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Martyn Joseph
By Steve Stockman
Martyn Joseph was three dates into his UK and Ireland tour when I caught up with him in the latter part of November. His new album Far From Silent was just released and you will soon catch on that Martyn was pretty upbeat about his craft. After a discussion about how he managed to score two pars on the closing holes at Royal Lytham and St. Annes the previous week (still plays off a 4 handicap), we eventually decided we should concentrate on music because that is why you clicked your mouse onto this page.

Stockman:  An album for you. How does it work? Do you have songs written over a couple of years or do you have to take a concentrated time to write?

Joseph:  I write all the time. Well I don't write all the time but I collate ideas all the time. And quite frankly it's a way of life. It's something I do. It's a very helpful process to me. So as I'm darting around the country doing this and that I'm constantly looking for a little idea or something that will eventually accumulate as a song. So what I eventually do is accumulate those ideas and then get a little space in the schedule. I'll try and set aside time to articulate but occasionally you get an idea and go straight for the guitar and you write a song but most of the time it's a collation of thoughts and theories and you find that space to actually write them. But I'm always aware that unless I'm going to give this job up, I have another album to record so right now you start writing for the next one.

Stockman:   After so many songs, so many albums, where does the inspiration come? Do you ever think, "Oh I must have written about everything I'm going to write about"?

Joseph: I suppose sometimes you feel you've got writer's block. What I find extraordinary is those people who can write these love songs all the time. Where do they go to write that stuff? And night after night to sing song after song on relationships. I find that extraordinary. Now if you go to the other extreme in terms of what's going on in the world, and as you journey on and things that are happening to you it is never ending of what you can actually write about. You just have to be artistic enough and open-minded enough to grasp them as they float past you. It depends how widely you want to look. If you have a narrow outlook it must be hard. The writers--that it is their job--to sit in a room all day and come up with another love song. I couldn't do that but it depends on the scope of life itself and the emotions. In a sense there is never a shortage of material. The only danger and the only fear is that you are going to cut yourself off from being open enough to articulate it.

Stockman:  The Stewart Henderson thing. Did Stewart write one on this album?

Joseph:  He wrote two on this album. The first track, "All in the Past," is his lyric and also I had this idea of "Celebrity" for ages. I was nagging him saying, "Let's have a go at celebrity culture," and he eventually warmed to the idea and came up with that one. He is great. I can just throw ideas at him and he comes back with stuff. I mean it is never anything I dreamed it would be and they are always incredibly wordy and as a singer they are hard to get your tongue round. His lyrics are great. Sometimes people say, "Did you write that?" and I have to say, "Well, actually . . ."

Stockman: It is interesting you say that because I wouldn't have seen "All in the Past" as one of his lyrics. I thought that was your lyric.

Joseph:  I kind of fiddled about with it a little bit and we just did a fifty-fifty split on it. He actually sent that to me a long time ago and it nearly went on the record before but it wasn't quite ready.

Stockman:  I can spot his lyrics and if you had asked me I'd have said, "Celebrity."

Joseph: It was more of a poetic lament, that one, as opposed to the celebrity-type song. We worked on it and changed this and that but it was his initial outburst.

Stockman: So who is this pregnant chambermaid?

Joseph: The pregnant chambermaid is a metaphor for the way the rich would have servants and the master would think nothing of screwing the chambermaid and getting her pregnant and leaving her and dumping her and getting someone else. The song itself is based around the Highland clearances of the late 18th century and he was telling me the word "glen" we think of as a lovely lonely desolate place to go for a holiday. It kind of speaks of a quiet valley and fields with not much there. But the "glen" to the Scottish people of old was a thriving community and basically they were cleared off by the rich landowners because they couldn't pay their taxes or whatever and were sent off to Canada as punishment. Unfortunately, they didn't fly them. They moved over by boat so it was all based around that. And the fact they were kicked out and that sort of stuff. So the pregnant chambermaid is an illustration of the miss-abuse of power and privilege

Stockman: I think it's a great line. It just stepped out of the song for me. This album being independent. How did that effect it?

Joseph: It only effected it in a positive way. The problem I had is that only 6 weeks ago I finished. I wrote 35 songs for this album and there are two covers. We were just trying to make sure there were no fillers. I sent it off to my manager who is doing quite well at the moment. He manages Travis. I got a phone call and he says, "Look I think this is your best work. This is a mature work. This is great. Wow. Wow. Wow," and that for him was high praise. And an hour later he is back and he says Grapevine don't want to proceed with the contract. They wanted to distribute it but they weren't prepared to go down the road in terms of the advance which they were due to pay. Well that gave me the chance if I wanted to, to do my own label and we thought about it for an hour and I decided to go for it. In a sense, to the public, it's not effected it at all. It's still distributed through Grapevine and the mainstream still have it and the Christian end of the market will still be fulfilled by the Alliances of this world.

What has changed is that I seem to spend all day on phones. I have had to take control and hire the PR and the radio, the press; this sort of thing, but at the same time it has been very liberating. I did all the artwork with a company, obviously, but complete and utter control. I mean I went to Canada this year and made a whole bunch of contacts. I passed them on to the record company and none of them were followed through. That's not going to happen now because I'll be on the case and I'm not going to be part of that company with twenty artists to look after. It'll just be me looking after me and that sounds selfish but what I'm saying is, things will get done. And because I write all the time and because I have this audience out there that wants this stuff, I don't have to wait two years to release another album. If I have five songs I can stick a little ep out. I think this'll lead to more productivity. I'll be able to write more, get more out. - just sell more records! So it's been a little bit of a logistic nightmare to get this all up and going but even the record sales on the last three nights have seen a big uptake. I can't describe it. It's exciting. It feels great.

