Martin Barre discusses his upcoming solo album 'Roads Less Travelled' and why he believes his music is for everybody
The ex-Jethro Tull guitar virtuoso breaks down the new album, talks performing in Turkey and Mumbai among political tensions, details the upcoming tour and more.
Martin Barre, who is best known for his prolific work as the former guitarist of Jethro Tull through the band's half-a-century career, is all set to hit the road for the North American leg of his massive, sprawling solo tour. With assistance from The Martin Barre Band, the tour kicks off on Wednesday (September 19) Debonair Music Hall in Teaneck, NJ and passes through a host of US venues before Martin and the band head back to the UK in November for the European leg.
The tour comes just a few weeks before the release of Martin's latest solo full-length studio effort 'Roads Less Travelled', which is slated for an October 5 release in the UK (via RSK) and October 12 in the USA (via Cleopatra Records). The album is the 71-year-old guitar virtuoso's sixth solo studio effort, a follow up to 2015's 'Back To Steel'. 'Roads Less Travelled' features 11 original tracks by Martin, which reflect the last 50 years of his esteemed musical career, showcasing his distinctive and instantly recognizable style of playing.
Although the tile could easily allude to Robert Frost's oft-quoted poem, the reference is actually much more personal, as Martin revealed in an interview with Meaww. "It isn't [a reference to Frost] really. Well, it is a phrase that's been used elsewhere, of course," Martin said. "But it's a phrase that's very pertinent to my upbringing and my attitude toward music, really. I've never followed the crowd. When everybody went left, I wanted to go right. When everybody was listening to [one kind of music], I was listening to something else," he added, throwing light on his hipsterly early days.
"I've just been annoyingly different all my life! I guess the only good thing about it is that I think I'm my own person. And probably my music isn't similar to anybody else's," Martin adds with a quick laugh.
Indeed, Martin's distinctive approach is immediately audible in just the first few seconds of the album's anthemic opening track 'Lone Wolf'. The explosive opening of the track features a ripping distorted guitar riff, interwoven with delicate harmonies on a mandolin. The track is a reminder not only of Martin's unquestionable ax skills, but also his deft work on the acoustic guitar, the mandolin, and even the banjo - all of which feature in the many sonic textures of 'Roads Less Travelled'.
"I wrote 'Lone Wolf' on the mandola," Martin revealed of the opening track. "Sometimes I write on the electric guitar or acoustic guitar, but very often, I sort of play around with the mandolin or a mandola. I quite like the blend of electric guitar and mandolin. So it came from the harmonies on the mandolin... and then I brought the banjo in. I just see it as orchestrating," Martin explained.
"Was the riff then centered around the mandola?," I enquired.
"It is," Martin admitted. "But you know, it's just a 'jumping-off' point. You know, all music starts somewhere. I guess a lot of people write on the piano, but the piano doesn't feature in the music. It's just the starting point and then you expand on it. But I like the texturing of a lot of different sounds," he added.
These textures span across a range of musical instruments on the album, courtesy of Martin's backing band. Alan Thompson plays the bass and the fretless bass, Darby Todd and Aaron Graham are on drums, Buster Cottam contributes with the double bass, Josiah J handles percussion and the Hammond organ, and Alex Hart and Becca Langsford top it all off with backing vocals.
When I asked Martin if he wrote all the parts himself, he revealed his interesting collaborative approach which encourages everyone involved to contribute their own take without stifling anyone's natural style. "I don't want to write bass parts or the keyboard parts," Martin admitted. "I want people to have an input into the music and have the freedom to sort of come up with ideas and different ways of approaching it. Otherwise, it just becomes 'too much me'! Which I don't think is a good thing to have. Somebody bringing something different to the table is always nice and it sort of embellishes what's already there. Nobody is perfect as a music writer/arranger so I'm really happy to let people come up with ideas and I'm very receptive to them."
"For instance, the bass parts...with Alan Thompson... I just said, 'these are the chords. These are the riffs. Just work on them and anything you want to try, just try it! If I don't like it, I'll let you know. If I like it, I'll definitely let you know!' I want people to have fun and enjoy the process of recording," Martin explained in his methodic, yet cheerful manner.
Lyrically, the album touches upon a host of themes. Choosing the path less traveled (title track), the promise of hope and optimism ('On My Way'), nostalgia for travels ('Seattle'), the human condition in Syria ('You Are an Angel'), and an ode to Ireland ('Trinity') - it's all packed into 'Roads Less Travelled'. But Martin sheepishly admits that as a guitarist first, lyricism is not his strong point.
