Exclusive Video Interview with Aaron Konkol of Natty Nation

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Natty Nation has been a staple of the Madison reggae music scene since 1995. Unlike classical reggae artists, the band is influenced by rock and hip hop in addition to reggae and dub. Their musical style has been known to evolve over time but never stray too far from the all-original roots-rock-reggae format. The band has been described as Steel Pulse meets Jimi Hendrix. Their messages are positive and often spiritual or political in nature. However, their later albums have shifted away from Rastafari and moved more toward Eastern philosophy.   

Over the past 22 years, Natty has played countless festivals such as SXSW, Summerfest and Freakfest, won numerous awards including 27 Madison Area Music Awards (MAMAS), and toured the U.S. and parts of the Middle East, Africa and East Asia. Not to mention, they have released six studio albums and six live albums.

In this interview, we head to the studio to speak with Aaron Konkol, keyboardist and backup singer for Natty, about their latest release, Divine Spark, which debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard Magazine reggae chart. We also hear about how he wound up joining the band and what it was like touring overseas. Finally, Aaron tells us about some of his most memorable shows with some of reggae and dub’s pioneers.

Stream the video or audio now or continue reading!

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

J: Are you from Madison originally?

A: I was born in Sheboygan, then I moved to Illinois when I was two, and then I moved to Madison when I was eight.

J: When did you enter the Madison music scene?

A: When I was 18, and in college, we started a band called, The Spontaneous Throwdown. It was a funky, jazzy jam band. We were just playing at parties and stuff. Then we got an opportunity to play Tuesday nights at Ken’s Bar. They had what was called dead tape night. We played there every Tuesday for about a year. We even wrote a song called “Tuesday at Ken’s”. So yeah, I guess that would have been 2000 when I officially started playing paying gigs.

J: When and where did you start playing keys?

A: I’ve been playing since I was three. My sister who is five years older than me had been taking lessons. She was eight at the time, and I had shown a lot of interest in doing it. I was fortunate enough to have parents who encouraged that. We did the Suzuki method, which really helped with ear training. I would get the music and plunk through it and figure it out, but I would already know how it was supposed to sound. Once I got the mechanics of it, I would just get rid of the music and memorize really easily, but later in life that became a problem because it was harder to just sight-read.

When I went to UW I went through a whole bunch of different majors, African American studies, social work, psychology, a few other things, but I couldn’t really figure out what I wanted to do. At the time, I was enjoying playing with my band, The Spontaneous Throwdown, so I thought I would try music. I was already taking a couple music classes with Joan Wildman, and she immediately accepted me. We decided to do a jazz studies degree. A couple weeks after that, she let me know she was retiring and there wouldn’t be a jazz piano professor anymore. That summer I got the offer to play with Natty Nation and haven’t gone back to school since.

J: You mentioned that you became a part of Natty Nation in 2002, but when did they first form?

A: 1995. The first album came out in ’96.

J: How many of the original members are in the band?

A: Just the lead singer, Jah Boogie.

J: Who is currently in the band?

A: Chris Di Bernardo on drums, Nick Czarnecki on guitar, [Aaron Konkol on keys and Jah Boogie on vocals] right now that four piece, like the one in the “Vibrate” video that you saw that we recorded down here, that’s the band right now.     

J: Awesome! So beside Natty Nation, what other bands have you been in?

A: I was one of the founding members of dumate. I joined Know Boundaries with Boogie in 2006, then Star Persons after that, and finally Megan Bobo and the Lux.

J: How is it different playing with Natty Nation versus some of the other groups? Did your role change from band to band?

A: With dumate it wasn’t that different. When dumate started it was just Natty Nation plus Laduma, so my role carried over, as did everybody’s. We just added a rapper. With Know Boundaries, it was kind of the same thing, but I was coming in as the new guy. It was just a different dynamic, different people, personalities. Things change in every scenario. Then in Star Persons, I really didn’t write that much at all. It was mainly based on recorded material that we recreated live, but I helped a lot with orchestrating that and turning it into something that was living and breathing on its own. You were there!

*we laugh*

J: With Natty Nation you have done some big tours. Who are some of the people that you’ve played with? What were some of your most memorable shows?

A: Opening for Toots Hibbert, Toots and the Maytals at the Minneapolis Zoo. That was awesome. Have you ever been to those shows there?

