Keyboard Magazine: What was your background growing up? Piano lessons or self-taught?
Tracy Martin: Growing up, I was just the regular kid aside from both my parents being Pastors. My mom put me in piano lessons when I was about seven. This is where I began learning how to read, however, I absolutely hated it. It was so boring to me, so she took me out. It wasn’t until I was about nine when my parents really took note of my musical talent. I went over to the church one day with my mom and sat at the drums. I began to play the beat to an old gospel song my mom used to love to sing. It was more of a 6/8 groove, although I didn’t know what that was at the time. My mom thought someone had come in and started playing, but to her surprise, it was me. I’d never had a lesson but somehow it naturally came to me. Shortly afterwards, I began playing the drums for the church. I was also starting sixth grade and chose to play trombone in concert band.
We used to keep the church keyboard in our house so from time to time I would get on it and play and sing. At this point my parents thought it was a good time for that gift to be nurtured and enrolled me in the Gospel Music Institute, which is where I found piano lessons to be very exciting. I learned the basic 1-4-5 and 3-6-2-5-1 gospel progressions and about how so many songs have been built on those sequences. Some of those songs were “Kumbaya,” “Amazing Grace,” and “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” I had the privilege to play “Trouble Don’t Last Always” for our youth choir after only two weeks of being in the school. From there on I had become the keyboardist for the church at the age of 11—and the rest was history.
After only a few months of being a part of the Gospel Music Institute, they unfortunately ended up closing. My teacher, Mr. Fred, saw the potential I had and opted to give me private lessons. After a year, it had gotten to a point where Mr. Fred told my mom there wasn’t anything else he could teach me since I had done so well. He recommended me to an organ teacher by the name of Eli Trofort. Lessons got even more exciting for me learning about the Hammond B-3 organ. I was approaching the age of 14 and there was an opportunity for me to be in the high school marching band. I had to come to a conclusion of which one I wanted to do. It was one or the other and after two years of piano lessons, I chose marching band at Redan High School. I haven’t had a piano lesson since then, just picked up different things along the way as I got older.
KM: What did you wish you had spent more time learning when you were young?
TM: I often wish when I was younger I had spent more time in piano class learning to read fluently, learning about jazz and being classically trained. On the other hand, it worked out just fine that I was able to study all those things in high school. Mr. Lorenzo Moore, who was my band teacher, really helped to nurture the educational aspect of my musical knowledge. Before that, I depended heavily on my ear but it was great being able to read and incorporate theory into my playing on trombone and keys. Vice versa, playing the keyboard prior to the advance classes really helped me to understand theory a lot easier.
KM: Who or what inspired you to play keyboards/music?
TM: I relied on my mom and dad, who sang really well, for my musical inspiration. I was never exposed to the piano greats as a child and felt somewhat ashamed. Even as a teenager, I hadn’t yet heard of legends such as Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum, Jimmy Smith, Bill Evans, Chick Corea, or Hiromi Uehara. At the same time, I had no idea I would someday become a professional keyboardist, so I really didn’t take the time to get into their works until I was about 17. This is when my senior year and second year as drum major was approaching and I had band scholarships to great schools but also was happy gigging, making good money. I didn’t want to be stuck in college doing band and I got kind of burnt out, so playing keys was the move after high school in 2006.
KM: What records did you grow up on that influenced your playing and career?
TM: I can’t say I had been influenced by anyone in particular but I loved me some Stevie Wonder! I‘ll never forget I got his Musiquarium compilation album for my 13th birthday. While most 13-year-olds were outside playing with their friends or on video games, I was inside jamming. I listened to that CD every day and knew it forward and backwards. He’s definitely my idol.
KM: What keyboards/pianos did you have growing up? What was your first keyboard you bought?
TM: My first keyboard was a little black ’board with four orange drum pads and keys the size of a baby’s finger. After that, I moved on up to the Casio WK-3100. Then the ultimate gift came through. My mom talked me into going to a gala where she received an award. I was so proud of her. Once I arrive, I find this is former Atlanta Falcons football player Bryan Scott’s event for his Pick your Passion foundation. I was even more proud of my mom for this award.
