Amber Martin is moving on up.
At her last three Bay Area gigs, the “singer, dancer, comedienne, freak, idiot” (that’s her Instagram bio) sang in the shadows of more celebrated names.
In a pair of engagements at cabaret and nightclub Oasis, Martin performed bawdy full-throttle tributes to Janis Joplin in 2022 and Bette Midler in 2021.
And at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley, she sang back-up for John Cameron Mitchell on his 2020 Origin of Love Tour, a raucous showcase for songs Mitchell made famous (and vice versa) as the original stage and screen lead in “Hedwig & the Angry Inch.”
On Saturday, November 4, Martin returns to the 2100-seat Zellerbach for another CalPerformances concert with Mitchell. But on this tour, she’s sharing top billing.
In a series of febrile, free-ranging shows they’ve dubbed Cassette Roulette, the two longtime friends swap songs and stories from their deep repertoires: A little Hedwig, a blast of Bowie, dirty jokes, funk, country. Exactly which material appears in each night’s program is determined on the fly, based on audience spins of two “Wheel of Fortune”-style gizmos.
(The pair will also appear at Oasis Sun/5, 4pm-9pm, for an installment of their Mattachine party, which pays tribute to the gay bar culture of yesteryear, circa Stonewall.)
Martin, whose social circle (and fan club) includes the likes of Jake Shears, Bridget Everett, Justin Vivian Bond, and Sandra Bernhard, is a darling of the downtown New York performance scene.
To the public, she’s still best known for her “Bette, Bathhouse and Beyond!” events—Gay club shows with a “towel only” dress code during which she performs songs and schtick from Midler’s 1970s Continental Baths soirées.
But Martin has plenty of original material, including two albums’ worth of music and a roster of comic characters in the mode of Lily Tomlin (Well, Lily Tomlin on shrooms).
Cassette Roulette is giving her a chance to flex in front of large audiences across the country and hopefully take her career up a notch or two.
On the early October morning I reach her by phone, Martin is preparing for another big move. After years in a budget-busting Lower Manhattan apartment, she recently won the lottery for subsidized performing artists’ housing in Hell’s Kitchen’s storied Manhattan Plaza and (Subject of the documentary Miracle on 42nd Street, the complex’s many pre-fame residents have included Larry David. Terrence Howard, Mickey Rourke, and Alicia Keys).
“It’s a total game-changer,” says Martin about the opportunity the new apartment gives her to continue pursuing her unconventional artistic career with significantly less financial precarity.
Martin took a break from packing for her move for a conversation that touched on her unlikely career path, her friendship with Mitchell and the album she’s preparing to release.
48 HILLS How does it feel to be performing as a co-headliner in some of the same venues you played as a back-up vocalist last go-round?
AMBER MARTIN The Origin of Love shows were exhausting for John. He was telling stories and singing really challenging rock songs for two hours or more. Then at the end of it he was crowd surfing.
I was his wing-woman, I sang back-up, but I’d do a few songs so he could have a chance to catch his breath. We’re people of a certain age, you know. [Mitchell is 60; Martin 52].
So, when John was thinking about a new tour, he said why don’t we just work together and share the weight. It was an incredibly generous opportunity for me. It gives him a break, but it gives me a real boost. It’s harder to sell because it’s not billed as a Hedwig tour—but it’s an amazing show.
48 HILLS Elvis Costello has used a carnival wheel to let fans determine which songs to play at his Spectacular Spinning Songbook concerts. Why did you choose to do something similar?
AMBER MARTIN When John and I started to write the show, we wanted there to be a feeling of organized chaos. We’re both structure queens but shows have a better energy when everything isn’t memorized and locked down.
Our roulette wheels don’t have individual songs on them. Audience members push a button and the pointer lands on a theme or person—“Hedwig” or “Lou Reed” or “Country” or “Gayness!”—and we do a little mini set based on that.
We have all the material well-rehearsed, but not knowing which themes we’re going to do, or in what order, on any night keeps things loose and fresh.
48 HILLS You’re deeply engaged in the downtown New York scene, but you’re not a native, are you?
AMBER MARTIN I always knew I would end up in New York, but it took me a while. I’ve been singing and performing since I was three years old, but didn’t get here until 2006, when I was 36.
