Music interview – Martin Stephenson: ‘I didn’t want to make records that I’d be embarrassed about in 20 years’ time’

Martin Stephenson and The Daintees
Martin Stephenson and The Daintees
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For his new tour singer-songwriter Martin Stephenson performs one of his best-known 80s albums. Duncan Seaman reports.

Martin Stephenson’s second album, Gladsome, Humour and Blue, was supposed to have been the moment when the County Durham singer-songwriter and his band The Daintees went from a cult concern to fully fledged pop stars, like their label mates Prefab Sprout.

Things didn’t quite work out that way but the record represents the troubadour’s commercial peak – breaching the top 40 in the UK album charts – and is still fondly remembered three decades later.

So much so that Stephenson, now aged 57 and resident for the past decade or so in the Scottish Highlands, has decided to re-record it and perform it in full on his autumn tour.

He says he has “very fond memories” of making Gladsome, Humour and Blue in 1988. “We were lucky to work with Paul Samwell-Smith, the producer, who was in The Yardbirds and worked with Cat Stevens. He was a lovely fellow, he was like the go-to engineer in the 80s. Those guys used to live in the studios, they didn’t half have some times, they spent most of their lives in a dark environment.”

Stephenson remembers at the time he was “right into Van Morrison and Veedon Fleece, I was a very serious character, I wasn’t much fun to be around”.

Martin Stephenson

Martin Stephenson

“I was in resistance to record companies trying to lure us down the pop path. To me the studio was a very dangerous place – that’s why I picked Paul Samwell Smith because I didn’t want to come out sounding like Depeche Mode.

“At that time they’d do anything to get you in the charts. I felt like a bit of spoilsport but I didn’t want to make records that I’d be embarrassed about in 20 years’ time. This is the beauty of these albums – they sound quite organic. I know in the 80s that Gladsome was used in a lot of hifi shops to sell hifi and that was a lot to do with a great analogue engineer and a great studio. We were very blessed to work with people like Tony Phillips and Paul Samwell Smith.”

Stephenson says he “just ended up on the songwriting path”. “I was your typical council-house kid, I had low self-esteem, poor education, I had all the qualities,” he laughs, “but you meet one or two people in your life and you don’t realise how powerful they are, they’re like angels really, and it was my table tennis teacher who got me into Santana. I remember being 11 years old and cleaning a table tennis ball and he just put Santana’s Jingo in his tape recorder and it was like being hit with a baseball bat. Because I’m more of a rhythm player I can hear where loads of stuff’s come out – that’s what I’m trying to recreate with my right hand, those grooves of Santana. I have a song called The Lilac Tree which I wrote in 2000 and it totally comes from that moment of hearing Santana for the first time. It’s a different song but the fundamentals, you don’t realise you’ve been affected on such a deep level until something creative comes out of you, it’s kind of like a big soup.”

In an era of Section 28 – which banned local authorities from “promoting homosexuality” – Stephenson and The Daintees courted controversy with their song Wholly Humble Heart, written for a gay friend. “The songs are all masters and they’re teaching you,” the singer reflects today. “This whole svengali idea is a load of rubbish. To me, [songwriting] is to hand yourself over to a greater power and be in service, that’s what I learnt on this journey and when you do that you share immense you, you realise the bigger picture, you take care of your musicians, you realise that everybody’s important, not just your little sojourn down the M1. The songs are entities in their own right and I’ve been shown a lot. I feel more of a channel for things.”

Religion’s one thing but to me spirituality is such a simple thing, it’s not complex, everybody has it. Kindness is a classic example of spirituality. Peace, understanding, sharing – all these high intelligences, everybody’s got it.

Martin Stephenson

That point of view is reflected in another Gladsome song, The Old Church is Standing. “OK, religion’s one thing but to me spirituality is such a simple thing, it’s not complex, everybody has it. Kindness is a classic example of spirituality. Peace, understanding, sharing – all these high intelligences, everybody’s got it. I didn’t realise at the time I was doing this, I’d just go into a zone and get the song really quickly, but the concepts inside the songs were the important things for me; the music was for people that weren’t interested in that kind of stuff, like a coathanger. If you’re not into lyrics and messages you’ve got some canny music to listen to.”

Re-recording Gladsome, Humour and Blue was, says Stephenson, “a bit like going into your garage and finding your old BSA [motorbike].

“You turned her over a couple of times and she started rumbling, you nipped her into the street, put your skiddling on and you know what – she’s still sounding great.”

Stephenson has also recorded an album of songs dedicated to his late aunt, Thomasina. It was made with his partner, Anna Lavigne, who has worked in the past with Rik Mayall and Lindsay Kemp.

Martin Stephenson

Martin Stephenson

“As soon as we met we started writing and writing and writing together,” says Stephenson. “I never thought I’d have a partner I could share that stuff with. Even sometimes if two musicians get togetehr it doesn’t mean they’re going to be compatible but Anna is a great lyricist. She never got encouraged to write but that excitement for me reignited my excitement and Thomasina came out of that.

“She’s got a little music room in her house, she’s got a piano and a table and when I go to her house I’m comfortable there. I get my cup of tea and I sit at the table and within five minutes I’ve got something on the go then she’s out with her pen and paper and we really get on writing.”

Martin Stephenson and The Daintees play at The Wardrobe, Leeds on November 1 and Crookes Social Club, Sheffield on November 11. Gladsome, Humour and Blue 30 is out on November 23. www.daintees.co.uk