After the New York band the Walkmen split, in 2013, former band member Walter Martin wrote a set of children’s songs for an album the following year called “We’re All Young Together,” which you might have heard in a number of commercials.
Children’s concerts didn’t go so well, though, and the Washington native started writing music relating to his interest in art history, which began on visits to the National Gallery of Art as a child and continued at St. Albans School and later in college. The resulting “Arts & Leisure,” which will be released Friday, is a veritable travelogue — from the L.A. County Museum of Art to the National Cathedral to Scotland’s Glasgow School of Art. We spoke with Martin, 41, recently, about it.
How did you arrive at this set of songs?
Honestly, I really wanted to have a subject matter. And I suddenly thought of doing art history. I was an art history major in college, and I thought it was a funny idea.
I liked the idea of taking the focus off myself a little bit. . . . I have a lot of ideas that I think are funny, then sometimes I realize I don’t have quite enough depth to bring them to completion. But when I started writing art history songs, I realized I could add a lot of depth to them because I really love art and I have a real personal, genuine connection to art and artists that I figured I could tap into. I started feeling like it would be a more interesting thing.
Why did you call it “Arts & Leisure”?
I thought it was funny to name it after a section in the New York Times. At first I thought it was a Trivial Pursuit category, but that’s actually not right. But that was the original thing that got me excited about it. It just rolled off the tongue and explains exactly what the album is about. I wanted to be clear what the album was about, and it really is about arts and leisure.
Is it easier for you to do a thematic album like this?
It gives me the willies to do a solo album. . . . If I were talking to a friend and I said, “Hey, I made a solo album,” I think I would feel uncomfortable about that. But if I said to someone, “Hey, I made an album and it’s about art history,” they would sort of chuckle, and I would feel more comfortable. It sort of takes the focus off me.
Did making your first solo album a children’s record surprise people?
It didn’t really surprise my friends because they know that I love the Coasters, ’50s rock, Leiber and Stoller, that kind of stuff. . . . People who know me well, when they heard it, they said, “It makes a lot of sense, it’s very you.” The people who don’t know me might be surprised.
It was fairly successful.
It did well. It started out slow. I put out records on my own. I have my own little business, kind of. So it’s allowed me to make this record and to keep chugging. So I’m very surprised and very happy.
Are you going to support this record with touring?
I’m going to do some touring. I’m playing some shows at museums and things like that. But I don’t really have a touring fan base. . . . It’s licensing music that’s allowed me to stay afloat, which is great because, with two kids, touring is not something I want to do with my time off.
What kind of things have your songs been licensed for?
I was in an iPhone ad recently, and there was an Android ad and some independent movies. Things like that.
Licensing is easier than touring?
It’s a hell of a lot easier. I did a tour this summer actually. I did a full month of touring by myself in a rental car, opening for another singer-songwriter [Josh Rouse]. So I had a very mature crowd, people in their 40s and 50s. Sort of a seated audience, which I loved. They didn’t know who the hell I was. It was a lot of fun and I sang a lot of my kids songs, which they really got a kick out of.
Once people are successful in children’s music, they usually make a career out of it.
Kinda, yeah. I didn’t really think about it. I started writing a lot of different songs, and on the kids songs, somehow I was able to sound most natural. When I played them for my wife, she said, “Those songs, you sound like yourself. The other songs sound like you’re trying to be something else.” So that’s why I just went with those songs.
I never thought I would entertain children. I did some children’s shows, and kids, they don’t want to see a guy like me there. So I quickly stopped making kids records and stopped doing kids shows. I also learned that playing the kids songs, presented in a funny way, adults really got a kick out of them. I never had any ambitions to becoming a kids performer. Those were just the songs that came out.
What went wrong at the kids shows?
I hadn’t thought it through. After about five minutes of the first kids shows, I thought, “There’s something wrong here. I don’t want to be here, they don’t want me here and this is not a great plan. They want to hear songs they know. They don’t want to hear my little clever jokes. They’re not listening anyway.” And I spent a lot of time with my jokes and my kids songs and nobody cared. I tried to put a zippy little beat on every song, so kids would think it was fun. But it wasn’t that, it wasn’t necessarily good for kids; it was more sort of a wink to parents.
So the parents appreciated it.
I don’t know. If I had been there as a parent, I would have been like, “I wish this guy could get these children to pay more attention. Now I have to watch my child here. This is his job to do this for a half-hour and he’s not doing it.”
Regarding your new album, there aren’t a lot of songs written about art history.
If there was a whole genre of people writing music about art history, it would really suck. It seemed like fresh turf for me. I got really excited about it.
What kind of art is your favorite?
So many different things. I was lucky enough to go to a high school that had art history starting about the 10th grade. At that age I was into post-impressionists and impressionists. . . . And I still love that stuff, in the way I love the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix. That’s the stuff I originally gravitated to. . . . My wife and I used to go to galleries and see all of the contemporary things going on in New York before we had kids. Now we don’t. Now we don’t do anything.
You dedicate a whole song to John Singleton Copley’s “Watson and the Shark” at the National Gallery of Art.
I have always liked that painting. But that was sort of a reimagining of history. I just like the idea of taking the wind out of 18th-century art in a sort of very oversimplified, probably totally inaccurate way.
It doesn’t sound like accuracy is what you were going for, with songs like the one that wonders whether Van Gogh or Vermeer were from Amsterdam.
I was definitely not. I was an art history major, but it was a while ago and I tried to not clean up my art history knowledge. The last thing I wanted to be was academic. So I wanted to be pretty clear it was more about my sort of loose interpretations and personal experiences of art.
Catlin is a freelance writer.