Martin Harley is an outstanding singer-songwriter and top-notch slide guitarist, characteristically playing his Weissenborn acoustic lap steel guitars. Total Guitar Magazine ranked him #16 in the World’s greatest acoustic guitarist poll. He has now eight albums to his credit, including last year’s Roll With the Punches, which Down at the Crossroads had as one of its top blues albums of last year.
Martin delights audiences wherever he plays in the UK and US with his hugely enjoyable brand of Americana and blues. His easy-going style, sense of fun, top-notch back catalogue of songs and jaw-droppingly good guitar work make a Martin Harley gig one you’ll remember for some time to come. As well as solo shows and with his band, he has recorded and performed on the same stage as artists like Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Beth Hart, and Gavin DeGraw.
Martin, like the rest of us, was at home with his family, staying safe, after his Roll With Punches tour came to an abrupt end in Belgium, where he was playing to sold-out audiences. Everything’s cancelled until (best guess) September. Like a lot of performing artists, this hits hard financially, although Martin was more concerned about “people who are just starting out in music or maybe just put a record out.”
Martin told me that he’s been touring consistently for over 20 years, so he was looking at this situation as giving “a little bit of downtime to write and spend time with the family. It has been very good for me so far.”
He went on, “It’s a huge opportunity, actually. I don’t normally take long periods of time off. Even if I have a couple of weeks off, I still need to keep gig fit for the songs that I’m touring from the record, whereas in this enforced period of not working, I’m just going through all the different alternate tunings from Hawaiian to Dobro. And I can just have one guitar tuned to one thing and I can spend a couple of hours each day mucking about.
“And I don’t have to think to myself, I’ve got to be really good at playing, say, Roll with the Punches, because people are going to be paying to see me. So, I’ve really enjoyed letting go of that for a little while. The creative aspect in me is really, really moving forward, and I’m letting my imagination run wild. Having said that, I should have been recording an album in Nashville this week with Sam Lewis and Daniel Kimbro which is due for release in April 2021. But because we couldn’t do that, I did a couple of songwriting sessions with Sam and that was really cool. It thought it might be difficult, not sitting in the same room, but, you know – FaceTime, couple of guitars… There’s no rushing, people have got time on their hands and it seemed quite easy to focus.”
I asked Martin about the new album Roll with the Punches, which Down at the Crossroads has as one of our best blues albums of last year and how it’s different from some of his previous work. (see our review here)
“Yeah, I feel it’s a bit more rock n roll. I knew I wanted to make a band record – the songs I was writing just wanted drums! So that’s where it started. You know, I’m more known as a lap style player, but I wanted the freedom to move on stage when I’m performing so I was learning to play bottleneck electric guitar. And so those songs just naturally were inspired by people like ‘70s Ry Cooder, J J Cale and Little Feet and all of those, and you just wanted drums! So, I found a guy called Harry Harding and we started demoing in his studio in Bristol. And it was just very natural. I would take a nice break, ride my motorbike over there, do two days in the studio, write some songs with him and then come home or continue touring. And that went on for three months until we had enough songs that we needed to go and find a studio. And by accident, at a gig with Sam Lewis, I met a crazy haired gentleman called Owen who runs Studiowz in Pembrokeshire in Wales. And he said, look, if drums are an important sound for your record, come and see me, drums is what I do!
“So we went there, and Studiowz is an old chapel. Owen runs a lot of analogue gear and he has an amazing collection of wonderful, vintage drums. He’s not too expensive and he’s super professional. We stayed at his house. There were no distractions – there’s not even a local pub. When we got there, Harry and I just sort of looked around and went, right. let’s do this. And we made most of the record between us. And then just brought people in as we needed to and let the sound unfold.
“And Harry’s a monster. He plays great guitar, he sings backing vocals on the record, he plays bass, he plays drums, he’s co-producing with me! And he’s very good at the technical aspect of things. Jonny Henderson came in for a day and he bought a lot of life to the record with the Hammond and the piano. He hadn’t heard any of the songs when he came into the studio. and did all his parts in a day.
“So, we ploughed through it really quickly and it was a lovely recording environment to be in. And there was a healthy amount of pressure – we got five days, it’s gotta be done, even though we were still writing some of the songs in the studio. So, we just pitched in. And on day five, we did go to the local pub!”
One of the things I really like about Roll with the Punches is that the album’s got a very positive vibe. And it’s got some great lines like keeping a bluebird singing in every tree and a little piece of sunshine to keep in your pocket everywhere you go. So, I asked Martin what that reflects. Is he a very positive person?
“I think I am,” he told me, “or I certainly strive to be.” “I don’t know that I am always positive naturally. It requires a bit of work, and I quite often delve into philosophy, particularly the Stoics. I have a book of meditations by Marcus Aurelius, which I was turned on to by reading Derron Brown’s book, Happy. I find things that I discover from that to help me stay positive and move forward. And then they sort of drift into songs. You know, I saw a lot of people struggle the last couple of years in the period that I was writing…I’m just seeing a lot more mental health issues.
