Norma Jean Martine
There’s something about Norma Jean Martine that’s caught between two worlds. She lives in London but her American accent indicates she’s not from round these parts. Her voice possesses guts that might have you guessing she’s substantially beyond her 24 years, and her life experience rivals someone twice her age. Today she’ll talk and gas and take countless conversational tangents like a Stevie Nicks or a Tom Jones but her head isn’t up in the clouds. Norma Jean was raised in Middletown, New York, an hour from the city, by a father who was a small business owner in the automotive industry and a nurse mother. “I was an only child, so I’d come home from school and I was alone. That bred creativity.” The last American export bearing the name Norma Jean changed hers’ to sound like more of a star, but this young upstart’s magnetism speaks for itself. Really, they don’t make ’em like this too often.
For Norma Jean, music was a distraction from school, and she would rush home to play piano or muck around with her dad’s 8-tracks. Her parents weren’t musical but the house was full of cassettes and CDs, and Norma Jean became obsessed, wrapping the sleeve notes in plastic cases so she could take them in the shower and sing along. “I was a weirdo!” she laughs. Every story is epic, as she recalls going to one specific store with her mum, consuming albums at listening posts then driving around ingesting the likes of Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Janis Joplin and Led Zeppelin. “I was into raw songwriters,” she explains, as blue collar as Springsteen himself.
Always carefully rebellious, Norma Jean learned how to play piano, flute and oboe properly but wound up playing her own ditties. Like her shower-singing, it was something she didn’t think twice about. Where her school pals ran around and got bloody knees, Norma Jean exhaled melodies and could really sing, as she recounts a classic story of a teacher finding it unfathomable that this voice was coming out of her tiny body. She wrote her first song when she was 10, called ‘Sacagawea’, after the Native Indian guide Norma Jean was learning about in history class. As the other kids were finding out about how America was discovered, Norma Jean was discovering the voice within her. What did she have to say at that age? Already, quite a lot.
To understand the authenticity in Norma Jean’s songs, you have to humour her long-winded trips down memory lane. Norma Jean grew up in a lower socio-economic area. The school district was considered “in need of improvement” by New York state so even though she didn’t grow up in a Christian home she was sent to Christian school as an alternative. “Her parents wanted to maintain her innocence for as long as possible, but reality was unavoidable. “At 13 I kicked back against it all.” She moved to public school where a first “badass” boyfriend and a real education awaited. The boyfriend taught Norma Jean guitar and got her into rock’n’roll. “He changed everything.”
The other factor that changed everything was American Idol. “I watched Kelly Clarkson win,” she says, with dramatic effect. “Before that, pop stars seemed intangible but now you could see someone go from being a waitress to being on the radio in six months.” Norma Jean realised you didn’t have to be a somebody to do the thing you love. She waited until she was 16 to audition and didn’t even make it through the first round. “Afterwards I was devastated. I’d spent six years gearing up to this. I was hysterically crying outside, this woman gave me a hug and said, It’s OK honey it’s just TV. I instantly felt better and thought, I can do this another way.”
All of Norma Jean’s opportunities didn’t quite fit her right. Her parents would send her to the American Academy for the Dramatic Arts on weekends, the same preparatory school attended by the likes of Danny DeVito and Grace Kelly. “I remember going into the city on the tube train, and it felt like your dreams were coming true, you know what I mean?” she says. Except hers weren’t. The other kids all wanted to land lead roles in Broadway musicals. When it was Norma Jean’s turn to reveal her dreams to her peers during a Donna Drake masterclass she said “I just want my songs on the radio” then burst into tears. In the interim, her mum would take her to blues nights in Upstate New York. Watching those gutsy live performers did something for her that was beyond Broadway, and eventually took her beyond there too. She’d play her own blues songs onstage there from the age of 14.
On a friend’s recommendation, Norma Jean went to Nashville. “At that point I was like, The South? Are you kidding me? With the churches… And I hated modern country music with a passion but I hadn’t even heard the old stuff yet.” She became a waitress serving up burritos all night, meeting old wizened industry heads, learning about iconic songwriting and the unparalleled art of country lyrics. Norma Jean would watch local singers like Bekka Bramlett bleed the blues onstage and feel her path becoming clearer. “She’s the most amazing singer I’ve ever seen and completely loses herself on stage. I remember watching her and going, I need to find my soul. The blues is about the truth, you know?” she explains. “I strive to write good pop songs. Good ones have that initial spark of something you really felt. You’re not sitting around trying to write a #1 dance tune about writing a #1 dance tune. Stop being full of shit, say something you believe. If you don’t, who will?”
Eventually, Norma Jean left Nashville, despite being offered deals and managers, curious about what might exist elsewhere. “I almost quit music to study languages and my best friend said, ‘Music is the most universal language in the world and you can’t quit.’” So she headed to London at the age of 20 in 2011, encouraged by the voices of Amy Winehouse and Adele; pop writers who didn’t compromise their soul just because they were writing to formula.
There, Norma Jean lived off the money she’d earn selling copies of her songs on CD at open mic nights, building a following. It was there she found a mentor and manager who scored her sessions with Romeo Stodart of The Magic Numbers, Joel Pott of Athlete and Ed Harcourt. They taught her even more about injecting her gritty blues into pop writing. Her career highlight so far is probably when legendary songwriter Burt Bacharach invited Norma Jean to LA this January. “We had a cup of tea in his house and on the coffee table was a picture of Burt with the Obamas! The way he works is that he plays you a melody and then you go home and write the lyrics. I played him ‘Still In Love With You’ – a song about that first boyfriend who taught me how to play guitar. Burt loved it.” And so did Norma Jean. The experience taught her how to combine all the tricks of the trade she’d learned and curate her unique meld of deeply rousing pop music.
Norma Jean’s realness, and her relentless strive to make it has been injected into her forthcoming debut record, produced by Danton Supple [Coldplay, U2, Morrissey]. Due for release next year it contains stand-outs from 2015’s ‘Animals’ EP, including its titular straight-up pop rock belter (think KT Tunstall meets Bastille raucousness) and the stripped-down likes of ‘Butterfly’s Dream’. New tracks like ‘Game Over’ are fine examples of Norma’s prowess to holler out everyday concerns about passion, love and loss with just the right quantity of imagination to allow her personal feelings to ignite that universal connection she so craves. Her potential seems limitless with songs such as ‘Only In My Mind’ acting as showstopping proof that Adele isn’t the only female with chops and power to sell emotion to a global audience. “There’s a lack of real-sounding music in pop,” says Norma Jean, sighing. “I want to craft old-time music into a context that makes it relevant now. It’s just telling the truth about things that other people don’t say.”
Perhaps the reason Norma Jean is so precious about how genuine her lyrics are and how authentic she comes across is because of this, her journey. She admits that the encroaching older age of her father in particular has given her a complex about years running out, and life being fleeting. It’s something that seeps into her music, the sound of someone who is racing against the clock, growing older before their time, but eliciting the human frailty of a young chancer with all their mistakes left to make. Norma Jean is fighting to have her voice count. “Success for me would be someone hearing my songs and feeling a little less alone.” she says. “I want to be a role model, something real instead of something that makes you want to be someone you’re not.”