Write on Music's Favorite Songs of 2014

Better late than never.

An Interview with Johnny Marr

The legendary Smiths guitarist discusses his new solo LP 'Playland,' his musical foundation, and the abiding pursuit of his next creative move.

Interview: Veteran Bassist Nathan East Celebrates Solo Success with Old Friends, New Documentary

'Music is one of those things that brings us together.' — Nathan East

Review: Dre Mazzenga - Do Me Right [EP]

With this five-song EP, the Austin-based singer/songwriter proves herself to be a striking, sophisticated new talent.

DVD Review: Bob Marley - Uprising Live!

Marley was incendiary to the end.

January 22, 2015

Write on Music's Favorite Songs of 2014


Better late than never, here are Write on Music’s favorite songs from last year (in alphabetical order):

Amy LaVere – “Last Rock ‘N’ Roll Boy to Dance”: Inspired by her own adolescent exploits on the lam, this Memphis singer/songwriter and upright bassist turned out one of last year’s most imaginative, musically adventurous albums, Runaway’s Diary. Songs by Townes Van Zandt (“Where I Lead Me”) and John Lennon (“How”) help to tell its story, but its finest moments – like this scene-stealing selection – are of LaVere’s own making.




Angela Moyra – “Bubbalu”: From this Dutch singer/songwriter’s charming debut LP, Fickle Island, this little ditty about a crush is so adorable it’s easy to forget that it’s really a lovelorn lament. Hurts so good, indeed.

   

Bruce Springsteen – “Harry’s Place”: The Boss’ most recent LP, High Hopes, inspired generally mixed reviews among fans and critics – except for Rolling Stone, which deemed it better than every other album released in 2014 save for U2’s similarly polarizing Songs of Innocence. Still, the album has its moments, like an electrified version of “The Ghost of Tom Joad” (featuring Tom Morello’s scorching guitar) and this song, which had been in the works for years and reflects an urban, edgier sonic perspective of Springsteen’s songwriting.


Cat Power and Coldplay – “Wish I Was Here”: This one (from the Zach Braff film of the same name) is so empathetic and universal it’s almost a wonder that it hadn’t been written before. “Every road that’s wrong feels like the road I’m on,” Chan Marshall sings like she knows the feeling all too well. Maybe you do, too. 



Coldplay – “Oceans”: For those who were perhaps disoriented by Coldplay’s more experimental efforts over the last six or seven years, Ghost Stories recalls some of the melodic, piano-rich balladry of earlier albums, Parachutes especially. This song in particular, enriched by an almost spectral intimacy and Chris Martin’s angular falsetto, is among its most intoxicating highlights.


Eilidh McKellar – “Home”: Hailing from Edinburgh, Scotland, this burgeoning guitar prodigy summons a mother lode of moxie and musicianship on her remarkable debut LP, Delta Devil Dreams. With this song in particular McKellar not only displays her rich, ribald guitar playing and honeyed vocals but also an endearing melodic disposition.



Jenny Lewis – “Love U Forever”: There has always been something irresistibly quirky about Jenny Lewis, a quixotic mix of understated musicality and narrative chops that at times includes fun bits of kink and blunt confession. Maybe this song is about a lifelong love affair, but you can dance to it even if it’s not.


Jessie Ware – “You & I (Forever)”: With her second album in two years, Tough Love, Ware has proved her debut (Devotion) was no fluke. This lovely song is among its highlights, and it features the most charming video you’ll see all day.



Johnny Marr – “Dynamo”: The former Smiths guitarist and all-around six-string wizard expanded his sonic canvas for his second solo LP, Playland, illustrated here by what Marr described to described to Write on Music as
a love song originally written about a building. “But it was important to me that it felt like someone could sing it to a person who they love,” he added, “romantic love, family love, anything really.” Mission accomplished.


Kasey Chambers with Bernard Fanning – “Bittersweet”: The unflinching honesty expressed in this one is damn near chilling, and its video – shot in one take, ostensibly portrayed by children each representing Chambers and Fanning’s narrators – does little to break the tension or heal the heartache.



Leonard Cohen – “Slow”: Brandishing his old poet’s phonetic authority and a knowing, implicit nod to erotic metaphor, the world’s sharpest-dressed octogenarian heralds the virtues of taking one’s time.


