When Martina San Diego, towards the tail end of summer of last year, decided to pack her bags and leave her adoptive hometown of Lorton, VA, so she could spend a year in the Philippines, she thought she was going to be turning her back on music for a while. For one, she was going to be leaving behind Ivy Rose, the all-girl alternative rock band of which she was frontwoman, who were at the height of forging their craft and who were just beginning to make waves in the NoVa/D.C. music scenes, after having released two full-length studio albums, opened for some of the biggest names in alternative rock/power pop (Ben Folds and Weezer, to name a few), and appeared in television shows (most notably season 7 of NBC’s America’s Got Talent). She was going to be putting college on hold, too—she’d just finished high school, and had been all set to go to NYU to begin pursuing a degree in Music Education (emphasis on Vocal Performance), but she decided to push that back to the next fall. Not that this sudden detour put her into a funk—after all, it was her own decision, not anyone else’s, to leave, to take a break. “I decided [it would be good for me] to take a year off and spend that time in Cebu,” she now shares. “I’ve vacationed here countless times growing up… [but this time I wanted] to get in touch with my [Filipino/Cebuano] roots.” How she arrived at this decision, no one could tell. Did she just wake up one morning and realize it was about time she did that? Perhaps she felt like, being 18 going on 19, this was a necessary part of growing up? Was this a sort of unspoken rite of passage, if you will, among American-born Filipinos? Well, whatever her reasons, the plane tickets had been booked, and she was not letting anything stop her—not even anything that had to do with music, which, next to family, had become the center of her life. She did remember to pack her beloved Breedlove guitar, though, to quell any anticipated separation anxiety.
Little did she know then that this self-imposed hiatus from music was going to metamorphose into one of the most radical turning points in her musical evolution.
When local music stalwart Cattski Espina (more commonly known by her mononym Cattski) found out that Martina was in Cebu, and that this time she was going to be staying longer than the usual couple of weeks, she wasted no time getting ahold of the girl. Cattski had just released her fourth album (her first as a solo artist; fifth, if you count her tenth anniversary compilation album released in 2010) and was done with majority of its promotion; she was also happy with how, in just four years, her “ghost vanity record label” 22 Tango Records had grown into a platform to share with other local music talents, and how this expansion, so to speak, had enabled her to take on a consulting/mentoring role to guide these people in the marketing and distribution of their work. Now she was ready to move further down renaissance woman territory by adding producer to her already extensive resume—something which, for all intents and purposes, she’d actually already dipped her toes in back in 2010 when she assumed this role for the band Wonggoys’ debut album, and now wanted to do more of. “I first met her at a Wonggoys gig some three years ago—she’s friends with the boys, you see,” says Cattski of her first encounter with Martina. “I didn’t pay any real attention to her at the time; I thought she was just another nice kid who could play the guitar and do decent covers.” (Apparently, in Cattski’s world, she bumps into those kinds of kids everyday, and so she has to be extra cautious.) “She left back for the States shortly after that, but then we started following each other on social media, and that was when I found out that she was in a band [Ivy Rose], and that they had some pretty good original material!” And so as soon as she found out that Martina was back in town, she thought, Why not give her a shot? The timing was perfect because she was looking for someone to open for the Wonggoys’ pre-hiatus gig December of last year (yes, it was their turn to leave for the States), and Martina seemed like the natural choice because she was close personal friends with the band. “I asked her to play for the [Wonggoys’] ‘send-off’ event, and she was down for it. I assembled a [backing] band for her for the occasion. I was impressed with her showmanship, but, more than that, I was blown away by her attitude and her [work ethic], so I thought, Hey, I should check out her original stuff—I was curious if she had some material outside the work she’d done with her band.” Turned out that the girl did have some material that she’d written sans Ivy Rose. In no time a demo was sent, and that was when Cattski knew she had found the artist she wanted to produce next: “It was good! It was good and honest. It was not pretentious—at all! It was exactly what I’d been looking for. So I started to talk to her about the possibility of [me] producing [her solo debut] album. And that was it. That was the start of our working relationship.”
