Tony Cummings met up with provocative Leeds-based singer/songwriter GAVIN MART
For most artists, an appearance at the Greenbelt Arts Festival is a useful stepping stone in building awareness in a crowded marketplace. Very occasionally though a weekend at Cheltenham Racecourse proves to be the thing which catapults an act to national notice. Such is the case of singer/songwriter Gavin Mart who with members of his band the Saturday Vandals came to Greenbelt largely unknown outside of their Leeds hometown but left having created a major buzz. Gavin spoke about Britain's premier Christian arts fest.
"Since Greenbelt life has gone barmy! I have been inundated with bookings and requests which has taken me by some surprise. I ended up closing Greenbelt in support of Athlete at Last Orders and my cred went through the roof! Gigs have been non stop at least once a week, and several weeks been full to like five or six shows. I have been invited onto various radio shows, with the BBC, on Internet radio and lately Cross Rhythms Radio too. The BBC upped my status from the Late Show on Radio Leeds where we appeared for an hour, to BBC Raw Talent through their Raw Talent scheme. I have been invited back to reappear on both shows. I have sold out of EPs as a result and need to print some more!"
What is ironic about the avalanche of interest showered on Gavin is that it comes after years of dues-paying. Far from being a gauche newcomer, Mart spent years serving a gruelling musical apprenticeship as a drummer on the European rock scene. Having been born in Sheffield, Gavin was brought up in North Wales. He commented, "It was the happiest time of my life living there, along the coast." He continued, "In my early 20s I toured with several different bands, the main one was called Dare. They are a soft-metal band, the lead singer was Darren Wharton who was in Thin Lizzy in his time. So I got a little break as a drummer with him. He and Dare taught me how to go on in the music business. I played with Shirley Bassey, that was as big as it gets for me, and she was the first woman from Wales to make it in the industry. To support her out there in Austria was a big occasion. We played with all sorts of people; Motorhead, Asia, Barclay James Harvest."
Having committed his life to Christ Gavin joined the Revive Christian community in Leeds whose most famous member was Corinne Bailey Rae. Remembered Gavin, "I used to play the drums for the Revive band, we did the Mainstage service in 2005 at Greenbelt, I co-ordinated the music for that. But that was a different thing altogether. We used to gig as a church altogether, I played drums, Corinne used to sing, for us it was just a natural act of what we did on a Sunday."
Musically, things were in a state of change for Gavin. "I'd moved on [from Dare], I wanted to be a singer rather than a drummer, in my heart of hearts. I knew that there was something different around the corner, and life pulled me to Leeds. I started writing heavily, I was writing about the things around me, about the things I was going through in my own life, somehow I needed to get that out. It needed to be out there, being listened to and being sung by me. It was a natural progression from one thing to another, it was always going to happen, it was just a question of when."
Gavin recorded a single, "Patiently". The songsmith spoke about the song. "It's Ecclesiastical frustration, it's a philosopher's frustration. The song was written about a protest march that happened around 2003 when Britain declared war on Iraq and two million people launched themselves down to London to protest against going to war. My parents went down, my sister went down, a lot of my family went down, and they marched through the streets of London and they said, 'We don't want to do this; we don't believe there are weapons of mass destruction'. I couldn't make it down to London, but what I did do was I went down into my basement in Leeds. I was so frustrated about the march, because I knew nothing was going to come of it, and I sat down and wrote that song in five minutes from start to finish. It's about that march, but the thing is with song writing, once you start to look deep inside. . . My relationship with God is underneath everything that I write, but in that song there is an element, where my faith was lacking, of frustration with God. It's not at the front of that song but it's deeply in there."
In 2008 Gavin formed The Saturday Vandals who accompanied the songsmith on the gigs he played around Leeds. They are an intriguing bunch- Robert Hall is an award-winning percussionist and drummer who, astonishingly, is still only 16 years old; Daniel Norton is the bass player for the Vandals and has a vast array of musical experience being a classical pianist, singer/songwriter and one-time member of the gone-but-not-forgotten Bodixa; and guitarist Martin Pearson who wasn't able to attend the Greenbelt gigs but about whom Gavin commented, "He's a fantastic guitarist, he's on the EP and he plays all the clever parts on the guitar."
The EP to which Gavin referred is 'Progress', six often dark hewn songs, including "Patiently" and a particularly poignant song, "Heriwood", about a young man with learning difficulties with whom Gavin had gone to school and who died a sad and lonely death. Remembered the songwriter, "He had great teachers around him who were giving him good, sound advice but that advice just didn't compute somehow and he made a decision to get out of there. The song is trying to suggest that there are people who need an extra helping hand and perhaps a different type of education to the one he had. I'm trying to defend Heriwood in the song; he was my friend, I don't think he got a hearing in life. He couldn't quite get out of his head what he wanted to say and he killed himself. But he died without a cause and he never said anything to the world apart from in his suicide. I really wanted to write a song which would keep his name in the world somehow. Without that, would anyone speak the name Heriwood again? I wanted to write a song that had such a hook in it that people would sing it over and over and it would be so catchy that it would be about keeping this guy's name alive."
Judging from the popularity of "Heriwood" during Gavin's live performances he has succeeded. Equally powerful is the 'Progress' title track. Explained Gavin, "It's about a man who's trying to find out where he fits in. He's got dreams and ideas and nothing quite seems to happen, nothing seems to land, and he's having a conversation, possibly with God or perhaps just out into the open. He's having a conversation, he's having a rant, and he's having a look back over his young adult years and asking what sorts of things he has bought into. He's got a couple of mortgages, he lives in a society which invests in credit. He's asking, can he exist in that kind of society without having a job? How can he go forward, what's the next step? He's cross about being stuck in a society which is out of his control. He can't control his own circumstances, he doesn't necessarily trust the people that are in charge, or who make the decisions for him in his society."
Gavin lives in an impoverished area of central Leeds with his wife of three years, Philippa, in a house that was previously occupied by the local heroin dealer. He refers to himself as "a protest singer". His songs manage to be thought provoking, enigmatic, politically charged, angry and poignant, often all at the same time. In the meantime things are moving forward for Gavin at a rapid rate of knots. He was recently invited to submit a single to Microsoft's sponsored programme, he's been featured on the Internet's Reverbnation's global front page and has had around 100,000 widget hits; and he's accepted a management contract for the States. If that wasn't enough, he's been accepted straight into the third year of an Events Management degree at Leeds met. He commented ruefully, "It's not very rock and roll to have to face a dissertation after a great show."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.