Songwriting and storytelling burning bright inside Martin Stephenson
Thirty years ago he was on a major label, kids’ TV programmes and bothering the charts.
It was never really about that for the genial lad from Durham though and now, living in the Scotland highlands, he records largely for himself and his loyal fanbase and brings his heartfelt mix of country, pop, folk, reggae, whatever takes his or your fancy, out on tour when he feels like it.
Take lilting, soulful, catchy new single I Cried For You, the first release from Martin Stephenson and the Daintees’ new album Howdy Honcho, which encapsulates his astounding ability to turn life experiences into songs that mean way more than might appear to be the case on first listen.
I’ll let him tell it: “I had a cousin called Michael and when I was ten I went round to my granny’s. She was like Bette Davis at the end of her career, sitting there smoking a fag and he was there drawing a picture of a sports car and I was blown away by it. She said he was Michael and he was my cousin.
“Not long after that he emigrated to Australia and about four years ago he got in touch via Facebook to say he had been following my music and was coming over to Newcastle and it would be great to meet up. We all met up and I told him how special his family and his mum, who had passed away not long after he emigrated, was to us, how much we loved her.
“When I wrote I Cried For You I had woken up at four in the morning, my gut was hurting so much and I realised I never wept at my own dad’s funeral.
“I went online and went straight to Michael’s page and he had died. I couldn’t believe it. I put the kettle on and I heard a Northern Soul song in my head, put my computer on and wrote the whole thing in about an hour.”
That’s storytelling. That’s songwriting.
Those familiar with his work, which gained prominence through the tuneful intelligent pop of Crocodile Cryer, Wholly Humble Heart and Running Water, and the soft reggae lilt of Boat To Bolivia, may have occasionally wondered what happened to Martin, who broke up the band and relocated to Scotland where he battled and recovered from alcoholism, re-evaluated his life, won a legal battle to take control of his own back catalogue, recorded solo albums, reformed the Daintees and moved on to where we are now... and some of those memories of the almost famous years are hard.
“We were like all the rest, trying to be famous and becoming cocooned with all the wrongs sorts of people telling you what to do. The pressure became everything. You employ your friends and feel responsible for them and I used to want to give people jobs and my manager wouldn’t allow it, and I ended up saying no to lots of stuff and self-sabotaging.
“I went from wanting to sell 50,000 records to wanting to sell four. I wanted to get rid of the demi-Gods and the narcissists and Keith (Armstrong, Kitchenware Records founder) and I made a record for £9.50, just one copy, and made about 50p on it whereas the budget for (The Daintees’ 1990 album) Salutation Road was £140,000.
“I sign and date maybe ten acetates of these records and they are the only versions of those recordings in the world.”
Most of us learn the hard way, but when Martin and the Daintees started out on Kitchenware Records the twists and turns his journey would take weren’t so clear, but maybe the clues were there that he didn’t belong in the fame-chasing game. After all, Take That weren’t writing songs like this — “The first song I ever wrote when I was 14 was affected by an experience I had when I was ten and I met my brother’s friend and he had depression, which I didn’t know. He was a beautiful young man, but he just walked off and said sorry. A week later he walked into a field and burnt himself into a cinder.
“I was reminded about that song and my clever conscience said you are going to have to share this and to transfer the suicide to a birth and the depression becomes a new-born angel.
“I like stories and that is where me and Paddy McAloon (Prefab Sprout) have so much in common, but yet we are so different to each other. He will plan something to the last degree and refine it like a watchmaker, which I can’t do, but we both have a message to share.”
When he picked up the phone at the beginning of the conversation, about an hour ago, it was immediately obvious why he has such a connection with his fans. “We’ve just come back from tour and I’m a little bit dazed. I’ve just got home, put the heating on and, most importantly, the kettle,” he says, before we share a couple of stories about musicians we are both acquainted with — him way more than me.
I note it’s the kettle he reaches for and not the bottle. He gave that up long ago and that’s part of the reason he feels able to help others.
He tells a heart-wrenching and heart-warming tale about his musician friend Andy Gunn, who, with the help of Martin and others, overcame incredible difficulties, including serious illness, legal problems and long-term hospitalisation, but now makes music — and the title of the album they worked on together, The Miracle of Healing, which turned his life around, could well apply to aspects of Martin’s life too.
“I told him to imagine the music is a white dove and if that escapes through the walls then he will escape. There was a light going on and I heard a rumble and looked at his stomach and then heard his voice. That’s what we call ignition going on to the Star of Hope.
“That’s what I work for, not being a narcissist on a television programme talking about myself.
“I’m still enthusiastic about talking about the drinking. A friend of mine has a restaurant near the water where I live and I’m really keen on doing an alcohol-free gig there.”
Those at his Sheffield gig can expect songs from across the past three-four decades, and Martin adds: “It’s about connection. If I can get the pilot light lit that’s my job done.”
It’s already burning strong, Martin.
* I Cried For You by Martin Stephenson and the Daintees is taken from new album Howdy honcho and is available via Martin’s Bandcamp page at https://soundcloud.com/the-daintees/martin-stephenson-and-the-daintees-howdy-honcho-07-i-cried-4-u
The band play Crookes Social Club in Sheffield on Thursday November 18.