To say that Martina wasn’t prepared for all this is sort of an understatement. Sure, she was a little floored by how fast it all happened, and by the enormity of it all, especially the part where it was someone whom she’d greatly admired that put the offer on the table: “I had heard of Cattski before, and knew she was a well-known Cebuana singer/songwriter,” Martina recounts, “so when she talked to me about releasing a solo album under [her label], in no way could I pass up the opportunity! Cattski is a well-respected musician, not only in Cebu, but in Manila, as well, and [some of us abroad have great respect for her, too], so it was really humbling—and exciting!—when I was given this chance to work with her!” But, again, not to say she wasn’t prepared for this, because the truth is, at the time she was asked to submit a demo, she was already ready with a couple of songs—two that she’d written prior to leaving NoVa/D.C., and some she’d been working on since she arrived in Cebu. Funny thing, because she’d thought that her coming to Cebu would make her forgo music-making for a while, but then all that she had come here to do—revisit her heritage, reacquaint herself with the place where her parents had been born, soak up the wisdom of elders and long-lost extended family members—only fueled her desire to write new songs, and her determination to rediscover herself as an artist. “My experiences [and interactions] here in Cebu have inspired me a lot,” she shares. “Like I mentioned, as a child, I’ve been here several times for short visits, but that is completely different from actually living and working here. My eyes have been opened to so many different [aspects of the] Cebuano culture by visiting places like Carcar—where my ancestors are from—and Oslob, Badian, Tabuelan. I’ve also been to some places outside Cebu, like Tacloban in Leyte, where some of my family are from, too. I was especially inspired by the rich family history that I have in Carcar and over in Tacloban.” Perhaps not by and large, but she also credits her exposure to her San Diego pedigree’s cultural inclinations, artistic tendencies, and unwavering religious devotion—yes, she belongs to the family that founded the San Diego Dance Company, a group that has become a sort of institution in these parts by virtue of their award-winning performances during Sinulog festivals over the years—as a catalyst in her awakening to her new musical direction. All that, combined with her forging ties in the Cebuano music scene, gave her the much-needed push for her to graduate from frontwoman mode to legitimate singer-songwriter. So it was a good thing, then, that she had not forgotten to bring her trusty old guitar with her on this trip!
And so they got down to business, with Martina writing and composing more new material, and taking all her existing material, reswizzling them, and funneling them into her new direction; and with Cattski acting as second pair of ears, providing critique here and there, helping out with the arrangements. It turned out to be a feisty, powerful partnership, one that, once it got moving, was hard to stop, and thus achieved astounding results in no time. At the time of our initial meeting to discuss the album cover shoot, only four or so weeks had passed since they’d first discussed the project and signed the contracts, but already they’d covered some pretty serious ground in terms of pre-production, and were getting ready to ease into the first phase of the recording process. When I commented on how this seemed to be a record time for her (well, for 22 Tango Records in general), Cattski declared that it was all because of Martina’s commitment, and her “mature way” of approaching the whole project. “The first question I asked Martina was: ‘Do you want to be a pop star, or a musician?’ To which she chose the latter—and I appreciated that because, as you know, I would not know how to make pop stars.” And Martina proved this by displaying a deeply ingrained sense of professionalism, by being receptive to feedback, and by striking while the iron is hot. It was all these qualities—and many more—that made her very easy to work with, paving the way to a faster, very prolific collaboration.
