Martyn has a saying that seems to sum up his attitude to life. 'It's
not what you have, it's what you give,' he will tell you in an accent
that has never quite lost it's soft Scottish burr. On the lips of many
in the narcissistic world, which is the music business, the phrase would
sound horribly pretentious and transparently insincere. With John Martyn
you know it's from the heart. He's been giving generously with his unashamedly
romantic music for more than 30 years now and he doesn't do pretension
or insincerity. Fame and fortune have always been secondary considerations
to musical integrity.
Glasgow Walker, his first album
of new songs in four years, finds him in typically compassionate and
giving mood. Lyrical, imaginative and sung in that uniquely sensual
voice, it isn't an album of brave new directions or radical departures.
Rather it is a triumphant return to what he does best - songs of heartfelt
warmth sung with a ripe honesty, which restores one's faith in music
as something more than fashionable accessory or marketing opportunity.
'They're mostly love songs, which you'll find on all my albums,' he
says. 'I'm an incurable romantic and that can be uncomfortable in these
troubled and cynical times. But I'm proud of it and I'm not going to
Intriguingly, the title of the
new record is an oblique reference to his very first album in 1968.
'That was called London Conversation and so Glasgow Walker is sort of
related to that. But it's not meant to represent coming full circle.
I've still got a way to go before I retire and go fishing.'
As soon as John Martyn emerged
from the Scottish folk clubs looking like a teenage cherub more than
30 years ago, it was obvious that he possessed a talent which would
not be confined to any single musical genre. At the age of 19 he became
the first white artist to be signed to Chris Blackwell's Island label
and while his first two albums, London Conversation and The Tumbler
were acoustic affairs, his folk stylings were flecked with jazz and
blues tinges that hinted at what was to come.
Two more albums, Stormbringer
and The Road To Ruin, both recorded in 1970 with his first wife Beverley
Martyn followed in quick succession. But it was a series of classic
albums beginning with 1971's Bless The Weather that were to see him
transcend the boundaries of conventional singer-songwriting and develop
a ground-breaking style in which he coaxed the most extraordinary sounds
out of his acoustic guitar by attaching an echoplex to the instrument.
At the same time he pushed his voice into uncharted territory, using
it in the same way Coltrane used a sax or Hendrix a guitar, to convey
depths of emotion which his lyrics could only hint at it. "There's
a place between words and music and my voice lives right there,"
By the time of One World in 1977,
he seemed to be on the point of joining rock's aristocracy. The album
found him working with Jamaican reggae legend Lee Scratch Perry and
Stevie Winwood guesting on almost every track. The next album, 1980's
Grace and Danger, had more heavyweight friends and was produced by Phil
Collins while Eric Clapton covered his May You Never. Yet for whatever
reasons, he was to remain in the critically acclaimed bracket rather
than joining the ranks of his superstar supporters with their yachts
and tax havens.
Yet he doesn't feel that he missed
out at all. "It doesn't annoy me even vaguely because that stuff
is a sideshow," he says. "It's neither here nor there. I've
accomplished my ambitions. I haven't made loads of money but I've led
a very comfortable life, I've had lots of fun and met some beautiful
people. I think your spiritual status is far more important than the
status of your career."
Perhaps if he had been prepared
to compromise his musical integrity he might have had more hits. But
he has always refused to play the music industry's games. "I don't
suffer fools gladly. I watch these music biz people talking absolute
bollocks and I'll tell them it's nonsense. I don't obey the rules and
I don't bow and scrape," he admits.
Despite - or perhaps because
of - this uncompromising stance, he continued to make albums of extraordinary
quality throughout the 1980s. The stunning Glorious Fool, made in the
wake of the break-up of his first marriage, and it's equally fine follow-up
Well Kept Secret were recorded for Warner's. Then he returned to Island
for three evocative albums in Sapphire, Piece by Piece and Foundations
which was recorded live at The Forum in London.
By the nineties he was back on
track, recording for different labels and devoting a lot of time playing
prison concerts - a case, once again, of not what you have but what
you give. His first album for Independiente in 1998 was a remarkable
collection of covers of some of his favourite songs, ranging from Portishead's
Glory Box to Billie Holiday's Strange Fruit. It was called The Church
With One Bell in reference to the disused kirk in the Scottish village
where he lives. He made the album in order to raise the funds to buy
the building and moved in about 18 months ago.
Glasgow Walker was self-produced
at his own studio in Scotland and mixed in Kilkenny where his girlfriend
lives. In one way, at least, the album represents a departure, for it
contains the first songs which he didn't write on a guitar. "Phil
Collins suggested I should buy this certain type of keyboard which he
uses and that's why it's taken me three years to make the album,"
he says. "I had to spend 18 months learning how to get a reasonable
sound out of it. I still can't really play it."
Much as John Martyn's music has
grown and evolved over the years, the sentiments that inspired London
Conversation are the same sentiments that fuel Glasgow Walker - the
sweet mystery of love, the soaring ecstasy of finding it and the sharp
pain of losing it.
From London Conversation to Glasgow
Walker, John Martyn has romanced us with his voice and blessed us with
his songs for more than 30 years. But you get the feeling there's a
lot of music and a lot of giving still to come.
- Source, Offical John Martyn website.