Pint-sized Vicci Martinez stepped onto the Momo’s stage with just her acoustic guitar. Wearing blue jeans and her Chucks, she belted out several of her gritty folk songs to an intimate audience.
Martinez is only 25 years old and her powerful voice has given her many opportunities since she sang her first note at the age of 12. Appearing on Star Search and becoming a regional finalist for the first season of American Idol, she has received praise and recognition from celebrities like Wynonna Judd and Kathy Najimy (King of the Hill, Sister Act).
She doesn’t have any label support though, as she’s not willing to compromise who she is to get herself to the next level. However, she is proof that musicians don’t always need the backing of a label because she’s opened for various musical legends, such as Sting, Etta James and Jonny Lang.
Martinez sat down with me before her set at Momo’s while she reflected on her musical career, shared what motivated her to become a singer and why she loves performing in Austin.
How long have you been doing music?
Vicci: I think I started playing guitar and trying to write my own music when I was about 12 to 13 years old. When you’re that teenager, going through what you think is your mid-life crisis, but it’s just a bunch of being a baby. That’s when I started.
What made you decide to write music? Was there a song? An album?
Vicci: Oh, I actually had a choir teacher that forced me to sing in class because my sister, who was her student prior to me, had a great voice. She just wanted to see if I had the same talent and it ended up that I did. I was able to do what she asked. Then she started giving me voice lessons and breathing techniques. Ever since, I was able to sing. Then when I realized that I could play and sing at the same time, I just got really into it. I think it was around the Sarah McLaughlin time when she started to do the Lillith Fair tour. And to see all these women rise up to the occasion and put on this festival was really empowering. Even at that age for me, it was kind of like oh, I have an opportunity to do this myself and this looks like something that could be within my reach. I wanted to play basketball when I was younger. I was like Uh, okay, I’m too small. I can’t do that. So this just felt like something that was right. It came natural. My family was very supportive because my dad realized that oh, this is a natural talent for her. If it makes her happy and she’s good at it, then okay we’ll support her with that. They weren’t supportive of the basketball.
Well, that’s different. Normally parents are reversed.
Vicci: Yeah, my parents were. They had six kids. I think with the first three kids, they were that way where it was more like get an education and get a job that you’re going to be able to survive with and this is such a risky business to have that. But I think my father loved music so much. He was the musical one in the family that if his parents would have been that way, I know he would have pursued his music, but instead he just allowed himself to do that with one of his kids. He understood where I was coming from.
You’re 25 years old and you’ve gone through so much. Does it ever seem surreal for you with everything you’ve experienced with your music career?
Vicci: What’s funny is when I think about it, I definitely let myself be thankful about it. But when I’m not thinking about the things that I’ve done, it’s almost like okay, I need to do more. What’s going to be the next thing? It’s kind of bad because sometimes you’re not allowing yourself to live in the present and just enjoy the moment. Today here, I am in Austin, Texas. I’m getting a lot better at just being there in the moment and I’m super stoked to be here. But yesterday, I was in Dallas, Texas, and I’ve already been to Austin. I was like I want Dallas to hurry up so I can get to Austin and enjoy people that really, really love music. That’s what I really love about this place and everyone’s just so into it.
How many times have you been to Austin before?
Vicci: I’ve only been here once.
When was the first time you came?
Vicci: First time was last year, last summer, and I came for a different reason. There’s an organization called the Amala Foundation and they hold a Global Youth Summit at the John Knox Ranch. I went and helped out there for a few days. Then out of that, I met some people that were musicians and got a few gigs but fell in love right away. I love the people here. It’s great. Great energy.
Normally when bands come to Austin, it’s usually for South By Southwest or ACL, which is totally a different world of Austin so you got to see Austin the way it is. How would you compare the Austin music scene to Seattle?
Vicci: The friend I came to Austin with the first time had gotten here before I did. She’s like you got to get over here. It’s like Seattle and Mexico having a baby and there came Austin. It’s true because in Seattle, we’re a lot more closed in. You don’t see too many outdoor kind of venues unless it’s in the summer. That’s what I like when I came last time, there’s music outside all the time and there’s a lot of music lovers there. I think here people, like in Mexico, are so relaxed and just happy to be where they are and just living in the moment. So I feel like this place has that balance. There’s the city and definitely the economy and all that good stuff or whatever but then there’s those people that are just happy to be here. There’s yoga everywhere. There is all this stuff to keep you sane. That’s cool. I love that.