And all these were evident, too, in the way that she approached the preparations for our shoot, and the actual shoot itself. Loved that she had a steadfast creative vision for herself, making it easy for me to pick up ideas of what the resulting photos should say about her as an artist. For one, she expressed that she didn’t want them to look too packaged for marketing—that wasn’t what her music was about, she said, and so she didn’t want her photos to go down that route, too. Nothing too high-wattage and glamorous, but nothing too quirky, either. She wanted something down-to-earth, something natural. She also wanted them to reflect the fact that most of the songs in this album were inspired by her retracing her roots—or, more accurately, by her rediscovering herself as she was retracing her roots. I suggested a “rural road trip” kind of theme, perfect because it met all the abovementioned requirements, and she fell in love with the idea. But as resolute she was when it came to the overall look and feel of the photos, she pretty much gave me the free hand when it came to the styling part. I expressed that, just because she wanted “down-to-earth and natural” did not mean we had to settle for the basic T-shirt-and-jeans thing all the way, and she agreed. And so I proceeded to assemble a couple of outfits in the style of boho-folk—earthly enough to make her look like she keeps her feet on the ground, yet whimsical enough to make her look like she sometimes goes to sleep to dream, too. I was thinking of a young Joni Mitchell as I was putting some of these clothes together: the white bell-sleeved lace tunic, the black floral babydoll cinched at the waist with a belt—these were inspired by clothes that Mitchell wore in a series of black-and-white portraits taken by American photographer Jack Robinson, Jr., in the fall of ’68, following the release of her debut album. I was also inspired by a young Joan Baez: the Peter Pan-collar lace top (by Kristina Monsanto for Stitch in the City) that I made her wear for the scenes inside the Mancao ancestral house in Carcar (i.e., with the old piano) is obviously not boho-folk, but I wanted to reference the black-and-white Peter Pan-collar dress that Baez could be seen wearing in a circa 1964 David Redfern photograph of her performing in Edinburgh, Scotland. If she were to have it her way, of course, Martina would prefer she be shot in her “daily uniform” of a T-shirt and denim shorts, but she appreciated these references, and so she welcomed my ideas. “[Besides,] what’s a photo shoot without us getting to wear clothes that we don’t normally wear in real life, right?” she said of two or three of the more ornate pieces that I picked out during her personal shopping session with me. She would later on, however, find herself infusing those very pieces into her everyday wardrobe after our shoot, mixing and matching them with her basics (I don’t mean to blow my horn, but that right there is the measure of effective styling, is it not?)!
I make it sound very easy, but the truth is it was a bit of a challenge trying to come up with these looks. I knew that she wanted to keep things simple, but at the same time I had to be sensitive to the fact that this was a young artist who was looking to carve her own niche—there was no way I could afford to fall into the trap of making her look like everyone else! I had to make sure she was going to stand out from her contemporaries, pretty much like how her music was expected to. Even Cattski, as they got deep into the recording process, found this aspect a bit of a toughie: “It entailed a whole lot of experimentation and research,” she shares. “Martina’s core style was very distinct, no doubt about that, but I took it up as a challenge to find ways to make it stand out even more. It was very acoustic guitar-driven, you see, so my job was to look for other elements to throw into the mix, just to make sure it wasn’t going to end up in the acoustic genre catch-all.” Just like that, the atmosphere at 22 Tango and at the studios took a turn for the—pardon my language now— “shit just got real,” and everyone was required to be focused like the Terminator.
And with good reason, because Martina worked so hard for this, and so she definitely didn’t deserve to be boxed in with the MYMPs of the world. Although at first glance she might seem like one, especially when she’s playing covers of popular songs for you at the bars, just listen to her original songs and you will find she is no boilerplate acoustic act. To give you an idea of what this new sound of hers is gonna sound like, I asked her to describe it herself: “My new sound still stays true to the alternative rock that heavily influenced my music growing up, but this time I’ve infused it with some indie folk elements here and there. I guess the easiest way to describe it to a layman is this way: it’s a kind of like a mix of The Cranberries, The Cure, Feist, and The Weepies.” She broke it down further by shining a light on how much it was going to be different from her previous/old sound (i.e., with Ivy Rose): “The instrumentation of my new sound is softer than that of my band’s. For one, it’s focused more on acoustic guitar sounds versus, say, distorted guitar effects and all that.” But, to Cattski’s point, they didn’t leave it at spare acoustic guitars—there’s a great deal of inventive layering, too: “We tried incorporating a bunch of new stuff—like for this one song, instead of using bongos for percussion, we had the drummer tap on the back of a guitar!” So to sum it all up: it was like taking two influences, one old and one new, and putting them together; stripping out all the hardcore, rock-just-like-the-boys twangs so all that remained was a certain solemnity; and then adding unexpected overlays to give it a rough-hewn touch. All of which added up to a sound that was uniquely her own.
