How many Christian singer/songwriters get a strong review in Q magazine? Not many! But Q gave MARTYN JOSEPH's 'Far From Silent' four stars saying, "Accomplished work such as this deserves to be heard." Mojo magazine affirmed the album commenting that Martyn is "a voice in the wilderness populated by those who believe in the power of song and are prepared to make a stand against mediocrity, hypocrisy and injustice. Even The Jewish Chronicle liked the album saying, "Be glad Joseph is far from silent - we need every voice of reason we can get." In the company of such esteemed publications, Mike Rimmer spoke to the singer/songwriter.
Being a radio presenter sometimes feels like being a taxi driver. I'll tell you who I had in my studio the other day...Today it's Martyn Joseph strumming a guitar, singing some songs and talking about his new album 'Far From Silent'. He's got a reputation for being Mr Miserable when it comes to writing songs but in person, he has a dry sense of humour and he's also not afraid to forcefully make his point, as I discover. When I make suggestions that he always writes miserable songs, he responds, "I've often yelled at my guitar at three in the morning 'write me something cheerful.' I should nick the guitar that George Michael wrote songs on. I write and it's a therapeutic process and I have to confess if I'm going to take time to write a song, it usually ends up being something serious. From a spiritual point of view, there's an awful lot to write about and I think sometimes we get hung up on one particular aspect of our faith. So the world is the canvas and there is much to be said, and I just feel like the guy in the nursery rhyme who says, look, the king's got no clothes on.' And there's a lot you can say that about. So I'm not particularly into writing happy-type songs. I have a go but they don't seem to come, but I'm a happy bloke, you know. I'm not miserable."
And so it proves! If you have ever caught a Martyn Joseph gig, you'll know he is thought provoking and he's entertaining. A master at the craft of interacting with a crowd, for years he has been in demand as an opening act for top acts. The likes of Chris de Burgh, Joan Armatrading, Art Garfunkel, Runrig and now Shirley Bassey have all benefited from his skills. Hold on, hold on, I hear you cry...SHIRLEY BASSEY???!!! Errr, yes! By the time you read this, Martyn will be touring the country with the Welsh legend! He comments, "It is an incredible tour. She is hugely popular - it's a hundred and eighty thousand people -and I've heard that she can be...difficult, shall we say. But you can either say, 'Well I'm not interested in singing songs to those people,' or you can get out there and give it a go. I figure that I can sing these songs to these people and paint a slightly different picture to the one she will probably paint so I guess it's a sense of balance, it's a challenge. And obviously from a career point of view it's a good thing to do, so we'll give it a go." I suggest that he ought to work in some Dean Martin or Frank Sinatra numbers into his set. "I don't see myself as a bar room blue-eyed boy," he laughs, "but if she wants me to come on to sing 'Big Spender' with her, then no problem. But I will sing material that is hard hitting, I don't have any soft songs. Presumably, they've played her the albums and she's agreed to it, so that's fine. In a live show there's a lot of humour that comes through, and a lot of connection. You can get away with your serious stuff. On a live show I try to make people laugh to show that even though I sing about this stuff there's a lighter side to me too."
There's also plenty of room for the spontaneous. Martyn tells what happened at a recent Scottish gig. "I was playing 'The Good In Me Is Dead'. It's about this refugee on the Kosovo border and there's a line where he says, 'If you push that lens in my face again I swear I'll break your head.' You know, he's going through this trauma and there's a guy from CNN with a camera or something. And the line before that some guy at the front takes a photograph and the flash goes off and I know what's coming so I sing 'If you push that lens in my face again I swear I'll break your neck.' The crowd are laughing and I'm surprised because these are serious songs and I'd given this a bit of an introduction so I'm surprised he wanted to take a photo, because at any point of the night he could have taken a photo and it would have been fine but not at that particular point. And when I sang that he really didn't know what to do with himself so I stopped the song and we ended up making up."
Martyn Joseph has always been a songwriter capable of capturing powerful emotions in his music. His latest albums have been more stripped down and with i the sparse production, his lyrics have been allowed to breathe and impact the listener. His subject matter is often the brutality of a painful world and its effect on the human soul. Surprisingly he confesses, "The prime motive in the instant that I pick up the guitar is a selfish one. It's because I need to deal with the world. I'm in the world and it's horrible, and what can I do? I'm just getting this stuff out of my system as it were. I guess the skill there is to articulate it in such a fashion that it's helpful to yourself but also helpful to others. I don't know why it is. I guess it's because not many other people are doing it, probably if everybody was doing this, I'd be the guy singing a happy song. I guess I don't like being part of the mainstream."
