Like the visage of death himself, extending his arm and firmly guiding you through a barren stretch of road, songwriter Marco North’s sun-beaten guitar probes a venerated style of folk, cloaked in equal parts hope and despair, and as ominous as death bells. Gifted with a gutter-soaked croon, recalling the moonlight gravel-grinding of Nick Cave and the macabre outré of Tom Waits, Martin uses his hefty growl as the bedrock of his songs, letting the beauty and fragility of his acoustic-based arrangements lift the listener’s head from the streets to the stars as he wrestles with mortality, penance, grace, and forgiveness. It comes as no surprise when learning that North has lived in Moscow, Russia for the past fourteen years, clearly having allowed the brutal climate color his ostensibly jail-sprung voice. Despite the chill Moscow is known for, the ruthlessness of North’s music stems from his western-soaked imagery, all “blinding rain,” “jailbirds,” and searching for home, recording under the moniker, Martin Ruby.
North’s unique songwriting is steeped in not only the melancholy grace of Nick Drake and Mark Linkous, but also the foggy noir of Johnny Cash’s American albums, and the somber meditativeness of Nick Cave’s most recent recorded output. However, these reference points would be nothing were it not for his filmmaker instincts, which not only manifest in references to the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century (“Fellini Was Dying”), but also sonic tapestries that drape behind songs like the aforementioned “Fellini” and “Long Tall Man.” Whether the psychoacoustics thrust you into the stir of city traffic or some rain-soaked alley at 1 a.m., they all serve to construct a pseudo-narrative replete with the listener’s own emotional turmoil. North describes himself as a devout minimalist, explaining his desire to constantly pare down songs so “there is room for the listener” to project their own experiences and develop their own relationships to the characters and settings therein. Nowhere is this philosophy felt more deeply than on highlight “Marfa,” in which North underscores the failures and longings of a stranger, desperately seeking the love of the titular Marfa. Though the narrative is specific to his own life, North’s voice and lyrics (“Marfa you ain’t guilty/Tell you the truth about me”) carry a comforting universality. Admittedly, the curio world-building of “Marfa” served as a launching pad for the rest of Heaven Get Behind Me, as North himself claims “There was an album in that world.”
Martin Ruby’s Heaven Get Behind Me is due out 11/20 on WhistlePig Records.
Hi Marco, welcome to VENTS! How have you been?
Thanks for having me! I’m on that pre-record release rollercoaster, and it’s quite a ride. I try to keep my seat belt on at all times, and my hands inside the car.
Can you talk to us more about your latest single “Sebastapol”?
It’s about the lives we lead after traumatic events. We put the pieces back as best we can, but are never fully whole. At the same time, we’re just human – we can’t keep from wishing for a home, for answers, and, well – to love, and be loved.
Did any event in particular inspire you to write this song?
I have friends that have lost children, that’s a direct connection to the second verse.
How was the filming process and experience behind the video?
It was a lot of work and a lot of fun, all done in our living room. I direct, shoot, edit and animate on all of my films, so thankfully, Covid did not slow us down on this one! My daughter Eve sings with me on this track, so of course she is in the video, part angel, part sidekick. (She acts in all of my films and is a real natural). The mermaid is played by my wife Natasha, and I love the way she smiles in this – so sweet and mysterious at the same time. For the visuals, I really leaned into the adult fairy tale aspect – the clouds are drawings, the toy train – making everything feel emotionally correct was the real challenge.
The single comes off your new album Heaven Get Behind Me – what’s the story behind the title?
The album title is taken from the chorus in the final song. They are the last words of a man who is trying to die gracefully, with no idea what his life was really about, and no idea what waits for him on the other side.
What was the recording and writing process?
It was joyous. Some of these songs appeared fully formed in less than an hour. I took my time though, wrote more than I needed and listened to the demos in various sequences until I felt like I had a really clear idea of the album’s arc. Then I began recording (all at home). I stuck to the plan, but ran into all of the surprises that are bound to happen, and just rolled with them. I took about two years to write and record and it was so rewarding when I saw it come together. And then when Hans DeKline did the final mastering, I was walking a few inches off the ground for a week. I could not even recognize myself in the final result, like it was recorded by some other person.
I understand you use some pretty particular instruments – can you tell us more about them and what led you to use these instruments?
They just built instruments differently so many decades ago, so of course they are going to sound different. Many argue they were built BETTER then, and I agree – the 100-year-old parlor guitar I wrote everything on appears in many of the tracks, it has this dry, throaty sound that is just very special. I also tracked down a playable banjola made in 1897 if you can believe it, inspired by the music of David Eugene Edwards (16 Horsepower and Wovenhand). It has an utterly haunting sound. And my faithful tenor sax was made in 1929 in Paris. It has this creamy moan, with tons of overtones. These old beasts have seen a lot, but at the end of the day they just want to be played.
How have Nick Cave and Johnny Cash influenced your writing?
As singers, quite a lot. Their phrasing, and the way they navigate the dark side of life without being sentimental is a real guide for how to do it. But the songwriters that helped me understand how to come up with my own lyrics are Leonard Cohen, Daniel Lanois and Vic Chesnutt. Their songs are so singular, you know three words into them that only they could have written it.
What role does Moscow play in your music?
There are these crows outside of our windows, and you hear them on many tracks. I like to think they were part of the performance, that they kept me company. I just started putting out a podcast about writing and recording at home and it is called Songbird – named after those crows.
How does your background as a filmmaker influence your music?
Well, writing music for my films is how some of this started. I have a creative belief – to use the minimum number of elements and try to be expressive with them. That can be the number of actors in a film, or the number of instruments in a song. I definitely try to write music that lives inside a world – create a real sense of space. Most of my songs are about “other people” not unlike characters in a film.
Where did you find the inspiration for the songs and lyrics?
I find these characters that are all extensions of my own mistakes and regrets – the lyrics are their confessions, letters they are almost too scared to write.
What else is happening in Martin Ruby’s world?
Well, I signed with Bunky Hunt’s label, WhistlePig records, for starters! I’m deep into writing for the second album these days. Bone Music is the working title. They’re angry love songs, for lack of a better term. One of them is about running away with the circus.