By JOHN GRIFFIN
of The Gazette
There were few musicians during the 1970s who seem as comfortable with the role of the naive, introspective singer-songwriter as Scottish folk artist John Martyn. Sensitive, with a mellow vocal and writing style that tends more towards matters spiritual than temporal, Martyn appeared the archetypal folksinger for most of his 13-year career.
But those images are history, claims Martyn, and his new album Grace & Danger (Island) bears out that claim.
"My record company took ages to release Grace & Danger in the New World," the native of Glasgow told The Gazette this week. He's making his first visit to Montreal since opening for Eric Clapton at the Forum in 1974.1
"They claimed that the material was too moody, too jazzy for North American ears. Well, the music is moody, but it needn't bring you down." Martyn, who plays Le Club Montreal tomorrow night, may well be a master of understatement. In a career that has produced 11 albums, he has developed a reputation as one of the most adventurous -and reclusive- artists in the folk idiom.
For years, Martyn preferred the sanctuary of his family and home in the countryside outside Glasgow to the rigors of touring, and his rare performances in Great Britain were considered major events in the folk world. Suddenly, Martyn has released the Grace & Danger LP to attendant fanfare, is embarking on a cross-Canada tour, and is even submitting to the dreaded phone interview. Why the change of heart?
"Unfortunately, all this activity is caused by my recent divorce, and the resultant loss of my three kids. I'd always preferred staying at home and bringing up the children to touring. But with an empty house it's better to get out on the road than stare at the walls."
Singer-songwriter John Martyn plays 'Le Club' tomorrow
Grace & Danger chronicles the trauma of his separation. Martyn's slurry, blues-based voice is in top form, and the shimmering music shows his increasing pre-occupation with electric guitar and jazz.
"I've been fascinated with different kinds of music for years now, and you can hear influences of reggae, blues and improvisational jazz in all my albums. And switching to the electric guitar has broadened my horizons tremendously."
Folk purists doubtless will be shocked to hear that the 30-year old Martyn is leaving his acoustic guitar behind when he comes to Canada. His rhythmic style has been a major influence on a younger generation of players, and the move to a sparer electric sound has surprised his fans.
"England has adjusted to the new sound, and I hope Canadian audiences will too. But I've always experimented with feedback, echoplex, and other electronic devices, so no one should be too shocked."
Indeed, Martyn forced open the sacred doors of folk music in 1971, when he released Bless The Children, [sic] a landmark folk-jazz fusion album that featured long, electronically-treated acoustic guitar solos. And over the years he's recorded with artists as diverse as ex-Mothers Of Invention Billy Mundi, Band member Levon Helm, ex-Pentangle bassist Danny Thompson, and most recently, Genesis drummer Phil Collins.
Collins, himself a victim of a recent divorce, is slated to produce Martyn's next album late this summer. "The LP will definitely be a band album, predominantly electric, and a good deal more up-tempo than what I've done so far.
"Even though I usually find the songwriting process fairly mundane, the tunes planned for the new LP have popped up when I least expected them, and I'm quite pleased with them."
The band Martyn mentions is the one he'll be bringing to Montreal. With fellow Glaswegians Jeff Allen on drums and Alan Thomson on bass, and keyboardist Max Middleton, notable for the jazz textures on Jeff Beck's Rough And Ready LP, Martyn is certain to blow away any memories of the reticent Scottish folksinger.
1 In 1974, John opened for Yes in the Montreal Forum on the 25th of February. The opening act for Eric Clapton took place 7th April 1978.
This Canadian interview was published in The Gazette (Montreal), Saturday 4 April 1981.