Rediscovering the Feral Girl


Gail Martin


Lexington Visual Artist Reinvents Herself Through Music

By Digney Fignus

Today’s world is ever-changing and often challenging. People who want to make sense of it all, or at least gain a clearer understanding of the chaos that surrounds us, often defer to society’s artists, musicians, or shamans (who are many times one-in-the-same) to interpret the confusion. It’s been that way since time immemorial. Music, art, and spirituality have always been intertwined. From the first scratches of ochre painted on cave walls to the ancient echoes of primal rhythms beaten on a hollow log, it’s what makes us tick. It’s that “feral” ground where images and metaphors emerge from the stillness of the mind or the world of dreams. They are the fuel that has forever sparked the engine of creativity. This is the landscape where Lexington singer and songwriter Gail Martin draws her inspiration.

After 15 years as a recognized visual artist whose critically acclaimed collections have been exhibited most recently at the prestigious Bromfield Gallery, Martin flipped the script and in 2007 began to concentrate full-time on music and songwriting. Gail is just one of the millions of baby boomers who have decided to reinvent themselves at midlife. It’s a new lifestyle model that the flower-power generation has enthusiastically embraced. With the Pew Research Center estimating that 10,000 baby boomers will be retiring every day for the next 19 years it’s something we can expect to see more and more. For those not ready to retire full-time, pursuing the arts offers an array of opportunities for second-act careers.

At age 58, Gail recently previewed her first studio recording, Feral Girl, at Flora restaurant in Arlington. It was an intimate and eclectic crowd of 30-plus supportive listeners and friends. Gail was accompanied by fellow Lexingtonian and accomplished musician Peter Warren on electric guitar, dobro, and lap steel. They seamlessly performed most of the songs from Martin’s debut CD as well as a few new originals and select cover tunes, including Joan Osborne’s inspirational “One of Us” and the classic Santo & Johnny instrumental “Sleepwalk.”


Gail Martin and Peter Waren performing

Feral Girl is a collection of 11 original songs drawn from hard-won experience as well as the world of imagination and dreams. Gail’s freshman CD is a mix of plaintive appeals, stories of transformation, and stark images of life, its struggles, and its triumphs. Martin examines the mysteries and wonders of existence in songs like the opening number “River” and “Unfinished Wings” with its ethereal harmonies. She fearlessly tackles subjects like growing old in “Ugly Trees” and “Last Flowers of Fall,” and homelessness in her haunting narrative “Bessie.” “Life Hard as Stone” shows off her early roots and a familiarity with the traditional form of folk music in her tale of revolutionary New England farmers.

The process of creating Feral Girl was also a journey of rediscovery. In Gail’s words, “A few years ago, I discovered that at some point of the process of becoming a well-civilized young lady, a part of my personality had been exiled to the depths of my subconscious. I came to call her my feral girl. As I explain in a note on the CD, if I hadn’t recovered the spirit and courage of this part, I wouldn’t have been able to do this work. So I dedicate the album to her.”

Gail grew up in rural New Jersey near the Pennsylvania border. She moved to Boston to attend the Art Institute in 1973 with her self-confessed “Farrah Fawcett hairdo and platform shoes.” She arrived on the scene with the idea of becoming an illustrator or commercial artist. Unfortunately, she soon became disillusioned by discouraging teachers at the school who Gail in some ways blames for “banishing the feral girl” that the new CD is dedicated to. Martin soon left the Art Institute in favor of Emerson College where she became a theater major. Having hands-on experience at creating and designing sets eventually led to a job as a window designer at the Jordan Marsh store that was then located on Washington Street in Downtown Crossing. It was a wonderful creative outlet that led to a passion for visual art and eventual success as a recognized artist in her own right.

When asked about the transition from visual arts to music, Gail reflects, “I was actually very surprised to find how connected the song-writing is to visual art, and how quickly the ability to write my own songs emerged. I think in images and images drive both endeavors. All those cover songs I learned also served as a crash course in writing. The other big surprise was that I felt music allowed me to be even more expressive than the visual arts, enabling me to engage on a deeply energetic as well as imagistic level.”

Feral Girl is a profoundly personal project for Gail. “I have been practicing meditation for many years and most years I take a silent retreat of between one to six weeks. I go to a place in rural Massachusetts that allows me to spend a lot of time in nature, and many of my songs grow out of this opportunity to deeply connect to the nature of life and existence. I’m fascinated with this world and the workings of the mind, how to heal our deepest sorrows, and how to be happier, and try to share what I learn in the songs.”

