San Francisco-born singer-songwriter Michael Martinez is still finding his way toward a career in the music business of the 2020s — which so far involves playing a lot of small gigs, and telling his friends to stream his first single on repeat on Spotify with the volume down while they sleep.
It's no small feat finding an audience in an age when people have both unprecedented access to nearly all the music that's ever existed, as well as short attention spans and the age-old tendency to crowd around established names. Martinez, who grew up in SF and went to Sacred Heart for high school before heading to the esteemed Berklee College of Music in Boston — made recently famous in the Oscar-winning film CODA — is still figuring it out.
One path has been doing regular gigs for Sofar Sounds, the international promoter of "intimate" concerts featuring up-and-coming artists in unconventional venues that are sometimes people's homes. Martinez was one of three LGTBQ+ artists from the Bay on a Sofar Sounds lineup Thursday night at Manny's in the Mission — along with the excellent Jin the Queen and Anna Macan — which was only slightly interrupted by Warriors fan revelry on the streets outside. By way of example of the hustles that Martinez is learning to embrace, he finished his set by selling some "merch" at the door — homemade candles and face sprays — and asking customers to Venmo him what they wished.
"Every single Sofar Sounds show I’ve played has been an incredible experience," Martinez tells SFist. "They are so welcoming and just DOWN for the unapologetic version of whoever you are. And the audience just wants to hear good music that they’ve never heard before… It’s honestly changed my life."
And on Thursday night, just as Martinez was taking the stage, his first-ever publicly released single dropped on Spotify. It's called "Freedom Within," and it's a moving ballad that was inspired by the anxiety and self-doubt that came with coming out to his dad.
"I may not have seen it as a self-love song when I wrote it but I think that’s why I’m ready to release it, as my first song, now. I finally care about my life and this music enough to share it," Martinez says. "I’ve still got a long way to go before I’m at a Lizzo level of self-love, but I know that I’m actually on that path now."
The song describes familiar emotions for LGBTQ+ people going through the process of self-realization and finding the courage to share one's truth with the world — and Martinez sings it with some serious crooner energy, bringing to mind Sam Smith.
"Maybe I'll wake up and realize I'm not a sin," the lyrics say, "and maybe one day I'll find freedom within."
Below is a video on YouTube that Martinez made for Sofar Sounds — it includes a performance of "Freedom Within," but it also features what will be his next released single, "Ugly In LA" — which is something pretty much everyone who's ever set foot in LA has felt. And SFist also sat Martinez down for a Q&A, and edited version of which is below.
Tell me about the origins of "Freedom Within."
It was actually one of the first songs I wrote. I have written hundreds of songs since, but these lyrics came to me about nine years ago, in a matter of minutes. They were too emotionally heavy, so I forgot about them. Then a year later I came across them in an old notebook and, just like the first day, the melody and chords also came quickly. The song probably took a cumulative 20 minutes to write… But with a hiatus. So technically, a year and 20 minutes.
Then I played the song a few times, at a gig or two, here and there, but it was just too real, I guess. I wrote the song about coming out to my dad. Or about the fear I had in regards to coming out. I was out with my friends but hadn’t told him yet. The irony is that he definitely knew I was gay. He told me shortly after I had finished writing the song that he knew. And most importantly, that he still loved me. I was worried I’d lose another parent — my mom passed when I was 14 and the fear of losing the only parent I had left for something completely outside of my control, my sexuality, was scary. Thankfully, I didn’t lose him.
I know how painful coming out can be for so many young kids (and grown adults). And that so many DO lose their parents. It can be very lonely. And even after that conversation with my dad I was still lonely. So I think that’s what was eye-opening — most of the pressure, sadness, anxiety, and pain I wrote about was all coming from within.
I’ve also realized how this song can help people. Nine times out of ten when someone comes up to me after a show it’s because of this song and what it did for them, how it got them thinking, processing, crying, or just in their feelings. The song has a strange kind of power that I’ve realized can’t just be mine anymore.
Did growing up in San Francisco make it any easier to come out to yourself or your family, do you think?
You’d think it would! But I was bullied a lot growing up. Even in San Francisco. Mostly for being short, skinny, and effeminate… although my large nose wasn’t immune to the bullies either (lol). But I think it did get to me. And that was one of the many things that led me to believe that I didn’t want to be a stereotype, a.k.a. the gay boy who loves musical theater. Then when I was in freshman year of high school, when I was just letting go of that stereotype, is when my mom passed away. In hindsight, I can see that I could’ve been happier being out at a younger age. But I lost my best friend and support when she passed. So, it was still another four years before I started the slow process of coming out.
What has your experience been of being a gig musician around the Bay Area so far?
There is such a beautiful community of musicians and talented artists here in the Bay. It took me a little while to find the right places for me but I’ve found my people. I try to mix it up by playing all sorts of gigs, but of course, playing my originals, usually with support from the incredible community that is Sofar Sounds, is the best. Lastly, I do some theater as well. [Martinez appeared recently in Brat Pack at Feinstein's and in the new musical Coming Soon at Z Space.] Finally got back to my roots! I am a big believer in “following your joy” and I feel very lucky to say that is true in all of the work I’m doing now, and to have such diversity within the work and gigs that bring me joy is a blessing.
What advice do you have for kids who think they may be LGBTQ, and who are just figuring that out?
The one thing I can say for sure is to keep going. Also, honor yourself by following your joy. Whether it’s a person or a place (or a musical), whatever brings you joy, follow that thing. That often leads to the type of communities that will allow you to show up as the full human that you are, deep down. We are taught to think that we are alone and have to do everything on our own, when that’s not the case. It’s okay to ask for what you need. Sometimes it takes time to find your people, but it is worth the wait.
Also, if you can, try to write, or make something out of whatever pain you’re feeling about your situation. Coming out looks different for everyone. Mine was a slow burn. But I wrote this song and didn’t even realize what it would do for me, how it would help me in the way that it has. And it was because I chose to sit in the pain. And make something out of it.
So, keep looking. Stay observant. And KEEP. GOING.
Stream "Freedom Within" on Spotify, and/or leave it on repeat while you sleep.
Top image courtesy of Lisa Frare Photography