“A rare talent of such sheer genius” Blues in Britain
Not so long ago, Dom Martin was busking in the streets of Belfast. Now he’s just won the Acoustic Act of the Year award at the UK Blues Awards, on the back of a well-acclaimed new album, Spain to Italy, a Radio 2 Blues Show session with Cerys Matthews, and a sell-out UK Tour along with appearances at major Irish/UK Festivals.
Dom is a skillful player of intricate blues-infused finger-picked guitar and is a fine singer in who invites comparisons with Rory Gallagher and John Martyn. Spain to Italy is a top notch album, delivered with passion and considerable musical aplomb by Dom and his band. It consists of mostly original numbers and a couple of blues covers and is a combination of finger-picked blues, blues-rock and just beautiful songs.
He’s an acoustic blues artist whose star is clearly in the ascendancy and Down at the Crossroads was delighted to have the opportunity to chat to Dom, who’s been sheltering in his home these past few weeks during the coronavirus lockdown.
Gary Dom, you’ve just won that Acoustic Blues Act of the Year in the UK Blues Awards. Presumably you’re quite pleased about that.
Dom Well it’s a little bit of recognition. Just even to be nominated – there were three categories I was nominated in, and that to me was above and beyond. I couldn’t believe it. But it gives me great confidence that I’m heading in the right direction with my music. Like, there’s progress being made. To me, that means a lot.
Gary And you’d won a European Blues Award last year as well. Best Acoustic Solo Act?
Dom Yeah. That was a complete shock. Last August I was on tour and was pretty busy when I heard that I’d won something. So when I saw what it was for, I was like, wow, that’s amazing. How did that even happen?
Gary When you think about those awards, those categories. how would you categorize yourself and your music? Acoustic blues might describe it, but then when I’m listening to your album, there’s more than just blues there and there’s more than just acoustic as well.
Dom Yeah, it’s a really difficult question, actually. It’s hard to put a finger on it, but I would say, alternative blues, maybe alternative folk blues. But I really haven’t given it much thought, to be honest. Things just come to me in music, with the strings and the guitar. I just kind of sit down and figure out little bits and pieces and make songs out of them. But I wouldn’t call myself necessarily blues one hundred percent of the time.
I’ve obviously been heavily influenced by the blues. But I love Bob Dylan and all those folk types. John Martin, of course, and Neil Young. But they’ve all dabbled in the blues themselves. So, it’s hard to describe what my music is.
Gary But clearly, blues is a big part of what do you do. The blues have been drawing people in for the last hundred years or more. What is it about the blues that still draws people in, still draws you in?
Dom Well, I think it’s just the feeling I get from either listening to it or playing. The struggle you hear in other people’s songs. I can identify with that. And maybe that sounds strange, because I’m a fairly positive person. I don’t tend to write songs that are depressing or sad. I just like the vibe of it. I like writing songs in in a blues kind of way, but basically I’m a happy person.
Pop music – like Ed Sheeran and stuff like that – it’s kind of happy go lucky. You can dive in and out of it and it’s easy. But the blues, it can be difficult to listen to sometimes, but strangely, I get more a better feeling from listening to blues than I do from listening to happy songs.
Gary That’s the nature of the blues, isn’t it? There are two sides of it. There’s the singing about the difficulty and the hard times. But then it’s almost like the singer sings himself out of it. You know that old blues standard, Trouble in Mind. The singer is really depressed but then manages to say, “sun’s gonna shine in my back yard some day.”
Dom Definitely. But when I say to some people that I play the blues, they kind of shrug – “Oh, you don’t play that, do you? That’s so depressing and sad.”
Gary Now you’ve a couple of nice covers on the album, Leadbelly and Blind Blake, and when I was listening to you on the Green Room show at the weekend, there was a song that you were doing that was a minor key blues, and I thought, there are echoes of Skip James in that one.
Dom You know, I haven’t listened to a lot of Skip James, although I do have some LPs. I’ve dipped in and out of in a lot of different artists, people like Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf, but Skip James is one that I’ve yet to actually just sit down and really just get a couple of hours and really listen to the music.
But maybe on some kind of subconscious level, all that listening to music in the background does shape what I play and what I come up with. But I do try and be as original as I possibly can, because I don’t like plagiarism or anything like that. If I play somebody else’s song, I always say, this is a Robert Johnson song, or whatever, and make sure people are aware of who wrote it.
Gary Most of the songs on the album, though, are originals. So tell us a bit about writing songs and how long you’ve been doing that.
Dom Well, I started writing very young, but I don’t think it was very good! That said, I sold my first song when I was 13. I sold it to my dad for £13.50! And I’ve still got the contract somewhere! He bought the rights to the song. It was just something he drew up for a laugh.
Gary So you’ve been writing songs for quite a long time. What is the process like, does it come easily to you? Do you knock ’em out or do you have to refine them or what?
Dom That’s a difficult question to answer. I mean, you can’t really just say, OK, today I’m going to write a song. It doesn’t work like that for me. Take Easy Way Out for instance. I wrote it in five minutes when I woke up one morning and I didn’t have to change any of the words or the way it was sung. I wrote all the lyrics in five minutes – done!
And then I didn’t write anything for three or four months after that. I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t think of anything, I wasn’t inspired by anything at all. So, it’s kind of like that, it comes and goes, and it’s strange and I don’t understand it and I have no knowledge about it. But one thing I try to avoid with songwriting is making everything rhyme! Sometimes I do it, but I’m very conflicted about it. But sometimes you just have to finish a song!