J: No.

A: It’s really amazing. It’s like you’re in the middle of a rain forest, just this really nice amphitheater. Toots was credited with coining the term “reggae”. He was still just as good of a performer. He knocks it out of the park every time, especially that time. I don’t know how old he is, probably in his 70’s, but he’s loaded with energy. His voice sounds exactly the same as it did back in the day. Then backing up Lee Scratch Perry was probably the other super memorable one, who along with King Tubby, invented Dub.

J: Ziggy, Stephen, Damien Marley?

A: Yes, I was there for none of those. *laughs* Unfortunately.

J: Oh OK. Those were before your time.

A: Yeah, but we opened up for Steel Pulse, one of my favorite reggae bands from that era, late 70’s early 80’s.

J: You also played at a military base right?

A: A bunch of military bases.

J: Tell us about that experience.

A: The first time was in 2008, right after we dropped Reincarnation. We almost immediately got the call from Armed Forces Entertainment, which is the non-profit arm of the entertainment arm of the military. Unlike the USO, those people get paid. Armed Forces Entertainment is all volunteer. You get a small premium per day. We got the offer to fly into Kazakhstan and then go play at this base in Kyrgyzstan. From there, we dropped off about 180 troops in Afghanistan. We were riding with these 18, 19 year old kids with M-16’s. Everything they had on their body was all they were going to have for the next 18 months of active duty. We were grown men looking at them like, so you’re really going to do this huh? They were like, yeah. Some people were super jovial and messing around, some were tripping hard! That was heavy. There was a reporter from CNN on the plane with us as well, a giant C-17 that tanks could fit in. There were about 150 people on that giant thing. We were sitting on the ground in a bunch of bucket seats. I found out after the fact that when we were flying out of Afghanistan we took some shots. I was glad I didn’t know that at the time. *laughs* Then we dropped down in Kuwait, and I forget the order after that, but we hit United Arab Emirates, Dubai, Qatar, Bahrain, Djibouti and then back to Kyrgyzstan. So we got back from the first one and a year later we got asked to go back, but instead we went to Japan, the Marshall Islands and Guam. On that tour we didn’t have to bring our own PA, so it was way less stressful. The first tour, people hadn’t seen entertainment in so long. I think the shortest autograph signing was like half an hour. In Qatar everybody on the base was lined up to get an autograph. There were like 4000 people on the base!

J: Divine Spark is the latest Natty Nation album. What was the creation process like?

A:  Some of the songs were really old. We had written them in 2003, right after Inatty in Jah Music had come out. They were recorded two weeks after I had joined the band. By that time, we had already started dumate, which premiered in 2004. We were making a whole bunch of music then. Some of it never got recorded until Divine Spark. “Suffice” I think was the only one. We released that as a single in 2010. But then the album Divine Spark didn’t come out until 2016. We had a whole bunch of ups and downs with personnel, recording waxing and waning, motivation, and you know, studio time and money and everything else, personal things in life. But then it kind of came together when I happened to meet Errol Brown, who is Bob Marley’s engineer.

I sent him the mix we had for “Meditation”, and he wrote back immediately. He said, “it sounds good, could use some Ska piano on it but yeah, let’s go.”

I was like really? Okay. I was like oh my god Errol Brown is totally down to work with us!  So then he ended up mixing the whole album in the back of Revolutions’ tour bus. They were pretty popular at the time, more popular now. They had a tour bus for the crew and a tour bus for the band, so he took over the whole back of one of the buses and turned it into a mobile studio. He mixed the whole album there and on headphones. And then the plan was to do a final mixdown at a studio. It ended up taking him a lot longer because he is super particular about drum and bass, especially drums. He kind of revolutionized recording drums. He uses a mic on the rim of the snare. He was the first person to do that I think. With reggae there are a lot of issues with the drums, so he wanted to go through and replace them. He didn’t trust Drumagog or BFD, or any of those other programs to help with replacement, so he went through every single drum hit and found a version he had recorded. The final product sounded exactly like a drummer had played it.

J: I listened to the whole album and wow! The sound quality is amazing. I wasn’t actually expecting it to sound that good. We use a Sonos player at Murfie, so I was like, is the Sonos player making this sound better? You know how Beats by Dre make things sound better. Was that what was happening? Because this sounds really good!

