As an 18-year-old newcomer to the banjo, Steve Martin sensed the instrument had something resembling an “emotive” quality to it. “But I had no vision in my head,” he tells Rolling Stone Country. “No picture, no story, no nothing.” That all changed a few years ago: When Martin began writing music with singer-songwriter Edie Brickell for what would become their 2013 Grammy-winning album, Love Has Come For You, the actor and bluegrass aficionado at last began to grasp the complete emotional power of his longtime instrument. “Edie was able to tap into what I believe is inherent in the banjo and come up with fantastic scenarios, great visuals, great writing,” Martin says.
So strong was the duo’s partnership that this week, Martin and Brickell return with So Familiar, the second installment in their musical collaboration. Due on October 30th via Rounder Records and produced by famed producer Peter Asher (James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt), the LP is in many ways a continuation of the melodic-folk music displayed on Love Has Come for You. Through increased orchestration, string accompaniment, the addition of baritone sax and collaborations with the likes of banjo wizard Béla Fleck however, Martin says he believes the two were able to tap into “unexplored territory” this go-round.
The lilting and lush bluegrass-tinged folk affair of an album most notably places a higher emphasis this time on characters and narrative. It’s a direct result of Martin and Brickell’s work on their debut musical, Bright Star, set in the 1920’s South and based on an early 20th century newspaper article found by Brickell. The musical, for which Asher is serving as music supervisor, features a handful of songs from So Familiar, and is scheduled to begin performances at Washington’s Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on December 2nd; it lands on Broadway next March.
Martin sounds nothing short of a giddy child when reveling in his and Brickell having written a musical together. “It’s tremendously exciting!” he says of Bright Star. “It really was something to aspire to and to have accomplished. We don’t know if it’s a hit or not but we know we’re on Broadway.”
“I am jumping up and down on the inside,” adds Brickell. “It’s the most exciting thing. It’s a huge dream come true.”
The two admit they were initially focused on the musical when starting to write their latest songs following a 2014 joint tour with Martin’s longtime band, the Steep Canyon Rangers. Much of their most recent material, Martin explains, evolved out of discussions between he and Brickell on their mutual love for musicals; only after piecing together several songs for Bright Star did the pair agree a separate album with re-orchestrated versions of songs from the musical might make sense. Still, Martin clarifies, “[So Familiar] is almost a completely different experience from the musical. We just thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be the best time to put out this record when the musical is being mounted?'”
Brickell wrote many of the album’s lyrics with concrete characters in mind, a songwriting style most evident when the harmonic vocalist sings of deviant déjà vu in a bluesy whisper on the title track or reflects on wilder times over rolling piano lines and pedal steel on “Way Back in the Day.”
Musical collaboration came rather effortlessly to the longtime social acquaintances who first decided to join forces following a chance encounter at a Manhattan party circa-2012. Brickell (who is married to Paul Simon and scored hits in the late-Eighties with her band, New Bohemians) says she was long inspired by Martin’s evocative banjo playing, emphasizing the way in which it provides a sonic trampoline by which she can visualize scenes and characters.
“It spoke to me and I just pulled the personality out,” Brickell says of Martin’s dutiful banjo plucking. “That came in the form of images and certain phrases. It just flowed through me and settled in my consciousness, and I paid attention and then understood where I was in the story and how to offer the rest of it.
Adds the singer: “It’s basically just being flat-out inspired by someone’s gifts and skills.”