I’m sitting here listening to a very beautiful acoustic record by Martyn Joseph called Evolved. He has revisited fifteen of his studio album songs, and just recorded them with a single guitar and voice.
There are two songs on it in particular that I love – Have an Angel Walk With Her and Cardiff Bay – and I’ve been reduced to a bit of a tearful shambles hearing them in their perfect, stripped-back form. That potent concoction of a fine song performed as it should be, memories, change – and growing older I suppose – has just been a bit overpowering. Something just clicked into place.
I was lucky enough to involved with the original recording of Have an Angel… back in 1996, when I had left Edinburgh University to come and help him with Full Colour Black and White before we took those songs out on my first ever tour. We were up in his attic studio on a rainy night, me playing bass as he picked out this exquisite guitar part. It was all very organic and was definitely the highlight of that album for me. In the end more and more stuff got layered on it – cello, keyboards, backing vocals, piano and some soprano saxophone – that thing they call “production”. Even back then, Martyn had a thirst for simplicity, but having come from making two big records for Sony, I guess there was still some desire to fatten up the sound. However, listening to the version on Evolved – just MJ and a guitar – I realise how sometimes the best thing you can add is nothing. Listening back to the original it just sounds so over-complicated, every extra sound getting away from the beautiful heart of the song. We weren’t to know, I suppose.
Listening to the older Martyn Joesph playing it softer, singing it with new meaning, and thoughts of my daughter downstairs asleep in my own home and those wonderful memories of that rainy night recording as his own two year-old slept below us, it’s probably no wonder it had such an effect.
The final song on the album – Cardiff Bay – has evoked much of the same feeling. He wrote it for his young son, now a man. And I totally get it now, also having a son of my own in the time since I last heard the song. All those sentiments in the song that I didn’t quite get as a young man just dying to program drum patterns ond overplay every damn instrument that came near me… I get them now. And it’s made me realise a few things. For better or for worse, the music we are making now speaks to people who understand those feelings. For example, Writing Home isn’t going to be a student anthem any time soon. Sure, we’ll play it some night for the Amersham Arms posse of Goldsmiths College, but I don’t think it’s possible to get it until you are older. I think that’s OK.
I owe Martyn more than I can really express in a blog post, but suffice it to say that having listened to Evolved, I’m delighted to know that he has made the record that IS him, redefining his beautiful and moving songs with just a guitar, a voice, and a lifetime of playing shows with honest intensity.