If you see it as the role of the singer-songwriter to be an advocate for positive change, craft a story through every song and to be a consummate strummer of the trusty acoustic guitar, then you’ll be able to call yourself a Martyn Joseph fan. Since the early ‘80s, the Welsh musician has plied his trade, recording music and travelling the world to pursue both his musical and humanitarian ventures. He’s garnered comparisons with many great songwriters, notably Bruce’s Springsteen and Cockburn, but he has perhaps been the most prolific of these esteemed names. Ahead of his show at Band on the Wall on 1st June, we had the pleasure of discussing a life in songwriting, his work with the Let Yourself Trust and his tricks for tackling a career-spanning live set.
Few artists surpass twenty studio albums during their career, but you’ve done so with time to spare and an eagerness to continue! What drives you to create new music, inspires new lyrics and generally keeps the process rewarding and engaging?
To be honest, I would’t want you to hear some of the very early stuff but yes, there is quite a body of work now since ‘82. I honestly believe the best songs are yet to be found, like new and wonderful places you have yet to visit. And there is always so much to say, to make sense of, to lament for and rage against. So I’m always looking with my creative antenna switched on for the next story.
You make use of instruments like tenor guitar in addition to a standard six string. When did you first pick up the tenor and do you find having instruments like that to hand useful, when you’re realising ideas and developing songs?
I think I first picked up a tenor guitar around ten years ago. I was touring with Ani DiFranco and she was using one and I loved the chords you could ring out of it. And yeah, a different tuning or vibe from an instrument can certainly set you off down a path that can lead to something special happening. New flavours to keep things fresh and vibrant, though it’s all a backdrop to having something you really want to say.
You’re doing some fantastic work with Let Yourself Trust, can you introduce the charity for the benefit of those who aren’t familiar with its work, and tell us about your forthcoming trip to Palestine with the charity?
I’m actually answering your kind questions from the West Bank in Palestine! We brought 35 folk here for nine days to see for themselves what life is like behind the wall. LYT partners with a Children’s Theatre in the Aida Refugee Camp here and were doing a concert with some of those young people performing and I’ll play a little too. We also have two fine singer songwriters with us, Antje Duvekot from the USA and Grace Petrie from the UK who will also be taking part.
Let Yourself Trust was started by my wife Justine and I around 3.5 years ago. We work with grassroot initiatives around the world, often run by small teams of people who do amazing work but are underfunded and under publicised. We change project every six months and I talk about their work from the stage and we raise money and awareness from them. We have been able to raise something in the region of $250,000 across our first seven projects to this point which have varied, amongst others, from a homeless shelter in Wales, to an Orphanage in Guatemala and an indigenous tribe in Canada whose river was poisoned by the government and are fighting for justice. It’s a natural extension of the music I have been making for so long and it’s really added a beautiful new chapter to things.
Through the work of the charity you’ll have experienced what life is like for individuals in varying societies. How present have you found music to be in the communities you have worked with and what have you found most personally rewarding about what you and the charity have contributed to those communities?
In all of our projects you can see and feel how the arts reflect and enables people to walk on. It all has the ability to give a voice to those who have none and to make those afflicted feel like they are not alone on the world. One of our projects called Festival Spirit is based in the UK and they simply facilitate severely disabled people to be able to attend music festivals and the results are amazing. Music pervades all the culture and indeed its barriers and it’s been humbling and very moving to witness that expression. I think the thing that stayz with me the most is how amazing the human spirit is. That no matter what happens to people, whatever situation they find themselves in, there is still some hidden miracle that allows love and kindness to prevail.
Though comparisons can be misplaced, there are many notable parallels between yourself and Bruce Cockburn, given the longevity of your respective careers, the social concerns that pervade your respective lyrics and the campaign work you both do in addition to your music work. Was he an artist you admired starting out in the early ’80s and would you like to see more artists utilising their position to address social issues?
I did admire Bruce’s work when I started and continue to do so to this day. I have got to know him as time has gone by and he is a big influence and inspiration. The combination of just beautiful guitar playing and lyrical poetry will always do it for me and yes, his social commentary work has been outstanding. And for sure I would love to hear more folk addressing the world outside of themselves but sometimes it takes time to get to that place where you’re ready to do that. I’m always listening for it though. So many records ‘sound’ amazing these days but I think lyrical content lags behind, certainly in the mainstream. I think folk want to see passion and integrity and to hear honesty in what’s being said. The world is full of lies… the heartfelt truth is a rare thing.
Will you have some new material to ‘road test’ on the forthcoming tour? Manchester audiences are famously responsive – is there a particular response you’re looking for to gauge whether a new song connects?
I do have six or seven new songs right now and I honestly believe as artists we tend to record songs too quickly. They need to be played live for a while as you play them differently when you’re before an audience. Obviously you’re looking for that connection when you play them, to see if they will mean something to the listener as well as to yourself. So yes, I will try some of those out and keep an eye on the clap-o-meter at my feet!
With such a back catalogue to return to, how long do you spend assembling a live set and ensuring a spread of favourites make their way in?
It’s a bit like putting out a team for the evening. You have your best players in there but your going to try the new guys out too and there will be substitutions! Each night is different, a new opportunity and it’s the only night that counts. I want make the room feel like a gathering of friends, I want us to have a great time and hopefully be reminded of who we really are by the end of it.
Martyn Joseph performs live at Band on the Wall on Thursday 1st June and you can pick up your tickets here.