I’m incredibly hard on myself with songwriting. It typically takes me a very long time. The songs on the album weren’t written for an album. There was no deadline. It was just that I had written a handful of these songs and one day I decided to go to the studio and try and record them. And it was just really inexperienced, rushed, you know? Let’s just record something and see what happens.
Gary You must be pretty pleased with the reception the albums had. A lot of people have made fantastic comments about it.
Dom Yeah, honestly, I’m in shock. I’m in complete and utter shock about what’s been going on over the past two or three years. But I’m really critical of myself. I haven’t actually listened to the album back to front. I think once when it was finished, I listened to the individual songs, but not in any particular order. I’m happy with it, but I’ve moved on from it.
Gary Dom, give us a brief synopsis of your career. Things have obviously taken off over the last couple of years.
Dom So I used to live in Antrim in the north of Ireland. And I knew I could play guitar. I knew I could do gigs and play for four or five hours a night, So that’s what I did and that was all well and good. I met my wife there and we decided after a few years that we’d move to Belfast and I’d try to get some more gigs. So, we moved to the city but after going around to all the bars and festivals in Belfast, I got maybe one more gig. That was it – nobody would give me the time of day, I hadn’t two pennies to rub together – I still don’t! But for years it went on like that. I ended up busking in the city centre for a few quid to get something for the electric and gas.
Then out of the blue, Blast 106, one of the radio stations in Belfast, called. My drummer friend knew the guy who did the show, Big Chris. So we went down and played one of the songs which is now on the album, The Rain Came, and they recorded it. Before we played, it was all dance music, you know, rave music. And all of a sudden, we come on with our little folky blues and it’s just so bizarre.
What then happened was a guy called Ray Alexander heard this and we got a gig at an open mike night in Holywood Golf Club. So my drummer and I went, and we sat with other musicians having a talk and a couple of drinks, and we were due to be on last. But nobody was left when we got up to play – it’s late on a Monday night and everyone’s gone home! But we gave it our all, we don’t care, we’re gonna play some music!
Anyway, Ray recorded some of the stuff we did that night and he phoned Fenton Parsons, who is now my manager, and said, you got to check these guys out. Dom Martin can’t get any gigs. Could you help? So Fenton went and found a video of our performance of The Rain Came from the radio show and he loved it and wanted to meet me and see what he could do for me. The guy’s an absolute legend. He helped me when nobody else would, so I owe him an awful lot. I’m very loyal to that man.
Gary So you’ve been getting a steady amount of gigs over the last year or so?
Dom Yeah. This past year, two years, I’ve been pretty much flat out. And I love it. I play every gig like it’s my last, give it my all.
Gary But I guess things have come to a bit of a standstill at the moment?
Dom Yes, but it’s all just gone online. I’m doing something about once a week and there are little festivals, online gigs and stuff. But apart from that, I’ve just been writing songs and trying to come up with some fresh material. So, whenever this is all over I’ve got something new to play.
Gary Very good. Now, tell me about the guitar work on the album – there’s quite a bit of electric guitar going on there. Is that all you?
Dom Yeah, it is. All the guitar on the album is me, apart from a little tiny bit on Luka I think. That was Richard Brown, who is very, very good. He did a bit on that and maybe one of the other songs, but everything else is me. I got my first electric guitar just four years ago, so I haven’t been playing electric guitar that long. But I don’t find it much different than acoustic. I play them both exactly the same. It doesn’t make a difference to me. It’s just a bit smaller and there’s no hole in the middle of it! And that’s about it.
Gary How did you get started playing the guitar and did you start young?
Dom Oh yeah. When I was born, my father picked me up and he held me over a guitar. And I was just kicking it and scratching it and hitting it, and it’s just been a whole lifelong thing. It’s all I’ve done my entire life.
Gary Is there music in your family then?
Dom My dad played. In fact, he was the best guitar player I’ve ever seen. He was great. He didn’t just play – he was like another thing altogether. It’s hard to explain. He just had this certain charisma about him. The way he played was so articulate and just, you know, perfect. I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s impossible to replicate. He was just a one of a kind of talent.
And my dad wrote these songs which I now have. And I’ve been trying to play them, but it’s still too difficult for me. It’s too hard because he’s passed on. And it’s just impossible for me to get into that, to play my dead father’s songs now. But I’ll get there with some of the songs. They’re just beautiful. But I can’t even touch them at the moment, you know?
Gary So sometime down the line, Dom, that could make for an interesting album.
Dom I know. Definitely, whenever I’m ready to do it. I’ve got the lyrics right now here in front of me and I’m just shaking as I look at them. But I believe in these songs, they need to be heard. Because they’re the most beautiful, beautiful things I’ve ever heard. I owe so much to my dad.
Gary Now, you’ve released a song to support the NHS. Tell us about that,
Dom I wrote a song called Mercy. And when the Corona virus hit, it was like there was no mercy for anybody. I’m not big on doing stuff technically but I felt we had to do something. But what could I do? Well, I do music, and so I thought, if I make a GoFundMe page where people can donate and then they get the song, I’ll just give all the money to the NHS. But at least it’s something, it’s better than just sitting around, even if it’s a small thing.
Gary Good for you, Dom. Brilliant. So have you just been playing your guitar and spending time with your family over the past few weeks?
Dom Yes. I’ve loved just spending time with my kids and my wife. A lot of people were joking at the start of this – you’ll be stuck at home with your family, it’s gonna be awful. But for me, it’s been the complete opposite. It’s just brilliant. It’s just been fantastic.
Gary Thanks, Dom. All the best for the future.