Exclusive: Listen to a song off Vicci Martinez’s new album.
Vicci Martinez has a huge presence for someone of such small stature. In a coffee shop she stood in black jeans, a studded leather jacket and gold aviator sunglasses in a crowd of bland, tired bystanders. She didn’t quite fit in; like a diamond in the rough, she sparkled. Martinez likes to call herself a nomad, living free on the open road. But an unexpected twist of events has driven her home to produce what she calls the most exciting project of her career.
A Roller coaster of Ups and Downs
Martinez is a 30-year-old singer from Tacoma whose life was jolted into the fast lane when she was cast on the first season of NBC’s The Voice in 2011. When she won her first battle round, her coach, pop star Cee Lo Green, said, “Vicci, you got this war dance, you know what I’m sayin? Like, you do this war dance like you’re about to tear this whole room down. There’s this gut-wrenching effect you have on me.”
Martinez had a similar effect on millions. She tied for third overall and received glowing praise from the celebrity judges. But The Voice wasn’t Martinez’s first encounter with a televised singing competition. When she was 16, she told producers of American Idol that she wouldn’t go on their show because they wanted to change her appearance and control too much of her career.
After The Voice, Martinez signed with Republic Records and released her first major record, Vicci. While her single “Come Along” proved fairly successful, the album never gained enough steam to push up the charts. She was dropped from Republic Records in fall 2013. The rejection was a stab to her ego. She was living in L.A. and didn’t know what was next. She never expected her career would lead her through a familiar street full of childhood memories.
Growing up in the Northwest
Martinez was raised by Mexican parents who were Jehovah’s Witnesses. Her mom was an English-as-a-second-language teacher, and her father was a plumber with an ear for music.
“My dad played violin when he was in school and he was a great singer,” she said. “He was always singing around the house and he wanted one of his kids to be a musician.”
Martinez’s sister, Lina, was on track to be his young prodigy. But when she didn’t want to cut her fingernails for violin practice, Martinez offered to take her place when she was 5.
“I wanted to do it so bad,” she remembers. “So then I played for like six years.”
Martinez’s parents realized Vicci was musically gifted and her dad soon became her partner in finding success. They practiced songs together for church talent shows. She played at farmers markets throughout Tacoma. When she was 13, her parents took her to her first real gig at the Antique Sandwich Company’s open-mike night. There, in the quaint restaurant space near Point Defiance that smells like cold cuts and coffee, she sang one of her first original songs. The local crowd fell in love with her voice, and her place in the Tacoma music scene was a sign of what was to come.
As Martinez was growing up, she began to realize she was attracted to girls. She describes her teenage years at Stadium High School as “different.”
“I was the girl that everyone knew that if they liked girls, they could find me and I’d make out with them,” she said. “Like the random cheerleaders that were like, ‘Oh, I’m kinda curious.’”
She says some people knew she was gay since she was in middle school, but she didn’t come out until she was 16. Affirming her sexuality would be a pivotal point in her life. Becoming open with who she was would make her voice more powerful than ever.
“I just did it because it’s like I’m writing these songs. I don’t want to cover up what I’m writing them about. I don’t want to stand on stage and, you know, not be living my truth but writing songs about living your truth.”
Coming out was the turning point for Martinez. It gave her the inspiration she needed to commit her life to music and sing from her heart.
But it also created a divide between her and her parents.
“I couldn’t live my lifestyle at home,” she remembers. “I went through a period, like a year, where they knew I was gay but were trying to like, work with me on it and whatever. And so I left.” She was 17.
Heartbreak to Inspiration
Martinez doesn’t like cut flowers. Her dad used to say flowers were for funerals.
She doesn’t like that time of year when summer starts to fade into fall. When the sky is blue and the sun is out but the light is different. The sun is weaker, the shadows longer.
“It feels like the end of the year, when all that bulls**t comes to a head,” she said, driving her black Audi.
It’s also the time of year her father died. He passed away about nine years ago from cancer when Martinez was 21. A few years before, they had rekindled their relationship after not speaking for about a year.
“Right when it happened, it’s like the worst thing possible. Anybody who loses a parent that you’re really close to, you kind of like have a rebirth. Like, now I’m this person without this person by my side all the time,” she said.
But her father’s passing made her want to live life to the fullest. She would never hide from her talent or her dreams. Her father helped her find her potential, and now she would never turn her back on it.
“We all have something in us. Some people find it and some people don’t. Some people don’t because they are too scared,” she said.
Coming Full Circle
Last fall, Martinez got a text out of the blue: “I think I might have just written a song for you.”
It came from her friend and musician, Aaron Stevens. He always had wanted to write for Martinez, but nothing ever came to fruition. This new song was the perfect fit. It had a melodic and vocal complexity that suited her soulful voice. At the time, Martinez was looking for new projects.
Eager to record something, Stevens turned to DJ Phinisey, who owns Remedy Recording Studio, and Paul Hirschl, a drummer in Stevens’ band with whom he often collaborates. When Martinez typed the studio’s address into her iPhone, she didn’t realize that the suggested route would take her down memory lane.
“I was like going right by my old middle school, right by my old house … where my mom used to go get milk,” she said. “I was like, ‘I’m coming back here right now?’… Back to the place I was born. Like literally not even a mile away.”
Somehow fate guided her back to her roots: a neighborhood in East Tacoma where her parents raised her and nurtured her dreams of becoming a musician.
“It was like the book The Alchemist,” she says. Like the boy in the novel, she had left on a journey, only to find what she was looking for back where her dreams began.
That first recording session at Remedy sparked the makings of a new album that will debut this year. A small group of Northwest musicians was producing a new sound that pushed Martinez into waters she had never explored. It was different and fresh, and composed on her old stomping grounds.
Philly 4th of July Jam is the largest free concert in the country, and a half million people fill up The Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia to see performers like Nicki Minaj, Ed Sheeran, Jennifer Hudson and Ariana Grande. Martinez was booked to open it last summer, and she decided she wanted to debut her new made-in-Northwest music on the grand stage. The only problem was she had never performed it live.
The stage at July Jam sits at the bottom steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It’s a spot famously known as the stairs Sylvester Stallone climbs and throws his fists into the air in Rocky. This was also the backdrop for Martinez’s moment.
She sang her heart out and the crowd erupted into cheers. On certain days her drive to make it in the music business had led to rejection and the scary question, “Now what?” But on this day, thousands were calling out her name, throwing up their hands and dancing in the streets.
When Martinez debuted that same new music at a secret location in the Northwest the crowd was smaller and quirky. She sang into the mike, her head vibrated with the sound of her voice. She picked up drumsticks and started pounding. While the music was new, there was something familiar about the performance. Martinez commanded the crowd just like she had on national television. It felt like she was about to “tear the whole room down.” It was her war dance, and it was gut-wrenching.
Martinez, Stevens, Phinisey and Hirschl have started their own production company, Enter-Exit-Stay. In addition to Martinez’s next album, they plan to write songs for other artists. They’re currently looking for investors and Stevens has moved into managing Martinez. Enter-Exit-Stay signed their group contract on Dec. 20. The day Martinez’s dad would have turned 64.
Martinez may call herself a nomad. She doesn’t have a permanent address, but she does have a home. Her roots are in the Northwest. And no matter where she goes, she forever will be intertwined with her humble beginnings.