*we laugh*

A: I’m glad to hear that.

J: What format is Divine Spark available in?

A: We’ve got vinyl for the first time, and CD, and digital.

J: Digital everything, Amazon, iTunes, Google Play?

A: Yeah, Symphonic Distribution is awesome.

J: I’m not familiar with that. Is that similar to Tunecore or CD Baby?

A: Yeah.

J: How do you feel about physical media over digital?

A: I like the convenience of digital a lot, but what I really miss and what I am sad about for future generations is liner notes. When I was a kid, if I wanted to go buy some jazz records, I would have to go into the basement area of The Exclusive Company, where they were kept. I would have to ask the snobby clerk, hey, do you know where the Herbie Hancock is? They would bring you somewhere and say, “This is probably the one you want, Headhunters.”

So I had to push through that like I really wanted it. When I bought records, I’d take them home, put them on and listen to them front to back. I would read the liner notes and essays like oh, okay, this trumpet player on here is awesome. I need to go check him out and then go back. After awhile you’re asking the right questions and the guy behind the counter is like oh, this kid is cool. He knows what’s up. There was no CD burning. You had to buy this thing, and when you get it, there is a package. You didn’t have to read it, but it was there, and so if you cared, you’d be able to. That’s the saddest part to me about streaming. You have everything available to you at any moment so nothing is special. Before you had to go searching and searching to find a specific album. Trying to find Prince’s Black Album, that’s why it was a thing. It was impossible to find. Now you can get it wherever. Everything is available any time you want it.

J: How important is merchandise at your shows?

A: It’s super important. We’re making moves to go on longer tours out to the coast right now. We’re also working on Europe. I think when you’re on a longer tour merchandise can really help. The income is just immediate and it can help put money in the gas tank. I do all the design work for it. I do all the ordering as well, but I’m trying to delegate it to somebody else. *laughs* I didn’t start writing songs just to decide how many smalls to order of a certain design. We have a lot of merch and people like it a lot. So my thing is, you want to have quality merch. Of course, it’s going to cost you more. It costs us $13 for our cheapest shirt, but it’s a nice American Apparel shirt that people love, and therefore, they are going to wear it more often with your band name on it. More people are going to see it, and that is the main thing for me. CD’s are probably the best way to make money. Beyond the initial production cost of making an album, it costs you one or two bucks per CD. You sell em for 10 bucks for a 10, 12 song CD. That is an 80 percent mark-up. That is pretty good, but for a t-shirt that is 13 bucks, you can’t really charge more than 20 unless you’re a bigger name band.

J: Who shot the “Meditation” music video?

A: It was shot by Harvest Walker and Joe Ramos. Joe filmed a bunch of it in Boogie’s basement. That’s where we were rehearsing at the time. And then Harvest came and filmed a bunch at the Jam for Jam festival in 2015. He rented a $20,000 camera to take a bunch of slow motion shots. I think that added a lot to the video. He also did all the narrative parts with the girls having a bad day, and then meditating and doing yoga. It went through a bunch of incarnations because we initially started doing it in 2012, right around the time we started tracking for most of the album, and then the album kept getting pushed back. We needed to prioritize that immediately. Four years later, when the album came out, it was like oh, yeah, we might as well finish this thing and get it done. Joe Ramos then picked it up at that point and knocked it out. He did a few revisions with me and I was super happy with how it turned out. That was our first official music video.

J: Are you working on any other projects currently?

A: Yes, but they are top secret. The world will know soon.

J: Ok… Is it related to Natty Nation or something else?

A: That is also top secret. Everything is top secret about it. Don’t take that as it being yes, but also don’t take it as being no. *laughs* But yeah, there are lots of things in the works so stay tuned.

What did you think of this interview? Feel free to leave a comment below.

Want to hear more music from Natty Nation? Check out the Murfie shop for previous releases. Want to purchase merch or the latest album, Divine Spark, from Natty Nation? Check out their Bandcamp.

Stay tuned for more interviews like this one!

Your Dose of Cool: Gregory Isaacs

Gregory Isaacs is the Cool Ruler. He is widely known for his “Lovers Rock” style of reggae, singing songs about women, heartache, and of course, lots of lovers.

