An inside look at the music of Marty Boyle, one of the Valley’s most talented songwriters
In the Pioneer Valley, fall is making its last stand. The increasingly bare trees are desperately trying to cling to the last bits of color they possess before giving way to Amherst’s uncompromising winter. It is a time of year that beckons for a certain kind of music, something more intimate and homespun than what summer’s endless possibilities call for.
Marty Boyle’s lively, feel-good folk-rock fits right into this transitional, evocative atmosphere. Recalling the accessible but personal singer-songwriter tradition of artists such as Paul Simon and Cat Stevens, Boyle’s music manages to constantly surprise while never losing its aim to please.
“I enjoy leading the listener down a certain path and then sort of pulling the rug out from underneath them,” Boyle said. “It’s like telling a story – you want it to be dynamic and evolving, but I also don’t want it to be predictable.”
A senior at the University of Massachusetts, Boyle first picked up the guitar 10 years ago and began writing mostly humorous songs in high school for various classes and talent shows.
During his freshman year at UMass, Boyle further solidified that side of his music, forming a comedic folk-rap duo called the New Rockwells. Although his songwriting has come a long ways in the years since, an unmistakable sense of humor and wit remains, providing an indelible spark to both his self-titled solo debut album, and the music he makes with his new band. That band’s name also happens to be the New Rockwells, further underlying the unique lyrical attitude that sets Boyle’s songs apart from others in the crowded folk-rock genre.
Boyle’s debut album, released this July, is a mostly solo, acoustic affair. But even without accompaniment, his vocals and guitar playing are sufficiently stirring on their own. In its more spare moments, “Marty Boyle” most recalls the moving songs of Tallest Man on Earth, minus that material’s more ethereal and distant qualities.
“Marty Boyle” is too focused on realism and making direct connections with the listener to focus on being opaque or emotionally hard to reach.
“There are songs that I chose to be the final cuts for the album that, maybe nobody else can hear it, but I can hear a mistake or two,” Boyle said of the album’s live-in-the-studio sound, and its up-front nature. “I didn’t think it was worthwhile to go back and try to get this perfect image.”
Recently, Boyle teamed up with two friends, Ben Muller and Ian Stahl, and formed the New Rockwells, a trio that performs Boyle’s solo material along with compositions by Muller and Stahl.
Muller and Stahl were both music composition majors at Amherst College, where Muller now works as the orchestra teaching assistant. Between the two of them, they provide much of the accompaniment on “Marty Boyle,” with Muller on piano and saxophone and Stahl on bass. Boyle said that the way his songs turn out when he collaborates with Muller and Stahl is usually “different in some ways than I thought it would be, but it’s better.”
“It’s kind of cliché to say, but as a group, what we produce is a lot better than what we could do individually,” he added. “And that’s a sign that it’s working.”
After we finished our conversation at Amherst Coffee, I walked with Boyle down to Amherst College’s small, but impressive Buckley Recital Hall. Waiting in the classroom were Muller and Stahl with microphones and gear mostly ready to go. Muller, taking a seat behind the piano, discussed and confirmed the structure of the new song they were about to play while Stahl patiently finished setting up his drum kit.
When the trio was ready, they excitedly launched into the new song, titled, “Where Are You Tonight?” Immediately, a different dynamic from “Marty Boyle” was apparent. On “Where Are You Tonight?” the New Rockwells’ chemistry is abundantly clear, with Muller’s saloon-like piano lines working beautifully in tandem Stahl’s supple drumming. Crooning over it all is Boyle, whose inquisitive, yearning vocal delivery is at once both passionate and charming.
The trio has the warmth of a great bar band but the instrumental chops of a group with incredible creative promise. They easily filled the large classroom with their affable racket and infectious energy. Boyle, demonstrating the creative alliance of the group, let both Stahl and Muller take solos on their respective instruments. Each was technically impressive and anything but pretentious, adding perfectly to the song.
The song ended with a bang, its energy lingering in the classroom long after Muller and Stahl finished taking down their gear. They discussed their plans for the evening with Boyle before departing. Left alone, Boyle performed a stirring, solo rendition of “Get It Right!,” the opening track on “Marty Boyle.” The song’s warm chords and personal but whimsical lyrics filled the room just as easily as the New Rockwells, even without the help of two additional musicians or amplification.
As the fall quickly turns to winter and the leaves begin to disappear, people will inevitably look for music to warm them up. Marty Boyle and the New Rockwells have both the songs and the musical chemistry to give you the extra push you may find yourself needing this season. Hailing from the Pioneer Valley, the trio has the potential to make a big impression both in the local area and beyond.
Jackson Maxwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.