On Top of his Game

Colm O'Hare
Hot Press

On top of his game

Not all that long ago, you wouldn't have reasonably expected to be talking to John Martyn at the unearthly hour of 10:00am. Unless perhaps you had chanced upon him on the way home the morning after the night before, as it were. These days, however, he is not only up and about at the dawning of the day but sounding more chipper than ever. The legendary hoarse whisper booms with unexpected clarity.

As anyone familiar with his story will attest, Martyn was, and is, not only one of the finest British singer-songwriter/ guitarists of the last 30 years but is also known to be a renowned consumer of fine liquor. Indeed, the last time yours truly set eyes upon him, he was propping up the bar at the Millstreet Music Fair, a rapidly-emptying bottle of Jack Daniels in his hand. Needless to say, this comes as a bit of a revelation to him!

"I can't say I remember that one too clearly," he laughs, down the phone line from somewhere in the north of England. "It was a good gig, though, I do remember that much."1

Indeed it was. And precisely 30 years after his debut he's still playing great shows and making magnificent albums, albeit this time without the aid of the devil's brew, as he is keen to stress.

"I've been off it for about a year now," he explains. "It wasn't too hard a decision to make at the time. My pancreas collapsed totally, so I didn't really have a choice."

And does he miss the creative inspiration of the demon drink?
"Of course I do, but it's the only way for me to go right now. And it means I can concentrate on the music and keep the energy levels higher than they used to be."

Though he's written sublime classics like May You Never (covered by Eric Clapton), Sweet Little Mystery and Baby Please Come Home, Martyn's latest album The Church With One Bell consists of a selection of his favourite songs by other artists over the years and includes such eclectic choices as Randy Newman's God's Song, Billie Holiday's Strange Fruit and the Bobby Charles/ Rick Danko song Small Town Talk.

"It's an album I've always wanted to do," he says. "We recorded about 30 songs and whittled it down to ten. I think we've got the mix about right."

The overall texture of the album leans towards the heavily jazz-inflected sound Martyn has adopted for most of his work since the beginning of the 1980s. But even then, his live sets included a strong acoustic element to satisfy fans of his earlier work. Could he see himself going back to that early folk sound at any point in the future?

"No, it's totally electric stuff at the moment," he replies. "I might go back to the acoustic when I'm a pensioner and I have to sit on a stool. We've got such a large repertoire these days and I do the ones they all want to hear, like Sweet Little Mystery and May You Never, but I tend to take the mickey out of it a bit. I get the band to do a music hall version of that last one, which probably upsets some people."

"Actually," he adds, "I'm going to go towards a more dancey direction for the next album which I'm working on at the moment."2

Unfortunately, only five minutes into this conversation Martyn tells me he has to leave and jump in the van to take him to the next gig. Does he still enjoy performing?

"I absolutely love it," he says. "Hate the travelling but love getting up before the audiences. See ya mate!"

1 Millstreet Music Fair, Sunday 04 August 1996.
2 Glasgow Walker.