Gregory was born in 1951 in Kingston, Jamaica, which was a hotbed of talent for reggae in the 1970s by the time he reached adulthood. He was, and still is, known for his unique voice and catchy melodies. He recorded songs with some of Jamaica’s most well-respected producers, including Lee “Scratch” Perry and Niney the Observer. During his lifetime, he reached international success alongside others like Bob Marley and Dennis Brown. Sadly, Gregory died of lung cancer in 2010, but his musical legacy lives on today, and his music is loved by those who truly appreciate great reggae.

One of his most popular songs is “Night Nurse.”

In 2011, over a dozen modern reggae artists joined together to make a compilation of Gregory Isaacs covers for the album We Remember Gregory Isaacs. The album contains performances by Tarrus Riley, Jah Cure, and Busy Signal, to name a few. The lovely ladies Etana and Alaine put their own spin on Gregory covers as well. Disc two of the album has the same track list, only with saxophone instead of vocals, played by the famous Jamaican saxophonist Dean Fraser who has contributed to hundreds of recordings over the course of his career. The album is certainly a treasure and a wonderful tribute to Gregory.

Check out our selection of Gregory Isaacs albums on Murfie and get some Cool Ruler in your collection!


Kayla Liederbach
@djkaylakush

Kayla manages social media and customer support at Murfie. You can hear her on the radio hosting U DUB, the reggae show, Wednesdays on WSUM. She enjoys hosting the Murfie podcast, cooking, traveling, going to concerts, and snuggling with kittycats.


Best of the Best: Bob Marley & the Wailers

Bob Marley & the Wailers, like many other bands, have evolved dramatically throughout their career—and they constantly churned out records, whether it was as The Wailing Wailers, The Wailers, or (most famously) Bob Marley & the Wailers.

Their albums give a snapshot of the changing lineup and production of the band, from the early ska years at Clement “Coxsone” Dodd’s studio in 1965, to the band’s oftentimes most revered years working with the genius (and eccentric) producer Lee “Scratch” Perry in the early seventies, to the departure of Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, and the addition of Rita Marley, Judy Mowatt and Marcia Griffiths, the I Threes, as backing vocalists. Today, the group tours as The Wailers band, with Aston “Family Man” Barrett as bassist and the only remaining member from the band’s earlier years.

Bob Marley & the Wailers have some incredible reggae albums, and a “Top 5” list is certainly debatable. Let me just say it took me quite a while to narrow these down, and I’m still feeling guilty about leaving some out. And no, Legend is not on this list—and if you think it should be, then get outta here! What do you think about these?


 5. Exodus (1977)

Bob Marley & the Wailers - Exodus

Exodus is simply an incredible album from start to finish. Even the first song “Natural Mystic” begins quietly, and grows louder on just a pulsating groove. When full volume is reached, the groove is met with a bongo roll, and Marley starts his prophetic lyrics with “There’s a natural mystic blowing through the air.” The first half of the album focuses on a huge and often-debated Rastafarian idea of leaving Jamaica and returning to the African homeland. Jamaica was in turbulent political times in 1977, and the band recently survived its own turbulence as well—an attempted assassination of Bob, Rita and other members in 1976, and a lineup change before that (Tosh and Wailer departing in 1974 for solo careers, and the I Threes and Wailers backing band arriving in their place). Exodus also brought the world-famous song “One Love/People Get Ready” to the masses, virally spreading a message of universal love and unity to people all over the planet. This album was recorded in both London and Jamaica and was originally released via the popular Island record label, bringing the band much success.

Album highlights: “Natural Mystic,” “Jamming,” “One Love/People Get Ready,” “Three Little Birds,” “Exodus” 

4. Kaya (1978)

Bob Marley & the Wailers - Kaya

Interestingly, many songs on Kaya were recorded alongside tracks from Exodus the previous year at Island Studios in London. The main topics on this album are less political and more easygoing—themes of romance, nice weather, and herb or “Kaya” are prevalent. On the easygoing side of things, the song “Easy Skanking” is one of my all-time favorites—it has a nice, relaxed vibe, and it reminds us to “take it eeeeasy.” On the love side of things, the song “Is This Love” simply recognizes the growing feeling of caring for another, and it’s without a doubt one of Marley’s most popular tunes.