Lera Lynn – “Lying in the Sun”: While the Nashville-based singer/songwriter’s recently released second LP (The Avenues) is currently earning rave reviews, the title track from her previous EP release is just too damn good to overlook. Lynn’s singing on it is breathtaking, her voice coming on as sultry as a slow Southern sunset.



Lily and the Tigers – “Just a Memory”: This aching, mournful gem is but one of the standout moments on the Atlanta, Georgia trio’s masterful LP, The Hand You Deal Yourself. “I definitely was listening to a lot of Otis Redding at the time,” lead singer and principal songwriter Casey Hood told Write on Music last year of the song’s conception. “I love soul and R&B music and Motown.” It certainly sounds that way.



Lucinda Williams – “West Memphis”: The alt.country icon shines a light on the case of the West Memphis Three while a raw, wicked groove sputters and snarls beneath her breath. Consider it a sort of conviction conniption, if you will.



Marissa Nadler – “Firecrackers”: There are artists who sing for you and ones who sing to you, touching a soft spot while your guard’s down to remind you you’re alive. Nadler is of the latter distinction. From her sublime LP, July, this song is utterly exquisite.



Nicole Atkins – “The Worst Hangover”: This stone-soul throwback appears on Atkins’ latest album, Slow Phaser, which is not only the culmination of a gifted artist coming into her own but also the best work of her career to date. 



Priscilla Ahn – “Diana”: With her third LP, This is Where We Are, Ahn signalled a shift, if not a complete departure, from the acoustic-informed aesthetic of her earliest recordings while this, the album’s sensuous opening track, sets the tone. 



Sharon Van Etten – “Nothing Will Change”: Van Etten summoned a tour de force with her 2014 LP, Are We There, translating often intense, personal introspections into universal revelations and, in songs like this one, delivering each lyric like a visceral, nerve-exposed soliloquy.


Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers – “Forgotten Man”: Stinging with anger and resentment, this one starts off sounding a little like “American Girl” but soon imposes its own ornery indignance on Hypnotic Eye, easily Petty’s best album in years.



Wilko Johnson & Roger Daltrey – “I Keep it to Myself”: Literally knocking on Heaven’s door, the iconic Dr. Feelgood guitarist sought to make one last album, on which The Who’s indomitable frontman was more than happy to join together with the man. As Johnson told Write on Music last year, the chemistry between the two was immediate. “Everybody got on well,” he added. “We just started working ferociously.” And the resulting album, Going Home, is invigorating...almost as much as the miraculous twist of fate that ultimately saved this beloved legend’s life.



January 12, 2015

Interview: Veteran Bassist Nathan East Celebrates Solo Success with Old Friends, New Documentary


If all you knew about Nathan East was on which albums he’s played, or with which legends he’s performed in concert, you’d fail to appreciate the humanity that accompanies his talent and makes him one of the most respected and sought-after musicians in the world. 

“Music is one of those things that brings us together,” East tells Write on Music. “I’ve found that over the years that I’ve been blessed by becoming friends with people through music.”

In a new documentary, Nathan East: For The Record, the veteran bassist is fêted by many of those friends, including Eric Clapton, Quincy Jones, Phil Collins, Al Jarreau, and Lionel Richie, among others. Ostensibly chronicling East’s life and career to date, the film centers around the making of his long-awaited self-titled solo debut, which was released in March of last year by Yamaha Entertainment Group. 

The album, which topped the Billboard Contemporary Jazz Albums Chart for four weeks — and owned the SmoothJazz.com Top 50 Album Chart for an unprecendented twenty-five weeks — is now up for a GRAMMY® in the category of Best Contemporary Instrumental Album. 

“It’s still a surreal feeling to me,” says East of the nomination. “You try not to think about it, but you think about it. And so when it happened it was just magic.” 



How did you react to seeing some of your peers and mentors sing your praises in the documentary?

To be honest, I cried. I was at the first premiere in New York and we were going to do a Q&A after, and it took me about ten minutes to just regain my composure because I was just very emotionally moved to tears.... It’s usually a memorial service when all these guys are saying these things about you. And when I attend memorial services I think to myself, This person would’ve loved to have known that so many of these people felt like this about them and loved them and articulated that. So it was a very emotional evening — and obviously for many reasons — seeing my family in there, my son who played on the record, and then especially [drummer] Ricky Lawson, who was all over the record. 