Martyn continues, "It's important that art, music, somewhere says something that has a lot of body and substance to it and therefore it gives people the option if they want to be dragged into the real world. If they want to be pushed to the extremes of their capabilities to take on emotion. I write songs to push you in that direction. If you want to get up and do line dancing then you can go get Shania Twain, it's no problem. If you want to bliss out and listen to nice praise and worship music then there are people doing that. What do you want? I'm providing a certain service. But it's the only thing I can do. I can't do the other stuff, so this is where I've landed. I can only do what I do, and until people stop coming to the gigs and stop buying the CDs, I'm going to persevere. And the thing is even if I was the milkman or the accountant I'd still write the songs. Because it's now a way of life, it's part of me and I just love doing it."
The thing that I really appreciate about Martyn Joseph is his honesty. He's a believer but a believer who is brutally honest. At times his frankness has got him into trouble but there are so few artists who are writing songs that deal with the more uncomfortable aspects of life and faith. Christian music seems to like having everything neatly packaged. Martyn reflects, "Do you wonder why that is? I mean, I don't think I'm weird! I wonder why that gap is? Surely other people go on these journeys, don't they? I'm just relating to what's happening in my heart and wondering where I've come from in the 18 years I've been doing this so I'm surprised sometimes that there aren't more people who are presumably plugged into God, and into faith, who are saying these things."
There is a radical side to Martyn's songwriting and life which is often missed. He's a songwriter who tries to apply his faith to the hard questions without glossing over the issues. It seems that he is incapable of compromising and settling for the soft, easy answers. He responds, "It does get hard to somehow put God and contexturalise him in terms of the life that we live and what's going on around you and everything else. I think instead of fitting in with what the Church is, you should fit in with who God is, and then you realise that there is a lot more room. Much, much more room! The circle is bigger I think. We are often bogged down with the most petty of things that tie us up such as rules and regulations. We need standards and morals, I understand all of that, but be careful that you don't become a monster within all of that. Don't forget how to relate to a guy in the street who doesn't have those same morals and don't start judging him just because you have the benefit of something he hasn't."
'Far From Silent' contains songs that deal with very difficult subjects like the history of ethnic division in Britain, the present human horror in Kosovo and the pain of suicide. Martyn is clear on how he thinks of these issues, "I think the book says that God will be with us but there are some awful tragic stories that don't line up at all. I'm into taking the whole picture and not just taking little snippets like taking one Bible verse and hanging my life on that one verse. I think that you have to look at the whole picture and you have to look at the whole of life and try and balance it up. I'm very much for trying to spread that holistic thing and bring it all home. For every answer I have three questions, for every bit of faith I have a bit more doubt. I'm running with that and I'm comfortable with that. It's a tougher place to be in but it's more realistic. At the end of the day, I might not be what people want me to be but I still feel like I'm running with the man upstairs. There's a line from Chariots Of Fire where Eric Liddell's sister is trying to persuade him to be a missionary in China and not run in the Olympics. He says, 'When I run, I feel God's pleasure,' and occasionally, maybe once a year I feel that sense of, 'Yeah! It's great, but I don't feel great every day. I don't feel plugged in every day and you have to run with it and keep going. I tell myself, 'Keep going, keep going. I'm just being honest.'"
That honesty has led to Martyn being misunderstood. He confesses that his post bag does contain letters from well meaning Christians trying to put him right or criticising something he has recorded. It seems that there are always some Christians who are hot happy with him. This is made more difficult because Martyn sometimes writes from a perspective that's not his own. Not everything is autobiographical! He elaborates, "I can't write anything without people going 'Well, what's going on in his life then?' This is a problem because occasionally you do write out of a situation other than your own and the problem is I guess because people are so used to the heart on the sleeve approach, that they will automatically bring it back to my situation and wonder what's going on. And that is something of a problem, but it's an interesting one to play with."
"Liberal Backslider" on the new album is going to ruffle a few feathers. Singing it live on my programme, at one point he makes sure that my listeners understand that the song is tongue-in-cheek by saying as an aside, "It's a joke!" It's perhaps a sad indictment on the state of Christianity in this country that he has to explain satire to the audience. Perhaps Christians take things too literally? Martyn responds thoughtfully, "They just hear the words 'swearing like a trooper, drinking like a bum' and that's it! It's like Tony Campolo at Spring Harvest when he said 'Fifty thousand kids starve to death and most of you don't give a shit and what's troubling is you're far more worried about that word I just said.' I get these lovely encouraging letters from my brothers and sisters to tell me what a naughty boy I am these days. I wrote the song as an honest statement. In fact you had something to do with it Mike. You interviewed me at Ronnie Scott's Birmingham about 18 month's ago. You said that some people would see me as a liberal backslider and they have. So I wrote the chorus in the dressing room that night between shows. The song is about the fact that no matter what I do or stand for, people like to see their nice little Christian thing so I'm in trouble if God isn't mentioned in every song. I'm in trouble if in a moment of anger I might use the occasional bad word because I'm angry about something and I'm trying to stress a point. People can get very hung up on their rules and regulations and their small views on what a Christian really is and forget how big God is, much bigger than we can ever imagine."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.