Album highlights: “Easy Skanking,” “Is This Love,” “Sun Is Shining,” “Time Will Tell”

3. Live at the Roxy (Recorded: 1976, Released: 2003)

Bob Marley & the Wailers - Live at the Roxy

That’s right, I chose a live album as #3—and don’t knock it ’til you’ve heard it! Live music has a magical, raw energy. This album genuinely captures that energy from one of the band’s prime years and keeps it alive for listeners today. Live at the Roxy is guaranteed to give you some shivers when you feel what I just described.

There are so many highlights from this album, both obvious and subtle—and they go way beyond what can happen in a studio. One example of this is how the audience cheers with delight after recognizing the opening notes of “Rebel Music (3 O’Clock Road Block).” In the same song, Bob strings together and slurs his plea to the arresting officer in an entertaining and animated way.

Something else I love about this album: The wonderful I Threes and their backing vocals, especially on “Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)”. Their na na na, na na na na na’s act as a kind of a melodic baseline. And a lot of the songs on this album are extended well beyond their studio counterparts time-wise, letting the listener enjoy the special instrumental grooves, periods of drum and bass, and more. The super-slowed-down, crawling skank on this version of “Burnin’ and Lootin'” is something worth hearing as well. Disc two of this album contains the awesome song “Positive Vibration” and a medley containing the songs “Get Up, Stand Up,” “No More Trouble,” and “War.”

Album highlights: “Rebel Music (3 O’Clock Road Block),” “Them Belly Full (But We Hungry),” “Introduction + Trenchtown Rock,” “No Woman, No Cry,” “Roots Rock Reggae”…basically every track on here. 

2. Soul Rebels (1970)

Bob Marley & the Wailers - Soul Rebels

I’m taking it way back to the early years of the band here with Soul Rebels, recorded in Kingston, Jamaica, and produced by none other than the highly acclaimed, slightly mad, Lee “Scratch” Perry. This album is more “simple-sounding” to me than the others. It has more of a basic instrumental setup, with less of a dubby sound than the later bass-heavy versions of songs emphasized. The reason I love this album so much is it captures most of the original band in their early form, before signing on to major labels. Bob’s youthful voice fittingly asks listeners to “Try Me” on track two. Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh lend their backing vocals throughout the album, and the trio sound wonderful singing together (Peter Tosh on the lower vocal range and Bunny Wailer on the higher side. Funny note: I used to think Bunny Wailer’s vocals were that of a female until I learned more about the band). Tosh sings main vocals on the songs “No Sympathy” and “400 Years,” showcasing his militant demeanor and knack for pointing out injustices. I also love the song “It’s Alright” a lot, it’s one of my favorites, actually—and when you first hear it, the exciting thing is you don’t know that it’s a reggae song right away. In fact, it could be considered a rockers jam.

Another thing worth noting: I never liked the cover art on this album. It has no connection to the subject matter whatsoever. Apparently, the band felt the same as I, and they weren’t consulted about it before the album was released.

Album highlights: “Try Me”, “It’s Alright”, “No Sympathy,” “400 Years” 

1. Burnin’ (1973)

Bob Marley & the Wailers - Burnin'

And here it is, arguably the best Bob Marley & the Wailers album, Burnin’. Why is it #1, you ask? Well first of all, it contains an awesome version of “Duppy Conqueror,” a song that stands out to me for its melody and message.

“Yes me friend, me good friend / Dem set me free again… / The bars could not hold me / Force could not control me / They tried to keep me down / But Jah put I around…”

It’s the kind of song that empowers you to overcome oppression of any kind, whether it’s a prison cell in Kingston or any kind of government institution. Connection to and acknowledgement of a greater positive force will always help you overcome injustice, physically and mentally, whether you believe that force is Jah, the universe, or what-have-you.

More songs of empowerment are “Small Axe” (“If you are the big tree / We are the small axe / Ready to cut you down (well sharp) / To cut you down”) and “Get Up, Stand Up” (…stand up for your right!). With these examples, I mean to say that it’s the feeling of empowerment and hope, and the strength in unity, that makes this album so special, historically valuable, and important for future generations.

