MARTIN STEPHENSON has been one of the UK’s best-loved musicians for oveer 35 years.
Always popular on the circuit, Stephenson’s “must see” live performances are an exuberant tour-de-force combining heart-in-your-mouth intimacy with playful humour and warm self-deprecation.
The Daintees’ critically acclaimed 1986 debut BOAT TO BOLIVIA opened up an always interesting story. It showcased Stephenson’s songwriting, poetic romanticism and spiritual depth – so marking him out as a soulful cream of the leftfield crop during the self-obsessed 1980s.
Never pandering to a particular scene, Stephenson’s lightness of touch on a varied mix of musical styles was immediately apparent. His path was destined to be a lifelong journey through the music he loved: folk, ragtime, jazz, rockabilly, show tunes, punk-pop and country.
CALIFORNIA STAR & HAUNTED HIGHWAY continue his tradition for eclectic roots songwriting, adding to a discography now amounting to over 40 albums.
Last year he re-recorded his classic debut BOAT TO BOLIVIA, with The Daintees, the band he’s intermittently fronted through a string of albums – and hundreds of gigs – since his teens in the North East.
His latest release is another one with the Daintees, BAYSWATER ROAD is a gem of a piece recorded at Sheffield's Yellow Arch. Featuring some lovely artwork by Martin's daughter Phoebe, it depicts various characters Martin has encountered over the years. Featuring ten new tracks it is a gem not to be missed.
The great thing about Martin Stephenson — hang on, let’s start that again — ONE of the great things about Martin Stephenson is that you never quite know what he’s going to say next. Take these enlightening examples from a recent chinwag with the much-travelled, much-loved singer-songwriter and frontman of his band the Daintees.
“When I was 11 I got put on a spiritual programme. I was a table tennis player. I had this gift for table tennis that I didn’t have with music.”
“I do these things called awayday albums, for people who are struggling, but talented. They’re at a studio in Darlington with this bloke who’s like the Salvador Dali of rockabilly.”
“I learned to play ‘Apache’ last week. I’m 52.”
There is rarely a dull moment in conversation with Stephenson, but that’s exactly what you’d hope from someone who’s never stood still during 35 years in love with music. For him, it’s not a career, it’s a lifetime calling, and his restless troubadour spirit has now amassed an extraordinary catalogue of 40 albums.
‘California Star’ is already being heralded as their finest since ‘Boat To Bolivia,’ and that’s some comparison. That was the 1986 debut that announced one of the most perceptive songwriters of the day, with a thoughtful, layered sound in an age of excess. It even evoked an unusual bout of sincerity from the NME, who said Stephenson “builds bridges between love and hate, cradle and grave, folk and pop, past and present.”
That same spirit is marbled through ‘California Star,’ the band’s first album to appear in a new deal with Absolute Marketing, distributed by Universal. It’s delightful proof that a fifty-something artist can go on getting better — but only if they have the open-minded, inquisitive philosophy that Martin applies to music and life.
“There’s lots of different dimensions in music,” he muses, addressing how he survives and thrives 40 records down the line. “Sometimes, no matter how open rock ‘n’ roll people think they are, they can have a blinkered view of how the scene and the universe shift. You’ve got to redefine yourself. It just depends whether you’re connected to it or not.”
He’s connected alright, now as ever. The Durham native, born in 1961, did indeed excel at table tennis before his musical abilities pushed their way to the front, but when they did, he was hooked. “My teacher was like a cross between Allen Ginsberg and Jim Morrison, he was like this Vietnam hippie,” remembers Stephenson. “He had this massive cosmic perception, and he taught loads of young lads from rough backgrounds how to get rid of the competitive spirit that brought a lot of unhappiness.
“He taught us how to teach and how to encourage, so I got all these gifts from the age of 11 to 15, and a great musical education. I was listening to Frank Zappa, Santana, Patti Smith, I was really spoilt.” Zappa’s ‘Hot Rats’ became his all-time favourite, but before he was even in his teens, he had a love of creative pop music too, witnessed by his first-ever single purchase, Wizzard’s ‘Ball Park Incident.’
Before he was anything else, Stephenson was a busker. It was the beginning of an instinct, a need, for live performance that continues to this day. “I used to see a sunny morning when I was 18 and thought ‘I’m just going to go on the street and play, nobody knows who I am anyway.’ The doo-wop singers used to do that, stand on street corners. That’s how I started off.”
Then, as for so many, along came the new wave to jam the door open. “When I went into music, it was punk that got us to try to play,” says Martin. “But when I went into the music industry, when I was like 19, I had a completely different perspective. It wasn’t something I wanted to conquer or be part of.”
The Daintees’ first single, ‘Roll On Summertime,’ appeared in 1982, and soon the big boys were taking notice. Kitchenware Records, based in Newcastle, had already become one of the most important indies of the decade with a roster that included Prefab Sprout, Hurrah! and the Kane Gang. Stephenson’s richly detailed and nuanced songwriting was the perfect fit, and the distribution deal via London Records gave the band a real platform.
‘Boat To Bolivia’ displayed an extraordinary maturity, from the country charm of ‘Candle In The Middle’ to the Cohenesque acoustics of ‘Rain,’ and sounds as fresh today as it did then. A degree of UK chart success followed with the top 40 albums ‘Gladsome, Humour & Blue’ in 1988 and ‘Salutation Road’ in 1990.
When they lost their deal after 1992’s less successful ‘The Boy’s Heart,’ Stephenson called time on the original Daintees, setting about a solo career and the prolific outpouring of quality material that shows no sign of slowing down. Right now, he’ll tell you, he could record fully five more albums from his current crop of songs.
Stephenson is happy to have taken the road less travelled and bring his old and new fans with him. Superstardom wouldn’t quite have suited him, somehow. “I was in resistance even from day one,” he says. “Peter Green was my hero when I was 15 years old, so I couldn’t be like a star-star. I didn’t believe in the whole Roman perception of creating a god. That’s why I love Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran, because from Elvis, those guys developed to become singer-songwriters within a few years.”
‘California Star’ shines with all of his amassed influences, from folk and country to Americana to rock ‘n’ roll, but with plenty of the style that’s pure Stephenson and no one else. “I just went on a little journey with it,” he says. “I don’t have huge budgets now, but I like that, it makes you resourceful. Rock ‘n’ roll wasn’t built on huge budgets, so it’s good to have a little bit of pressure. Sometimes if you’ve got huge budgets, you end up sitting in the jacuzzi when you should be playing.”
When he’s not writing, recording or gigging, which isn’t often, he’s in his adopted home of Invergordon in the Scottish Highlands, much involved with his own label, Barbaraville. He describes it as “a raft, to try and help people” and has such talents as Davy Cowan, Andy Gunn and the unmistakeable Helen McCookerybook. Then there are the days he organises with that studio owner who puts the Dali in Darlington, in which Stephenson produces “awayday albums” for more artists he is championing.
And there’s always the road. In the summer, he and the Daintees played for 5,000 people in the acoustic tent at Glastonbury; a few days later he was in front of about 100 in a small theatre in Sheffield. These days, wherever it is, the love and respect flows to and from the stage.
“I have a song called ‘Home’ which I do a lot, which I wrote for my mother when she passed away,” says Stephenson. “People connect with it. There was a woman who asked me to sing it for her dad the other night, and to me that was the highest level in the gig, because someone wanted the song for their dad who’d passed away. That’s a really humbling thing.”
Wherever he is, even at home, the music bug never takes a day off. “Sometimes I go out on the street and play Chet Atkins stuff, or Merle Travis,” he says. “It’s lovely, because I don’t put a case out for money, I just do it because I love doing it.”