And that’s not even talking about her voice and her songwriting yet. Human nature being what it is, as I was preparing for this shoot, I didn’t even bother to ask for demos of her new songs, and I just allowed myself to be gravitated towards her Ivy Rose songs (I was more curious about what it was about their sound that made them a hit in the States, when I should’ve been more interested in how she was gonna be charting her new musical path). So imagine my surprise when, as I was photographing her in the grounds of the Mancao ancestral house (day one of our shoot), she opened her mouth to serenade me with “Stars,” one of the songs that she’d just finished writing for the new album. Accompanied only by a spare guitar, her vocals really stood out, and you could hear it was going places that it had never been to during her time with Ivy Rose. My heart ballooned at her vocal stylings, particularly her clever cadences, the way she could swoop from a sweet, subdued hum to an open-throated (yet not earsplitting) semi-wail and back again in a single legato line, and the exquisite display of texture. I loved how all this made her singing sound carefree and impulsive, and yet you seemed to know that these were techniques that only someone with a masterful control over their voice could pull off. Pair all that with a lush, soulful soprano, and you’ve got something that complements her tender, wistful songwriting style perfectly. “All of the songs [in this upcoming album] I wrote by myself,” she would later share. She thought about collaborating with others on a few songs, but then decided she could put that off for later on in her career, or for side projects—right now, as far as she was concerned, the only songwriter who understood the kind of storytelling style that would best suit her voice was herself. She played another song for me—“Crystal Clear,” a somewhat plaintive piece on coming to terms with “the the fact that you can’t always be perfect,” and which later on turns into a paean for her younger siblings—and I was so thrown that I had to stop taking pictures. It was that arresting. I remember wanting to turn to Cattski to ask, “Is this indie folk? Is this neofolk? What is this?” but stopping myself before I could. Because, really, who cared what it was? It was as good as music gets.
It strikes me to note that, even when she hasn’t released her album yet, or offered a sneak peek—save for maybe one live performance of “Stars,” which she did at a VMobile event last May 1st—Martina is already finding a following among local music fans. Couple of my friends who are event organizers and club owners have been raving about her voice, and her ability to take familiar tunes (well, not-too-familiar tunes, because Martina tastefully chooses her covers, sidestepping the conventional and opting for the likes of Modern English, Bon Iver, The Cranberries) and make them her own. Of late, her reputation as a versatile and fearless interpreter of songs has been further cemented by her lending her vocals to “Balay in Mayang,” a Cebuano-language singsongy ballad written by Kyle Wong (of the Wonggoys) and his girlfriend Marianne Dungog, submitted as official entry to the first installment of VISPOP: The Visayan Pop Songwriting Competition held last May 18 at the Benedicto College Artists’ Hall—Martina’s interpretation of the song helped make it land third place! As of this writing, only three weeks since its digital release, the combined clicks (on SoundCloud and Youtube) for the song have shot past the 15,000 mark, and a number of people—ranging from industry insiders (like former Cebu Guitar Society president Joel Oporto) to common listeners—have taken to social media sites to sing their praises and encourage others to check the song out. Funnily enough, there’s even a marriage proposal out there (“MARRY ME, MARTINA!”), but who can blame the guy? There’s no denying that, apart from being very talented, the girl is also blessed with good looks—as I was photographing her there were times I thought it was Kristin Kreuk in front of my camera, to which she just said, “I get that a lot!” (Of course, she said this in an aw-shucks kind of way—if anything, Martina is the kind who cares about looks last: “Being called a ‘simple beauty’ is, in my book, way more flattering than being called ‘hot.’”) It helps, too, that she has that kind of decorum that makes her very approachable, even to children on the street (whom she has a soft spot for)—she learns her Cebuano from them, they learn their English from her. She was reaching out to people, and so people were reaching out to her.
Yes, it’s amazing to see the kind of buzz she’s generated, even when she hasn’t released any of her original songs yet—how much more when and after she does? Well, it won’t be very long now, since her album is scheduled to drop this coming June 15 (launch event to be held at Harolds, down Gorordo and Rosal)! Yes, her fans will finally have a taste of the new Martina—the real Martina—and I’m excited to see how all that’s gonna pan out! Cattski and her team at 22 Tango are even more excited—these past few days they’ve been having it up to the eyeballs with the grind, but that’s alright, because they know it’s all going to be worth it in the end: “We’re excited for Marti, we’re excited for the team, we’re excited for the crew,” Cattski enthuses, “but, most of all, we’re excited for her fans, especially her Cebuano fans, because this new sound of hers…it’s unlike anything they’ve ever heard before! And it’s easy to listen to! Very easy!”