"The lyrics are always the harder parts for me because I don't see myself as a great lyricist. I'm still learning how to do it and it doesn't come naturally at all," Martin says. He goes on to talk about how he always finishes all the musical arrangements and then sits down to deal with the daunting task of the lyrics. "I've probably spent more time doing the lyrics than all of the music put together," he says. "I would write lyrics, look at them the next day and throw them away. Then I'd write them again over and over. I must have gone through hundreds of pieces of paper re-writing lyrics. I'm never gonna be happy with them, but essentially, I'm doing the best I can and I'd never look at it as a throw-away chore that needs to be done."
"They're very important to me. Because lyrics are inevitably a little personal and I find it difficult to do it naturally," Martin admits, being one who finds it easier to express himself through his music instead. Although Martin wrote the lyrics himself, the vocals arrive courtesy of Dan Crisp, who will also be joining Martin on the upcoming tour.
A particularly stand-out track on the album is the ruminative acoustic slow-burner 'You Are My Angel', which features Hart taking over lead vocals. Placed towards the end of the album and spanning three-and-a-half minutes, the song is completely different from the other tracks on the album, with not even a peep of distortion in there. Martin recounted an anecdote of what inspired him to write the song.
"I was watching a news story about Syria during the bombings. It was set in a hospital with terrible things going on. And there was this one female doctor who's working during the raid. So during the interview, every time there's a bomb going on, everybody flinches and drops down. She totally ignores it and goes about her work. It's such a strong image. This girl working against such a horrible background... the circumstances were so awful. But she was so matter-of-fact, you know. She had no thought for herself or her own safety. She was doing such a difficult job and just saving as many lives as she could. Such a wonderful person... I don't even know her name. But that's what the song is about," Martin revealed.
Speaking of political turmoil, Martin and the band performed in Turkey earlier this May, and when I brought the topic up, Martin had a clear-cut opinion on how music transcends politics. "We've played in political hotspots before. But music transcends everything," Martin said. "We were in Mumbai when the hotel got attacked a couple of years ago," Martin revealed, referring to the 26/11 terrorist attack in the port city of Mumbai, India in 2008 which claimed at least 164 innocent lives and is seen as the 9/11 of India.
"Many musicians and sports stars at the time flew back to England. But we said 'no, we're gonna play the concert' because we believed that the people, particularly having gone through that experience in their city, deserved the music," Martin said. "It's the same in Turkey. People deserve their music," he added.
"I never talk about politics - it's none of my business. I'm not an expert and I don't want to give an opinion because I'm there to play music. My music's for everybody, all around the world. Essentially wherever you are, it's for the music. Whether it's the worst city in the world, or the most amazing city in the world, the concert that I play will be exactly the same and I will make sure that I will play the very best I can play and the band sounds as good as they can sound no matter what the political circumstances."
On that note, I discussed the recent Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement in Israel, which has urged and convinced hundreds of artists to not play venues in Israel in light of the political scenario in the West Bank and Palestine. I asked Martin if he would play in Israel if given a chance. He was quick to answer.
"Not just Israel... I think anywhere in the world. I'll play Palestine. It doesn't make a difference because the decision would be the same," he said emphatically. "It wouldn't be a political decision. If people wanna hear my music, anywhere in the world, I will do my best to play it for them. I don't care where it is or who they are, because music must always transcend everything else," he reiterated.
Martin and the band's setlist for the upcoming tour will showcase a healthy mix of Martin's solo projects as well as Jethro Tull fan favorites. When I enquired about how the band covers Ian Anderson's iconic flute sections of the song, Martin (who dabbles with the flute a little himself) told me that the flute parts are rendered through a synthesizer, saying that it works really well thanks to the keyboards' ability to dominate the sound spectrum over the two guitars. Martin did add that he might play the flute again sometime and that there's no reason that he wouldn't, but for now, he's more than happy with the arrangement.
Martin also revealed that he'd be embarking on a Jethro Tull project next year with Tull drummer Clive Bunker and bassist Jonathan Noyce along with two female vocalists and that he might pick up the flute for the occasion, but "only if I want to!".
Interestingly, when Jethro Tull reunited in 2017 in light of their 50th anniversary, Martin was missing. Martin will also be touring the States at the same time as Tull in the upcoming months. When I asked him about the reunion, Martin said: "When I play with Clive and Jon, it isn't Jethro Tull, but the three people who played in Jethro Tull. But it isn't Jethro Tull. And there is no band in the world that is Jethro Tull. It's misleading if you take on that name unless you have the substance, musically, to back it up. Everybody has the right to play the music they want to but I don't think an audience should ever be misled.
"So I make it very clear to the audience who buy a ticket as to what they're gonna get for their money, what the music is, who is in the band and the name of the band. I want people to come to the concert, enjoy a fantastic evening of music, and at the end of it, leave with a big smile on their face, thinking about when they're going to come see us again," he concluded.