It's safe to say that no one has pushed the realm of the singer/ songwriter/ guitarist farther than Scotsman John Martyn. Beginning in the late '60s, his musical muse has taken him from acoustic, jazz-tinged folk to trance blues and echo-filled, electric mantras, before settling into an evolved, radio-friendly fusion of blues- and jazz-based pop. Despite a lack of recognition, Martyn ranks as one of music's truly unique 'voices'. As a guitarist, he's as accomplished and versatile as Richard Thompson; his voice is a recognizable as Robert Wyatt's or Van Morrison's; and, in the tradition of Nick Drake and Tim Buckley, his songs are imbued with a rare soulfulness and spirituality.
Martyn's latest release, The Church With One Bell, takes yet another detour. He puts his stamp on 11 tunes (including one hidden remix) culled from a wide-ranging cast of writers and bands, including Randy Newman, Reverend Gary Davis, Portishead and Billie Holiday. But if all this makes Martyn sound serious or sensible, nearing 50, he's too old -or too young- for the silliness of being serious.
Aware of both the depth and under-appreciation of his enormous talent, Martyn has made his peace with the gods. After years of sometimes onstage bouts of misanthropy (usually fueled by his Scottish-sized thirst), he's a rather jolly cynic, even shrugging off a recent mugging in New York, where he was actually clubbed in the head with a baseball bat and left looking, in his words, "like Quasimodo."
The story behind his latest CD is as revealing as the music, and offers a glimpse of Martyn's holistic approach -tempered, of course, with numerous trips to the pub- to his livelihood. "The church next door to me was for sale and was being bought by an idiot," he says, getting a belly laugh out of his explanation. "I just didn't want him near me so I told the record company [Independiente] I wanted to buy this church. They said, 'We'll advance you the money for the church if you'll call the record Church With One Bell and pick the tunes from a list of covers we'll send you.'
"It's better than being paid," he added. "Normally, you don't get paid in advance, and to get a church instead of an advance is much cooler. There's very, very few companies that would even think of such a thing -it's a very cool way of doing things and it was a really friendly and beautiful thing to do."
A heavyweight songwriter in his own right, Martyn wasn't bothered in the least when asked to interpret other writers' tunes. Again, it was for purely practical reasons. "I was delighted," he says. "It saves you a whole lot of work. There it is in black and white, they send you the lyrics and you just change it to your own sensibilities. It's a damn sight easier than writing your own shit. I'd do another one tomorrow. I assembled the band and we sat there and listened to around 50 covers and every time we smiled -simultaneously- we said, 'We'll do that one.'"
With Martyn's band keenly homing in on his moods and feels, a common (and, for Martyn fans, familiar) thread runs through the disparate selection of tunes. He turns Bobby Charles' He's Got All The Whiskey into a classic minor-keyed Martyn groove while, using percolating guitar and keyboard lines a la Inside Out, he turns Dead Can Dance's How Fortunate The Man With None, into a bluesy trance. His narcotic take on Elmore James's well-worn blues The Sky Is Crying nearly floats into space, held down only by the drummer's pulse.
"It's different way of approaching it," Martyn explains. "I tend to like things very slow. Plus, it is a really miserable song and I think it needs to be sung as miserably as possible."
Unlike many musicians, especially older players, who find safety in familiar surroundings, Martyn has always fearlessly explored different styles and technology. During a stay in Jamaica in 1976, he collaborated with Lee 'Scratch' Perry and introduced the producer to the echoplex. His signature guitar techniques, percussive fingerpicking and slapping on acoustic, and heavily-echoed layering of notes on electric are now commonplace.
"It's not being fearless," he says, offering a correction. "I'm just easily bored. The desire not to be bored is a great driving force."
Although he hasn't made an acoustic record since 1973's Solid Air, Martyn is still often referred to as 'folk singer.' It's a tag he has never felt comfortable with.
"I never considered myself a folk artist," he asserts. "No, never, absolutely not. I never will be and never did. That was just because I played acoustic guitar. At the time, the only place you could learn your trade was folk clubs. Actually, they were called 'folk appreciation societies' and most of them didn't have booze. I haven't played acoustic guitar onstage for about a year now; I'm a Les Paul man."
More than three decades of touring and recording have inspired a legion of rabid Martyn fans who trade tapes of hard-to-find early LPs (now almost all re-released by Island and/or PolyGram) and record his live shows. "I think it's very healthy -especially for me," Martyn says behind a roar of laughter. "I love that and it's good for the ego. You know, you've got to have an ego or you'd never set foot onstage."
Now living in his church (pictured on the front of the CD) in a town with around 60 people and a dozen or so houses, Martyn said that beneath his sometimes-drastic musical evolution, the essence has remained the same.
"I haven't changed at all," he said. "The important thing is not to be fashionable but to be stylish. If you have a style that nobody else can quite get a handle on, that's my kind of goal. Hey, the first time I heard John McLaughlin I wanted to cut my hands off; Davy Graham still fills me with envy. But if you're strong enough about it, you're still going to sound like you whether you're playing the oboe or the tambourine or a box of matches and a whistle."