John Martyn: Solid Gold

Christopher Barrett
Music Week

Forty years of living life to its fullest has supplied John Martyn his fair share of both high and low points - the past 12 months alone have seen the singer/songwriter recieve a wealth of awards and also contract pneumonia. But with an array of remasters and a new studio album in the pipeline, the future looks positively rosy for the evergreen star.

Not only has John Martyn produced some of the most sensitive and beguiling moments in modern music during his long career, but having survived four remarkably creative and hedonistic decades in the business he has also proved to be something of a fighter. It seems appropriate that Martyn should be in the middle of watching Akira Kurosawa's fierce epic Seventh Samurai when Music Week contacts him at his home in Kilkenny, Ireland.

Soldiering on despite recent health problems including the loss off part of a leg in 2003 after a cyst became septic, Martyn's creative enthusiasm and wicked sense of humour remain undimmed. As he prepares to join the ranks of the sexagenarians with his 60th birthday on September 11 fast approaching, Martyn remains determined to continue performing and recording. While making steady progress putting the finishing touches to his 23rd studio album, November will see him head out on an extensive UK tour that includes a show at London's Barbican theatre.

In many ways, 2008 is proving to be a landmark year for the renowned singer-songwriter: not only does it mark 40 years since the release of his debut album London Conversation, but it has seen him honoured like never before. In February Martyn picked up the first major award of his career when his longtime friend and collaborator Phil Collins presented him with a lifetime achievement award at the Radio Two Folk Awards. In a recorded message played at the ceremony, Eric Clapton said that Martyn was "so far ahead of everything, it's almost inconceivable". Then in June it was the turn of Mojo to honour Martyn with the prestigious Les Paul Award. And since the beginning of the year Universal, together with the host of johnmartyn.com John Hillarby, has been busy preparing a four-disc boxed set packed with previously unavailable material and rare live recordings scheduled for release on September 1.

But it has not always been red carpets and silver cups for the singer-songwriter. During his career, Martyn earned a reputation as an uncompromising hellraiser, not least due to his booze-fuelled antics with the likes of Paul Kossoff and Danny Thompson. But Martyn's childhood got off to something of a quiet start. Born Iain David McGeachy in Surrey's leafy New Malden in 1948 to two opera singers, it was not until Martyn moved to Glasgow and spent his formative years in the city's folk clubs that he first developed a taste for folk and the lifestyle opportunities that being a musician presented.

Come 1967, Iain had honed his style, become John and was making ends meet in London where he attracted the interest of Island Records founder Chris Blackwell. A contract was signed and Martyn swiftly found himself spending an afternoon in a Putney studio recording his repertoire in mono, the result being his debut album London Conversation. Reflecting on what led him to sign the first white guy to a label dominated by Jamaican artists, Blackwell says, "I was purely working with Jamaican music, but I really liked the purity of John's music and his voice. The roots of my interest in music was jazz, but I always admired musicianship above all."

The follow-up to London Conversation, 1968's Al Stewart-produced The Tumbler, found Martyn introducing jazz influences to his material, marking the start of a career of experimentation that would later see him becoming one of the leading exponents of the looping Echoplex guitar technique. The same year saw Martyn fall in love with Coventry singer Beverley Kutner, who was being managed by Pink Floyd/Nick Drake producer Joe Boyd under the Witchseason umbrella. The couple married and recorded two albums, Stormbringer! and The Road To Ruin.

Pentangle bassist Danny Thompson was on hand for the latter album and teamed up with Martyn again for 1971's Bless The Weather, a landmark record that found him using the Echoplex to loop his acoustic guitar to stunning effect, not least on the instrumental Glistening Glyndebourne. Martyn's resonating guitar sound broke new ground back then, while its influence can still be heard in the music of the likes of U2 and KT Tunstall. Martyn's passion for jazz became increasingly evident and, in February 1973, the release of Solid Air won him hitherto unprecedented acclaim. With the title track dedicated to his friend Nick Drake and tender moments such as May You Never, which was later covered by Eric Clapton, Solid Air is considered by many to be Martyn's finest moment.

After the January 1975 release of Sunday's Child, his eighth album for Island, Martyn struck out on a volatile tour with Thompson, former Free guitarist Paul Kossoff and drummer Jon Stevens. Despite prodigious drink and drug consumption on the tour, the collaboration spawned the album Live At Leeds, but the following year Paul Kossoff died and Martyn was left devastated. In an effort to provide Martyn with some much-needed solace, Blackwell invited him to his home in Jamaica where he introduced him to producer Lee 'Scratch' Perry. Blackwell's interest in bringing the two together was sparked by the fact that Perry's recording techniques at his Black Ark studio were not dissimilar from Martyn's use of rhythm boxes and Echoplex.

