She's the first lady of house, he's a living folk legend. She likes gospel, he likes jungle. They are the odd couple and they're taking progressive trance to new ethereal heights. Via a whole lotta love, Sister Bliss and John Martyn tell Dan Gennoe why they were destined to be together.
Lying on the floor, heads together and eyes closed, house DJ and Faithless driving force Sister Bliss and gravel voiced folk legend John Martyn seem anything but the odd couple they really are. Laid-back and giggling at the absurdity of the situation 7 magazine's photographer's put them in, their demeanour momentarily matches the relaxed-on-record partnership of the single. If you haven't heard it yet, it's a hypnotic cover of The Beloved's lament 'Deliver Me', on which Martyn's aching blues and Bliss' pounding deep grooves make for the happiest of collaborations - that they're lying on the floor to promote.
Between shots, it's a different story. Martyn paces the floor uncomfortably, fixing those he passes with his steely glare, while Bliss is the centre of attention, with make-up artists fussing around as she wades through a stack of paper work, signing off mixes and artwork for their single. Bliss is queen bee, and Martyn has the air of a guest awaiting instruction. When it comes time for them to explain their old alliance, the division gets deeper still. While Martyn is now once again at ease and reclined, an over-excited Bliss, in absolute awe of her co-star's 30 album history and legendary status, is talking nineteen to the dozen, continually asserting her love for the towering figure beside her, and reiterating that she really can't believe her luck.
The question of how and why they came to deliver such a spiritual work is met by an excited 'Me first!' from Bliss. 'I was bumming around Thailand in 1996 and I bought The Beloved's album 'X' off a Thai pavement seller for a quid. Immediately I fell in love with 'Deliver Me'. I thought it was a beautiful, beautiful song and I loved the sentiment of the lyric.' She pauses for breath, turning to Martyn who gives an approving nod. 'Then last year I went to visit a friend of mine in New Zealand after doing a DJ tour of South-East Asia and Australia. I just went driving around, looking at these amazing landscapes listening to John's albums, mainly 'Solid Air',' she looks to her partner again, who gives another approving nod, 'And I thought I would so love to work with John. I've loved his music since I first heard it when I was 14 or 15.' John is now suitably flushed with embarrassment.
The suggestion that those who know Sister Bliss, house and trance DJ, might not expect her to be a folk fan, let alone the owner of numerous John Martyn albums is rebuffed with an unexpected list of credentials. 'Yeah, but they don't really know me. They don't know about my Joni Mitchell, Nick Drake, Jimi Hendrix and Traffic albums. And if you look at Faithless records they contain everything that we like - reggae, folk, right the way across the board. Anyway, it really just struck me while I was away that, God, I'd love to work with John Martyn. I think it might have been Rollo's idea to do 'Deliver Me', and it was obvious that John's voice would be perfect for it.' This last statement ends with another glance in Martyn's direction. 'Do you like the song, John?' His reply, like all the words he manages to get in edgeways, is in succinct praise. 'I do very much. It's very beautiful.'
Luckily the hero worship isn't all one-sided. Although best known for his long career in blues and folk, Martyn's equally broad taste led him to include a gorgeously romantic acoustic cover of Portishead's 'Glory Box' on his 1998 album 'The Church With One Bell'. So when he got the call from the Faithless camp he wasn't left wondering what he was getting himself into. 'I knew Faithless, I didn't know Sister Bliss was a DJ of her own. But I knew Faithless, simply because I'd been trying to get a friend of mine into jungle.' 'Did you have a drum & bass phase John?' Bliss interjects in affectionate mock-condescension.
'O yes. I was into de drumanbeesss,' comes his equally mocking retort through a phlegmy laugh Sid James would have been proud of. 'Anyway, he wasn't too hot on it, but he'd listened to a Faithless single, which featured something like jungle, I don't know what is was...'
'House music I think they call it John,' chips in Bliss. '... it was very cool, whatever it was, and he said I'd like it, so I went out and bought the album. And it's about the only British album of the new sort of generation that I've actually enjoyed.'
Martyn's humble assertion that he was 'flattered to be asked' to sing on the track, is inevitably met with Bliss's greater show of humility. 'Well, we were more flattered, we were more flattered that you said yes,' added to the unequivocal praise of the great man's talents. 'I have to say it was the most pain in the arse session ever, because we had 48 tracks of brilliant vocals. Which one do you choose? And for me, house music is at its best with a real yearning male vocal over beautiful music, and we really captured it on this track. When you play it in a club it's the most affecting thing, watching thousands of people being moved by music.' Martyn: 'It's kind of like blues.' Bliss: 'Or gospel. I think house absolutely comes from gospel and blues, it's just attached to a DJ banging out records and people coming together to dance. It's an outpouring of emotion I've found, which is probably why I'm still here after 10 bloody years in stupid night-clubs.'
For sure, 'Deliver Me' has dense layers, of deep soul grooves, luscious strings, and desperate vocals that make for emotive listening both on and off the dancefloor. It's a cut above the raft of anodyne tracks and anonymous singers currently filling the charts. 'There's plenty of room for stupidity,' Bliss asserts, 'but it means there's more space for us to something that's a bit more. It's got to mean something to me. If I'm not moved by something, there's not much point. You know there's tracks to do aerobics to that are obviously full of energy, like Darude or something. They're not deep, meaningful tracks, but it's got energy and a young life to it. But we're older now, and want to make music you can listen and dance to.'
