Johnny Marr, of the Smiths, comes to Belly Up Aspen
If You Go …
What: Johnny Marr
Where: Belly Up Aspen
When: Saturday, Nov. 29, 9:30 p.m.
Tickets and more info: http://www.bellyupaspen.com
Johnny Marr first tried his hand at singing years ago when Chrissie Hynde — his former band mate in The Pretenders — called him a chicken.
“She told me I had an unusual rock-and-roll voice, and if I didn’t do it I was a chicken,” Marr said with a laugh from a tour stop this week in Chicago. “Those were her actual words.”
Marr, the legendary guitar stylist whose distinct mix of jangling pop hooks and post-punk hard rhythms defined The Smiths’ sound — and who has since lent his talents to bands ranging from Modest Mouse to The The to The Pretenders and seemingly countless collaborations — has released two solo albums in the last two years. After decades of working in the service of groups, the new solo material on 2013’s “The Messenger” and the new “Playland” puts Marr in charge as a front man, with his singing and lyrics on display.
“What happens with collaboration is that I’m thinking 100 percent of the musical direction — and particularly about what to do on the guitar — but you have a real element of surprise; you don’t know what the other person is going to contribute,” he said. “So when it’s your songs that you’re writing, you’re kind of trying to surprise yourself, which makes it more difficult. But when it’s done, it’s more rewarding in a deeper way, somehow.”
He looked to the vocal styles of early Lou Reed, Patti Smith and fellow Englishman Pete Shelley, of Buzzcocks, for inspiration, he said, resisting the dominant vocal aesthetic of the day, which he calls “croony.”
“I don’t know whether it has to do with the singing TV shows or what, but even in indie rock it’s been a turn to this kind of balladeering style,” he said. “Which is fine, but not what I wanted to do.”
Among the highlights on the new record is the song “25 Hours,” which Marr called the most autobiographical he’s written. It’s about making the choice to be an artist. Marr made that choice, he said, at age 11. He was performing in rock bands by age 15 and co-founded The Smiths with Morissey a few years after that.
“That’s about realizing at the age of 11 that the life of an artist — even an unsuccessful one, or in my case, a guitar player — was what I was going to sign up for for the rest of my days,” Marr said. “Because I felt it was an escape from the concerns and pressures and boredom of regular life.”
Two solo records in the span of 18 months might seem to observers like a creatively fertile outburst. But Marr has always been diligent, and said he’s never understood why musicians don’t work more and make more music. If others could keep up his pace, maybe he would have stuck with a band rather than bouncing between projects for 30 years before setting out on his own.
“If Modest Mouse wanted to make a record a year, I’d probably still be in the band,” he said.
Marr, who plays Belly Up tonight, mixes songs from The Smiths into his sets alongside the new solo material. While some artists shy away from hits of yesteryear, Marr is proud to play the beloved songs that fans come out to hear, with a backing band that can pull them off.
“It would be weird if people came to see me and I didn’t play ‘How Soon is Now?’” he said. “If you’ve written songs that people have grown up with and feel a strong connection with, then you’re really lucky. You shouldn’t overthink it.”
Still, Marr is baffled by how much people still care about The Smiths’ music more than a quarter century after the band split up.
“I can only surmise that they’re strong tunes and good riffs and interesting words,” he said. “But I do know that when every one of those songs was made, there was a lot of love put into it. Corny as it sounds, it happens to be true. Maybe that’s got something to do with it.”
Back in 2013, while working on a proposed box set of archival recordings, singer-songwriter Melissa Etheridge came across a group of songs that had been recorded in the late 1980s but never released.
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