That’s a very poignant part of the film that addresses his untimely passing.


It really goes to show you that you never know… We’re not guaranteed anything. You can see the footage of us in the studio. There we are having fun and little did we know that was going to be our last project together.


When you’ve been called on to play with artists who have influenced you and your musical tastes — people like Eric Clapton or Quincy Jones or Stevie Wonder — does it take some getting used to when you’re playing with your heroes?


Well, to this day I’m grateful when those calls come, and the thing that I appreciate the most is that I studied these guys when I was coming up. So to hear from them, for them to become friends, and to work with them — even to this day — I’m saying to myself, “This is still amazing to me.” I still appreciate it. I don’t take any of it for granted. I appreciate their gift and the fact that they look to me to help them with their mission of getting their music out there really to me is still the highest honor. Because I do realize how much time in the early days I spent listening to Quincy Jones and Clapton and Stevie Wonder, studying these parts; my ear went to the bass and really they became part of my DNA. It’s a thrill, I have to say. It’s a total thrill and honor. 


I can only imagine how surreal it must’ve felt, especially early on, playing something like “Sunshine of Your Love” live on stage and looking beside you to see the guy who played on it originally.


The intimidating part early on was I kept hoping in my mind, I hope what I’m doing is good enough. I hope he likes what I’m doing.




Clapton seems very intuitive about what he wants musically and, at the same time, perceptive of those qualities in other players.

As a matter of fact, I remember when I did an instructional DVD called The Business of Bass, and I interviewed a few of these guys like Eric, Phil Collins, Quincy Jones, David Foster, Babyface, producers and artists that I respected. I asked them what was the one thing they looked for most in a musician? The answer was unanimously the same across the board: someone who listens.


Most people, they practice something in their room; they practice a lick. Now they’re going to go down to the band and play that. Without even listening to what’s going on, they’re basically just going to show what they’ve been practicing. That’s not the dialogue. The dialogue is listening. Eric has always appreciated when somebody can almost start to read his mind and know where he’s going to go and then meet him there. That’s one of the things that really, really makes music fun in playing and very interesting and keeps it special. 


In the For The Record documentary, Clapton describes you as being a good listener, actually.


Yeah, he really appreciates that a lot. That’s one of the things — and I’ve been studying these guys forever — when I was coming up my ear would just go to the bass-line on all these tunes. And so when I was in Japan and playing the bass-line to “Taxman” and I looked to my left and there’s George Harrison. That’s crazy! 




George Harrison is sort of an anomaly in the sense that most fans have an idea of what kind of man he was, but they don’t know much about how he worked behind the scenes, particularly in his solo career. What was he like in the studio or in rehearsing for his 1991 tour of Japan? You must’ve felt incredibly privileged to be a part of that.

Oh, yeah, a huge honor to be spending all day with a man like this or the band. You realize how down-to-earth these people are. You laugh and you joke and you break for lunch. You do the same thing you do at any other job, only it’s playing with a Beatle. George was very easygoing. He wasn’t too worried about everything. If you were in the general vicinity of the right notes and chords, he was happy.


As our friendship grew, he would come over to my house here in L.A. and meditate, and I’d think, George Harrison and me, we just meditated together! It was one of those things where you just realize there’s no accident; this is a very special human being. It’s a privilege and an honor and a gift to be in the room with him.


You say he wasn’t particularly fussy if you were in the vicinity of the right notes, but how was he on songs like “Devil’s Radio” or “Got My Mind Set On You”, ones that were as new to him to play as they were to you and the rest of the band at the time?


He was as hard on himself as he was [on the band] because he was kind of learning the chords and re-learning things. He would sit there and go over the changes himself until he got it right. So it was kind of good because we could all learn together. That’s what rehearsal is for, to get everything worked out and then get it tight and ready to play for forty-five thousand people. 


One of your earliest breaks was working with Barry White. I never really thought he got his due for the sheer scope of his skills. He got pegged as an R&B crooner, but he wrote charts and orchestrations... His talent far exceeded that solely of a singer.


