27 Apr 2006
JOHN Martyn has cultivated a staunch following for his improvisational picking style and mellifluous voice that has produced a mesh of jazz, blues and folk. Since his much-lauded debut releases, Solid Air and Bless The Weather, Martyn's career has been dogged by alcoholic abuse. Then, in 2003, a serious infection led to a leg amputation.
In more than 40 years, however, there has been no deviation from Martyn's commitment to music and few UK artists are as highly regarded. His last album, Willing To Work1, is the 23rd studio production and follows 2004's return to form, On The Cobbles, which included contributions from Paul Weller and Mavis Staples.
Recently, the Scot has re-mastered and re-issued a large chunk of his back catalogue and released a live album too.2
"I never really expected any of the music business to happen," says Martyn, "but I'm glad it did. It was a very cool thing to happen. It was a hobby for me. I used to do it to meet girls. If you had long hair and could play a guitar then you got girls. That's how I started. Then I fell in love with the music and got carried away."
So enamoured was he by his guitar that he used to run back from lunch hours to practice and clocked in about six hours a day "just for fun." He remembers: "I heard Davey Graham playing and thought 'I want to be this'."
There is a mischievous air about Martyn when he talks about his music, as if he is still a child who has just been given his first guitar. This inherent enthusiasm is something he hasn't lost since Solid Air, but, when asked why his eulogy to Drake had such resonance, Martyn is philosophical.
"Solid Air was slightly ahead of its time. I don't think it was that special, but different periods provide different experiences. It sounds like it comes from that time and sums that time up. It's like the smell of toffee apples reminding you of your childhood. I prefer Grace And Danger (1980)."
Grace And Danger, like many of his releases, is autobiographical: that album in particular inspired by a painful divorce. "You can't live in the past," adds Martyn. "Musically if you do, you are dead."
That explains why his songs have always been honest and organic, sold simply by the raw expression of his vocal delivery. From Outside In, One World and Big Muff, to the poignant Beverley and the furious Seven Black Roses to name but a few to truly savour.
Now on the Independiente label, Martyn's adversity can be attributed to the fact that he has never stood still. His last Manchester appearance included covers of Beth Orton and Portishead material.
"I'm still excited by music," he says. "I wish it would go away. Working with Levon Helm and The Band was very soulful; I liked that. And I loved Andy Sheppard's solo on My Creator (from On The Cobbles). I loved Paul Weller as well. That was fun."
He continues: "Paul was a diamond a sweetheart and so was Nick McCabe. I like them because I like them. I don't know if they enjoyed playing with me, but I enjoy playing with them. Any time, anywhere. They are very cool people to play with." But guests are not something Martyn likes to encourage.
"I've put a bar on the guests for this album. I think people often see it as a PR thing, just to put you in good company: just because it elevates your status. I don't like that. I like to play with people, not names."
One of the longest collaborations Martyn entertained was with bassist Danny Thompson who helped cement the spirituality of Martyn's sound during the seventies and eighties. Now he looks to Alan Thomson on bass, Howard Moon3 on drums and Spencer Cozens for support.
They manage Martyn's incomprehensible range with much needed zeal. Despite his recent immobility, Martyn still promises great things live. It is where, he says, where he truly comes into his own.
"I used to come out in sweats and rashes and get terrified. It wears off after a while. But you're a fool if you don't get nervous. All I know is they'll have to take me off with a harness before I stop playing."
And long after they do, people will still be playing his music.
John Martyn appears at The Lowry on Sunday, April 30. £20.
Slightly uncertain about the name of the author.
1 Eventually released 2011 as Heaven And Earth.
2 Unclear which album is being referred to.
3 This is funny. Arran Ahmun surely.