When I was at the Flora CD preview, I also got a chance to talk with Barry Jacobson, Gail’s partner for the last 30 years and husband of 25 years. Barry first met Gail when he was Registrar of the Cambridge Center for Adult Education and she signed up for a course in yoga. Yoga and meditation are an ongoing theme in their lives. Many of the fans at the showcase were friends from the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center where both Barry and Gail have been practicing meditation and yoga for over 20 years. Gail draws unabashedly from that spiritual well. In her words, “The nature of mind and the mind of nature are my primary inspirations.” The meditation center was also where Gail first met Peter, her musical accompanist, and fellow performer at Flora.

Gail’s choice to preview Feral Girl at Flora is particularly poignant because Chef Bob Sargent, the culinary master at Flora, was in many ways the catalyst for her current musical career. Chef Bob heard Gail singing at a mutual friend’s party they happened to both be attending. Soon afterward he invited her to sing on a recording that one of his musician friends was working on. That experience of recording in the studio sparked a reemergence of one of Gail’s girlhood joys. “As a teenager, I wanted nothing more than to be Joni Mitchell. So my early training on guitar focused on finger-style playing. I sang in the park, sang in chorus, sang in my bedroom. I performed in a folk trio, called (somewhat embarrassingly) Rainbow. In 2007, after many years of exhibiting visual art, my love of music re-ignited when a friend asked me to sing back-up vocals on his CD. I decided to rededicate myself to this somewhat neglected area, dusted off my guitar, found a great vocal coach and started anew. I must have learned 100 cover songs in the next couple of years, and that training period, combined with the feeling for imagery that had informed my artwork, led me to writing my own songs.”

You can hear some of her early influences like Joni Mitchell and Patty Griffin in Gail’s musical crafting. Besides meditation, dreams also play an important role in her writing. Her husband Barry confessed that Gail dreamed about the homeless woman and her dog “Bessie” in incredible vivid detail before putting their story to music. In contrast, Gail’s song “River” came to her while kayaking and contemplating “becoming one with life itself.” Like the river, “To endeavor to live without resistance to whatever state we find ourselves in, come what may.” Her efforts have attracted critical acclaim as well as the attention of local folk legend Vance Gilbert who calls Feral Girl, “satisfying…atmospheric. Her voice is perfect, the stories and writing magnificent, the playing clear and swinging.”

Gail Martin’s transition from artist to balladeer is still evolving, “The process of songwriting is still somewhat mysterious and miraculous to me. I find inspiration in the strangest places, when I am attuned to the world around me in the ideas, the metaphors, the stories seem to arrive synthetically. That is to say that I often feel as though I am a receiver as much as a creator, and that my job is really to practice the skills needed to present the music well, and keep myself open to what wants to be expressed through me. Each song feels like a gift, and with each one I wonder anew at my great good fortune.”

When she is asked about the rewards of recording and producing Feral Girl she is quick to reply, “The biggest thrill has been opportunities to work with talented local musicians. I never found a satisfying way to collaborate in the visual arts, and so art-making was a mostly solitary and sometimes lonely process. When I began to work with other musicians, I was delighted. All the talented people that came in to record on the CD brought so many wonderful musical ideas to the project. It’s like borrowing other peoples’ genius! After so many years of working alone it almost feels like cheating.”

Accompanying Gail on the Feral Girl recordings are Peter Warren; co-producer Larry Luddecke of Arlington’s Straight Up Music studio; Susan Robbins and Marytha Paffrath of the Internationally known women’s world music ensemble Libana; local musicians Valerie Thompson, Beth Cohen, and Jim Gray; and nationally known singer-songwriter Vance Gilbert.

Sunday, November 2, marks the official release of Feral Girl with an afternoon concert at The Burren in Davis Square, Somerville from 2:00PM to 5:00PM. The show is free and open to the public. The performance will feature Gail and Peter as well as other special guests who performed on the CD.

For more information, visit

Colonial Times contributor DIGNEY FIGNUS and his band perform in clubs and festivals around New England. Check for the latest information on upcoming shows.


Gail Martin and Peter Warren performing

Gail Martin’s CD – Feral Girl – is available at

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