Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers, featuring Edie Brickell, play the Holland Performing Arts Center at 7 p.m. July 21. Tickets go on sale Monday at 10 a.m.
NEW YORK — Encountering Steve Martin at a party can be an uncertain proposition. Maybe you'll end up talking to him about developments in art, politics or the weather. Or maybe he'll ask whether you want to add lyrics to some banjo tunes he's been playing around with, an invitation that leads to your making a record together and solidifies a creative union between the two of you.
That may sound like the more unlikely outcome, but it is in fact how Edie Brickell, the singer-songwriter, ended up working with Martin, the cultural multihyphenate and sometime bluegrass musician, on “Love Has Come for You,” an album Rounder Records released last week.
Like its origin story, the whole project can seem a little improbable: two performers with seemingly not much in common, collaborating on music that doesn't quite sound like anything either has made before.
It is mystifying to its creators, too, but also satisfying in a way that they hope listeners will appreciate. As Martin described his partnership with Brickell a few weeks ago, “The whole thing was a giant accident that, in our view, turned out to be very rewarding to us.”
On a March morning, they were sitting a few seats apart in the otherwise empty house of Town Hall in Manhattan. Martin, 67, who has lately applied his well-honed banjo skills to two bluegrass albums, “The Crow” and “Rare Bird Alert,” the latter recorded with the Steep Canyon Rangers, was playfully professorial, wearing glasses and striped socks that poked out from his pants.
Brickell, 47, best known for her work with the alternative rock band New Bohemians, was dressed in a scarf and tall boots, and spoke in a gentle, ethereal voice. Though the two had been working together for several months, there was a sense that they were still getting to know each other, and Brickell said she was sometimes intimidated by Martin's range of abilities, from comedy to essays to playwriting.
“I was shy around him,” she said. “When I first started singing in front of him, I didn't want to sing anything that he didn't like, and I didn't know what he liked.”
Their arrangement arose from casual conversations in which Brickell had complimented Martin on his bluegrass records, and he offered her a melody he'd composed but for which he had been unable to write lyrics.
Listening to Martin's slow string plucking, Brickell began to improvise the opening lines — “Lonely, broken feeling/Lonely, to my soul” — that became the duo's first song, “Sun's Gonna Shine.”
In the beginning, Brickell said she was afraid to tell Martin exactly what she was singing. “I was looking at a tadpole of a song,” she explained, “and needed to let it grow into a hoppy little number before I shared its essence.”
Martin was satisfied with this initial effort, though, and he gave Brickell another tune, faster and rhythmic, which she played at home while she was cooking and for which, she said, the lyrics “flowed out instantly”:
When you get to Asheville
Send me an email
Tell me how you're doin'
How it's treatin' you.
When Martin heard her lyrics for “When You Get to Asheville,” which became the leadoff track of “Love Has Come for You,” he said, “I thought: 'Oh! Good.' We're not writing old-fashioned pretend songs. We're writing contemporary songs with sort of an old flavor. The banjo is evocative of something in the past, and these lyrics are evocative of something new.”
Both Brickell and Martin find it equally difficult to explain how they create their music. Martin said his banjo compositions tended to come to him spontaneously. “You're just noodling around and you go, 'Oh — that!'” he said. “It's probably one of the freest things I do, and it's always emotional.”
Brickell's lyrics also emerge spontaneously and surprisingly. Recalling the creation of their song “Yes She Did,” in which two characters are discussing the suicide of a third, Martin said: “You send her that track and you think, 'That's an upbeat banjo track — that can't possibly be a song about suicide.' And then you realize, 'Yes it can.'”
Martin, who in recent years has helped refocus attention on traditional bluegrass music and founded an annual bluegrass prize that bears his name, said he was hopeful that “Love Has Come for You” could reach beyond “bluegrass people.”
When he sees audiences at his concerts, Martin said, “You look out there, and they're, like, people. Some of them know bluegrass, but they don't know what they're in for, really. They're watching musicians play and they can appreciate the skill.”
Asher, who helped recruit artists such as the jazz bassist Esperanza Spalding to play on the record, agreed that it transcended boundaries, for better and for worse.
“As much as I will be saying to a journalist such as yourself, 'Oh, no, this isn't a bluegrass record,'” Asher said, “if that looks like our most likely category for Grammy success, I'll be turning around and going, 'Oh, yes, it is,' without hesitation.”