While Americans were listening to the Culture Club and its song “Karma Chameleon,” Martin Harley was living in Woking, England, discovering the Mississippi blues and the music he was destined to play. With a slide on his Weissenborn guitar and a gritty voice that teases and pleads, Harley sounds like he grew up playing juke joints in the Delta. He toured the United States in 2013, opening for ZZ Ward, and played at The Soul Kitchen in Mobile. The Southern Rambler interviewed Harley on the Cayamo music cruise where he was playing with his good friend Sam Lewis.
TSR: Why was Mississippi blues the key to unlocking music for an Englishman like you?
Martin: It started with the first time I heard “Smokestack Lightning.” The blues has always been beguiling, magical, mysterious, sexy and voodoo. Mississippi was exotic and wild compared to the straightforwardness of England and the end of the Thatcher era. It was a voice reaching out that made sense. When I was 15 or 16, I listened to Ry Cooder and the Paris, Texas soundtrack. The open tuning and bottleneck guitar were new to me. A few years ago I went to a blues festival in Mississippi and got Robert Johnson’s The Complete Recordings. I also went to Clarksdale and played at Red’s Lounge and Ground Zero. That was exciting for me.
TSR: You have an adventurous streak and say you bring things on yourself. What were you like as a kid?
Martin: I was quiet. My dad worked in animal welfare and my mom is a special needs teacher. My sister is an academic. I was artistic and quite shy. Bicycles were my first taste of freedom and I have always been obsessed with anything on two wheels. I am still into motorcycles. I kept to myself a lot and my life didn’t make sense until music. I started out in art and went to college in architecture, but music is a hobby that turned into a dream. It gave me focus and the creative output and healing nature of having some kind of self expression. I am a bit lost without music. Music is such an evolutionary thing and hearing a great song makes you think you aren’t alone in the world.
TSR: You had radio success with the album MojoFix and the title song was featured on the television show, “The Vampire Diaries.” Why did your sound change for that album and then return to the blues for Live at Southern Ground?
Martin: My manager at the time wanted to evolve my sound to see what we could do. I went into the studio with a bunch of half-finished songs and that gave birth to an album. MojoFix was, “Let’s go crazy and lay a bunch of guitar tracks down.” It was a lot of fun and interesting to have the rock dream and songs in TV shows like “The Vampire Diaries,” but I have distanced myself from that record.
TSR: You made Live at Southern Ground in four hours after a night of drinking?
Martin: We cut it in four hours because we had no time for rehearsal. Bass player Daniel Kimbrough and I had just played a few festivals together and I wanted to do a fun record of us playing together. I didn’t really think it would be something I could put out. We were so excited about recording that we went out and got drunk the night before. The next morning we wondered why we did it, but then had a couple of drinks and lunch. We played through everything twice and that was it. I had been wanting to make a record that sounds like what I play on stage.
I received a Music Export Growth Scheme grant (from the UK Trade and Investment) that helps cover the promotion costs of marketing and touring, and getting in front of programmers and festival organizers. I started my own record company to put out Live at Southern Ground. It has been a transitional year with little time left for songwriting. I don’t know when I am going to write songs, but it needs to happen fairly soon.
TSR: You aren’t writing songs now?
Martin: The last three years have been stark and I haven’t had much to say that I feel like people need to hear. Songwriting is like car parts, sometimes you pick out the intro, riff and verses. You end up with lines you like and a bunch you don’t and you try to make a vehicle out of the bits and pieces. I have a lot of phone recordings and have about 100 songs I work on little bit by little bit. I probably have 50 recordings of the same song. Other songwriters are much more focused than me. If I ever put lazy lyrics in a song where I knew I was just filling a gap, that boils my piss because then I have to live with it. There are songs I wrote 10 years ago that I didn’t write as well as I could do now. You never know if what you are writing is any good. No one is standing there telling you that you wrote a fucking awesome song today. But then you get in front of people. “You get what I am talking about. This is cool.” Songwriting is putting yourself out there, standing in front of the whole school stark naked. “I am frightened, the world scares me and the only way I can fix it is to stand in front of you and tell you about it. Please let this work.” It is scary. The literal writers are the bold and brave people. People like me hide behind the slightly more surreal.
