When Steve Martin and Edie Brickell take the stage at Wolf Trap on Monday night in support of their new album, the charming, bluegrass-inflected “Love Has Come for You,” the division of labor will be clear.
Over the course of the two-hour show, which Martin promises will include not just music but also comedy, the vocalist best known for her 1988 hit “What I Am” will stick to singing, leaving most of the between-song patter to her partner, who’s somewhat better known as an actor and stand-up comic than as a banjo player.
“Are you kidding?” Brickell says when asked about her plans for taking over emcee duties. “How could I try to tell a joke next to Steve Martin? No, no, no, no. I would not do that.”
Throughout the show, Brickell will, in her words, “come and go,” sprinkling the songs that she wrote with Martin between tunes performed by Martin and his regular backing band, the Steep Canyon Rangers. If Brickell is dismissive of her comedy skills, Martin is equally modest about his vocal ability.
“I don’t really sing songs ‘for real,’ ” he admits in a conference call with Brickell, adding that his repertoire leans toward the “comic” or “talking” numbers. “I know that about myself, about what I can get away with.”
Though famous for his film work and comedy, Martin also is an accomplished musician, having been enchanted by the banjo since his teenage years in California. But he jokes that his early passion for the instrument — and what he calls long-lost mountain music — was “interrupted” by a comedy and movie career. Martin only took up playing seriously again when the late Earl Scruggs, a pal since the ’70s, invited him to appear on the 2001 album “Earl Scruggs and Friends.”
Though Martin says his skills were a little rusty when he said yes to Scruggs, he couldn’t have been that out of practice. The song “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” — to which Martin contributed a lightning-fast banjo break — won the 2002 Grammy for best country instrumental performance.
Brickell and Martin have known each other for more than 20 years, having been introduced by Brickell’s husband, the musician Paul Simon, with whom she has three children. The idea of working together came up only about a year ago, when Martin played Brickell a snippet of what would become the track “Sun’s Gonna Shine,” and Brickell started singing along, spontaneously.
The rest of “Love Has Come for You” was composed via electronic file sharing, with Martin e-mailing Brickell melodic ideas as MP3s from his home in California and Brickell working out lyrics in the kitchen of her Connecticut home while everyone else was still asleep, except for the dogs.
It was, Brickell says, a surprisingly painless way of working.
“I would take the MP3, and I would play it on my computer and I would record myself singing along with it on my iPhone on the little Voice Memo app,” she says. “There was usually a song right there. Once I had the song, I would plug my microphone into the computer and record the vocal and send the MP3 back to him.”
Brickell says listening to Martin’s music aroused powerful emotions, a feeling akin to an “earthy, troubling reality.” She says her short yet vivid vignettes — including, in the case of the title song, the story of an out-of-wedlock pregnancy that turns into a love story — came not from her own experience but “straight out of that banjo.”
“It was,” she says, “like somebody turned on a projector, I saw stories, and all I had to do was put them into words.”
It’s less easy for Martin and Brickell to characterize the kind of esoteric music they make. Martin struggles to describe his collaborations with Brickell, calling them more “luxurious” sounding than the straight-ahead music he makes with the Steep Canyon Rangers. (Martin’s 2011 album with the Rangers, “Rare Bird Alert,” was nominated for a Grammy for best bluegrass album.)
Brickell also expresses frustration with the music industry’s compulsion to pigeonhole. “As a singer, I love all kinds of music,” she says. “It’s like a chef who loves all kinds of foods, all kinds of spices. It does seem like people prefer an artist to be just one genre, but I don’t see how someone can limit themselves in that way.”
“When Edie and I made our demos,” Martin adds, “it was just voice and banjo. We didn’t want to mess with that because we liked the way it sounded. But we knew we couldn’t do a record that was just voice and banjo.” The album features contributions from a string quintet, jazz bassist Esperanza Spalding and British folk duo the Webb Sisters, among other eclectic musical flavors.
Maybe it needn’t be classified at all. As Martin puts it, “Backstage, we just call it Steve and Edie music.”
Appearing with the Steep Canyon Rangers on Monday at 8 p.m. at Wolf Trap’s Filene Center, 1551 Trap Rd., Vienna. 703-255-1868. www.wolftrap.org. Show is sold out.
For a sampling of music by Steve Martin,
Edie Brickell and the Steep Canyon Rangers, check out:
From “Love Has Come for You”: “When You Get to Asheville” “Love Has Come for You” “Shawnee”
From “Rare Bird Alert”: “Rare Bird Alert” “Best Love” (featuring Paul McCartney) “King Tut”