MARTINA SORBARA with SID SIX at Ted's Wrecking Yard (549 College), Monday (December 18), $7. 928-5012. Rating: NNNNN
martina sorbara's wildly colour-ful, whimsically decorated loft in downtown Toronto is a bit like Pee- wee's Playhouse. There's the orange drum kit and two pianos. There are two guitars crafted from scratch by Sorbara herself, each bearing intricate designs matching tattoos on her neck and right hip.
Add a vintage mint-green Singer her grandma gave her, her sketches, photography and clothing -- yes, also created by Sorbara -- and you get the sense that this is an artist with uncommon range.
But at the moment, it's the rainy-day pop on her charmingly understated second disc, The Cure For Bad Deeds, that's generating attention. And that's because Sorbara -- when teamed with percussionist sidekick Adam Hay -- holds a funny sway over people.
A recent Rivoli showcase, stuffed to brimming with habitually blabby agents, publicists, record company reps and other industry types, was a marvel of good behaviour. Sorbara, moving between guitar and keyboard, silenced the room and kept it silenced until the end.
Sorbara's upper-register voice, even when breezily relaying everyday scenarios, carries the pathos of a torch singer six bourbons into her night.
Yet the 22-year-old insists, "I don't know where that sadness comes from, because I have such a satisfying career and life. I don't mean to write sad songs. They just seem to come out that way."
Signing a record deal, then endlessly touring and promoting herself -- the obvious next step -- isn't a notion Sorbara is entirely comfortable with.
Singer sewing machines and Sorbara's much-loved fuchsia couch (where visitors to her pad must sit for a photograph while wearing a matching pink coat) don't travel well in the back of a U-haul.
"When I'm on the road, I just think about going home," she laughs. "But then as soon as I get home, I want to play for more people.
"I have this faith that everything I'm doing, whether it's sewing or making a lamp, feeds the songwriting, even if it just provides a form of meditation," Sorbara says, curling up in her kitchen chair.
"My dream is to be able to support myself doing something I love. That way I can continue to do other things that won't bring in money, like guitar-making," which she says she does not so much to achieve a unique sound but because she grooves on sculpting mahogany.
Thanks to her progressive parents, Sorbara has been immersed in music and art literally forever. She, her twin brother and four other siblings attended the Waldorf alternative school in Thornhill from kindergarten on. "It's not the most well-rounded school," she says, "but I would definitely send a kid of mine there. What they teach is what I consider most important -- art."
Her launch into professional music happened coincidentally enough. According to Sorbara, her dad -- an MPP with no connections to the music world but a passing acquaintance through his political office with TV hosts Paula Todd and Steve Paikin -- asked for their recommendation of someone "not too weaselly" in the business to forward an early demo tape to. The Studio 2 hosts suggested Sony A&R senior VP Mike Roth.
"Around three or four years ago, I met with Mike Roth and he said he liked my stuff and mentioned a development deal, but nothing ever happened," Sorbara says.
"The first time I saw Martina perform," Roth recalls, "she played guitar like Bruce Cockburn, sang like Kate Bush and then she told me she had built the guitar she was playing. I was, like, "Oh, my god.'
"But she wasn't sure if she wanted to be a musician. She was going to spend a year in Europe, and so my attitude was "Whenever you're ready, I'm here.'"
"In the wake of that," Sorbara continues, "I made Unplaceables (her now-unavailable debut) just to have something on hand and to get a sense of what's involved in making records. It was very low-key, just me and my guitar and piano."
Following the development deal, signed in 98, Sorbara, at Sony's request, paired with several producers -- Philosopher King Jon Levine, Matt DeMatteo and Dave Martin -- to lay down demos. Sorbara recalls the experience as enlightening, saying she especially enjoyed the sessions cut with DeMatteo, which included a cover of Madonna's Like A Virgin.
"I learned that the stuff I write can go in a million different places," Sorbara says. But both Roth and Sorbara agree the results weren't electrifying. Roth says a Sony-Sorbara pact "might still develop. I'm keeping close tabs on what she's doing." Sorbara says maybe, maybe not.
Sorbara's fast track might have paused there had it not been for the 99 Blue Skies Folk Festival just outside Kingston, which both Sorbara and Moxy Früvous singer/percussionist Jian Ghomeshi were playing. At that moment, Sorbara was ready to get serious with another record while Ghomeshi, already a veteran performer, was looking to explore other areas of the business.
"The thing that's unique about my relationship with Martina," says Ghomeshi, who also manages the singer, "is that before it became more formal, we had a chance to interact as performers, so it was very organic. And even though I was interested in getting into other sides of the business, it had to be a labour of love to keep me interested."
Ghomeshi's impact has been two-fold. As a producer, he focused on Sorbara's vocal performance while keeping effects to a minimum in order to showcase her guitar and piano playing. "I knew he wouldn't take my music to some big production level I wasn't comfortable with," Sorbara confirms. "That was my fear with Sony, that I'd just take this big jump and there would be no logical progression that anyone could see."
And as a manager, Ghomeshi has provided Sorbara with a realistic portrait of how the business functions and a point of entry into the local scene.
Artists such as Andy Stochansky, Danny Michel and Maury LaFoy, ex-posed to Sorbara through Ghomeshi's considerable cheerleading, have helped by teaming up for gigs or guesting on the album. All the songs on Cure For Bad Deeds, however, were authored by Sorbara alone. Which makes people's response really matter to her.
"One of the most meaningful compliments I ever got came from a man who used to visit the cafe I used to work at, the Little York on King East, every morning. My CD was for sale there, and one day I pointed it out to him. He said, "OK, I'll buy it' -- you know, sort of to support the little coffee-house chick.
"Shortly after that, I got an e-mail from him that said something like, "I thought I was doing you a favour by buying your CD, but in fact it was you who did me the favour.'"MARTINA SORBARA with SID SIX at Ted's Wrecking Yard (549 College), Monday (December 18), $7. 928-5012.