I grew up in Port Arthur, Texas, the same town Janis Joplin is from.
My family was always musical, my grandfather and his brothers and sisters played music in Louisiana in the ancient times. I grew up sitting around in circles listening to old people playing country gospel and bluegrass on fiddles and mandolins.
But I knew I wanted to be in New York from the time I saw Fame on cable as a kid.
48 HILLS Were you in Texas up until then?
AMBER MARTIN I went to Loyola Marymount in LA for a degree in dance—I was obsessed with Japanese butoh. So, of course, afterwards I got a job as a flight attendant! I only did that for three years, but our hub was in Portland, Oregon and I ended up living there.
I did all sorts of odd jobs to earn money, but this was back in the time of public access cable television, where you could make your own show and actually get it on TV. I had grown up on SCTV and Carol Burnett and SNL. I started doing sketches with my roommates and videotaping them.
Our phone number ended with 2868, which spells out CUNT; we always answered “Hello. You’ve reached the House of Cunt.” So that became our group name. People loved us on public access and we decided to take it to the stage.
48 HILLS What was a House of Cunt show like?
AMBER MARTIN We did characters. I think I had a bit of insecurity with myself, so I took comfort in playing characters. I didn’t need therapy; I could be a raging crack whore maniac on stage and get a lot of stuff out of my system.
I was raised by real Pentecostal country people, which led to one character called Brenda Snell, an ex-truck driver. She’s a nutbag who lives on Pixie sticks and Little Debbies. We wanted music in the shows, so Brenda would sing her version of Whitney Houston’s “Saving All My Love for You.”
I have other characters: Dottie, Deirdre, and Reba, who’s my take on Reba McEntire. I love the real Reba, but I don’t think she’d approve. Sometimes I do naked Reba.
We were a big hit. Sold out local shows. Great reviews. But I was there for 11 years. I felt like I’d hit a peak for Portland. I’d still always imagined going to New York. So, before it felt too late, I just up and did it.
48 HILLS Did you have friends or connections there?
AMBER MARTIN In Portland, I had a lot of Radical Faerie friends. They’d introduced me to some New York Faeries over the years. It’s an incredibly strong network.
You know, some Faeries are little hippie dirtbags who want something for nothing, but others are badass art makers and finger-on-the-pulse people. John’s a dirtbag, of course.
Seriously, John was one of the first people I met after I moved—at a Faerie salon that a couple was hosting in their beautiful Chelsea penthouse.
48 HILLS So the two of you clicked right away?
AMBER MARTIN John was starting to plan a party to support Julius, which is the oldest gay bar in New York, where the Mattachine Society had protests in the 1960s. It was struggling because—not to put the kibosh on old gays—but you can’t survive as a bar if your clientele is mainly 80-year-olds.
So, John and some of his friends wanted to pump some young blood into Julius to help keep it going. He and I are both nostalgia freaks and we love music from the 1970s and 1980s, so he asked me to help put the party on. That’s what we really bonded over. And we’ve continued to do the party, which is called Mattachine, once a month at Julius.
48 HILLS In 2016 you independently released a terrific album, A.M. Gold. It has a gritty, earthy ‘70s country rock vibe, but unfortunately didn’t catch on. You’re back on that horse, though, right?
AMBER MARTIN I didn’t do that album the justice it deserved. But this time I’m a fool if I don’t take advantage of every opportunity to get my [yet untitled] album out there. I’m doing some songs on this tour. They’re all recorded and ready to be mixed, so I hope the album will come out in 2024.
I wrote the songs for it with such great people: John, Jake Shears, Rufus Wainwright, my mom. I just have this feeling that it’s really sock-it-to-me great.
Peter Asher, who produced so many of Linda Ronstadt’s great records has asked me to send him the songs once they’re mixed, which is just amazing.
48 HILLS Vintage Ronstadt is right up your alley, isn’t it?
I was born in 1970 and I think it’s an amazing gift to have grown up listening to the music of those pre-Internet times. I feel for kids who have never lived without the internet. Poor little robot babies.
CASSETTE ROULETTE Sat/4, Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley. More info here.