John Martyn has travelled from London to Toronto and promptly caught a cold. On this particular morning I've got one too, so the ensuing phone conversation comes fitfully between snorts, sniffs, strangulated vowels and choked consonants. We feel sorry for one another.
Grace & Danger, Martyn's first LP in several years, has been released on the heels of buddy Phil Collins' Face Value and shares several common factors. The Genesis drummer is featured on Martyn's LP both as player and producer; both LPs were made during a period when the musicians' respective marriages were falling apart, and, coincidentally, both are among Harrison favorites with the new Vapors LP,1 which, considering our sore throats, is appropriate somehow.
"I kind of avoid interviews," offers Martyn, "I guess in deference to my career. Now that that's down the tubes," he adds lightheartedly, "I guess it's time to get more ambitious."
Martyn emerged in the late '60s as a coffeehouse troubadour comparable to other U.K. folkies Ralph McTell or Bert Jansch. Disdainful of both commercial pop and the music industry, Martyn pursued a low-keyed career, developing a distinctive guitar technique and murmuring skat style of singing. Two LPs recorded with wife Beverley were followed by a series of solo LPs in which he perfected his highly personalized synthesis of jazz, blues, traditional folk and fusion-rock.
Grace & Danger follows close to form, but is his first record in years to get any kind of push from the record industry. Martyn has obliged his new label, Warner Elektra Atlantic, by touring North America with a band comprising bassist Alan Thomson, drummer Jeff Allen and keyboard player Max Middleton.
Their Toronto dates are at The Edge, which is best known as a showcase for New Wave bands. Martyn, ever suspicious of trends, naturally is amused by the booking.
"Yes, a punk club. I looked at the staff and the dressing room and I definitely got that impression. I like a lot of the music, but there's a romantic involvement with Berlin in the '30s right now that I don't like. I'm waiting for Debussy to come back."
"To be honest," he continues, "I look at all these things as very transient. I'm not interested in having a hit in 1980 and being nowhere at all six months later."
Martyn's individualism is evident in his assimilation of reggae and other styles. Grace & Danger's Johnny Too Bad, for instance, retains the flavor of the Jamaican original but has been transformed by dirty, dirty electric guitar and funk beat.
"I try not to think in reggae terms. If you think reggae, you end up doing one thing or another - the rhythmic backbeat and that. It's become a cliche and I've become disenchanted with it."
And folk music?
"I've gone away from that and deliberately so. I've got too much respect for the traditional folk and folk music to mess with it. There are guys who are absolutely astounding in that field and I respect their space."
"I did go that route exclusively for a couple of years; listened to people such as Coltrane and McCoy Tyner. I got flung into the deep end and really dug it."
Grace & Danger stands as one of Martyn's best LPs, highlighting his intimate vocals and the controlled energy of a band whose ensemble playing is masterful, spontaneous.
"I'm not a prolific writer. I prefer the natural process of songwriting and I usually simply follow what sounds great to me. I usually have a fairly clear idea of what I have in mind and am very choosy about having the final say in the arrangement. I never actually have rehearsed before recording an album. The record I'm planning to record next will be the first, and will definitely be more upbeat."
Between sniffles and sneezes comes the impression that whatever happens to Grace & Danger John Martyn will carry on as he has for the past decade, his reputation made and his art recognized. In spite of the pain of the separation from Beverley, which deeply colors a song such as Baby Please Come Home, Martyn is a rarity among artists: he's contented.
"I certainly have what I need," he agrees. "I have a roof over my head, juice on my table and a bed to cuddle in. Yes, I'm comfortable, very comfortable indeed."
1 The Vapors: English new wave band (1978-1981) that had a minor hit in the UK, Australia, Canada and the US in 1980 (Turning Japanese).
This Canadian interview appeared in The Province (Vancouver), Thursday 14 May 1981.