‘I was shadow boxing with my dad a couple of years ago’, remembers Martyn Joseph. ‘As a kid he always wanted me to toughen up, but I never did.’
On this day in the nursing home, as playful arms jab, heads duck and muscle memory kicks in, Joseph is transported all the way back to his childhood in sixties. These days Dad, now in his eighties, is a shadow of his younger self and in the mist of Alzheimer’s but in unexpected moments, the shadow gives way to light.
‘As we playfully boxed, he suddenly stopped, came up close to me and put his hand to my chin. ‘I love you son’ ‘he said’
The scene inspired ‘Shadow Boxing’ one of the stand-out tracks on Joseph’s new record 1960. It also proved emblematic for this entire repertoire of songs which explore the enigma of the passing days and those ‘incandescent moments’, of ‘a soul that’s taking stock’.
Holding songs of restlessness as well as resolution, perhaps the central question of the album was sparked by a suggestion of Art Garfunkel, when Joseph was touring with him in the 1990’s.
‘He said to me I had to go and live in Nashville, Music City, where so much great music in what was called ‘New Country’ was being made…’ ‘I never quite got there but it got me wondering what would have happened if I had. More than that, what would have happened if I’d lived a different life, for example lived a little earlier, in the days when some of my favourite songs were being written…’
‘I was born too late, as the song puts it, before that defining question suggesting that life is not about whether we’re born out of time but what we do with our time. ‘How long does it take for a man to know himself…’
1960 is a ‘coming of age’ record, but not as we’re familiar with the phrase. The age is sixty, which Joseph arrived at last year, just as the world went into lockdown. Perhaps that confluence of events, with the accompanying isolation and suspension of live shows, meant a more personal record, a kind of self-examination was inevitable. ‘The road ahead is shorter than the one behind’, he muses. ‘I found myself asking what I’ve made of this life – and what I might have done differently.’
Maybe there’s no answer to that question or maybe the answer is as long as it takes to put the question aside. In truth, he adds, ‘the answer doesn’t matter, it’s about love and the quality of your days on this earth.’
1960 is Joseph’s 23rd studio album in a songwriting life spanning four decades. The musical gene was activated ten years further back again, in 1970, watching Glen Campbell on TV performing ‘Honey Come Back’. That’s when the 10 year old in Penarth, South Wales first picked up a guitar, the musical trail soon leading to Campbell’s version of the Jimmy Webb penned ‘Wichita Lineman’. That’s also the moment when Joseph says his own trademark melancholic musical sensibility was born, an unsentimental candour which continues to inform Joseph’s songwriting.
‘Darkness on the edge of Cardiff ’as someone once wrote, or, as Martyn puts it, ’I was never that into disco…’ ‘Even as a kid I loved the sadness and longing in Jimmy Webb’s songwriting, in Glen Campbell’s voice and soon I’d found my way to Crosby, Stills and Nash, Joni Mitchell, Springsteen’
Cultural references like these in ‘Born Too Late’, are joined by that of an older, lesser-known singer, Josephine Baker, the American-born French artist, who was also a radical political activist and member of the French resistance during WWII. During the making of the album, Joseph discovered an unusual family photo. ‘It was a grainy black and white of my grandfather, my father’s dad, meeting Josephine Baker while he was a soldier posted in North Africa’
There was a beguiling symmetry in this discovery because it was his grandfather who’d been the musical talent in the family and on visits to his house, the young Martyn sat transfixed while grandad belted out the tunes. ‘It was Grandad who first encouraged me into music, he’d play his piano and I’d learn songs…’
There is a gravitas to the eleven songs on 1960, melodies both muscular and melancholic, songs which carry the weight of despair and sadness but also a depth of gratitude and wonder.
Martyn Joseph’s most personal record for years is a kind of statement and stopping place on the long and winding road from the year of his birth. It will resonate widely, its particular themes always speaking to those more universal ones which touch us all as the years go by.
If there is more looking back than looking forward, nostalgia is permitted only when it has a purpose – to revisit the days of innocence through the lens of experience, both joyful and sad.
Artist’s website: www.martynjoseph.net
‘Born Too Late’ – official and acoustic:
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