I have to take myself out of the equation when I write songs. I have ideas right now, but they are more sonic than lyrical. I love playing the guitar and am open to have an album of instrumentals.The songwriting side has to be willing to expose yourself, but the player side has to be willing to make an idiot of yourself. I am OK with messing up a little bit and making an idiot of myself.
TSR: What does making an idiot of yourself mean when you are playing?
Martin: It is being willing to improvise for five or six minutes with a player like Daniel Kimbrough. I just look at him and it’s, “Let’s go.” It pushes us into a little cul-de-sac and we have no plan whatsoever. We play a little game, maybe get a theme or jump on top of each other. We change the song and spin it on its head, or just end up somewhere really far away from where we started and try to get back and have it make sense. Sometimes it doesn’t, and you are stranded. Dan looks at me. “I don’t know where the one is. Maybe we go now,” and bing, we make it. It’s a language. We are talking, but no one is talking. Blues has a basic form that is simple and joy and built on the subtlety of the performance and playing off each other. The spirit of the blues is improvisation.
TSR: Your lyrics in “Automatic Life” are vivid with “matchbox cars” and “rest my elbows on your window sill.” Is imagery important to you?
Martin: Imagery for me is picture painting. I am quite visual and dreams are collections of images that require you to fill in the gaps. I write songs for me, but sometimes they may not be accessible to other people.
TSR: What do, “clocks and mirrors line the wall from cradle to the grave” mean in “Automatic Life?”
Martin: Comparison to other people can only make you vain and bitter. A lot of people spend their time wondering how they measure up to others. That comparison is not healing. Having goals can also lead to disappointment. You achieve the goal, or you don’t — then what?
TSR: You worked and played in Australia. How did that shape you?
Martin: I lived in an old station wagon for a year in Australia trying to escape some bad lifestyle decisions. I ran out of money and had a few speeding fines to pay and ended up with a job working as a pancake chef in a nunnery. The pancakes were average and the nuns were unimpressed. I did a lot of guitar playing there. I had an old 12-string that warped in the heat and that’s when I started playing it across my lap. At that time Australian beach music was exploding with Ben Harper, Jack Johnson, John Butler and all of those musicians were playing there. Australia was good for my long-term sanity.
I came home and made my first record to document what had been going on in my life. I spent 250 pounds and sold 10,000 copies out of the boot of my car and realized this could be a job. I had been working in landscape as a gardener. I loved mowing lawns. It was the most Zen, glorious, peaceful, thing to do. Shut down and just do it. I worked with my best friend. If you had a hangover, it was gone by 10. I got fit and healthy and watched the season change and felt spiritually connected with the world. If I wasn’t doing music, I would go back to that.
TSR: Where do you want music and your life to go?
Martin: My life is all work or all play with my family. I have one daughter, Lola Alabama Harley, and another child is coming May 8. Chris Stapleton suggested that if we have a boy, we should name it Batman.
I just want to make good records and tour. Over the last three years I have almost completely stopped working with my band. So I am out there in the world on my own, but there is a nice feeling with that. People have been very good to me and willing to help. I am making good friendships and starting to make good decisions about making records, and how to make them.
I did things backwards in the U.S. I opened for ZZ Ward, played a lot of the bigger venues first and had a great time, but I did nothing on the ground to support it. Sam Lewis taught me I have to start with the smaller places and do the work to create fans and build a following. I love having a few beers and playing music. In the UK, I play 150-seat theaters and people pay good money to listen to me ramble and play music for an hour and a half.I love meeting people who come to the shows. It’s like inviting them to your house to listen to you play your record collection and talk about yourself. It is a strange concept that never escapes me. People are so kind, funny and interactive.