The constant 'we' and 'us' references, especially when Bliss is talking about her solo projects, alludes to the silent collaborator on 'Deliver Me'. Rollo, who produced both this and her previous solo single 'Sister Sister' is never more than 10 words away from the conversation. And when he is mentioned it's with the same unwavering admiration she bestows on Mr. Martyn. 'What's brilliant about our [Rollo & Bliss] relationship is it's become telepathic now, it's symbiotic. He gets on with his broad strokes, textures and colours - that's how he hears music, he's got that synaesthesia [a clinical condition where sounds have colour], he says 'make it really sad like a rainy day, I want to hear thunder.' - and I get on all the anal fiddly stuff.'
I knew Faithless because I'd been trying
to get a friend of mine into jungle' - Martyn
Had Faithless not taken a much needed break from touring, it's unlikely Sister Bliss would have relaunched her solo career, which began as far back as 1994 with the top 40 hit 'Can't Get A Man Can't Get A Job'. ''Sister Sister' could have been a Faithless track, but there was no album around it. We [Bliss & Rollo] had this huge argument about making music that was still funky and groovy, but that DJs would actually play. I had a big thing that house music was too fast and soulless, and I didn't wanna do anything over 130 bpm, but the music we were making as Faithless wasn't fast enough.'
'The Rollo & Sister Bliss production team has done some really great stuff that's been very high in the charts and much loved by many people, but we'd begun to wonder if we were relevant anymore, because DJs weren't playing our tracks anymore. And, having come from the club scene it's important for us to remain part of it. When you see things sliding away, you've got to stop and re-evaluate. We love doing slow music, and that's fine, but we'd done some fucking good dance music. Where had it all gone, what were we lacking? The year off from Faithless was a chance to experiment and find out what we still enjoyed in house music. 'Sister Sister' was the result. We sent it to Paul Oakenfold, just to see what he thought, and he went 'It's massive' and then it appeared in his week's chart, so it really started to have momentum of its own.'
Accidental as her solo career has thus far been, with two Sister Bliss singles under her belt, is there going to be an album? 'I fully intend to do a Sister Bliss album. Whether anyone will be interested is another thing. I've got quite a few works in progress, but I really don't know when it's gonna come about. There's no huge rush, it's not like we're cashing in on the latest craze or anything, hopefully the solo career will continue to build steadily. But you know it's not like Sister Bliss is going to die a death and clear off.'
Indeed it's miraculous that she and Rollo managed to fit two singles into their Faithless gap year. Rollo made his dark and twisted Dusted album [very blue, with touches of black and purple, if you want to know] and co-wrote and produced 'No Angel', the Number One debut album for his sister Dido, who the Faithless family are apparently very proud of, even if Dido recalled in one interview that she'd been paid 'a curry' for her vocals on Faithless' debut album. Bliss herself toured the best part of the world as a DJ, took a brief holiday and then set to work on a mix album entitled 'Headliners'- out in the spring. She claims it's 'put together in an excellent and groovy and passionate way.' But with the new Faithless album half done, there's little chance of her own album appearing any time soon.
In the meantime she's just happy to champion her two current loves: spacious and meaningful dance music and one John Martyn. 'It's amazing, just chatting to people, everyone seems to have a great place in their hearts for John. It isn't premeditated, but if there is any flag-waving to the single, it would be to bring to people's attention John's amazing 30-year career. I want to fly the flag for people I love, and I believe in...' for once Bliss's excited and heartfelt praise is actually cut short by a hearty and affectionate chuckle and a few more succinct words of praise from the great man himself. 'Ahh, isn't she gorgeous.'
Sister Bliss & John Martyn release 'Deliver Me' on March 12 (Multiply), 'Headliners' is out in April on Ministry of Sound and the Faithless album is due in June.
The Beloved's John Marsh on 'Deliver Me'
'Deliver Me' was written by The Beloved, and released as a single in 1996. So what does its creator think of Sister Bliss' version?
'I haven't heard the finished copy, yet. I've got a CD with two early mixes. It's cool, it's an interesting cover. It's not really a straight cover, it's quite a radical departure, the original is a downtempo record. Of all the covers people have done, this is our favourite. Perversely the only other person to cover it is Sarah Brightman, who did a straight cover. You'd be hard pushed to find a band that has that kind of wide appeal, I like the fact what we do has that diversity. It's very nice when people re-activate things.'
Do you think John Martyn was a good choice?
'I'm sure he's almost an unknown quantity as far as most clubbers go. It's nice to hear a song I've written by a voice that I like, because we've had some very odd covers done. He's a very idiosyncratic singer, and I suppose I am. I thought it was a very creative choice by them.'
What's the song about?
'It's a love song, using a spiritual metaphor. Some completely misread it as a testament of faith, as a religious thing. But it's not, it's using salvation as a metaphor for love - now it's been presented as 136 bpm (chuckles). Sonically I think it's great, if it was slightly slower I'd play it in my deep house sets.'
The Beloved's 'Time Slip' is out now.
This ran as the cover story for this weekly with caption: Deliver us from evil.