Arts & icons

An audience with Martha Wash

Richard Burnett
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Martha Wash
Photo prise par © Luke Jones

There are great voices and then there is the voice of legendary dance diva Martha Wash, whose soaring powerhouse vocals propelled such classic hits as Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now) and It’s Raining Men to the top of the charts worldwide.

Wash has just released her new album Love & Conflict which she recorded in Montreal with producer Sami Basbous. It is her first solo album since 2013’s Something Good and marks something of a musical departure for Wash. Love & Conflict is not a typical “Queen of Clubland” dance record, but rather a retro Sixties soul-music album destined to become an RNB classic.
 
Love & Conflict showcases Martha’s unmistakable vocal chops, especially on the blues rocker Never Enough Money and the monumental ballad Honey My Friend that rivals the best of Etta James or Aretha Franklin.
 
I recently sat down with Martha for a candid Q&A about her new solo album and legendary career.
 

Martha wash

How did your new album Love & Conflict come about?
Martha Wash: My manager James Washington reached out to Sami, they connected and brought me in, we talked and told Sami to send me some songs.
 
You recorded this album in Montreal. What were the recording sessions like?
Recording songs can be varied. It depends on the producer. Sami has a lot of songs that were done, but when I came in, we mixed things up a bit, changed some words and lines to make them work for me. With artists and producers it’s always a give-and-take. 
 
Could you talk a bit about the blues rocker Never Enough Money which is a departure for you.  
Mm-hmm! (Laughs) If you haven’t heard the rest of the album, you’re going to be shocked!
 
I love the whole album! Were you out of your comfort zone?
Not really! But it is another departure, another path I’m going down.
 
In the song Never Enough Money, you sing about greed, trolling and trending on social media.
I’m looking at the world we’re living in now, and how you need to be more cautious. People talk about the Eighties as a decade of greed, but I think there is more thirst for money and power today.
 
How do you feel about social media?
With the advent of social media, the public sphere has become absolutely crazy. There was a time when you saw people on TV and heard them on the radio, but now people want to make their mark on the Internet. Everybody thinks they’re a social media influencer. Everybody wants to be one.
 
There is a lot of false outrage out there too. When we look at the bushfires in Australia, for instance, do you worry that we don’t really care? Or are you hopeful?
I have to hope we can pull ourselves out of this decline and switch directions. I also hope (America) can right itself. People say it won’t happen overnight, but I do hope we see some positive movement, and at my age I hope I’m still around to see it.
 
How did you start working for Sylvester?
I auditioned for him. I saw Sylvester in concert two years earlier in a theatre in Oakland opening for Billy Preston. When Sylvester and his band played, I stood there thinking, “Oh my God, who is this?” He was great. Two years later, a friend called to tell me about the auditions. I walked in and sang a song for Sylvester. When I was done, he asked me, “Do you know another girl who is as large as you are and can sing?” And I said, “Yeah.” I brought in Izora (Armstead) a few days later. 
 
You and Izora recorded one of the most difficult-ever songs to sing, It’s Raining Men, and I do believe you guys did it in 90 minutes flat. 
We did! The song was basically finished already. It had a rough vocal on it. All it needed was the lead vocals. I was hesitant at first but (producer Paul Jabara) told me, “I know this song is going to be a hit!” Then we recorded the song in roughly 90 minutes. Izora and I knew each other’s voices, we knew how we wanted to sing the song together, so that made the recording session even quicker. When we were finished, we walked out the door and said to Paul, “See you later!” We never thought for a second that it would become such a big hit. We thought it was too campy! But Paul was right.
 
In 1991, you recorded I Who Have Nothing with the great Luther Vandross. How did that recording session come about, and what was it like to work with Luther?
Luther called me and left a voicemail. When my manager and I called back, Luther asked, “Do you know the song I Who Have Nothing?” I said, “Yeah!” I had always loved that song ever since I heard Ben E. King sing it (in 1963). I grew up listening to that song. Luther asked me to record a new version with him. So I flew out to L.A. and we recorded it in two days. The musical arrangements were already done, all we had to do was work on our vocals. Luther was very, very nice. It was great to see how he worked.
 
Luther loved his big-voiced divas. He loved Patti LaBelle and he loved Martha Wash.
He loved recording duets with females!
 
I remember when you headlined Montreal’s 2006 World Outgames, you told me then that you had lost 80 pounds. Now, I hate working out. Do you like working out?
You’re not by yourself! But I think I am going to have to start again. As you chronologically advance, you have got to keep yourself toned up, even if it is light exercises compared to what you used to do before. I can do strength training but I do not like rowing (machine workouts).
 
It is wonderful to see the success of The First Ladies of Disco. Why do you think disco and dance music – and the great divas of disco and dance music – are still universally loved today? 
 At the time disco came out, people just wanted to have fun and dance their asses off. It was like, “Don’t come into this club unless you want to have a good time and can be in the presence of anybody.” It didn’t matter if you were gay, black or white, or what you looked like. Everybody had fun, some people did drugs on the dancefloor, but as long as you weren’t hurting anybody. Disco was happy music. It was feel-good music. I sometimes think people were happier then and I think a lot of that is missed. 
 
The gay community worships their big-voiced, strong-willed, larger-than-life divas. That’s you!
I always think it goes back to my singing for Sylvester. Everybody knew he was gay. He had a large gay fan base. They started out as fans of Sylvester and continued on with Two Tons of Fun, The Weather Girls and me. The community’s support for me has always been strong, they’ve always been my largest fan base, and I sincerely appreciate that. They love their big, loud women!
 
How do you feel when people call you a living legend, an icon? Because you are.
First thing is I am glad that I am still here to hear them say that! The other thing is, after so many years, if you’re still going after 25 years, then you become a legend! But I take it all with a grain of salt. I’m just happy I’m still working and singing.
 
 
The new Martha Wash album Love & Conflict is now 
available. For more Martha Wash, visit marthawash.com.