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Making Sense of It All

A talk with Welsh songwriter Martyn Joseph


Martyn Joseph
  • Martyn Joseph

The songwriter/guitarist Martyn Joseph is not exactly a household name, not here in the states anyway, although he's well known in Wales, where he's from, and has a strong following throughout the British Isles and in Canada. He flew in from his home in Cardiff, Wales, last week; we caught up with him in Kentucky, where he'd stopped off to visit old friends and play an informal house concert. This week he's working his way down the West Coast playing concerts, including one on Saturday at the Arcata Playhouse.

Joseph has been playing music professionally for almost 30 years; 20 years ago he was signed to a major label, touring with big name acts like Art Garfunkel, Suzanne Vega, even Celine Dion, but that didn't last long. His style of folk, with many of his songs touching on heavy social and political issues, is not so easy to market, and he wasn't ready to shift gears to sell more records.

"I've never been very good at writing ‘relationship' songs," he said. "In fact when I was signed to Sony in the early ‘90s, and they were trying to cross me over to a wider audience, they would often say, ‘If you could lighten up, we might sell a few CDs or albums; if you could write one of those love-you-baby, want-you-baby songs.' It's not that I don't care about relationships, of course I do, but I've always found myself drawn to bigger themes as such. We need a world where we can have relationships, a world where there's equality, where there's justice and compassion and all the rest."

As he matured as a songwriter, that feeling only grew stronger. "The guitar has given me opportunities to travel and to see things I might not have experienced other than on a television," he said. "When you actually go to the Third World and you sit with people in situations that are quite extreme compared to what we're used to, that really does have you reaching for the guitar. You're trying to make sense of it all. You realize, this is not right and you write about it, and therefore you become known as a political singer. It's just an extension of being human, being alive and wanting a fair shot for everybody, not just some of us."

Not that all of his work is political; he can write an introspective song with the best of them.

"For me, the guitar is sort of a cheap psychiatrist, so even if I was not paid to do what I do, I'd still be writing songs," he said. "The job of the songwriter, or the artist, or the poet, is to try to make sense of our lives and process it, articulate it in some way ... to somehow make the listener or the viewer feel like they're not alone in the world, to articulate what it means to be a human being living on this planet. That's a pretty big thing to do, but I think that's what I'm trying to do with this work: to make sense of my own life and in doing so, hopefully help make sense of other people's lives as well."

Martyn Joseph brings his songs and stories to the Arcata Playhouse (1251 Ninth St.) on Saturday, Feb. 4, at 8 p.m., a concert presented by the Playhouse in association with the Humboldt Folklife Society. Tickets are $15, $13 for HFS and Playhouse members. For further details call 822-1575.


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