Blackwell's presumption proved correct: Martyn loved collaborating with Perry and a number of inadvertent sessions were recorded, but their combined behaviour proved a little too much for the Island boss. "I think putting him together with Lee 'Scratch' Perry was one of the most irresponsible things I have ever done," says Blackwell. "There are lots of stories there. I wouldn't know where to begin, specially as I have fortunately forgotten most of them." Blackwell jokes that after Martyn left, the very mention of his name would scare staff and locals until "quite recently".

Blackwell would also play a key role in the recording of Martyn's next album One World, having invited him to record at his country house, Woolwich Green Farm in Theale, Berkshire. Blackwell recalls, "By this time I viewed him more as a jazz artist. I consider one of the songs Small Hours to be one of the best tracks I ever worked on. I think it's just magical. It was recorded outside at about 3am; you can hear the geese in the background and a train passing by."

Martyn would go on to collaborate with a remarkable array of artists including Clapton, David Gilmour, Steve Winwood to Paul Weller, but it was his emotional and artistic connection with Phil Collins that led to 1980's Grace & Danger. Recording in the aftermath of his split with Beverley, it is a heart-wrenchingly honest album that remains one of Martyn's own favourites.

In the years that followed, a series of studio albums and collections have ensured that Martyn's huge influence among the folk and wider music fraternity has continued to grow. And whether it be Don't Want To Know being used as the theme for Steve Coogan's TV show Human Remains or his Top 40 hit with Sister Bliss, Deliver Me. Martyn's music continues to win new hearts among the mainstream audience.

Blackwell is one of many to have been won over by Martyn's remarkable musicianship, heartfelt songwriting and big personality. "[John Martyn] is real and so is his music," says Blackwell. "That will always stand the test of time even if he probably damaged himself in the process. He was never a person who was into the concept of a career. He just loved to live life and play his music."

As a young man growing up in Glasgow you were surrounded by music. Did the fact your parents were opera singers inspire you?
They were light opera singers so I was subjected to various arias. They would perform in variety halls; they were very good.

So were they supportive when you started playing the guitar?
No, no, they hated the idea.

What sparked your interest in folk music and your desire to perform?
A friend introduced me to American folk music that was largely spearheaded by people like Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. When I first heard the guitar played in that style I really wanted to do that. I got myself started in a very straight way, a Joan Baez kind of way: straight chords, Peter, Paul & Mary kind of shit. Then I heard David Graham and it took me to a completely different place. That was when I decided to play properly.

And you supplemented your income by playing darts around that time?
[Laughs] I did yeah, you get snooker hustlers, right? Well I was a darts hustler. I used to make three quid a night, but a pint in those days was two and sixpence. I had my paper round in the morning and it was all cool.

Do you still throw the occasional arrow?
No, I've broken my shoulder twice since, so my throwing is not to be relied on. And my eyesight's not that great either, I'm nearly 60 now, you know. The other thing not many people know is that I used play poker professionally. I did it for a year and a half; I went in with £12,000 and came out with £13,000, and never had to pay for anything. It was wonderful.

What made you move down to London?
Money. There were no record companies in Glasgow.

When you moved to London you used to perform at the Cousins club in Soho. Was that an inspiring time?
I loved that, yeah. But I don't think I was ever influenced by anybody to be honest – I invented all the shit I did. There are so many singer/songwriters around now it is ridiculous. I'm glad there weren't that many around when I was starting out.

How did you come to meet Chris Blackwell?
I was introduced to him by a guy called Theo Johnson at this place called the Kingston Folk Barge. It was run by two meths drinkers. They would charge half a crown to get in, but didn't charge you if you played. So as I wasn't working and didn't have any money I used to play, and one day Theo came down and asked if I wanted to make an album and I said, "Of course." The next thing I was meeting Chris and recording the album. I think the record cost around £300; we did it all in one afternoon in a studio on Putney High Street. It was a two-track studio [laughs].

You signed to Island, who released your debut album London Conversations. At the time, Island was pretty much exclusively a reggae label. Did that concern you?
I think I was the first white guy, yeah. I was just amazed and delighted that someone would actually record me.

Did having an album under your belt change your life?
I didn't take it seriously for years. I did after three or four years because I discovered that there was money to be made and one could actually expand one's musical career, become a better musician and get hipper. But I never really took it seriously until… I've never taken it seriously. My grandma wasn't too impressed that I had an album out though, and my mum and dad were somewhat miffed as they never had one. My mother never understood what the world saw in me. They were definitely jealous.

As your career developed you made increasing use of the Echoplex. What attracted you to that sound?
I was influenced by Pharoah Sanders and was chasing a huge sound; I really wanted to be able to sustain the guitar to at least six or seven seconds and put a lot of registers in there. You can make it do that but it is hard to control. In the course of doing that I realised there are a million others things you can do with it.

