The arrival of The Phoenix And The Turtle marks the appearance of Beverley Martyn’s first serious recordings since the late 90’s, which themselves had followed a hiatus of almost 20 years away from recording altogether. Still to this day, she is best known for the two albums credited to John & Beverley Martyn released at the start and end of 1970. Talking about the new release she tells me, “It was a great relief to finally do something on my own terms. That was a dream I’d almost given up on, I mean no one had been coming knocking for years and I was kind of lost to it all; playing small gigs every now and then, but still keeping it going.” She confides, “Of course that was a lot to do with the fall out of my marriage with John. Nobody wanted to work with me after that, but since he’s passed on things have started to open up again.”
The way she says it is very matter of fact, there’s no anger or bitterness obvious either in her tone or in what she says. Given the circumstances it’s a remarkable story of fortitude and human endurance that marks The Phoenix And The Turtle as something that is worth proper celebration. So credit where it’s due and Beverley is also keen to put Mark Pavey in the spotlight as she reveals, “As a producer he worked with me in a very different way. He allowed me to do my own thing and try stuff. He wasn’t trying to tell me how something should be sung.” She goes further, “Mark and his wife are like family to me now, we’ve become very close. Mark is so good to work with he’s such a positive and relaxed person.”
The pair bonded over memories of Davy Graham and Mark’s intervention in the life of an apparently hopeless case and someone who Beverley knew and admired, but a character long since abandoned by others around him. “I was impressed by anyone who tried to help Davy,” Beverley tells me, “He was such a talent and the one that everyone learnt from, Bert Jansch and everyone else. Davy was setting the pace.” His troubles, however, are very well documented and particularly in his later years his star was certainly diminished. In Mark, however, Davy finally found a patient and sympathetic figure prepared to invest time as much as money.
It’s probably that which Beverley has identified with most as she admits, “It’s taken a long time for my new record to come together. I’ve spent two years travelling backwards and forwards to Wales.” She even confesses, “I didn’t really know what the record had become until I heard the first track fully mixed and it was a very pleasant surprise.” She continues, “We started the recording process with just me and a guitar and a click track to work with. The basic songs were then sent across the Atlantic and Matt Malley, who was the bassists with Counting Crows and drummer Victor Bisetti who was in Los Lobos added their parts. Then Mark finished it off with other players – with Michael Watts adding electric guitar and others contributing strings and even organ, played by Mike Lease, who I last worked with during the 60s.”That’s a telling comment that offers a hint of her career, which despite being relatively short in spotlight hours, should be recognised in its own right. A significant part in the lives and/or affections of Davy Graham, Bert Jansch, Paul Simon, Nick Drake, Joe Boyd and of course John Martyn, she was, however, more than just a muse. Beverley was recognised as a talented actor when still at school, with only the inevitable physical developments of her early teens intervening in her recruitment as a Faerie Queen for an RSC production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The recruitment panel was sufficiently impressed to recommend Beverley enrolled in drama school, even petitioning the relevant authorities for financial support to make it happen.
Beverley it seems was always gifted with words and credits her mother’s intellect as a major building block. The radio was always on and music was a key part of her life. Beverley even recalls, “I was about five when I stood on a desk at school and sang The Blacksmiths Blues.” An elder sister who went to art collage helped with the musical education and also provided a valuable hand-me-down asset.
Beverley did head to London and drama school in her mid teens and once there started to move into the orbit of the folk and blues scene. As she explains it, she’d already started and she reveals, “I’d already been singing in folk and jazz clubs in Coventry and my sister was always volunteering me to take a floor spot in the local folk and jazz clubs. When I came to London, I already had a voice, but mostly it was just a way to meet people. I went to all of the pubs and clubs, like Les Cousins, Bunjies Coffee House, The Troubadour and so on.”
Beverley was integral in forming her first band The Levee Breakers, a jug band, as she tells me, “I started to play regularly with a 12 string Guitarist called John Joyce, who lived in Putney. We met this guy called Matt McGann, who played the tiple and a six string guitar and then we met our jug player, who we all called Henry because he looked like Henry VIII, I don’t think I ever knew his real name, but I did come up with the band’s name because I was singing When The Levee Breaks a lot at the time.”It wasn’t long before her good looks and strong voice came to the attentions of an avaricious pop music industry, with a rough tape of the Levee Breakers pressed into the hands of George Martin. Some recordings of the band still exist and EMI wanted to push things further, but Beverley was only 16 when recording and releasing her first single, Babe I’m Leaving You, for Parlophone in 1965. Under the influence of Bert Jansch at the time, she declined their attempts to mould her into a British Cher.