Album highlights: “Get Up, Stand Up,” “Small Axe,” “Duppy Conqueror,” “One Foundation”


To cover my @$$, here are my notable album mentions, each of them close to making the Top 5:

  • Uprising (1980): “Coming in from the Cold,” “Redemption Song,” “Work,” “Could You Be Loved”
  • Rastaman Vibration (1976): “Positive Vibration,” “Roots Rock Reggae,” “War”
  • Catch a Fire (1973): “No More Trouble,” “Stop That Train,” “Rock It Baby,” “Stir it Up”
  • The Best of the Wailers (1971): “Soul Shakedown Party,” “Soon Come,” “Cheer Up,” “Back Out,” “Do It Twice”
  • Natty Dread (1974): “No Woman, No Cry,” “Rebel Music (3 O’Clock Road Block),” “Talkin’ Blues,” “Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)”

If you agree or disagree with my Top 5 albums, let me know in the comments! And, of course, check out the Bob Marley & the Wailers discography on Murfie.


Kayla Liederbach
@djkaylakush

Kayla manages social media and customer support at Murfie. You can hear her on the radio hosting U DUB, the reggae show, Wednesdays on WSUM. She enjoys hosting the Murfie podcast, cooking, traveling, going to concerts, and snuggling with kittycats.


#FreeFriday: Legend

Time for our fourth edition of #FreeFriday! Each week we’ll review an album, and give it away to one lucky winner. For a chance to win the album, all you have to do is read this post, then share on social media at least one of these ways:

  • Share this blog post on Twitter—use the hashtag #FreeFriday and tag @murfiemusic
  • Retweet one of the #FreeFriday tweets we send via @murfiemusic
  • Share our #FreeFriday Facebook post (in a public post)

Now, on to this week’s featured album…

Bob Marley & the Wailers - LegendLegend (Bob Marley & the Wailers, 1984)

Legend is an incredible album that can easily be the catalyst for a lifetime love of reggae music. One of the most widely distributed reggae albums in the world, Legend showcases a variety of songs by the foundational roots reggae band Bob Marley & the Wailers.

This “Best Of” collection came about after the band had established themselves as international roots reggae rockers. It was released after the departure of Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer from the band (Bob, Peter, and Bunny were the forefront of the group) and after Bob’s untimely death due to cancer. By the time this tracklist was put together, the I-Threes had been added to the band as backup vocalists (Rita Marley, Judy Mowatt and Marcia Griffiths, each successful solo artists in their own right), and for that reason you get a wide variety of recordings. For this album, the curator chose the band’s later recordings which have a popular appeal to people who generally enjoy rock n’ roll, soul, and R&B. (This can be contrasted to the earlier, more Rocksteady years, when the band worked with the incredibly genius, and slightly mad producer, Lee “Scratch” Perry).

Legend contains everything from uplifting, radiantly positive roots reggae songs like “Is This Love” and “One Love” to the more disco and dance-oriented “Could You Be Loved.” It contains the lighthearted acoustic ballad “Redemption Song” and the heavy, protest-themed “Get Up Stand Up” featuring Peter Tosh’s militant-sounding vocals. This album made me fall in love with the vast, deep diverse ocean of reggae music, and I know you will love it too.

Share this post in one of the ways listed above for a chance to win a copy of Legend, and we’ll let you know if you’re the winner next week! Good luck!


Kayla Liederbach
@djkaylakush

Kayla manages social media and customer support at Murfie. You can hear her on the radio hosting U DUB, the reggae show, Wednesdays on WSUM. She enjoys hosting the Murfie podcast, cooking, traveling, going to concerts, and snuggling with kittycats.


Pete’s Picks: An Introduction to John Martyn

Uncovering one of music’s sweet little mysteries…

For music lovers, one of the most exciting aspects is the discovery of a new artist or album and being able to share that excitement with others—something that Murfie members know plenty about! So when the opportunity to offer a recommendation for Murfie Staff Picks came along, for me it was not a difficult choice. The hardest part was choosing which album to recommend.

John Martyn was a British singer-songwriter and guitarist whose career spread across 40 years and 21 studio albums. He’s had contributions along the way from Eric Clapton, The Band’s Levon Helm, Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour, Steve Winwood, Lee “Scratch” Perry and Phil Collins. John has also inspired a wide range of artists from Beck, The Cure’s Robert Smith, David Gray, Devendra Banhart, Snow Patrol and many more—yet John remains pretty much unknown to many.