Later in the night, Bryan begins talking about the recipient (my mother) and starts talking about how much of a passion she has for her music. Then goes on to say “she used to even take her dad’s combat boots and the curtain rod to march around the house. This was all in preparation of her dream to become a drum major”. I began to think, what is he talking about? This sounds like an all too familiar story.
He continues talking about how her mom expressed how she plays piano but doesn’t have a professional keyboard to play on. The moment approaches as Bryan says “Tonight, the Pick your Passion Foundation has chosen Tracy Martin to be awarded with a brand new MOTIF ES7 and a beautiful case to go with it”! I think that was the first moment I couldn’t move—what a surprise! The first two keyboards I actually bought were the Roland XP-10 and the Roland JUNO-Di. I have come to find Roland to be one of my top two favorite companies.
KM: What was your first gig recording or touring? How did you do on it? How prepared were you for it? And how did it prepare you for what you're doing now?
TM: My first gig was with Soulace in 2007, a Christian group that consisted of four ladies. We did a live recording with one of the members of their church who was a saxophonist and flutist. A friend of mine who also played keys put me on that gig. I’ve always had good work ethics when it came to learning songs. Moreover, I’ve always been a stickler for learning the record as is. I think the most important thing was making sure I was on top of all my keys. I never wanted to be handicapped by the transpose button, and also had too much pride to use it. In return, having learned my keys fluently prepared me to go into more demanding situations, such as the artist wanting to change the original key to one more comfortable to their voice and me not having to fumble in the key of their choosing. Also it just sounded good that this teenage girl could play in all her keys.
The more I learned on the keys, the more gigs I attained. Still playing and doing spot dates with Soulace in 2008, I began playing with the group Sonya McGuire & Friends and played for a host of other well known gospel artist such as Ricky Dillard, Wanda Nero Butler, and Beverly Crawford, among others. Here is where I got into more traveling. I remember driving up north to do a show in Baltimore, then going straight to Virginia to do another show, then coming straight back home. That was the most tiring trip ever. It was definitely a good experience, though, and also gave me an insight on how much sleep I’d be missing in the years to come once work really picked up. This was nothing compared to being on tour with Musiq Soulchild for a month and a half and playing three to four shows a week, but it was very helpful in preparing me for the journey ahead.
KM: How did you get the gig with Musiq Soulchild?
TM: As a result of getting out and networking here in the Atlanta area, I made some really cool friends, one of which was Stanley Ingram. Stan was already a touring drummer for several prominent artists and kind of had the inside scoop. He informed me that Musiq was looking for an all-female band. My response was, “Well, when and where are the auditions and how do I go about getting in contact with his assistant?” At the time he wasn’t sure but I made it my business to put the ball in my hands from there. I had just quit my job at Petco as a grooming assistant two weeks prior, so I had nothing to lose.
I was eager and simply hit up Musiq’s inbox on his MySpace page with the subject as “Hot Female Keyboardist” and in a few words said “Hi my name is Tracy, I play keys, I’m an Atlanta Native, and if you ever consider doing an all-girl band, please keep me in mind.” Even though I had already known what he had in mind, I posed it as if I was naïve to the fact of his vision. Now I’ve always been the optimistic person and my hopes were to get a response back but I was also just thinking we’ll see what happens. What are the odds? Is there really anything official or realistic about hitting someone on MySpace to get a job touring?
Surprisingly, not only did I get a response, but it was within the next three hours. This reply was from Musiq’s assistant Donnita Hathaway, daughter of the legendary Donnie Hathaway. She was very interested and started asking did I know of any other good female musicians and sure enough I did. At the time all this was going on, I had rehearsal later that evening. I could hardly contain myself but didn’t want to tell anyone what I was up to. Donnita quickly set up auditions scheduled about four weeks from the day I emailed her on. That was around December 18th. There was a total of 11 ladies called in to audition, a few of which I’d recommended. While we waited for Musiq to arrive, we all just took turns running over the material. He happened to walk in when I was on keys, and of course I felt a little nervous but not to the point where I was shaking.