That’s so funny because I take yoga.
Vicci: When I was driving around, there was like yoga on every corner and there in Seattle, it’s like maybe a few places. I actually live in Tacoma, which is 30 minutes south of Seattle but there’s not as much but it’s definitely growing.
And you just had an album release in March that you recorded at Pacific Studio. What was it like recording that album? What was your mindset going into the recording studio?
Vicci: I definitely in the past have not liked recording in the studio. I like to play live. I feel like the energy of our band is definitely comes across better at a live show. So when I went into this one, I wanted to get it done. I didn’t have a lot of money. I just brought them in for a couple of days and we just recorded a bunch of songs live. Because I wanted to distribute something that sounded like what we’ve been doing lately, I started working on it more. This is the first album that I worked on that I enjoyed the process. We didn’t do much but what we were doing I was just into it a lot more than I had been in the past where I was like I wanna get out of this building that has no windows. It’s dark all day. I don’t want to be in here. So I got over that and now I’ve been recording a lot at my house. So I think that boosted me into being in the recording process and making a song a song. Adding layers and doing all that.
And since you’ve played and opened for a lot of great musicians…
Vicci: Yeah, luckily.
Who would you say is the most memorable? That you got the most starstruck and you’re like oh my god, I’m opening for them?
Vicci: I think it must have been B.B. King for me because that’s a legend right there and he was so welcoming. He had us come in his green room after the show. He wanted to meet my mom, my sister, and everyone I brought. He let them sit on his lap just was hugging. He gave me some good advice and he just told me to stuck with it. He’s like it’s like chopping wood; as long as you have wood to chop, be happy. Enjoy yourself while you’re doing it and you’ll be successful. So he was a great guy. That was my favorite.
You’ve gotten a lot of compliments from names like B.B. King and Winona Judd. How do you react to something like that?
Vicci: I guess I’ve always been bad with compliments. I’m trying to be better at that. Like I’m oh no, no. People say but you’re such a great singer. You’re a great musician. I just no, no, I’m not.
But you seem so down to earth. You’re not like oh, yeah. I know.
Vicci: Well, it’s like a lot of people love music, but we’re all here. We all have our own purpose and it’s an equal thing. I feel lucky to be able to do this. So when you get a compliment, it’s great but it’s like yeah ok you know? I love the guy that came in and put in our shower at our place the other day. He did a great job. It’s amazing. So we all do our best at whatever we do. That was always my mom’s advice. Whatever you did, just do your best. You don’t wanna be embarrassed for doing a bad job whatever it is that you do.
You’re currently a DIY kind of thing like you don’t have a label and you’ve turned down labels and so forth.
Vicci: Yeah, there’s been stuff that’s happened that they’ve offered to get you into that next step but it’s like but could you change it a little bit so we could make you more marketable or…
More radio friendly or whatever.
Vicci: Yeah, and it’s like what B.B. King said: You’re only gonna be successful if you’re happy. Why would I do something that that’s going to mess with my integrity? Because my whole thing is like if I’m able to be in a position to be on stage and talk to people, I really want to hit little kids that get can get so insecure and caught up with society. I guess it goes for adults too that just don’t allow themselves to do what makes them happy and be themselves and just ego aside just really do whatever give them that tingle inside. I can’t say that if I’m out there you know being phony.
All glammed up and doing choreography in your videos.
Vicci: Yes, exactly.
Okay, what else do you have in the future for you?
Vicci: Um, I’m going to the east coast. I’m doing a cruise. I came to southwest. Then I’ll head to Tampa and I’m going to do a cruise and play on the cruise and get to vacation a little bit. Then east coast and just hopefully do more of this. You know, come in to places and really hit up spots that love music like Austin. San Francisco is a place I want to get to. Just good music spots that are going to appreciate it. Of course the bigger picture is to play for a bunch of people one day.
Anything else you want to add?
Vicci: Thank you for hanging out with me and coming out and doing this. Help and support local music. Well, I’m not local music but little people music.
Photos provided by Vicci Martinez. Visit her on MySpace.