We catch up with Martyn Joseph at Cropredy 2022
Dare we suggest that his appearance was a highlight – granted, one of many – of this year’s festival? Emotional, touching, inspiring and his delivery of There Is A Field from his 1960 album arguably the jewel in the crown.
At The Barrier: It’s not your first appearance here but what does Cropredy as a festival and a place mean to you?
Martyn Joseph: I sense it is a special place. I’ve only (I say ‘only’…) been fortunate enough to play here twice but I just sense it’s a great gathering of like-minded people. I play a lot of these ‘folk festivals’ and this is a big one but it doesn’t feel like a folk festival. It’s more like some of the ones I play in Canada like the Vancouver Folk Festival which are also on a large scale with several stages. I love the fact that it’s just one stage here though so if you get booked to play, you get on there and get to play to everyone. I can only go on my interaction with people in the signing tent (Martyn has just returned from a bout of CD signing…) and you never get any sense that there was so much wrong in the world…which is what you can say about a lot of places, but that sense of hope, joy, goodness, people gathered to celebrate common interests, different accents; just a broad spectrum of people gathered and making them feel like they’re not alone in the world which is beautiful.
ATB: It was a fantastic set, which you’ve probably had lots of people telling you anyway, so just add ours to the pile, but it also felt like a very emotional set. There were a couple of times when you were very close to the edge and watching in our little group, we spoke about how Driving Her Back To London was one song that touched us as it’s something we’ve all done…
MJ: It’s that commonality in songs where you’re writing for the common man – and I’m a common man! And once you don’t do that something changes, which is why I love the work of someone like Springsteen, who despite his enormous success and obviously wealth is still one of the guys who can articulate my journey or your journey and that’s the things that I’m drawn to. I’ve never been on to write “love you baby, want you baby” despite being signed to Sony in the Nineties which is what they were after – the hit – but I’m just drawn to bigger subjects. I don’t want to sound arrogant but bigger subjects as things that affect our lives in deep ways and with me just trying to do my little bit to help. If someone finds me able to articulate how they feel then it’s job done as I’m telling them that they’r enot alone, it’s me too.
ATB: And then on a more global scale, when you do a song like Take You Out, it’s very different, which you mentioned in the introduction; not the sort of song or sentiment that you’re about when you’re looking through the eyes of someone who takes another life in war and that came across very strongly in the way you sang it.
MJ: Yeah, and I’m talking about ending the life of another human being and that’s not normally my own style, but maybe if I was around in the Forties I’d have written a song about Hitler. So many people came up to me in the queue and said it was exactly how they feel and so morally you could take it apart but it’s just giving people a chance to be able to vent their own anger and frustration at what they do to each other. It is hard to address those subjects, but I feel compelled (he laughs!) I feel strongly that I want to articulate those things as best I can although I’m not always the best about articulating the norm…Bruce does that – he writes great love songs, great dance songs and I’m just a one-trick pony!
ATB: Seeing as you brought him up, we’ll go down the Bruce track and mention the first time that you played here which was around 2010, that night you played just before Fairport and did One Step Up broken down with a long intro that really hit home.
MJ: What happens is that you send a song out into the world – I have a song called Have An Angel Walk With Her and there are so many explanations or interpretations of that song that I don’t know what it’s about! The analogy is that they’re like your kids. You love them and you shape them then send them out and if you’re really lucky they come back and pay the bills when you’re older!!
ATB: And people like Nick Cave and Bono say these things about writing the songs but they don’t belong to them…
MJ: There is a sense of stewardship rather than ownership, which is like a painter like a Turner or a Monet who paint the picture but it affects so many people in its beauty and that doesn’t belong to them but the person who it affects. I just feel that we need this so much right now; voices that will speak through the chaos and what I feel is such a negative time in so many ways. You just feel impotent and helpless quite easily. It’s the same for me, but I don’t listen to me, but I put on Bruce or something and dwell on that and let it bring me back to my place – I need it too!
ATB: There was something in the press recently where someone said that whenever Springsteen sits at the piano you know something special is going to happen. You had a little dally with playing the piano live recently…
MJ: (amidst some guffawing!) Yeah, I’m beginning to play a few things on it! On the last album, 1960, I played quite a bit of piano. I had this sample of an old Welsh upright piano from an old chapel that sounded slightly out of tune, so there was a song I wrote on there for my Dad called Shadow Boxing which I did on the piano. But I remember Bruce playing The Promise (we have to stop and have a reverential moment…) from Madison Square Garden which is one of my favourite moments. I’m not versed in theory very well – I failed my Music ‘O’ Level, and still would! – but I’m back to thinking about what goes where, but it’s nice to have a different sound or a different inspiration. People often ask what comes first, the music or the words and for me, it’s usually the words or an idea of what to say, and suddenly you play some chord and the road opens up a little bit and you go down and surprise yourself – recording it on your phone of course before you build. So the piano comes as a different inspiration…
ATB: And you should play more twelve-string too!
MJ: It’s just the texture that adds more light and shade, but as I was saying earlier in another interview, when people try to but a band around me it never really works, I don’t know why. It sounded great but it’s something I found out very early that it’s more about playing on my own than with anyone; when I’m up there I don’t have to worry about playing in time, I can do what I like, but you get bands like U2 and the E Street Band who live with each other and know instinctively. I can just do that on my own and it helped me to make a living as I didn’t have to pay anyone else!!
ATB: It’s also about the intimacy, just being on stage by yourself even though there are 20,000 people out there…
MJ: And I like to get the tone right and put some thump into it and know when I can go quiet and go ‘bang’ again which is something you learn playing thousands of shows. I’m very blessed.
ATB: And as a final point, There Is A Field should be a Cropredy anthem!
MJ: It’s a moment where we take stock and think of people we’ve lost and consider people around us. Be grateful for the moment and I’m not sure what happens when we’re gone but maybe there is a place where we all gather and it’s all different. I defy anyone not to think that there is something that’s bigger than us.
Our thanks to Martyn for sharing his time in a hectic schedule and to Stevie Horon at Iconic Media for setting up a well-organised interview schedule.