Violinist and singer Sarah Martin spent a lot of time avoiding being in people’s bands before joining Belle and Sebastian. Martin grew up in Northern England and moved to Glasgow for college, where she met Joanne Kenney, who suggested she join the band that her then-boyfriend Stuart Murdoch was starting. Martin thought it sounded like a terrible idea until she heard Murdoch’s tape.
She listened to rough versions of “Dog on Wheels” and “Put the Book on the Shelf,” on which Murdoch would stop mid-song and say, “Shhh, I’m recording.”
“There was nothing polished about it,” Martin says during a call from Glasgow, where the indie pop band has just finished a soundcheck at Galvanizers Yard. “There was a real charm to it.”
The tape convinced her, and she joined Belle and Sebastian just before the band started recording its 1996 sophomore album, If You’re Feeling Sinister. She says it was the perfect time to join the group, as she was finishing the school year.
“When you’ve done a load of exams, you just want to do something that shakes you up and inspires you a little bit, I think,” Martin says. “I would have loved to carry on studying, but the expense of that was a bit prohibitive at the time, really.”
Martin landed a job at a bookshop, which had employed people who were in other Glasgow bands. “They would always be very accommodating to help you sort of build up enough to take off and go off and tour and stuff,” Martin says. “I had to get a job that would just sort of be flexible so that I could run around with a band.”
She’s been running around with Belle and Sebastian for more than two decades, the better part of her adult life. During that time, Martin says the group has gone from being a vehicle for Murdoch’s songs to having other band members contribute to the songwriting process.
“The dynamic is just continually in flux,” Martin says. “People pull one way and other people pull a different way. It’s certainly not a static dynamic, really. It’s always shifting. Some people have a different sort of energy at different times, and so somebody at some point will be like, 'I want to go into this studio and do this song.' And that can really spark everybody else, but the energy can come from anywhere, really. But everybody feeds off it. So yeah, you never know where the next sort of creative thrust is going to come from.”
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The way Belle and Sebastian makes records has changed as well. How to Solve Our Human Problems, released earlier this year, compiles three EPs that were issued in late 2017 and early 2018. While Belle and Sebastian’s 2015 album, Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, was upbeat and dance-y, Martin says the way they approached the material on How to Solve Our Human Problems was to “just allow things to be outside of a dogma of any kind, just to let things exist, really, and try a few different ways of things.”
The band took its time recording How to Solve Our Human Problems in chunks and knocking out an album in two months, as Martin says the group has done on the last few records. Martin says taking a more leisurely approach in the studio gave the songs a little longer to ferment.
"It’s a double-edged sword kind of thing,” Martin says. "There’s something about just capturing a burst of energy in a moment and just kind of allowing six or seven minds to just focus more or less entirely on one thing. That’s a really great way to make a record. We went a slightly different way this time, but things changed more than they probably would have. When you’re working fast, you just have to commit fast and keep moving forward. We definitely sort of allowed ourselves to look around a little bit and try things in different ways. It was quite good.”