Check out Part I of our biography of singer/pianist Armand St. Martin, exploring his coming of age in the musically-storied city of New Orleans and Part II chronicling the explosive growth of his career and his embrace of Louisiana’s music and traditions.
(All photos Armand St. Martin & Patty Lee collection, unless otherwise noted)
AN ANTHEM FOR KATRINA
On August 29th, 2005, the lives of more than a million residents of the greater New Orleans area changed forever with the arrival of Hurricane Katrina. Like so many others, St. Martin and Patty Lee have their own harrowing story. The couple remained in New Orleans until the eve the storm, taking care of Patty Lee’s mother, who was bedridden with Alzheimer’s. At the last possible moment, they departed on an epic 18-hour journey to Houston (a drive which, under normal circumstances, should take no more than six hours). They took refuge first in Houston and later in Lafitte, Louisiana, before being allowed permanently back into their home two and half months later. A month after the storm, when St. Martin returned briefly for a first look at their property, he found his home was missing its roof and had flooded badly. The couple struggled to rebuild their home and lives while continuing to make caring for Patty’s mother their priority. “She passed away before the house got a new roof, a year after the storm. Until then, all we had were blue tarps to cover the ruined roof. We’re still rebuilding our lives and property,” St. Martin says.
But the tragedy of Katrina was more than just a personal one for him. St. Martin’s art, life and soul are deeply interwoven with the city he calls home. Therefore, Hurricane Katrina had a profound impact on him. “Seeing the city, the places I knew, after the storm — I just couldn’t wrap my head around it. I was stunned,” St. Martin explains, his voice still shaking as he recalls Katrina years afterward. In the aftermath, determined that he had to do something to react to Katrina, St. Martin responded in the way he knows best, through his music.
The result was Katrina Anthem. Most of the tracks on the album are compiled from his previous releases, chosen because they embody all that is best, brightest and most resilient about New Orleans – music that responds to the tragedy of Katrina with sounds of the life, hope and joy for which the Big Easy has always been known. The album also includes one original track, “Orleans Lullaby,” which is drawn from St. Martin’s personal feelings and reflections on the disaster and is dedicated to Patty’s mother.
St. Martin paints a potent description of the song. “It has the quality of a Robert Altman movie,” he says. “You have all these characters who are involved in their own lives and you can see they are headed for a collision but there’s this sense of dissociation. They can’t see what’s happening to themselves even though the listener can”
Katrina Anthem has not been St. Martin’s only reaction to the hurricane. He has been intimately involved with Katrina Artistically Revisited, an annual multimedia event envisioned, created and produced by Patty Lee which features Armand as co-producer and performer. Growing each year, Katrina Artistically Revisited brings together artists from music, film and photography along with oral histories of the storm as a form of commemoration, understanding and catharsis.
“When we started putting together the first Katrina Artistically Revisited, we had lots of people tell us the event wouldn’t work, that people didn’t want to remember, that they wanted to put it behind them,” St. Martin says. “But then, the day of the event came and it was packed. People discovered they did want to reflect together. At that point, none of us knew if we’d still have a city and, even if we did, what kind of city it would be.”
He also feels that the success of Katrina Artistically Revisited hints at something unique about the city he loves, “Hurricane Katrina just landed on our lives and created so much chaos and trouble. But, as an unexpected result, all that has become part of our artistic life and our heritage, too.”
To bring together musicians who were still trying to find each other and restore contact in the wake of the storm, Patty and Armand also spearheaded The Midnight Jam Series at Ernie K-Doe’s Mother-in-Law Lounge with K-Doe’s widow, Antoinette as well as Ernest “Box” Fontenot, drummer for Fats Domino, and Guitar Slim, Jr. The series, which ran from midnight to 5 a.m., generated enormous support from the local musical community and did, indeed, help many artists reconnect after Katrina.
The couple was also instrumental in contributing to the Katrina display at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles. Additionally, they served as guest curators for “Forty Days, Forty Nights,” a Katrina exhibit at the Louisiana State Archives in Baton Rouge and produced the music for the event’s grand opening.
After some time had passed, St. Martin penned another Katrina-inspired song, called “Waitin’ for My Trailer,” a humorous and satirical tune which instantly delighted New Orleans audiences.
AT HOME IN THE BIG EASY
After Katrina, with the city’s musical community still in disarray, for awhile St. Martin played solo gigs almost exclusively. “I barely had a piano and money was so tight, but I did what I could,” he explains. In those chaotic post-Katrina conditions, it was difficult for people to find large groups to book. “I’m only one guy, but I’ve got a big sound that sounds like a larger group. People liked that.” As a result, St. Martin was busier than ever.