“But I think I am pretty positive. And I wanted to put some stuff out there that wasn’t just self-indulgent generic blues. I don’t wanna be too generic with the blues. I wanted to put out something as a positive message in the world.”
There’s a kind of gospel feel to at least a couple of the songs on the album. The lyrics of the title track remind me a bit of Eric Bibb’s Don’t Let Nobody Drag Your Spirit Down. And then Brother is a terrific, gospel-tinged song. I asked Martin how this sort of feel creeps into his music, given you tend to hear this more from US artists rather than UK artists.
“Well, I think two reasons. Kelly Joe Phelps was the guy who really turned me on to slide guitar playing across my lap, and his dad was a preacher, so he wonderfully bridges that gap between Delta blues and gospel. And his early records are just him singing and playing guitar. That was a huge blueprint for me. And a lot of his stuff is quite religious and he seemed to me to be very lost in the moment. I loved that whole thing. I went to see him play at Union Chapel. and had a real epiphany moment. That’s why I recently played Union Chapel because it had such an effect on me.
Photo: Michal Augustini
“And also, sacred steel. A lot of gospel players use steel guitar and they get a very good vocal quality. These wonderful moving top lines that sound like really powerful gospel female singers, a mixture of major and minor keys, and then there are these fluid runs. And yeah, that’s where that gospel feel comes from for me. It’s very lyrical. And there are great people out there doing it. Derek Trucks is a great exponent; and then there’s Lowell George with that vibrato and that vocal quality. And Robert Randolph – he’s straight out church, isn’t he?”
I wondered if Martin had heard anything from Kelly Joe Phelps who seemed to drop out of a while back after injuring his hand, but he hadn’t. But he said,
“He’s really the guy for me. He’s a complete package of great singing, great guitar player, not too mechanical. It’s all feel, he has his own sense of timing. There’s a fluidity to it that makes me feel like it’s a necessary thing for him, There’s no tension. It feels like it’s the fastest route between his heart and his fingers. And that’s a real aspiration for me – to be able to be in the moment, to be in some kind of flow where you can improvise and be authentic. Basically, do music for the reason you started doing it – you picked it up, because it felt good, because it made you feel better about the world, it gave you a release. It’s a wonderful thing. I think if you are really touched by music and you can immerse yourself in it, you’re very lucky.”
I asked Martin about the last song on the album, The Time is Now, which Martin half seriously says, in his gigs, is a gospel song for atheists, which usually gets a laugh. It’s very jaunty in one sense – “life is for the living and the time is now” – but maybe there’s some serious thinking here as well. It sounds like a song for right now.
“Yeah, I mean, it’s just saying be in the moment. We spend a lot time living inside our telephones. and looking at everyone else’s perfect pictures, people being followed and being observed. And everyone is very scared of doing anything that might be filmed or posted about or be criticized for. You know, it’s actually quite hard to be in the moment these days. The moment is constantly being captured, branded, investigated.”
Martin Harley is a master at the acoustic lap steel slide guitar and plays these lovely Weissenborn guitars. It’s not the most common way you see people playing slide. So I wondered how Martin got started with that, and what drew him to that?
“Paris, Texas, by Ry Cooder happened. I was blown away by the movie. It was just that achingly beautiful soundtrack. And that lonely three or four note simple riff on slide guitar. Just like, what is that? How do you do it? So that started it. I started wanting to make notes with a slide, to make the contact, but not with my fingers. And then shortly after that I went to live in a car in Australia for a year. And I took in 12-string with me that warped in the heat! So I started laying it across my lap, like I’d seen people do.
“And then around about the time I was just thinking about what to tune it to and what was working for me, I heard Kelly Joe Phelps. And it just snowballed into, ‘this is what I wanted to do.’ I took a step away from the regular lap playing for Roll with the Punches and that was a nice holiday. But now that I have time on my hands, I naturally gravitate back towards the lap where I am very comfortable. And my house is literally full of guitars, tuned to different tunings from Hawaiian to more gospel to dobro tunings. Any anything weird and wonderful I can find. And that’s really spurring some pretty crazy new directions!”
On the subject of guitars, I sensed we could have had a whole new conversation. Suffice it to say Martin has quite a collection of guitars then.
“I am a self-confessed guitar slut. They don’t have to be expensive or built by amazing people. I’ve a little Hoffner that my dad got from a car boot sale for a fiver. It’s just got something about it. Sounds great for certain kinds of songs. I met up with a friend yesterday who was selling some guitars from his collection. That was a very dangerous place for me to go, and I left his house with four new slide guitars! So, yeah, I am pretty bad. Now my long-suffering partner is in the background and she’s probably rolling her eyes and going, ‘You are awful at this!’ But I do try and get rid of some from time to time – honestly!”
If you want a dose of feel-good to ease the blues from the current pandemic situation, get yourself a copy of Martin Harley’s Roll With The Punches, and “let the music wash your soul.” And it sounds like the creative juices are flowing at the moment, so there’s a lot more we can look forward to in the future.