Over a flat, low beat and swelling electronic bass blooms, synth chords drive a light pop vibe. It’s a sculpted sound, as far from an acoustic rock guitar as you can get — but there’s Vicci Martinez’s voice over the top, filling the song and the East Tacoma studio where it’s being mixed with her trademark husky rawness.
Back home in Tacoma for nearly a year, the singer-songwriter is moving into new musical territory — a new sound, a new musical work ethic and a new EP, produced with local hip-hop engineer DuWayne “DJ” Phinisey and musicians Aaron Stevens and Paul Hirschl, from indie rock band Goldfinch. And she’ll be unveiling it all in a benefit concert at the Rialto Theater Saturday.
“It’s a good transition between my last album with Universal (Records), which was pop, and incorporating that with my past band and this whole other sound,” Martinez says about her new four-song EP “I Am,” just released along with five other singles. “It’s really different.”
“It’s kind of hip-hop-influenced pop, with an indie-art pop edge and electronic idiom sounds,” explains Stevens of the new material.
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In other words, it’s not just Vicci and her guitar anymore.
From Martinez’s early days in acoustic rock and the poignant lyrics she belted out at local festivals, her career took her through third place on NBC’s “The Voice” in 2011 and a couple of years on the Universal label to a musical place she wasn’t comfortable with: a pop sound and treatment as “the singer brought on stage to sing.” Despite living in Los Angeles and performing at gigs like Philadelphia’s enormous Fourth of July Jam with the likes of Ed Sheeran and The Roots, Martinez wasn’t happy.
“I was just so sick of myself, I was just so sick of everything being about me,” Martinez told the Peninsula Gateway in December.
And so, last May, Martinez broke off with Universal and came back home to a new kind of music. Stevens, a guitarist and singer with indie folk roots, and Phinisey, a sound engineer with a hip-hop/R&B sound, had already been working together on a project, joined by drummer Paul Hirsch. Laying down tracks in Phinisey’s studio, they didn’t know who would be the singer — until Stevens, who had worked with Martinez years before when she’d subbed for Goldfinch’s vocalist, decided on a whim to ask if she was interested. She was, and they quickly worked to write enough new material for the Philadelphia concert, signing a two-year contract and calling the group Enter-Exit-Stay.
“The audience loved it,” says Stevens. “Since then we’ve just been cranking it out: writing, recording, producing.”
In Phinisey’s studio, refining the final mix of “Til Now,” the three men drive the decisions about the sound in tight, urgent voices. Martinez wanders in, cuddling Stevens’ new puppy just as Phinisey makes the synth a whole lot grimier.
“It sounds like a fart,” she says. She might have a slick new hairstyle with whitened top and shaved sides, but Martinez, now 30, still has the engaging directness that has won her fans since she began performing as a teen.
Phinisey adjusts the distortion, and Martinez walks out again to her laptop, where Jimmy Fallon has just started following her on Twitter.
But Martinez says that working with Phinisey, Stevens and Hirschl has not only given her a new sound, but a new work ethic. Showing up to the studio every day to rehearse and record, releasing one song every week to fans, analyzing and repeating to get details right has had a huge effect on her musicianship.
“I actually love it, this hard work,” she says. “It’s like a real job! These guys are retraining me — my work ethic, my guitar playing, my singing. … When I did my last album I was being catered to — I had a musical director who never made me practice. I just came in and layered over. But it made shows more stressful. Now, we’ve been training since May.”
“You get confident, you feel the songs in your bones,” adds Stevens. “It’s not karaoke.”
And the fans, says Stevens, are loving it — eventually.
“When we released the first song, “Bad News Breaker,” we’d have people saying they hated it,” he grins. “Then they’d like it. Then they’d say it was the best song ever.”
Saturday’s concert at the Rialto — a benefit for Centerforce, a Lakewood nonprofit that helps people with disabilities find employment — will feature some of the songs from the album with just Phinisey, Hirschl and Martinez on the stage. They’ll try to replicate the sounds of the recording while making use of the hall’s excellent acoustics, some songs featuring just guitar, voice and piano. Two more four-song EPs are planned for summer and fall releases.
“It’s a real change of pace,” Hirschl says, adding that “it’s really cool having so many people (in one project) here in Tacoma.”
For Martinez — if all goes well — it’s the sound of her future.
“The intention is that if this works, we’ll be doing it forever,” she says. “This is more exciting to me than when I heard my songs on the radio for the first time.”