In the years since the hurricane, St. Martin’s work continues to explore the stories of his native city and state as well as the people who call it home. One of his hottest post-Katrina songs is “Billy Adams for Governor,” another number steeped in the Louisiana experience. In 2007, a lifelong resident of the Louisiana swamps named Billy Adams disappeared after a storm blew into the swamps while Adams was taking his boat down to the town of Lafitte to get supplies. A search for the missing man was called off after six days. Eleven days later, fishermen found him alive and well in the swamps – Adams’ motor had broken down and he had been keeping himself alive using his knowledge of the swamps.
St. Martin saw Adams being released from the hospital on TV news and something instantly clicked. “I said to myself, ‘I’m going to write a song about him tonight.’” He explains, “His story got me to thinking, we’ve got all these fat cat politicians going in and out of the governor’s mansion. What if we had a guy like Billy Adams as governor? He’s someone who could trim the budget and teach us all to get by on very little.”
So, St. Martin sat down and penned, “Billy Adams for Governor,” with exactly the theme that the title suggests. Its vivid chorus encapsulates the spirit of the song.
Billy Adams for Governor, start a campaign
Calling all cameras, crack the champagne
Go up to Baton Rouge, toss ‘em all in the swamp
And the ones that make it back, are the ones we want.
St. Martin played “Billy Adams for Governor” during a live TV performance on New Year’s morning, 2008. The song’s story and message struck a chord with many Louisianans. It also led to a personal encounter with the song’s subject. Adams’ wife heard the song on a battery operated TV and the swamp survivor himself called the station from a borrowed cell phone to get in touch with St. Martin. Eventually, St. Martin was able to reach Adams by phone. “He was a really interesting, fun guy,” St. Martin explains. “At some point, we are planning an expedition down to the swamps to film a documentary about Billy Adams and his lifestyle. Sometime when it’s not too cold, not too hot and there aren’t too many mosquitoes.”
In a similar vein, St. Martin has also written a song about two of the Crescent City’s chief complaints, “Potholes and Politicians.” As he says when describing the song, “We all love New Orleans, we love our way of life here. But those two things, politics and potholes, get to you.”
St. Martin keeps up a punishing schedule, even for a musician who loves his craft, playing up to 250 solo shows a year. “I’m a big believer that the more you play … the more you play,” he says. For three years after Katrina, he had his own performance room, The Library Lounge, at the Ritz-Carlton New Orleans, one of the city’s premiere hotels. St. Martin performed five hours a night for three to four nights a week as well as playing their Sunday Brunch. He enjoyed his time at the Ritz Carlton and still has fond memories of its Steinway baby grand piano. Additionally, St. Martin also played with his full band, the Bayou Bohemians, at the hotel’s French Quarter bar.
Beyond his solo work, St. Martin also relishes every opportunity to play with the Bayou Bohemians and other artists. He mentions rockabilly icon Jay Chevalier and Marva Wright, The Blues Queen of New Orleans, as two of his favorite musicians to back. And, as she has been for the past three decades, Patty Lee remains instrumental in St. Martin’s musical career, as a press agent and manager who is constantly promoting her husband’s music and handles bookings.
One of his favorite concerts of recent years was opening for R&B grande dame Irma Thomas at her birthday party at the historic Generations Hall. “She uses her birthday as fundraising event for the Covenant House here, and it’s a big deal in New Orleans,” he explains. The first hour, St. Martin performed solo. The second hour, he performed with the seven-piece Bayou Bohemians, bringing all the good-time sound of piano, bass, drums, saxophone and backup vocals to playing St. Martin’s original material. “Irma was delighted with what we did,” he says, “I have a great band here in New Orleans.”
In 2011, St. Martin was a major draw at the annual French Quarter Festival, playing the BMI Songwriters stage. He performs and headlines many other festivals, concerts and venues in New Orleans and on the West Coast.
One of the 2011 performances about which St. Martin was most excited, however, was not his own. Rather it was the appearance of the Pittsburgh Steelers in Superbowl XLV. Sharing the black and gold colors of the New Orleans Saints, St. Martin feels the steel-town brawlers are spiritual cousins of the Crescent City’s own hometown heroes. With this in mind, he wrote “Black and Gold in the Superbowl,” a New Orleans style anthem supporting the Steelers.
Continuing to explore sporting themes, more recently, St. Martin has recorded “Sampson of the Sidelines,” a tribute New Orleans Saints’ defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and his flowing gray locks.
St. Martin has also continued to be active with his L.A. band. The West Cost seven-piece act has headlined both the Long Beach Crawfish Festival and Lobster Festival. He is as glowing about the talent and prowess of his West Coast combo as he is about his New Orleans musicians, “After many years of not playing together and pursuing their own musical careers, they all made themselves available. We had two or three band rehearsals and two or three separate rehearsals for the backup singers. That was it. And we kicked ass.”
