Marty Finkel was writing songs before he ever knew how to play a musical instrument.
"There are times when I'll be driving and I'll start singing, and then it just comes to me," he says. "I just have these melodies in my head."
Finkel, 22, can't stop writing songs. He's already written and recorded more than 50 of them since he graduated from Middleton High School in 2004. This Saturday at the Frequency he releases The Good Life, a collection of 14 alt-country and rock songs that establish Finkel as one of the best new music artists in Madison.
Finkel grew up in Middleton and says he learned how to play guitar in high school as a social lifeline. "I was a chubby outcast," he says. "I thought, 'Hey, maybe people will like me if I play this.'"
As a teenager, Finkel was a big fan of the Foo Fighters. So he wrote some rock songs that emulate their style. "They were awful. I can't even listen to those songs now," he says.
His songwriting style changed when Elliott Smith became his musical hero. Smith was a Portland-based folk-rock songwriter who committed suicide in 2003. Finkel has XO, the title of Smith's 1998 album, tattooed onto his left wrist. He began traveling to Portland after high school to get to know the city where Smith composed so many of Finkel's favorite songs.
In Portland, Finkel established musical connections. He recorded his 2007 self-titled album at Jackpot! Studios in southeast Portland, the same place where Smith recorded two tracks for XO. Finkel returned to Portland last summer to record The Good Life at a friend's home studio.
In a nod to Finkel's emerging songwriting maturity, the songs on his new record are anything but Elliott Smith knock-offs. Tracks like "Never Gonna Let You Go" and "Love Is Blind" thrive on rollicking percussion, jangly guitars and two-note, tick-tock bass lines. They're country-pop songs that brim with the heartache of lost love.
Finkel kicks into straight-ahead rock on songs like "Annabelle Gentry," where a growling electric guitar riff meets pounding drums. Along the way, piano chords keep time to the beat.
The musical embellishments of Good Life are a progression for Finkel. His earlier work is unadorned guitar folk. The evolution of his production helps nudge his songs out of their shell.
After graduating from Middleton High, Finkel says he took some classes at the Madison Area Technical College. "I never really liked it," he recalls. So he enrolled at Madison Media Institute, where he studied music technology and recording. In addition to pursuing his music career, he's working at Sooper Dooper, the CD printing and packaging company owned by Crustacean Records founder Chris Langkamp.
Besides the Foo Fighters and Elliott Smith, Finkel also credits his parents with feeding his artistic muse. "My mom wrote a lot of poetry when she was younger," he says. His dad liked to play piano in secret.
"I remember coming into the house one time and hearing him play," says Finkel. "He didn't know I was there, so I sat and listened for a while, but otherwise, he never played for us because evidently he didn't think he was very good."
Now Finkel is trying to overcome a similar kind of stage fright to fuel his growth as a musician. "I used to be very scared to get onstage, and I still am, a little. I want to play more shows to get over that."
That shouldn't be a problem. Driven to shake the melodies out of his head, Marty Finkel has plenty of material to play.