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Walter Martin Remembers Art History Class With 'Arts And Leisure'


As we just heard, it is not easy being an artist. A lot of art history majors, in fact, make self-deprecating jokes about just how much their degrees are worth. But one guy's taken his art history education, or at least his fading memories of it, and turned it into a new album.


WALTER MARTIN: (Singing) Here's what I know about Michelangelo - he painted on the ceiling and carved up some stones, built some beautiful library stairs and gave St. Peter a dome.

M. MARTIN: That is the music of Walter Martin - no relation that I know of. He pursued an art history degree. He worked at a museum. But in the mid-1990s, his dual life performing in rock bands took over. And he went on the road with Jonathan Fire*Eater and then The Walkmen. Walter Martin recently surprised the rock world with his first solo work, and award-winning kids album. Writing that sparked the idea for this new record, a concept album about his time in the museum world called "Arts + Leisure."

W. MARTIN: I figured out a way to put together words that sounded like the way that I naturally speak and the way that I naturally sort of joke around with my friends. And I was really excited when I figured that out. Luckily, I feel like one of the few things in this world I'm good at is putting together rhymes quickly, so it allows me to keep the rhythm of a conversation going. So I can put a joke where I'd put a joke, and I would say something serious or sweet or something where I would naturally do that in a conversation. And so I felt suddenly really great that I was able to do that. And when my friends or family listen to it, they were like that's Walter - that's undeniable. And it made me feel good that I wasn't being phony. Just felt it's the only way to be original is to be yourself, so I figured I would stick with that.


W. MARTIN: (Singing) In a big town called LA, where no one walks nowhere, we walked to the county museum.

When I was working at the art museums, I really - I just loved being surrounded by the art. And it's just a great environment to work in, just sort of casually be walking through, you know, beautiful classical sculptures and paintings. And when I was going to write about that, I didn't necessarily want to get too - too sentimental about it. So I thought it would be more funny to imply that - my feelings about the art but then to more focus on me being in the switchboard doing prank calls (laughter).


W. MARTIN: (Singing) Metropolitan Museum, the telephone switchboard when a caller would ask for Philippe de Montebello, I'd transfer them to my apartment, where an unsuspecting fellow, my roommate Stewart, so sound asleep would answer the phone when he heard the beep and pretty quickly they'd realize that he wasn't Philippe. (Whistling).

I remember as a young person feeling like art was definitely a little bit untouchable, that - that it was sort of something for museums or for teachers and professors. And maybe I'm, like, a late bloomer, but to me - it took me a while to realize that it was sort of for everybody, you know? I guess it's sort of an obvious idea.


W. MARTIN: (Singing) Shark attacked Watson, and the hero killed the shark down in Havana Bay, down in Havana Bay.

I remember my reacting to "Watson And The Shark" when I was young just 'cause it's - as opposed to the other stuff in the gallery, which is like water lilies or, you know, Rothko or something that a kid's not really going to react to, you walk into the room and, like, there's a fellow getting attacked by a shark. So I felt like talking about that is sort of a gateway to getting into art just seemed like a worthy thing to write about. So I figured I could make it funny making fun of, you know, all European 18th-century art very broadly. (Laughter) It seemed kind of funny to me.


W. MARTIN: (Singing) In the late 18th century, while across the ocean artists were busy painting fancy ladies in their hats and dresses, a guy from Boston sat down and made a really big, really realistic painting of a guy being attacked by a shark. John Singleton Copley’s "Watson And The Shark" captured my heart, excited my sense of adventure and gave me my first sweet taste of the magic of art. So I thank him for that.

What I'm really, really trying to do is just make something that's very undeniably me. I think that the first time my mom heard my solo stuff, and she was like oh, it's Walter, it's Walter. I can't believe it. And so I've been in bands forever. I've been writing collaboratively for, you know, a long time. So to suddenly be really trying to express something that's very me and, you know, have all the little details that I hear in music and that I love, it's really - it's really a lot of fun. I mean, maybe in a few years I'll get sick of doing it and want to collaborate again. But for the moment, I do really like doing it and making little details feel very much like myself.


W. MARTIN: (Singing) Here I am in Amsterdam, walking the canals with my old man. Guess who's in love with Amsterdam? Well, I am, I am, I am, I am, I am, I am, I am.

M. MARTIN: That's musician Walter Martin - no relation. His sophomore solo album is called "Arts + Leisure."


W. MARTIN: (Singing) Maybe Van Gogh and maybe Vermeer but he hasn’t studied art well over ten years, ten years, ten years, ten years, ten years, ten years, ten years, ten years. So leave me in the Netherlands, where all the old houses seem to slant toward the street where the people stand in wooden shoes and talk about Rembrandt in the Netherlands... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.