You know what? Every note that you heard coming out of those records, he came up with. He would sing the orchestral arrangements to Gene Page that were going through his head. I learned how to write bass-lines from Barry White. I often joke that I went to BWU — Barry White University — because [of] spending every day in the studio with this man and watching him give every single person their part, from the guitar player to the drummer to two bass players. It was an education that I will be forever grateful for because I learned so much from him on how to create bass parts and how, just in general, to put songs together. 




You got to perform live with him, too.

To do something at that early an age, then there’s no doubt in your mind: This is what I want to do. If you can imagine, sixteen years old, sitting at Madison Square Garden or on the stage at the Apollo Theatre in New York to a sold-out audience, it was magic. I had a great learning experience and a great opportunity to see just how it works when a guy like that is at the top. It was like a machine…. He was a very, very creative guy. He came up with all of those parts and titles. It was kind of funny because you’d look at the album credits and literally it’d be, “Cover concept by Barry White. Artwork by Barry White”—


“Spoken intro by Barry White.” I liked how instead of songs with titles like “I Love You,” he’d write something like “It’s Ecstasy When You Lay Down Next To Me.” The titles had, like, fifteen words. 


Right! That’s pretty funny. [Laughs] Oh, I had no idea you were that tuned into him... I was a big fan. 


His music was just always around. I don’t even remember how I first got clued into it. It’s weird how music can do that. It’s like water or something; it’s always been there.


That’s why I always say music is the most magical and spiritual event… You can’t touch it, you can’t smell it. You just feel it.


Back when you were first trying to make your name as a session player, was it mainly by word of mouth that you’d become known to other musicians?


Pretty much. Lionel used to say, “It’s kind of a business of stepping stones.” You really leave your mark behind as soon as you walk out of the studio door. So, whatever you do when you’re in there, make it stick because it’s going to be around for a long time.… Back in the day I’d go across the hall to do a session for the Jacksons. Then I’d jump in and do [one with] Lionel Richie. Then you’d have Phil Collins in the other studio. Clapton in another one. I mean, it was amazing. 


When you show up for a session now — let’s say you haven’t worked with this particular artist, so you’re only familiar with what you’ve heard on the radio — what is your usually your approach? 


It becomes a collaboration, a collaborative effort. A studio is really a place where the music is born, and unless they’ve written every note down and just have a complete, solid, concrete idea in their head that “this is the way it has to be” — which, it still doesn’t turn out like that — then you really take a blank piece of paper or a blank hard drive and it’s like you get your tools out and start painting. Then at some point somebody decides that, “You know what? This is ready. It’s finished. It’s produced. Let’s mix it, master it, and see what happens.” Normally when I come to the studio, it’s been everything from A to Z to where there’s a bass part completely written out there for me to interpret or there’s nothing and I have to come up with it, write it. They’re depending on me to create the bass-line for the song. 


You’re not going to wait long to do your next solo album, are you?


No, we’re working on it right now. This has been the greatest experience connecting with Yamaha Entertainment Group and my buddy and partner, Chris Gero, who’s really told the story [with the documentary, For The Record] in a very classy way. I’ve got to say, he got me into the studio and between the two of us we really tried to come up with something that we would feel would be embraced by the world and do our best effort. 





Nathan East is available now from Yamaha Entertainment Group.

Nathan East: For The Record is currently available to stream on Hulu.


December 31, 2014

Review: Dre Mazzenga - Do Me Right [EP]


Originally from New York and now based in Austin, Texas, Dre Mazzenga proves herself to be a striking and sophisticated new talent with her current five-track EP, Do Me Right. In fact the singer/songwriter sounds like her adolescence was often spent within earshot of a rich and varied record collection — these days Mazzenga is actually a vintage-vinyl collector — as she reflects such eclectic influences as Carole King, Donny Hathaway, and Laura Nyro. 

She seems most comfortable with classic R&B and soul, an assessment best illustrated here by a fun, faithful cover of the 1968 Barbara Acklin classic, “Love Makes a Woman.” With each of the four original songs that round out this set as well, Mazzenga sings with a refreshing amount of polish and promise, none more so than on the mournful piano ballad, “Bird in the Storm,” which is as breathtakingly tender as it is emotionally adult.  








December 29, 2014

DVD Review: Bob Marley - Uprising Live!