What is not going to be easy, though—even for Martina herself—is to try to stomach the fact that the night of her album launch is going to be her last night in Cebu. I know, and I’m sorry that you have to hear it from me first, but, yes, she is set to leave back for the States the following morning! “So many emotions at this point,” she shares. “I can’t fathom what it’ll be like when I board that plane! My heart has two homes now, which is why it’s going to be so hard for me to leave Cebu; but at the same time I am beyond excited to be reunited with my parents and my siblings back in Virginia!” To her it’s like a push and pull kind of situation now, except they’re not collateral because one force is greater than the other. It’s not just her family waiting for her back in the States, you see—the college plans that she put on hold in order to come here is now a-calling. She’s already accomplished what she came here to do, and, by some incredible stroke of luck, she’s also fulfilled a lifelong dream—to find her own voice, and to release a solo album. And so now it’s time to pursue another dream: “I’m so excited to [start pursuing] a degree in Music Education—on a scholarship!—at NYU this fall [semester]. It’s a four-year undergraduate program under the university’s Steindhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, with a Vocal Performance emphasis.” Asked why she still feels the need to go to school for something that she’s clearly already very good at, she reasons that she no longer wants it to be all about her now, and that she envisions a future of her helping other aspiring artists/musicians: “I hope to open up my own school of music one day.”
It’s the most awkward of times to leave, and Martina is aware of this—it’s almost like, wait, we’ve just warmed up to her, and now she’s leaving? She consider this subject a rather touchy one, and in fact starts to beg off talking about it, but I tell her she’s going to have to, if only to assure her fans that she won’t be gone for long, or, worse, for good. “Unfortunately, right now, I’m not sure when I’ll be able to come back,” she says. “I know that once I start college it’s going to be difficult to take long breaks.” She begs of her Cebuano fans to not worry, though, as she is bound to find creative ways to reach out to them, even when she’s 8,000 miles away. “In this day and age, social media and the internet in general have made it possible for musicians to promote their work to a once-impossible global audience,” she declares. “That being said, I’m definitely planning to promote my new album in Cebu through those means—pretty much like how, the whole time I’ve been here, my friends in the States have been kept up-to-date on the album’s progress and all. Right now the folks at 22 Tango and I are in talks about digitally distributing the album via iTunes and Amazon, to make sure the CD and the songs are going to be available to everyone, everywhere!” And although she doesn’t know when she’s gonna be back for sure, she promises that she will definitely be back: “Once a year, maybe, if my academics and financial situation will allow it,” she smiles optimistically, adding that Cebu is very worth coming back to. “I think that Cebu has a great music scene. There are so many talented musicians here, and in all different types of genres. What I like most about the scene here as opposed to the ones back in the States is that it really is like a ‘music community’ here, you know?—there is a strong sense of collaboration between artists! And that’s actually one of the things I’m looking forward to now—whereas this first album that’s about to come out is all me, hopefully the next one will contain a healthy dose of me collaborating with other people, especially Cebuano musicians that I have come to admire!” Of course, she’s not about to discount the fact that, more than being able to come up with an album, her Cebuano fan base is the greatest thing that’s happened to her in the last couple of months: “You guys are my inspiration, and, wherever I am in the world, I hope to continue making music you all can be proud of.”
Martina San Diego | Photographed and styled by Angelo Kangleon in Cebu City, Carcar, and Oslob, on January 27, 2013, and in Lapu-Lapu City on February 3, 2013 | Hair and makeup by Justine Gloria | Sittings assistant: April Ordesta | Special thanks to Cattski Espina, Andre San Diego, and Marla Baguio | Cosmic latte Peter Pan collar lace top, Stitch in the City; French rose/carnation/mantis/white chintz print top, Bossini; Redwood maxi skirt, Cotton On