The music of John Martyn captured my soul from the very first listen. Island Records was John’s musical home for 22 years. He recorded 12 studio albums during that time, none of which were of any real commercial success, so it is a testament to Island Records’ founder Chris Blackwell who signed John (who was just twenty years old), making him the first white artist to join the otherwise Jamaican-based music label in 1967. Chris Blackwell stuck by John for over 20 years, purely because he liked John and the music he made.

John described himself as an incurable romantic, which is evident in his ability for writing and delivering perfect love songs, without sounding cheap or blatantly inauthentic. What is even more astounding is his guitar playing, considering he didn’t know one chord from the next, but knew the shapes and positions his fingers needed to make to produce the the sound he wanted.

Like so many treasured and talented artists, John’s life was not without controversy. He suffered with drug abuse and alcohol addiction. He was uncompromising, and could become quite violent at times. In 2003, John’s right leg was amputated below the right knee due to septicemia brought on by diabetes. This would not slow him down, however. He continued to tour, performing with his band from a wheelchair.

In 2008, John was awarded a lifetime achievement award at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards and was included in the Queen’s New Years Honors list, receiving an O.B.E. (Order Of The British Empire). Sadly on January 29th, 2009, John died in a hospital in Ireland due to double pneumonia. Eric Clapton payed tribute to John claiming he was, “so far ahead of everything, it’s almost inconceivable.”

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Sweet Little Mysteries: The Island Anthology (1995)

This two disc collection highlights John’s most innovative and treasured moments during his time with Island Records, with a selection of tracks taken from eight studio albums from 1971-1986. This collection is certainly a great start in the discovery of the music of John Martyn, but is by no means the end of the journey. The tracks from each album represented on Sweet Little Mysteries are just a few from this golden period of John’s career. Below I have included a little background information relating to the albums that are featured in this collection.

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Bless The Weather (1971), Tracks 1-3

Bless The Weather is at times a delicate and beautiful album. It was recorded in just three days, as John preferred the spontaneous approach, and many of the songs were even written the day of recording. This album earned John some of the strongest reviews of his career. The album blends gentle yet complex acoustic guitar styles with John’s increasingly jazzy vocals. In 1999 (28 years after it’s original release), Q magazine suggested that Bless The Weather was one of the most essential folk albums of all time.

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Solid Air (1973), Tracks 4-8

Solid Air is considered to be John’s landmark album, which showed him move towards a more experimental folk, jazz and blues direction. Here John delivers his lyrics with a more slurred expression, almost using his voice as an instrument. From the first few opening notes of Solid Air, you are immediately seduced and on a journey into a real after-hours classic. The British music magazine Q listed Solid Air as the 67th Greatest British Album Ever and was also included in their list of Best Chill-Out Albums Of All Time—not bad for an album recorded in 1973.  The title track was written for and about John’s close friend and Island label mate Nick Drake. Also included from the Solid Air Album is the tender “May You Never”, a track that earned John the most royalty checks he ever received—not from his own version, but the version Eric Clapton recorded for his 1977 album Slowhand.

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Inside Out (1973), Tracks 9-11

Following the critical appeal brought by Solid Air, Inside Out was described by John as everything he ever wanted to do in music. It was his insides coming out. He began to experiment more with electric guitar, leaving the acoustic to take more of a backseat role. Experimentation with effects pedals also began to enter into the mix, and the introduction of the Echoplex tape delay machine was being used to try to make his guitar emulate a sustained sax sound, influenced by Pharoah Saunders‘ Karma album.

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Sunday’s Child (1975), Tracks 12-18

Having unleashed his experimental side through Inside Out, John appears a little more settled and content with the release of Sunday’s Child—and the Echoplex still makes an appearance, shaping some very interesting soundscapes to accompany his ever present messages of love. The songs within Sunday’s Child are of a more conventional structure, as demonstrated on the beautifully simple “You Can Discover” and “One Day Without You”. While promoting Sunday’s Child, John played support for Pink Floyd on their Wish You Were Here tour in the UK. As he took the stage with just his acoustic guitar in hand, he was met by a wall of abuse from the crowd, who made it perfectly clear that they were not prepared to sit and listen to a bunch of folk songs. Undeterred, John proceeded to plug his guitar into the Echoplex and blasted the audience with a performance that resulted in a standing ovation.