Bob Marley has been gone now for almost as many years as he lived, and his legend seems to grow all the more mythic and symbolically universal with the increscent distance from his 1981 death. At the same time, though, his most polarizing tendencies — impulses that not only informed his artistry but his very identity as well — seem to fade further and further in distinction. 

That contrast, between Marley as he actually was and the saccharine “One Love” icon that often characterizes his image today is brought into potent focus on this newly released live DVD from Eagle Rock Entertainment. 


While the reggae superstar leads the Wailers through some familiar songs like “Jamming” and “I Shot the Sheriff, he devotes the majority of the performance — recorded on June 13, 1980 at Dortmund’s Westfalenhalle while on tour in support of his just released LP, Uprising, it was later broadcast on the German television series, Rockpalast — to far more provocative fare. Whether extolling his Rastafarian faith and culture with such songs as “Natty Dread” and “Positive Vibration” to venturing into decidedly sociopolitical territory with the likes of “Get Up, Stand Up” and “Revolution,” Marley is a proudly defiant ambassador of his own values and a riveting musical force on the live stage. 


Indeed, as becomes obvious and indisputable throughout this performance, Marley was incendiary to the end.




December 18, 2014

An Interview with Johnny Marr


Johnny Marr is just getting started.

Sure, it’s been more than three decades since the British guitarist first ventured into immortality with The Smiths, his six-string virtuosity complementing Morrissey's often esoteric lyricism. And, sure, he’s played in a handful of other bands in the more than quarter century since the Smiths broke up, from The The to Electronic to Modest Mouse to The Cribs. And, okay, he’s appeared on even more albums by even more bands, including those of Talking Heads and Oasis and too many others to mention.

These days, however, Marr is immersed in a musical pursuit all his own.

Barely a year after the release of his critically hailed solo debut, The Messenger, Marr now forges ahead with ever-evolving artistry and imagination on his latest, Playland. As he suggests in the following conversation, this is only the beginning.

Were there elements or distinctions about Playland that you sought to be different than ones on The Messenger?

I kind of felt instinctively that we were going to go in a little more of a stronger kind of direction musically. The drums were going to be louder and… I wouldn’t say bombastic, but I just knew that [from] the way we were playing live it was going to be a little harder sounding — along the same lines, but harder.

Starting the album with “Back in the Box” is a dramatic way to get into things. That song’s got a real kick.

Once I got that song written I thought it’d be a good opener because, as you say, it’s got a kick. Also, the song is really in praise of euphoria and feeling good — a sort-of-ecstatic stage, shall we say. I researched, actually, things like schizophrenia. I came across a couple of reports on schizophrenic episodes and that gave me a couple of phrases, like “walk on the wind” and “breaking me out from the inside and the outside,” that kind of thing. The song is really a celebration of those moments in life when maybe you just want to punch the air. I thought that was a good balance, really, and a good way to start off a record. I think when music does that it’s the greatest thing.

It’s an exuberant way to start the album.

Yeah, that’s a good way of putting it. Exactly, yeah.



“Dynamo” really draws in the listener, particularly when it reaches the chorus: There’s a melodic lift, so to speak, that elevates the song to another level.

Good. That’s nice to hear. “Lift” is a good word because the song is a love song, essentially. It could be about anything, and I happened to conceive it about the love of a building. But it was important to me that it felt like someone could sing it to a person who they love — romantic love, family love, anything really. So, I like that you used the word “lift” because that was the feeling I was trying to evoke. The music really led to concepts of the song.

Sometimes I’ll have the concepts first, like “Easy Money.” I knew I was going to write about that subject and I went then into a suitable kind of musical background for it. Well, in the case of “Dynamo,” I had the tune, had all the melody, and I wanted the words to match that atmosphere of what was going on there.

“Easy Money” was a tricky one because I felt that if I was going to write about the outside world and about society I was going to have to mention money in some way, but it’s been done so many times in music, it could be a little bit hackneyed. Also, I didn’t want it to come across as a complaint or a downer. I wanted to almost lampoon — if that’s the right word — our relationship to money and how we view it. So I then went on a search to try to write something really upbeat and catchy.

The phonetic way you sing the word “money” in that one gives it a rather striking rhythm. 

