Award and the Director's Choice award in the 2013 Mid-Atlantic Song Contest.
But the biggest, she says, came last year, when she received the New Artist of the Year award from WAMA, which stands for Washington Area Music Association. Martin lives near Washington, D.C., in Columbia, Md., where she teaches guitar, piano, voice and songwriting at a place called The Rock Shop.
Her talent has not gone unnoticed by her elders. Even the great John Gorka, for whom she has opened in concert, calls Martin "a beauty of a singer."
She has played guitar since she was 8 but held off on pursing a career as a singer-songwriter until she met, during her college years, folk legend Susan Werner, who made her believe "I could do this."
She arrives at a time when scores of twenty-something women fill the coffeehouses and folk clubs of America with a sound sweetly reminiscent of the 1970s era of Mitchell, James Taylor, Carole King and Jackson Browne, who together shared the blessing of lucrative recording deals.
Martin laughs at the fantasy of making even a fraction of the money that Mitchell, Taylor, King and Browne managed to make en route to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
She may come no closer than singing Mitchell's songs as well as any woman alive. She collaborated with "recovering opera singer" Allison Shapira in recording the album Joan & Joni, on which Martin sings Mitchell's "Morning Morgantown," "The Circle Game" and "A Case of You," which Martin calls her all-time favorite song.
"There is," she says, "an interesting paradox in the music business these days. Folk artists thrive on a one-on-one engagement with the listener. I'm not saying I wouldn't want to sell millions of records -- that would be great -- but there is something so incredibly rewarding about singing a song from your experience, from your heart to someone else's, then getting to share that experience and discuss it afterwards. That means everything to me."
Plan Your Life
Kipyn Martin will perform at 8 p.m. Friday at Uncle Calvin's Coffeehouse, 9555 N. Central Expressway. $15 in advance, with discounts; $18 at the door. 214-363-0044, unclecalvins.org. Click the Web link here to order tickets.
Here is a YouTube video of Kipyn Martin in concert: