Music Review: Lashed But Not Leashed
Tomorrow Martha Graham Cracker, Philly’s favorite drag queen, releases her very first studio album. I’ve listened to it several times, and it is fantastic! Filled with numerous musical styles, Lashed But Not Leashed is the perfect representation of everything Martha Graham Cracker is, while paying tribute to her influences. From the high-energy album-opener to the funky and hilarious “Let Me Sit On It,” there’s something for everyone to love. The standout track to me is “I’m Not Trying To Stop The Rain.” It’s an epic, sweeping ballad that is nothing short of a masterpiece. It’s like Barry Manilow and Aretha Franklin tossed into a blender, with the result being sheer perfection and 100% soul. To put it simply, this album is all killer and no filler. But don’t take my word for it, check out Martha’s track-by-track insights below. And make sure to buy your ticket to see her one-night-only performance at the Kimmel Center tomorrow night before it sells out.
That track was the one that was the hardest to get the right sound for. I’m very happy with it. I think it’s the perfect introduction to the album. It’s a very energetic bomb that attacks the audience from the get-go. It’s kind of like a disco anthem. We were thinking of Chaka Khan, a little bit. It’s a funky disco beat. The way we used the strings was the way they were used in the 1970s—they are very danceable. In the beginning, we just couldn’t find the right sound for it. I don’t know what it took, but we eventually got there. I was saying, “Oh, if this song doesn’t sound right, we should just scrap the whole idea of the album.” (laughs) It is the first song in the show, and it just wasn’t sounding right. It goes back to a live experience compared to one in the studio. When it’s live, it’s kinetic. You can feel the sweat. There’s an excitement that’s already there. When you’re in a dry, compartmentalized world of a studio, it’s just hard to recreate that. I think it took a long time to make the album version as exciting as when we would do it live.
“Comfort Of A Book”
“Comfort Of A Book” is one of my favorites because I’m a very nerdy drag queen, as you can probably tell from the whole album. I love words. The whole idea of the show is that Martha is going to run away from show business and become a librarian. This is her chance to have a fantasy. It reminds me of The Beatles. We even had library stamps and a desk fall as part of the percussion in this song, to show off the fantasy of the librarian. People say this is one of those songs that gets stuck in their head a lot. It has a Sondheim feel to it—not that I’m comparing my talent to his—because the lyrics go by so quickly. It’s sort of a patter song that way. That’s one that I’m really proud of.
Vince Federici, who is our guitarist, talked about how much he loved Brazilian music. This song has a jazzy, loungy feel. He wanted me to sing these crazy lyrics over the chord changes. The verses are very free-form jazzy. I take a lot of melodic risks in this one. There is something romantic in the hook. It also owes a debt to 1970s’ funk. The song “Les Fleur” by Minnie Riperton influenced me a lot. It’s got a laid-back soul groove, like a ballad that’s got a little bit of funk to it. That’s what I was going for with this song.
“Bury Your Heart In A Box”
In that one I get to be very angry and have a meltdown. I get to be sarcastic in that song. We started to write these songs before 45 came to power. There’s a real feeling that the resistance becomes urgent. I think that song has a feeling of someone who is afraid of what’s happening as they look around. They are making an angry comment about it. If we take this spirit that we’re living in right now and the culture and take it to the farthest dimension, this is where we’ll end up—people wanting to bury their heart in a box and not feel anything and try and get themselves numb.
“Let Me Sit On It”
That’s the one people like to rock out to the most. It’s the most fun to play live because I get to flirt with the audience, which is Martha’s number one mode. Her idea of a good time is flirting with audiences. It all began with this strange image I had that I shared with the other songwriters. When I was a young teen in math class—which was also a place I did not excel—I’d look around and see that the students’ hormones were just beginning to declare themselves. I still wasn’t clear on my sexualty, at least not in an out way. I’d look around and see teenage boys and their knees were shaking. It’s almost like a tension is being released as they bobble their knee up and down. I was thinking back to that and wondering, “What does it mean that I find that strangely sexual?” (laughs) Then I realized, well, the knee bone is connected to the thigh bone and the thigh bone is connected to the….and so on. I thought that it was an expression of an energy that’s not getting let out. So, I thought, “I think Martha would like to sing a song about sitting on that bouncy knee.” It’s both very dirty and sweet at the same time. I just want to sit on your knee, that’s all. (laughs)
“The Diving Bell And The Butterfly”
I think I was ready to write a heartbreak song for Martha. By the time we wrote this one, we knew this theme of books and libraries was going to run through the whole show. The name of the song references the movie of the same name, which is about a journalist who could only write a book by blinking when his nurse landed on the specific letter he wanted her to write down. So, they wrote this book very slowly. It’s both beautiful and terrible. He eventually died, but the book did come out. It was the most romantic thing I could think of, and it influenced the chorus and the feel of the song. Eliza Hardy Jones takes the lead on this song and she has a gorgeous sound that just floats above everything.