Funnily enough, when I think about those things in my approach to singing sometimes I’ve not really managed to find a better term for the approach than “rock ‘n’ roll.” Over the years the term “rock ‘n’ roll” has taken all kinds of associations and meanings.... Regardless of how long it’s been around, [though], rock ‘n’ roll — whether it’s Eddie Cochran or the Buzzcocks, or early Lou Reed or Ray Davies — is the thing that influences my singing, really. If my singing comes across as rock ‘n’ roll singing then I’m more than happy with that because it seems to be somewhat of a dying art.... I like singing that’s got a rhythm to it. Joey Ramone really knew how to do that. Even if you’re not necessarily singing words then the attitude and the sound of it can be really catchy. I really like that approach.

Yeah, that’s the way “Easy Money” comes off. Whereas, say, The O'Jays sang the word “money” on “For the Love of Money” in a more fluent style, the way you sing it comes off as cadenced and cut-up. 

Yeah, interesting. You can have a lot of fun with that stuff. On that song the record was literally recorded on the back lounge of the bus, except for drums of course. I went in the studio to make the record and I just could never beat what I’d done on the bus, the guitars and the vocals. All the singing is what I did at two-thirty in the morning on the way to El Paso. I had to keep getting the bus driver to stop so I didn’t get the sound of the bus on the vocal track. It’s got that enthusiasm of when you just write something and it’s all new and you think it’s the greatest thing.



How comfortable are you as a lyricist? Obviously you’re most known and respected as a guitarist, but you’re writing all these songs now. How comfortable are you in that role?

I’m comfortable because, without being overconfident or too cocky, when I do something that I think is right, I think it’s pretty good and I’m kind of proud of it. I always want to get better, of course, and I’m still that way on the guitar. If you don’t think that way, then… Hubris isn’t such a great thing. So I do want to get better, but some songs I’ve written, like “Psychic Beginner,” which is a B-side, and “New Town Velocity,” “Upstarts,” and “Speak Out, Reach Out”… Let’s put it this way. I wouldn’t want anyone else to replace the lyrics no matter who they were.

You still regard the guitar as a challenge?

Yeah, absolutely. Because I started playing as a little kid and it’s been in my life for as long as I can remember and part of my family, I have an almost mystical appreciation of it, but at the same time a healthy opinion that it is a machine. On the one hand, like most guitar freaks I could fetishize guitars and guitar culture. And that’s a really nice thing to do. But I also enjoy that it’s a machine. There’s just something really cool about that. It just makes it an all-encompassing, awesome thing.

I remember reading over the years [about] some guitar players who feel that they kind of plateau out as they work. That might be okay for them, but that’s not okay for me because there’s still a real matter of discovery. If I felt that I’d gotten to everywhere that I could get on the instrument I’d either be kind of depressed or I would stop what I’m doing and go back to school and just study it. I just kind of made a pact with myself when I was nine, ten, eleven, that it was my greatest companion and it was my doorway out of not just my social situation but out of these regular three dimensions. It’s kind of complicated to describe. My relationship with the guitar is sometimes otherworldly. I talk about that in the song “25 Hours” — “this door really goes somewhere.” That’s kind of what I’m talking about, my relationship with the guitar, with art and pop culture. Guitar is my vehicle for that.

So there’s always something to learn.

I try to think about the guitar along the spectrum of James Williamson, who was in The Stooges during the Raw Power era, on the one hand to John McLaughlin and his solo record, My Goal’s Beyond. I like all the spectrum in between, and that might be — and is — Richard Lloyd [of Television], John McGeoch from Siouxsie and the Banshees, Nile Rodgers. To me these people are magicians and artists. What James was doing on Raw Power was just pure attitude and magic. He could say so much in one little — one big — riff, but yet John McLaughlin shows you that you could spend your lifetime literally on Devotion. And I really love that. I love that. It’s as great as Cézanne or Magritte or any of the master painters as far as I’m concerned… Picasso. It takes the same dedication, that’s for sure, the same imagination.

interviewed James Williamson a few years back, actually. In discussing The Stooges legend and influence, he suggested that the band essentially created its own musical vocabulary, which subsequent bands later picked up on and assimilated into their sounds. The same could be said for you and your music, too. When a song you’ve played on comes on the radio, it’s distinctive; people know it’s you playing.

Well, that’s a real privilege. I understand what he’s saying. What James has come up with there is absolutely right and really, in a way, gets back to this idea of why I like sometimes to remember that it’s a machine because then it’s all about what the artist — the creative person — does with that machine. The guitar doesn’t necessarily lead you.

