As any artist knows, evolution is an inevitable and important part of the process of creation. For Natalie Grace Martin, this evolution has become more than just an expected step in her work as a musician. The journey of finding herself and her voice quite literally saved her from driving her van off of a bridge. At that time, Martin was living a double life — one as Chris, the name she was given when assigned male at birth, and one as Natalie, the woman she knew she had been all along.
Martin grew up in Northeast Ohio, befriending local players like Alex Hoyt and Chris Baker while performing in the rhythm section of Wadsworth High School’s jazz band. Martin would become a prolific instrumentalist and vocalist around Akron, singing lead in a reggae band, Mr. Maze, with her “dream lineup” of Baker, Dan Kshywonis, Andy Cyphert and Joe Golden while also filling in as a bass player for groups like The Ruthless, Twin Atomic and Greenleaf during their reunion show at Annabell’s.
Moving west to study at the Musician’s Institute of Hollywood, Martin lived in Los Angeles for six years, picking up several high-profile gigs – one as the keyboardist and backing vocalist for Avril Lavigne – and falling in love with an actress named Chandra in the process. While in the Hollywood Hills, Martin scored and co-directed a full-length musical before traveling back to Akron to work as a karaoke DJ around bars in the city. It was during the five years along the karaoke circuit, however, that Martin began to experience intense feelings of depression and anger.
“I had to be surrounded by drunk people all the time, every night, five times a week,” Martin says. “When people are drunk, it brings out the extremes in their personalities… By the end of a single night, I was just full of hate. Then I realized that none of that hatred was really about other people.”
An inner turmoil was swelling inside Martin, which she thought was a result of working in an environment full of belligerent, over-exaggerated men and women on a nightly basis. She realized that something very different was going on while experiencing a stifling and debilitating writer’s block. This was after years of creating music, signing to a record label and recording two albums as solo artist C. Mardo Martin.
“After that second album — brick wall,” Martin says. “I was like, ‘What’s wrong with me? I’ve been writing something every day for 13 years, and now, nothing.’”
Martin’s first thought was that she had tapped out all of her creative resources to their fullest extent and was exhausted from long days and nights creating new material and playing out as a solo performer. The writer’s block lasted two years. Martin recognized something was wrong that she hadn’t been addressing for a long time.
“That’s when everything started to come to light about all the things I had been repressing my entire life,” Martin says.
In September 2013, Martin came out to Chandra, her then-wife and the mother of the couple’s oldest child. At the time, Chandra was eight months pregnant with their second baby. Martin wrote long letters to her family, sat each relative down and read the written words aloud. She explained to her loved ones that she was a transgender woman, that all the work she had done as a musician up to this point wasn’t really her work, that it belonged to “Chris” and was largely responsible for her writer’s block. She explains she didn’t come to terms with her gender dysphoria before age 30, mostly due to a brother who mocked and bullied her for participating in “girlish” activities or acting in any way that was considered even remotely feminine.
Natalie Grace Martin, self-portrait
“That’s why I hid myself in the arts and music,” she says. “Because it was the one area of work where men can be emotive and not shy away from feeling something.”
Escaping into her creative endeavors is an important lesson Martin teaches her contemporary vocal performance students at the Fairlawn School of Music, where she now works, having handed her karaoke gig off to her wife. People, she says, assume she gave up her DJ career when she came out, and while it’s true that she struggled with the concept of living as Natalie during the day while she taught her students, and Chris at night when she worked in the bars, she has been busy much of the last year working on her own solo material as a vocalist and keyboard player.
“People live vicariously through singers – particularly guys,” she says. “In a society where emotion is taboo, guys are so repressed when It comes to any emotion. But what they can do is sit back and enjoy [listening to] a man pouring his heart into a microphone.”
The musician, who chose her new legal name because it is “one letter away from ‘Not a lie,’” debuted her first, full-length album as Natalie Grace Martin in February of 2016. The leap day release is titled “Rules Are For Breaking,” and Martin celebrated the recording at a release show on March 2 at Uncorked Wine Bar.
Martin says the album serves as a solid representation of how her style and songs have evolved, with a track list full of contemporary pop covers that have been flipped and turned upside down. One may be a traditionally slow ballad that Martin performs with an upbeat funk flavor. Others are “evil sounding” renditions of radio hits, mixed with unexpected mashups belted out by Martin’s signature, androgynous high tenor vocals.
Natalie stresses that she doesn’t want the fact that she is a transgender woman to overshadow her work as a musician. Martin comes from a family of musicians and has accumulated years of varied experience learning and teaching a wide range of skills and instruments. After an encouraging outpouring of love and acceptance from her parents and wife, getting back into the Akron music scene was the biggest fear she had left after coming out as a trans woman, she explains.
“A huge misconception a lot of people have and don’t understand is transgender is a lifelong ordeal,” Martin explains. “It’s a biological condition that happens in the womb. This is how we are born.”
Martin’s initial challenge was in determining how she was going to continue doing what she loved without completely disavowing the huge body of work she had amassed as C. Mardo Martin. She realized the only way to proceed was to own it.
This, she says, snowballed into the many other things she realized she would have to own now that she was living her authentic life.