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One World (1977), Tracks 1-6

After Sunday’s Child, John decided that he needed some time away from recording and his ever-skeptical view of the music business. He headed out to Jamaica, and while he was there, was introduced to the master of dub, Lee “Scratch” Perry. When John finally returned to the UK with the desire to re-enter the studio, he recorded One World, which saw John introduce some of the influences from his trip to Jamaica in tracks such as “Big Muff” (written with Lee Scratch Perry) and “Smiling Stranger”. The album was produced by Chris Blackwell, and is another example of John’s hunger for experimentation. The album also features Steve Winwood on Moog synthesizer. One of the many highlights from this album is the incredible and truly ambient track “Small Hours”, which was recorded around 3:00 in the morning, outside in the open air, next to a lake on a farm owned by Chris Blackwell. It features the sounds of nature’s very own session musicians, as the geese and the lapping water can be heard playing their part along with a passing mail train in the distance.

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Grace And Danger (1980), Tracks 7-12

Grace and Danger is a deep, painful and openly honest account of the breakdown of John’s relationship with his wife Beverley, a singer-songwriter in her own right, who he met and married in 1969. John was originally hired to be Beverley’s backing guitarist, which eventually lead to them releasing two albums (Stormbringer and The Road To Ruin) as John & Beverley Martyn for Island records. The songs on Grace and Danger are not in anyway spiteful or of a bitter naturein fact, they are quite the opposite. At times they are reflective, optimistic with false hope, a plea to be understood. Unlike a Hollywood movie, there is no happy ending here. The release of the album was delayed for over a year due to the fact that Chris Blackwell found the album too openly disturbing, given that he knew both parties so well. John eventually demanded that the album be released, telling Blackwell, “Please get it out! I don’t give a damn about how sad it makes you feel—it’s what I’m about: direct communication of emotion.” Rolling Stone described Grace and Danger as “a very strong outing, placing him in a class with such intelligent eclectics as Joan Armatrading and Joni Mitchell.”

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Sapphire (1984), Tracks 13-14

For a brief period after Grace and Danger, John Left Island Records and signed to Warner Brothers releasing two albums, Glorious Fool (1981), which was produced by Phil Collins and featured Eric Clapton on guitar, and Well Kept Secret (1982). Both releases saw John’s guitar playing taking more of a backseat role, with keyboards and  drum machines featured more prominently and s well as live shows with a full band. John rejoined Island in 1984 and headed for Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas to record Sapphire with the help of Robert Palmer, who somewhat rescued the sessions as John was constantly falling out with the assigned production team. Again very little of John’s guitar playing is distinguishable from the now favored synth layers, as even his own guitar was now being fed through electronics, unfortunately with no real groundbreaking results.

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Piece By Piece (1986), Tracks 15-16

Piece By Piece was my introduction to the music of John Martyn and was played to me in 1987 on vinyl by a good friend of mine. I was 18 at the time and the thing that struck me on that very first listen was the honesty pouring out of John’s lyrics and the vocal delivery that convinced me that this guy means every word. The production and songwriting on Piece by Piece in my mind is far superior to that of the previous two records (Well Kept Secret and Sapphire) it indicates John on a more settled path once again, although it would not remain settled for long. Piece By Piece was John’s last studio album for Island as Chris Blackwell sold the company to the major label PolyGram, and John was later dropped and was without a record deal for the first time in over 20 years.

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Johnny Boy Would Love This! (2011)

In 1995, I met  and became friends with John and was fortunate to be in a position to help him sign a record deal with a label that I worked for in the UK. I worked with John on four albums before he sadly passed away in 2009. Later that same year, I was approached by John’s good friend and Chicago-based record Producer, Jim Tullio, to help coordinate and compile a tribute album to John that he was putting together. The album would contain brand new recordings of John’s classic songs performed by artists who had been influenced by John’s music. We secured thirty artists including: Beck, Snow Patrol, David Gray, Robert Smith (The Cure), Phil Collins, Joe Bonamassa, The Emperors of Wyoming (featuring Butch Vig) plus Academy Award winners, The Swell Season. Released in August 2011, the album titled Johnny Boy Would Love This: A Tribute to John Martyn received critical acclaim, helping music lovers to discover the sweet little mystery of John Martyn.