Stockman:  Talk to us about Greenbelt. It just seems to have been a bit of a victory this year ending the festival with a huge crowd all alone on Mainstage with an acoustic guitar.

Joseph: Yeah, Greenbelt. It's a special place. I'm in the dressing room and I can hear the drum and bass shaking the port-a-cabin and I'm thinking, "Oh my gosh. I'm going out there with a piece of wood and six strings; what am I going to do?" But there's a lovely warmth and it's a unique place where you feel loved. And I guess that in over 18 years of gigging I've learned to communicate. And then there's "Liberal Backslider" - even at these recent gigs - it's amazing. It's a stupid song. I wrote it in five minutes as a bit of a joke and yet it's a song that's become quite important. I've never had a duff gig at Greenbelt and this year certainly felt one of the best. I've actually got a mini disc of it that I need to listen to.

Stockman: For me there seemed something special about this year. You were up there and I was thinking he's in the full bloom of maturity, the peak of his craft.

Joseph: Well I guess it's come full circle. I started off in the Christian scene, went through a crisis of faith and a crisis of this and that, when I felt I had to sneak out the back door while the party went on. I went out into the big bad world and stood in the lane and played my songs to ordinary folk as they past by and it went well. I didn't become a star or anything and maybe that is for the better and I've come to this fifty-fifty marketplace where 50% of those who come to my gigs are not tuned into a Church scene. We went independent to Sony to Grapevine and now I've come full circle, back on my own again with a lot more experience and a lot more connections in the real world. That's how Far From Silent got its title. If you think I'm finished, you're wrong and maybe there was a sense of that at Greenbelt. I don't know. I suddenly feel a bit more comfortable with who I am and the role I'm supposed to play.

Stockman: And "Liberal Backslider" almost became a Greenbelt anthem.

Joseph: If you just read the lyric without looking at the spirit of it you could become upset. We don't want to be liberal backsliders but it's a go at the fundies and how they see that people should be. How they strain their neck and whatever. So I'm delighted with that little song. My wife Sian said, "I don't think you should put it on the album." And in the end I thought oh, go for it! It ends the album in a humorous way with the credits going up.

Stockman: Moving on to the songs. What research do you do for a song like "The Good in Me is Dead"?

Joseph: The only research I did was watching the news bulletins and reading the odd report in the newspaper. It's trying to articulate it in a way that goes deeper than just saying, "Isn't this sad folks." What I wanted to do was get inside not only the injustice of the situation but I wanted to get inside the humanity of this guy who has been through the most horrendous of scenes. If I'm driving down the motorway and someone cuts me off I'll get angry but this guy is sitting on a refugee line. He's desperately looking for remnants of what's left of his family. What's it like if someone's taking pictures of you at that point, you would want to kill the guy. You'd lose any sense of decency of who you were. If you didn't have faith or you did have faith how would it make you feel.

"Good Man," which was about a friend of mine, I think you might have recognized the imagery from the Rich Mullins video. Unlike my friend who said enough is enough and can't go on, this guy says I must look for my mother. He goes through all the emotions but says he's got to find them. The interesting song would be the next one that would follow it. Where do they go from there? I was just trying to deal with first the humanity and then the awful darkness and awful emptiness of the situation. I wrote the song and I was playing it to myself and I was welling up. When that starts to happen you know something's happening here. This could be useful. You stick it on an album and people say, "Oh he's a miserable git!" I'm not, but this is happening. It's now in Chechnya.

Stockman: You are a bit hard on yourself with this "miserable git" thing. The album and your concerts are sprinkled with hope!

Joseph: It's there. Yes, "All This Time" is a sort of a point that one's arrived at. You know there's an understanding here that it takes a long time, it takes a lot of journeying before you can even begin to know who you really are. How small we are. How big it all is. I'd hate to think that people would think it's an album of despair. It is a commentary on the dreadful things that are going on in our world. That would be a mistake if that were all it was.

Stockman: Cover versions. How do you pick those?

Joseph: Well, "One of Us" is a song I've done for years in concert. It's always gone down well. My version is a little darker than Joan Osbourne's. It was a guy in her band that wrote it and her version was nice but I think it's a better song. From what I can tell this guy is saying, "Yeah, yeah, God is great, I can hear these messages from the church but what if--what if it really was true?" That's what's in my head. It has to be something I can empathize with, something I want to sing about not just because it has a nice melody and I can pick it up on the guitar.

"The Mayor of Candor Lied" is an astonishing song that was brought to my attention by Colin, my manager. He's loved it since he was a kid. It's not a well known Chapin song. It's not on the Greatest Hits or anything. The original lasts for eight and a half minutes. It's an amazing tale of the way humans can very, very quickly put themselves into situations that are absolutely horrific and of how far we can fall in the pursuit of what we think will bring happiness. There's hardly anyone in the whole song that comes out of it with any goodness. I admit it's maybe a bit of a change for me, in terms of it not being about a real issue and it's a made up story. I just think there's something there that's interesting. I thought it kind of fitting. We just went for the big production, just to outweigh the acoustic-ness of it all. So covers are chosen with care. It has to be something I feel I can sing with integrity.
 
 

Steve Stockman is a Chaplain at Queens University, Belfast, Ireland, where he lives in community with 88 students. He used to book the bands for Greenbelt, edits Juice magazine, has a weekly radio show on BBC Radio Ulster and a web page - Rhythms of Redemption at http://stocki.ni.org. He also tries to spend some time with his wife Janice and 20 month old daughter Caitlin.

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