From there she moved to Decca’s newly created Deram, an imprint designed to push the parent company’s new recording technology, which was at the forefront of what we now take for granted as stereo. She explains, “My first real producer was Denny Cordell, he was more of a euro-pop man. When I split with Bert I decided it was time to learn for myself and Denny was telling me, ‘I’m going to make you’re a star.’ In the back of my mind I was thinking OK! Great.” She carries on “I was the first signing to the label and the second was Cat Stevens. Of course Denny had total control over what I recorded and I released a single, a song written by Randy Newman called Happy New Year, which was just too far ahead of its time. I just don’t think anyone understood it.”
Somewhere in this mix, enter Paul Simon and an extended trip to America. Beverley sang on Simon And Garfunkel’s Bookends album and even settled for a while, free spirited once again, in San Francisco. She recalls, “LA was really phoney but San Francisco was beautiful, Haight Asbury and so forth.” She also played the Monterey festival as an artist in her own right, but despite meriting serious attention within the music cognoscenti to warrant such a billing, her career still hadn’t ignited. She comments, “I came home with all these beautiful clothes and everyone was really jealous.” As a summary, it’s a little self effacing, but perhaps also hints at not quite knowing what to do. Beverley was still a teenager and had fallen under the sway of some charismatic people, yet all had seemingly promised more than they’d delivered.There was another major twist just over the horizon and back in the UK, the career of her Deram label mate had taken off, but Beverley was struggling and Denny, recognising the uphill task with his misfit charge, introduced her to the man, whose Witchseason productions was rapidly gathering the momentum Beverley’s career lacked. Interestingly Beverley has got hold of some of the tapes from before the transition and she tells me, “It’s strange to listen to them because some of the songs that ended up on Stormbringer are there but they are totally buried in the arrangements and the production. Cordell knew he wasn’t doing the right thing.” Enter Joe Boyd and at the same time John Martyn.
We share a moment’s laughter as I ask whether Joe appeared as fresh faced compared to the others and Beverley chuckles, “He’s still fresh faced now. Somewhere in an attic there’s a picture of him mouldering away.” She assures me, “He had all of this incredible experience like doing the sound at Newport when Dylan went electric and refusing to turn it down, even when they threatened to cut the cables with an axe. He was clever, intellectual, with a great education and knew lots about all kinds of music. He hit the British scene, found all of these wonderful acts and just fitted right in.”
She’s also quick to point out that Joe had already found Nick Drake, so wasn’t much interested in John. “It was when he heard us sing together that he changed his mind, but then Joe and John never really got on. They were just too competitive as John would just try and take over any situation he was in.” And in Beverley’s case that included her life and career as the two became partners in all senses.
What followed was tempestuous and although she gave birth to their children, Beverley also suffered terrible abuse and violence. It’s sad to reflect that she had seen her mother suffer similarly and that the men in Beverley’s life have in so many ways proved false. Yet still, she tells me, “I’m not angry about it. Why turn myself into a bitter old woman?” For Beverley’s sake, however, as well as for others, her book Sweet Honesty deserves your time. It tells her tale in full and at times is unflinching and uncomfortable, yet Beverley has survived to tell it.
Our conversation drifts through time, the albums title which is a bit of Shakespeare and an early, if not the first known example of metaphysical poetry. The Turtle is the turtle dove rather than a freakish match for the mythical Phoenix. She talks about her avid appetite for reading, just a little about her children and offers clues as to how wounds have been healed or at least dressed, with perspective put on disappointments.
She has never really given up on her creative urge either, despite what she said at the start and perhaps now with Mark has found someone finally prepared to offer those gifts of time and patience to help her exploit her own gift. She’s happy to tell me, “Mark wanted me to play him everything I had right back to the Levee Breakers and including all of the stuff I’d worked on with other people too, like the song written with Nick. I even played him the first song I ever wrote and was really embarrassed, but he liked it and he also knew exactly what it was that he wanted to have us record. It’s only looking back at the whole process that I understand that and feel really good about what we have created.” And that, is the most powerful statement of them all.
Interview by: Simon Holland
Beverley Martyn and her band performing Levee Breaks at Roayl Festival Hall (Bert Jansch Tribute Concert, December 2, 2013)
The Phoenix and the Turtle is released 21 April 2014
Live: London’s Bush Hall on Tuesday 29 April
In support of the new album, Beverley and her full band will be playing at London’s Bush Hall on Tuesday 29 April.
Ticket Link here (Box Office: 020 8222 6955)
Photo Credits: Alana Tyson© (main image) / Keith Morris© (Beverley and John)