After performing with Lee 'Scratch' Perry at his Black Ark studio you recorded 1977's One World at Chris Blackwell's house in the English countryside. Did the pastoral setting affect the sound?
Yes. Blackwell's house was beside a lake, so we shipped the speakers out on a punt into the middle of the lake and recorded. It was very nice and created an interesting sound. If you listen very carefully about two and a half minutes through the song Small Hours, you can hear a train going by, very cool.

1980's Grace & Danger was recorded in the aftermath of your break-up with your wife Beverley. Is it true Chris Blackwell was reluctant to release it because he considered it to be too downbeat?
No, I think the market was off – the Sex Pistols were big in those days. Chris was busy promoting The Slits [laughs] and I was a bit unfashionable at the time. I used to dress down for gigs.

You worked very closely with Phil Collins on Grace & Danger. Was that the first time you collaborated?
Yeah, I had no idea who he was. People kept telling me that Genesis were pretty cool, but as I lived in London at the time I didn't hook up with that sort of stuff. But when I did hook up with Phil it was a very positive thing. He is one of the most natural musicians I've worked with and I've worked with some beautiful people. He is also a really good person, which isn't always the case with great musicians.

After playing together with Pentangle bassist Danny Thompson on Bless The Weather you struck up another lasting collaborative friendship.
That was a marriage made in heaven; we were doomed to be together. He is an incredible bassist and lovely geezer.

Is it true that he nailed you under a carpet?
He did, yes. But I did a few things to him to. We were often mistaken for brothers and would wind each other up something serious. We were a very naughty pair. As my revenge for getting nailed under the carpet I got him really, really, really drunk, in fact I spiked his drink to be honest, and put him to bed at about half past 11. I woke him at 10 past 12 and told him it was seven in the morning and we had to get up to catch an aeroplane and that we were due in Paris. He just about managed to get dressed, but he couldn't find his bass as I'd hidden it. He was reeling around; he didn't know what had hit him.

Nick Drake was another close friend, and inspired you to write Give Us A Ring from Road To Ruin and the title track from Solid Air.
That was hard work. He was lovely, but he just got very sad. If ever you have known manic depression you know it's a nasty thing and that's what he had and no one could rescue him. Everyone tried. It was very sad.

Did you play together?
Yes. He had a very strange style; he was as different in his way as I am in mine. He was definitely an original player and he could play blues real good.

Which albums are you most proud of?
I like Solid Air, One World and Grace & Danger. But in their own way they are all alright. Solid Air was a happy accident and Grace & Danger was very honest.

You were presented with a lifetime achievement award at the Radio Two Folk Awards. Did it mean a lot to you?
Yes it did. I didn't expect anything; I've never expected anything. It was so formal. I suppose that is what blew my mind. It's a bit like having a knighthood or an OBE, it took me completely by surprise. It was great to be in such exalted company.

At the awards ceremony you performed with John Paul Jones and played some tracks from Solid Air. Was it an enjoyable gig?
Well, it wouldn't be my choice of repertoire; I was told what to play. I really like Over The Hill and I really like May You Never, but they are not the cutting-edge of my catalogue. I know I have been a nice boy, but it's too nice sometimes.

What did you think of Eric Clapton's version of May You Never?
Very nice; it was a great compliment. Obviously he is one of my heroes and when one's hero records one of your songs it is a great boost to your confidence. He's a lovely man, a quiet and gentle soul.

What do you think of the Ain't No Saint boxed set that Universal and John Hillarby have put together?
Well, it's very nice of them to do so. John is great, he is very intelligent and unafraid in his criticism, which I really like. He acts as a buffer between me and the industry.

One of the discs on Ain't No Saint comprises completely of live material. Do you prefer touring to recording?
Recording is more of a cerebral exercise, they are different disciplines. I think one plays better in front of an audience – I do anyway. I like to see the whites of their eyes and if their toes are tapping you know you are on safe ground.

You have a new album in the pipeline…
I've been working on the same album now for the last four years. I do about five notes a month [laughs]. I've got two vocals to do and that's been delayed because my health deteriorated earlier this year; I got pneumonia on both of my lungs so that took the wind out of my sails. But I'm much better now and it has been going really well.

Do you have a title for the album?
Yeah, it's going to be called Willing To Work.1

And when do you plan to release it?
Well, if I wasn't talking to you I would be talking to my producer. I'm on tour in November and I would hope to be able to release it by then. I've just got vocals to do and apart from that it is just mixing, so it should take no longer than 10 days.

1 muffnote: Eventually the title became Heaven And Earth.