Best known as one half of legendary The Smiths songwriting duo with singer Morrissey, guitarist Johnny Marr is finally stepping centre-stage.
Speaking to me from his Sydney hotel room, Marr is halfway through singing the city’s praises when I point out he’s talking to a Melburnian. A consummate musician, Marr has no trouble changing his tune.
“I’m fine with the fact I’ve got a sound and a style, I’m lucky,” Marr says. “That’s the product of a lot of work from my teenage years”.
“I always like what I call second cities — what Manchester is to London, or Portland to Seattle. I’ve always ended up in those towns. I think by their nature, being a couple of hundred miles away from where the media is, there’s a certain kind of attitude, a bit of chip on the shoulder, that’s quite good for creativity.”
The legendary guitarist knows of what he speaks. Marr recently moved back to his Manchester hometown, after five years in Portland, in order to record his first solo record. Given he’s just turned 50, some might say he’s left his debut a bit late. When The Smiths dissolved in 1987, Morrissey was quick to establish himself as a solo artist, while Marr busied himself producing and playing in other people’s bands. But with his new album, Marr is finally making music for himself. Treading a skilful line between nostalgia and innovation, The Messenger sounds like an artist rediscovering his strengths, without simply trading on past glories.
“I’m fine with the fact I’ve got a sound and a style, I’m lucky,” Marr says. “That’s the product of a lot of work from my teenage years. It occurred to me a couple of years ago, that if I went to see one of my favourite bands — say Television or Wire — I wouldn’t want them to sound like the Arctic Monkeys. I’d want people who I admire to be as good at being them as possible. It’s kind of the artist’s curse to not to do the obvious.”
He says he’s untroubled by thoughts of staying relevant.
“There’s something sort of undignified and desperate in that. To be honest, I’ve never really worried about being cool. I just kind of assumed I was doing all right.”
“When I was younger, I used to polarise art and entertainment as being mutually exclusive, but I don’t think they are.”
I approach talk of The Smiths with caution, knowing Marr has a history of prickliness when it comes to raking over old ground. It’s only recently that he has taken to playing the group’s tracks live. But I wonder if the young Marr, who famously recruited Morrissey, ever considered claiming the mic himself?
“I was more concerned with being a good songwriter on the guitar and having a foil, if you like,” he says, without trace of prickles. “If it hadn’t been Morrissey, it would have been someone else. I felt my strengths were to be the guy who runs the band in the background, writing all the music.”
He credits his shift to the front of the stage to his discovering a new love for playing live and a new impatience with the recording process. Next week sees him back in the studio for record number two, which he hopes will be “bloody quick”. Still, it’s clear that coming to terms with his role as frontman has involved him resolving the difference between artist and showman.
“When I was younger, I used to polarise art and entertainment as being mutually exclusive, but I don’t think they are. If what I’m doing means that people walk into a room and then walk out feeling they’ve had a really good time, then I’ll consider myself lucky.”
Marr says his audience are a mixed bunch, from all stages of his career. If, like him, many of them are knocking on middle age, then at least, like him, they’re still passionate about the art.
“I think there’s people, particularly men, who just get to a certain age and just switch off. One thing that my audience know that I stand for is not doing that. I stand not just for entertainment, but continuing to think in an artistic way. If that makes me pretentious, then shoot me. I’d rather die pretentious than a fat cynic.”
Five of the best of Johnny Marr
1. This Charming Man – The Smiths
2. How Soon is Now – The Smiths
3. New Town Velocity – Johnny Marr
4. The Messenger – Johnny Marr
5. Dashboard – Modest Mouse
The Messenger is out now through Warner Music.
Myke Bartlett is a highly respected Melbourne-based freelance writer.