Chris Martin is a tall, strapping young man, but his singing voice is a fragile thing--at least when it's subjected to the erratic hours and conditioned air of life on tour with his band, Coldplay.
Martin, a novice to the game, eagerly follows the medical lore proffered by fellow musicians, embracing a regimen of cinnamon and oils and other cures to keep the pipes humming.
"I'm a real prima donna when it comes to that," Martin admits with a smile as he sits in a West Hollywood hotel room.
With good reason. On Coldplay's debut album, "Parachutes," he sometimes works himself up into a Bono-like lather, but he's no rock shouter or growler. The deepest impression is made by his intimate, conversational purr, and by what's already become an unmistakable signature--falsetto phrases so smooth and natural that you hardly notice the technique as you register the emotional message.
It's a device that's helped make the English band's first U.S. single, the clamorous ballad "Yellow," an inescapable radio presence, and draw a growing audience to Coldplay's melancholy mix of rainy-day chords and heart-on-sleeve lyrics.
"When I was writing things, it was just where the tune wanted to go" says Martin, 23, who had some formal voice training as a teenager. "I don't remember thinking, 'Right, I'll try that.' "
Now Martin's singing voice is a valuable thing as well, the identifying feature of a band that has come out of nowhere to become one of the year's commercial and critical breakthroughs.
The groundswell began in England, where "Yellow" was an immediate hit last summer, leading to "band of the year" declarations from the music media and three Brit Award nominations. The group won two of the awards last week, for best British band and best British album.
Reviewers have rallied behind Coldplay's forthright, mid-tempo music as a refreshing return to classic rock values and unaffected emotion. The music's modalities reinforce Martin's lyrics of restlessness and melancholy, but the downbeat side is balanced by the reassurance in his voice and his determination to resist despair--an approach that's summarized in the album's opening song, "Don't Panic":
Bones, sinking like stones
All that we've fought for,
Homes, places we've grown
All of us are done for
We live in a beautiful world
yeah we do, yeah we do. . . .
With "Yellow" beginning to duplicate its initial success at modern-rock stations in other radio formats and with the group on its first U.S. tour, a repetition of the U.K. success--something that's eluded its countrymen recently--seems within reach.
"There's been a lot of problems breaking English artists in North America, ever since Oasis blew it for everyone," says Terry McBride, chief executive officer of Nettwerk America, the Capitol Records joint venture that signed Coldplay. "I'm willing to bet that radio will be a lot more open-minded to the next Travis record and to other English artists. As long as we don't get a bunch of pompous twits flippin' off everyone, things should be fine for a while.
"This band's the real deal," adds McBride, who manages Sarah McLachlan, Dido and Barenaked Ladies, and is also Coldplay's U.S. manager. "I think there's an audience hearing 'Yellow,' liking it because it sticks out like a sore thumb, going out and buying the album and finding something they can really grab onto."
The album has sold nearly 300,000 copies, and it jumped to No. 20 in Southern California following the band's two sold-out shows last month at L.A.'s Mayan Theatre, where Martin, guitarist Jon Buckland, bassist Guy Berryman and drummer Will Champion bonded easily with their audience by delivering on their promise--direct, felt performances, a sense of intelligence, and Martin's casually friendly manner.
"I spend more time not being a rock star than being a rock star, so I tend to stay in non-rock star mode," the singer says. "Try as I might, I can't be as glamorous as Bono or someone like that. . . . He's good at being a rock star because he's been one for 20 years. Or Liam [Gallagher] from Oasis, he's like that. You've just got to be whatever you're like."
What Chris Martin is like is something of a preoccupation of the music press in England. And the composite profile is a sort of anti-Eminem: a self-deprecating lad who doesn't drink or take drugs and who graduated from college with a degree in ancient history after signing his record deal.
"And I wear a habit," Martin adds, joking about the characterization, which is basically true, at least for him.
"But I don't care. That's what I want to do. . . . It's difficult. I hate the whole branding thing--'Oh, they're the nice Radiohead.' These little tags. But they stick to every band. Every band has it."
But there's one bit of branding that makes him bristle: that of Coldplay as a conservative counterbalance to rock's stereotypic wild, anarchic side.