“The Movie Song”
The “Movie Song” is the first song that we ever wrote. It owes a debt to that old Dolly Parton album Trio, where she, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt are singing in 3-part harmony. We actually learned one of those Trio songs, and we decided to see what it would be like if we sang tight 3-part harmony. Then, someone said an expression to me that I never heard before: “Sometimes you’ve got to watch the movie you paid for.” It made me realize that sometimes you don’t have a choice. Sometimes you just have to sit there and take it, and you’ll get to the other side. When you go to the movies, you can’t change the channel. I thought that was both funny and thought provoking. I got excited about that as a chorus. Each of us contributed a verse to that song. It’s the earliest song in our collaboration, and it’s a song that reminds me that I feel happiest in the world when I’m doing 3-part harmony.
“Will You Speak Before I’m Gone”
In this Trump era—and I hate to give him any stage time—there’s this feeling of injustices and terrible leadership and ways in which our country is failing in very obvious ways. There’s a moment as a performer where you think, “Is anything I’m doing having any real impact in the world? Or am I just an entertainer?” It’s the closest thing I could muster as a protest song, or one that conveys a sense of helplessness and powerlessness—but also incite a type of action, even if that action is only speaking out or speaking up.
“I’m Not Trying To Stop The Rain”
That song always makes me very emotional. It’s the opposite feeling of the song that precedes it. “Will You Speak Before I’m Gone” is more about how to protest things that I think are unfair. This song is more about accepting things and giving into the reality. That song comes at a moment when I’m opened up emotionally. It’s this big sigh of relief and acceptance. Seeing as how love sometimes doesn’t work out, let’s try to make do. There’s a little bit of a lament in there, but there’s also acceptance. I remember when I was younger, going to buy a 45 by The Beatles and one by Aretha Franklin. Being young, I figured I was the only person on the planet who knew about these artists and I thought, “They are amazing!” Aretha has always been my biggest influence. In a way, I try to emulate her at every turn, even when I’m singing in the shower. The arrangement just spilled out. I think David came up with the title, and I thought it was such a great line. I think we got to the bridge and we didn’t know what the lyrics were, so we sounded it out because we knew the melody. In general, it sprung from that one line that Dave brought in. He said, “This will be your ‘Midnight Radio.’” I think he’s right. There’s a similarity.
“Drag Queen With A Very Large Vocabulary”
It’s an apology/triumphant cheer of how nerdy of a drag queen that I am. It’s a sibling to “Let Me Sit On It.” There’s a humorous vibe to the lyrics, and it’s the one in the show that feels like a finale. Once all of the songs were written, we tried to figure out how to order them. Once we chose this as the finale, everything else fell into place. I have a crazy breakdown section where they say all the versions of your and there and I get to define each one of them. Sometimes people ask, “If you hadn’t been a performer, what would you have been?” I think the answer is probably an English teacher, a librarian—some sort of professional nerd. It’s my way of having my cake and eating it too. At the end of Hedwig—which is one of my favorites—there’s a line: “Know that you’re whole.” I think there’s a little bit of that in the whole thing. You might think that a drag queen and someone who is really nerdy are diametrically opposed and that they don’t belong in the same category or within the same person. I’m here to say that I am both. There’s something affirming about saying that I can be both things. That’s not a contradiction. It’s how variable the human spirit can be. It’s my chance to show off my fancy vocabulary. There’s also this long pause in the chorus that throws people off, which is part of the joke.
That’s another song that I think owes a debt to the world of jazz. It talks a little bit about stars in the sky and celebrities. It also talks about stars singing their last notes and those floating up to the sky. All those last notes swirl together and become the song of the next star that’s going to take over the Earthly plane. It’s this final song about standing up in front of people and taking a risk—the hard part of taking your last bow and coming to the end of that crazy ride. If “Drag Queen With A Very Large Vocabulary” is a big ruckus, loud finale, then this is the soft, thoughtful P.S. or lullaby at the end of the show.