When John Martyn counts (shouts) in the first track of his new album, there's no mistaking the Scots accent. But the subsequent bluesy grumble is archetypal Martyn, a unique sweet/ sour mid-Atlantic drawl that's an acquired taste to his many fans worldwide, if an apology for singing to his detractors. Yet the boy has been prolific, as from his 60s Glasgow folk roots he has gone on to create an astonishing variety of original songs in highly evolved musical settings that run from acoustic guitar simplicity to sophisticated rock to fractured jazz and beyond - all united by his great sense of a groove.
I ask him what he felt about his latest album, On The Cobbles. Talking from his Kilkenny home (he moved to Ireland five years ago), he reflects and says: "Well, it's a very clean album. But it was recorded over the last two and a half years. I'm more interested in what I'm doing now, the music I'm making now. It's important to stay in the moment. Stay creative. Like, I'd like to use a horn section.1 It would be expensive, but it's one of my ambitions, and I will fulfil it." And he'll write the parts himself. "I don't write music," he admits. "But I can sing. I'll sing them each their part and they can write it down."
Martyn's musical imagination is part of a wide taste for music beyond the mainstream. "I'm listening a lot now to Pharoah Saunders and Debussy," he says. "And hip hop. I'm seriously into hip hop. I was in Chicago in the early 80s. I loved that time. I have played on a few hip hop tracks, though I wouldn't -couldn't- think of doing rap myself." And of his long career in the music business, Martyn is surprising.
"I never had any ambition to play music full time," he says. "It was only after my first album, on Island, and Chris Blackwell's wanting to take over my song publishing, that I realised there was money in it. I always wanted to be a doctor." And Martyn's seen a lot of doctors this last year. On The Cobbles is dedicated to the staff of Orthopaedic Ward One in Waterford Hospital, Ireland, where the singer was nursed back to health and, literally, back onto his feet after electrocuting himself onstage. Complications meant the removal of a lower leg, and its replacement with a new ankle and foot - in titanium. (He says he enjoys people getting out of his way at airports, when they put him in a wheelchair so as not to set off the metal detector alarms.) "Well, I'm 56," he laughs. "And it's time I slowed down." (Norman Chalmers)
1 This ambition is new to me.
This announcing interview was published in The List issue 493 of 29 April, 2004 on page 50.