One New Orleans event with which St. Martin has become actively involved is the Ponderosa Stomp, a festival devoted to celebrating, preserving and promoting the legacy of American roots music in all its forms–with artists crossing the spectrum from internationally-recognized stars to obscure but influential trailblazers. “The Ponderosa Stomp is a wonderful event,” St. Martin explains. “It has the same ‘It’s all about the music’ attitude as Tipitina’s, so I felt instantly connected.” A formidable roots musician in his own right, at the Ponderosa Stomp, St. Martin uses his piano wizardry to back artists from genres as diverse as rockabilly, blues and Cajun.
St. Martin has also begun expressing himself through other media as well. He has authored a companion booklet to Alligator Ball, filled with prose and poetry inspired by the album’s songs as well as daily life in the city he loves.
BEYOND THE KEYBOARD: MUSIC THEORY AND PRODUCTION
St. Martin’s passion for music is both broad and deep, extending beyond the performance stage and encompassing the formal study of music as well as side careers as an engineer and producer.
In addition to enormous talent and a life lived in one of America’s most musically rich cities, St. Martin has studied music academically, something which sets him apart from many roots musicians. Taking advantage of opportunities available in New Orleans, he studied music theory at both Tulane and Loyola. He has also taken classes in music for dance at the Wolftrap Foundation for Performing Arts in Virginia and film scoring at UCLA. His film scoring studies have paid off — St. Martin’s song “Storyville” was featured in the FOX TV drama “K-ville” and in the final episode of HBO’s “Treme.”
Watch Armand St. Martin perform “Storyville Blues”
St. Martin feels his studies have benefited him in other ways as well. “I’ve always been drawn to every kind of music, especially every kind of American music,” he says. “I play in a variety of styles and studying has helped me with that.” St. Martin says study allows him to see the principles of different styles such as harmonics, rhythm and song form, allowing him to bring each of those elements to the table to play in a particular style.
Beyond his abilities as a performer, St. Martin is also a sound engineer and, together with Patty Lee, a producer. While he has a longstanding interest in the art and science of recording, his journey to becoming a producer and owning his own studio has an unusual genesis: a love of crossword puzzles. “I’ve always loved crosswords,” he explains. “Patty suggested I try writing them. So, I did, starting with just graph paper and a pencil.”
In the 1980s, St. Martin got a regular column in Mix Magazine, a magazine catering to those involved with sound recording and sound production, writing crosswords with recording and musical themes for the magazine’s readership. The column ran for six years, during which time St. Martin was paid half in money and half in free ad space. The arrangement empowered St. Martin’s entrepreneurial streak, “I’d turn around and trade the ad space for equipment or tape or recording time to record our music.”
It was through such horse trading that his first major recording session, the five songs now featured as bonus tracks on Alligator Ball, occurred. St. Martin worked out a deal with Paul DeVillers, best known as the producer of the English prog rock band Yes and 80s mainstay Mr. Mister, to record at the old Supertramp studios in Burbank, California.
At the same time his column in Mix Magazine was running, St. Martin embarked on an intensive study of recording techniques and equipment. In 1991, St. Martin and Patty Lee took the plunge and purchased their own professional caliber recording equipment – and thus was Patty Lee Records born. The majority of St. Martin’s output has been recorded, mixed and produced at his own studios and his material is released on the Patty Lee Records label.
PLAYING TOWARDS THE FUTURE
In addition to his constant live shows, St. Martin has written and begun performing a large number of new songs, most in a classic New Orleans vein. He says fans can expect the new material to find its way onto an album in the near future, but that he may also use it to move in a new direction. “Some of the material is very story rich,” he says, “So, we’ve been thinking about a musical or music revue.”
As a way to further support local music, St. Martin and Patty Lee have been working on transferring the studio from Los Angeles to New Orleans. Finally, echoing his role as an early supporter and backer of Tipitina’s, St. Martin has been talking with investors about opening his own club and music venue in New Orleans.
In discussing his future plans, St. Martin pays explicit tribute to his personal and professional partner, “Patty and I are a team. Even though I’m the musician, Patty is half of this. She likes being behind the scenes but making the scenes happen, and she’s very good at it. I simply would not be here without her.”
Whatever he does in the future, St. Martin’s passion for the people, stories and music of New Orleans and Louisiana will ring out through his music. More than his formidable keyboard talent and abilities as a songwriter, his true gift is being to share that passion with his audience—leaving them all feeling that New Orleans is a little bit their home, too. Just as New Orleans is in the musical DNA of America, so it is in St. Martin’s, “To me, it’s all about enhancing interest in New Orleans. It’s my home, my love, my identity.”
MUSICAL MINI-BIOGRAPHY will return in January with our profile of drummer Chris Farrell