“It doesn’t matter how long it is, it’s good for me. Something good in my life!” I’ve just reminded Coventry-born Beverley Martyn that it’s fourteen years since she released her last album and almost fifty since she recorded her first single. Now she’s back with a new solo album, The Phoenix And The Turtle. Judging by the launch gig at London’s Bush Hall, where she was backed by a tight band led by her producer Mark Pavey, she’s firing on all cylinders.
The new release features songs written throughout her entire career, beginning with her very first, ‘Sweet Joy’. “I was a wishful girl then,” she tells me. “I think because I didn’t know what I was doing I just came up with some things that were quite original.” The song took shape at the end of her relationship with the late Bert Jansch, one of many creative titans she’s worked with. Such songs are “like an affirmation. It comes out of whatever happened, so you learn something from it. You can learn about exquisite sadness”.
She’ll always be best remembered for her partnership, marital and musical, with John Martyn, and the two classic albums they made together for Island Records. “John was probably the biggest musical influence on me,” she reflects. “He was full of music”. After the marriage broke up, John went on to great solo success but Beverley discovered her name wasn’t on the contract. It rankles still: “I was young and trusted my new husband to make sure that I was safe and everything.” John is commemorated on her new album in ‘Women And Malt Whiskey’: “He did like the malt. But songwriting isn’t always about life. You have to make up some of it. You take from sources of inspiration, from other people, from whatever.”
Another man in her life was Nick Drake. She’s finally finished and recorded ‘Reckless Jane’, a song she started writing with Nick shortly before he died. “He was having fun. Relaxed. Yes, he was introspective, but when he was with me he actually interacted in the present. He stayed with me. I was the mummy with all the chicks around. He was a large duckling. He just followed the crowd.”
She deplores the changes to the music business since the glory days of Island under her old friend Chris Blackwell. “You used to be taken into the directors’ room at board meetings and they’d say, ‘This is our latest artist and we’ve decided to give time to this person. We believe in her’. Now it seems impossible to get close to the head.” And the status of women in the business – has that improved any? “Well, if they get their tits out, they do get a better deal.” Then they get messed up, of course: “It’s like casualty time. Even Adele. You’re talking about a fledgling. I don’t call her an artist yet. You’ve got to give her time to get messed up.”
I suggest that the obsession with image – the right dress, the right make-up – has crept into even the BBC Folk Awards. “I’m not particularly interested in folk or the Folk Awards. My roots are in jazz and blues. I love jazz. I’ve been spoilt for the greatest musicians. I see what’s going on now. Nothing too much excites me in the new range.”
What of the future? There’s talk of putting out her unreleased material from the 60s and 70s. “I don’t know what the legalities are. There’d be stuff that I haven’t finished or stuff that I was working on with Denny Cordell maybe.” If there’s anything half as good as her gravelly take on ‘When The Levee Breaks’, I’ll be the first to pre-order.
First published in R2 (Rock’n’Reel).