I definitely had been a fan of his already. I can remember listening to Love when I was twelve. So the end of the day came and got the call from Donnita saying that I wasn’t chosen but would be kept in mind for other things such as sessions. I was cool though, sad for all of five seconds but optimistically kept on moving. I was definitely excited to have had the opportunity to audition. I also auditioned for Beyoncé’s band in 2006—similar situation, another great experience most people don’t know I did.
KM: Did Musiq have a keyboard player before you joined? What album did you start with? Do you play on the records at all or only live? What are your favorite tracks to play on live?
TM: Musiq had a keyboardist already who was actually at the audition, which I wasn’t aware of. Her name is Deanna Hawkins and she did the audition just like everyone else did. Granted I didn’t get the gig but I made sure to stay in contact with the ladies. It wasn’t to try and get on their good side so I could get put on either. It’s just my nature to be friendly, so I’d hit the ladies and Donnita up here and there to see how’d everything been?
They started touring in January and around April, Donnita called and asked if I wanted to hang out with her and the girls. I said, “Sure, of course!” Now part of me was wondering about it, but I never thought about what they may have had up their sleeve. I didn’t want to get my hopes up over nothing, so I nailed in my brain that we were just hanging out. That happened twice and both times I wanted to ask what was I hanging with them for but kept my cool and enjoyed the company I wasn’t used to. In return, I invited them to one of my gigs and they really enjoyed it. I believe this is what really sealed the deal for me. The ladies had a chance to assess me on a general level and onstage, all in a matter of two weeks.
I continued with my regular lifestyle, grinding and doing as many gigs as I could to survive and the day of relief soon came. On April 22, 2009, Donnita called and said, “Tracy, it’s not settled, but it’s pretty much definite that we want you to come on the next tour with us as auxiliary keyboardist.” This was the 2009 Playing It Cool tour with Anthony Hamilton. Musiq was promoting his last album On My Radio. Talking about reaping what you’ve sown, I’ve got say it’s been real. Along the way I’ve had several opportunities to go into the studio with Musiq and be creative for his artists, for other famous artists and even for him and his latest album, which is huge. I’m grateful for my gift but even more for my humility, ability to get along with others easily, my non-confrontational nature and being a great listener. It has been a year and five months and I still don’t have a favorite song to play. I truly enjoy playing all of them, and I thank God everyday for the opportunity.
KM: How hard was it to learn the parts from the records? If not, how do you approach adding keyboards to songs that don't have them on the record? Does the artist have specific instructions or can you basically add what you want?
TM: To my advantage is a highly trained ear and my almost fetishistic discipline to learn the record as it is. It hasn’t been hard to learn different parts to the songs. The first thing I have to do is learn main keys, which is standard for me. This also helps to separate and identify which parts go where, whether it’s one synth line, or the strings coming in at the pre-chorus, or a synth pad coming in on one beat in the entire song. Musiq typically doesn’t have much to say about what keys are doing, but from time to time he’ll ask for a specific line or sound from me or ask Deanna to have a particular voicing. Other than that, as long as we’re going from what’s on the record, we’re good to embellish on it.
KM: How did you choose the keyboards in your current stage rig? How have they worked for you and how have you modified them or their sounds?
TM: I chose the keyboards on my rig according to familiarity and the ability to navigate through them swiftly. Therefore, the Motif ES7 was the first board since I’d had that for four years. I was definitely fluent with navigating through it and familiar with the sounds. I also knew how to program certain sounds that I considered signature for me in the performance mode, which would be the “Twist” pad, “Fat Eight,” “Back Pad,” and “Horizon” patches mixed at different levels. Even if I’m just using piano, I’ll stack the Concert Grand with a mono grand, sometimes turning the reverb to -13 to give it a clipped sound for soloing or percussive rhythms.