Someone like Lou Reed, what he was doing with the early Velvets on those records — with the feedback — his lead playing was just so unique, particularly for the times. What you’re hearing there is the person. You’re hearing the person and their approach. And [your] limitations are actually what make you great. Again, it’s about the creativity of a person, and I think that’s absolutely right.

In my case, when people ask me about specifically how I could come up with my style I point them to some landmarks like James or Nile Rodgers or the Patti Smith Group, those kind of things. But really what you’re doing is you’re trying to play your own feelings and you’re trying to hear yourself and you’re trying to recognize yourself in the sound that comes out, particularly if you’ve spent a lot of time playing on your own, which I did in my bedroom. You use the building blocks of your heroes. You want to hear how you feel coming out of the speaker. Some people don’t really approach it like that. They just want to hear the sound of other people coming out of the speaker. That’s the difference between people who are artists and… I know that I could spend — if I wanted to — a couple of days sat down learning Lydian scales and playing like super-fast-lightning raid that would sound very impressive. It’s the sonic equivalent of a race car driver driving around and around and around and around at high speed. But that wouldn’t be expressing my being and expressing my attitude and who I am. So, that has always been bullshit to me.



You mirror your influences until — as you progress — your own musical voice emerges.

Yeah. I was very lucky because I spent a lot of time really working on my guitar playing in my teens. My apprenticeship really started at fourteen. I left school at just fifteen to be in a band, and I was playing every night with all these different bands, different people, and being asked to join different bands. Even though people obviously know me from 1983 onwards in The Smiths, which is cool, what I was doing before that started the pattern that really was the course for the rest of my life, which was to collaborate, go to places where it was musically intriguing to me and where I was musically curious and I thought were going to make me be a better musician. That’s what happened when I played with The The, and that’s what happened when I played with Modest Mouse, but that pattern started for me when I was fourteen.

To what do you attribute your continued musical enthusiasm? There aren’t a lot of artists who over the long term sustain their creative curiosity and desire to continually try new things, but you’re one of them.

I just generally feel that I have no alternative because the idea of life without doing that really sucks. That’s the way I’ve been since being a child. The regular five senses, should we say, or just the way of perceiving life, it’s just not enough for me. So on one hand you could say that I’m trying to compensate for failing to deal with the world as it is, but I think most creative people are like that. It’s just what’s going on. Even though I’ve got a really good life and have been blessed with good relationships and all of that kind of stuff, it’s just not enough for me. It’s the pursuit of ideas — and in my case it’s musical ideas or ideas for doing a movie or projects — that really gives me my sense of purpose.

You must know this, of course, but you could live solely off the legacy of the music you made in the ‘80s, going around playing just those songs for people. You clearly have a different mindset, though, wanting to create new things and pursue new directions with your music.

I’ve got a couple of friends who are artists. One’s a sculptor and I’ve got a couple of friends who are painters. We live exactly the same way. [One of them] told me recently that each age he went through he just squeezed as much enthusiasm and use — and I think he used the word exploitation, although that’s not a word I would use — out of that particular period. And then it ceased to have any nutrition for him. I’ve been very fortunate that what I’ve done is there for prosperity whether it’s The Smiths records or the Talking Heads album or whoever, but … [y]ou just need to go forward. The idea of some guy sitting around with a bottle of wine late at night listening to the old records, there’s something mawkish about that to me.

There are plenty of artists, though, who come from bands with far less legacies than that of The Smiths who bankroll the rest of their lives solely on their past.

I guess I’ve got this subconscious goal of an array of different records to make in my life that I just don’t feel I’ve gotten to the end of yet. With each song I’m trying to write the coolest 45, whether it’s a chart record or not. Some come out different. Some come out weird. Some come out commercial, some don’t…. I found my medium really young, like my friend who works in acrylics found her medium. I love that culture. As you get older you realize what you’re doing better be art or else you studied too long thinking about something. When I put it in that context it’s just all about being an artist. I just happen to be rock musician. Artists work ‘til the very last day they drop.



Playland is available now on New Voodoo Records via Warner Music Group. For more information on Johnny Marr, please visit the artist's official website.

(First published at Blogcritics.)