Now with the Roland Fantom-X7, I use the mixer for my 16 sounds. Some of my favorites for the show include the “Feedback E.L.” guitar and “Gwyo Press” which reminds me a lot of some of the synth leads Stevie Wonder used. Also in the Pulsating synths patch list is “Going Mad,” which is like a synth bell with an echo delay on it and wide-spread synth brass section. Taking some of the attack down makes it smooth but yet still a strong sound. Also being able to layer these sounds in the mixer is a cool feature on the Fantom. I haven’t really gotten into tweaking the sounds in the Roland V-Synth GT but out of the box it’s definitely a top of the line board, especially for aux players.
KM: Are there any lesser-known keyboardists from your hometown that you could clue us in to?
TM: Here in Atlanta there are a handful of female keyboardists/organists who are actually working on the industry level. One of those ladies who made it is Natalie Ragins who plays with international recording artist Donnie McClurkin. She has also been one of my inspirations here at home and took me in. I just want to give her credit for her accomplishments. Love you, Nat!
KM: So how is it working with Musiq in rehearsal, shows, tour bus, or just on an off day?
TM: Working with Musiq has been a blessing, especially it being my first “industry” gig. Most people get out on the road not knowing what to expect then end up with the “grand” artist on top of that. These are the ones, in my opinion, who don’t want to get to know you personally, get your opinion about anything, and curse you out on a regular basis. Whether it’s two hours or ten, we have good times in rehearsal and he has never disrespected us. These moments consist of being serious to get the work done, getting in some laughs, and enjoying being creative with Musiq. When it’s show time, we pray and he always says, “Y’all go out there and let’s just have a good time.”
Granted, there are some apprehensions I’ve had when we were doing new shows. Just thinking back, Musiq always gives us time to work something out in rehearsal so we don’t feel uncomfortable. Now on our travel days or days off, we’ll all hang at the mall, or go out to eat, maybe play some cards, watch a good movie on the tour bus, or have a good random conversation. These are the times that I think matter the most. Here is where we all learn one another on a personal level and it helps us to gel onstage better.
10 Quick Questions with Tracy Martin
1. Favorite albums of the past year? Doesn't have to be kybd based.
I don’t have a favorite album per say but one of my favorite songs of this year was “Use Somebody” by Kings of Leon
2. Most underrated keyboard-flavored records?
John Beasley’s 2009 album Positootly
3. Most underrated keyboard players?
Hard question but I’m going to have to say Daniel Moore. He has been my favorite keyboardist from the moment I chose a favorite. This is derivative from a combination of his skill and energy.
4. Favorite jazz records with keyboards?
Robert Glasper’s Canvas and Double-Booked record and Michel Camilo’s Spirit of the Moment record.
5. Favorite soul or R&B records with keyboards?
Of Course Musiq Soulchild’s Aijuswanaseing, Juslisen, Luvanmusiq, Soulstar, and On My Radio are my favorites for R&B/soul records. Daniel Moore’s IAmDanielMoore EP, and Tank’s Sex, Love, and Pain album are also some of my favorites.
6. Favorite rock records with keyboards?
Steely Dan’s Two Against Nature record and Allan Holdsworth’s Hold Hat Area record.
7. Favorite organ/B-3 records?
No favorite organ records but Jimmy Smith would definitely be on that list however I have to pay homage to Rhoda Scott. It’s not too often you hear about female legends on the organ.
8. Favorite live bands wih keys?
Maze featuring Frankie Beverly, and Tye Tribbett & G.A.
9. Guilty pleasures? Could be a record, song, band, or player.
I love the song “Anything, Anything” by Dramarama and I know the lyrics from top to bottom. Also, Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way” which is something most people wouldn’t guess about me. I’d listen to them every day.
10. Favorite Rhodes song/record.
Herbie Hancock’s “4 A.M.” from The Essential Herbie Hancock.