A few years ago, I heard about an album which had been reissued by Gonzo that was creating a lot of interest. I duly searched out the release, thoroughly enjoyed it, and wrote a review and thought little more of it. A few weeks later, Martin had seen the review and tracked me down through one of the sites I work for. Since then it is safe to say we are in communication very frequently indeed, and I have been fortunate enough to hear his other albums, as well as enjoying his wonderful artwork. When it came time for my books to be released, I cheekily asked Martin if he would like to be involved, and he jumped at the opportunity, and has designed the covers for all three, for which I am eternally grateful. He has just finished recording his latest album, ‘Boy On A Bike’, so now seemed to be the right time to have a formal chat.
From a fairly young age you followed a path in both illustration and music, who/what inspires you in both fields?
Some early inspirations as you know, stay with you for life, so let’s start there. ‘What is the point of a book without pictures’? asks Alice in Alice In Wonderland. Well exactly, that was my view in my young years growing up in England, I was only interested in books with pictures and so reading novels came late to me. Certainly, comics were a big influence, in fact, one of my first attempts at the form was a ‘graphic novel’ version of John Carter Of Mars created when I was 13 years old. Alas, this has been lost, but I do recall getting
On Remembrance Day, 1962, around noon, I was listening to the BBC on a tiny transistor radio. It was my job to serve the kids that came into the pub, for ice cream, pop, etc. Unusually the beer barrels for this pub, The Victoria Inn, were on the main floor, directly behind the bar. I was drawing in my sketchbook, positioned close to the door that
What fanned out from these major young influences, a comic called The Eagle, a band called The Beatles, essentially altered the course of my life. I was drawing as soon as I could hold a pencil, and I, like millions of other guys and gals, had to have a guitar after hearing The Beatles. So I got my first ratty guitar at 14, a late start really, but I was a quick study and had all the basic chords learned a year later, mainly from Beatle songbooks.
The Beatles, Bach, and the Blues, all in the same year! Overwhelming and wondrous! (The new Gardening Club album, ‘Boy On A Bike’, has a direct connection to this period.) Some years later when Progressive Rock made its first appearance, the combination of the visual and musical storytelling was irresistible. Yes, especially, with Roger Dean’s great expansive covers. I wanted to do both things, create great covers like Dean’s and write songs like Yes. I simply had to do both! A clearly impossible task, as there were sometimes three to four composers per song! I found my own voice of course, after many years of exploration. Those early Yes albums were addictive I have to say, as was Jethro Tull, but I turned away from prog-rock for a while, for one main reason, it was just too arranged. As much as I loved it all, I was enthralled by Jazz musicians who created music
The recent rise of interest in ‘books with pictures’, that is graphic novels, and the vinyl revival has been very inspirational for me. The art for ‘Boy On A Bike’, is centered around panels, or portals, echoing the layout for a comics page. The art for this project allowed me to return to some early artistic influences. I used the gateway metaphor for a life journey, so I created gates that echoed my favorite comic book artists, Moebius and Jim Woodring as well as, Picasso, Klimt, Dali and others who have had an impact on my artistic life.
My career in children’s books was long and fruitful, not only in all the art I created for a great many books and book covers, but in my travels all across Canada as a presenter to students in schools and libraries. I would go through all the nuts and bolts of how to create an illustrated book, using a slide show, drawing on the spot and ending every presentation I gave with a short performance on the guitar. Even though these were, you might say, the ‘quiet years’ as in no one was listening to the recordings that I constantly made, the presentations I gave year after year in the schools kept my guitar performance chops up quite well.
You made the decision to emigrate to Canada, but then returned to Europe to tour and play music, what are your favorite memories of this period?
Playing a tour in Germany and Austria, opening for Soft Machine was a highlight as I got to see Allan Holdsworth play every night for two weeks! I was in a band at that time called Gateway Driver. We were based in a little village just outside Hannover, two Brits
1983’s ‘The Gardening Club’ was your first released album, by which time you were already a well-known fantasy illustrator for both books and records. How did the album come about, who else was involved, and how would you describe it to someone who has yet to hear it?
The Gardening Club was a culmination of many, many things. I had first walked into a professional recording studio in Vancouver in 1969 to record an album of Tolkien’s poems that I had set to music from The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit. It was never released; Christopher Tolkien would not give his permission to allow the LP to come out. At that time, I met a young recording engineer named Don Geppert who worked at Studio 3 where I recorded all the Tolkien material. He had moved to Toronto in 1976, and when I later moved to the city as well, I got in touch. I met Don in the studio where he worked, he told me to bring my guitar along, so I could play a few new songs for him. I did so, and after listening he said, “Well we must do something.” So, the adventure began! It was recorded over a three-year period, which was rather frustrating for me at the time, but I could only get into the studio when it was not in use. Don generously donated his time and long experience in the studio, so I essentially had free studio time but paid all the musicians who played on the record. The arrangements came about organically as we rehearsed in the studio, usually the rhythm section first. The drummer, Penner MacKay added so much rhythmic fuel to this music; that’s one of the reasons I think it has stood the test of time, I cannot overestimate how important Penner is to the musical success of the album. The bass players Paul Daiter and Paul Blaney were perfect additions to the ‘engine room’, and those initial sessions discovering the rhythmic possibilities of each song are some of my favorite memories of that time.
I had very clear ideas about all the details I wanted to hear on top, and my good pal Russ Walker (Heads In The Sky) added his wonderful flute sounds to two songs on side two. I recall I sang all the flute melodies to him as we recorded! He had great ideas of his own, of course, but this is how the recording process went, me doing a lot go singing, to sometimes bemused players! Bob Brough, who is still playing in jazz groups here in the city, played a brilliant solo on “The Traveller”. I love jazz and wanted that saxophone sound somewhere on the album for sure, and this 5/4 tune was just the right vehicle for him. My other Vancouver pal, Ann Mortifee added her beautiful voice to “Andromeda”, and to me it makes the song soar, and it makes it work. The perfect sound for the ‘cosmic’ experience I hoped it would be. One thing this album did for me, is that it gave me confidence in my musical choices, choosing the right sounds to echo the emotional and musical intentions of the song.
It is almost impossible for me to describe the music on ‘The Gardening Club’ album, as I know very well that labels are on the one hand restrictive and on the other, can help people connect to music that they don’t know through the association of that which they do know. I never called this music, Progressive Rock. When I made it, it’s just, “An album of songs by Martin Springett.” Yes, I used a twelve-string, but not because of Genesis. I picked up the twelve because of Leadbelly! I was never influenced by them or Camel either. I have never listened to Camel! The thing is, I sound English, I have always sounded like this, it’s in my DNA. Those early influences are still
From then on you released a few albums over the years both solo and with bands, but what was the idea behind the “duo” album of ‘Diving Into Small Pools’?
The impetus for ‘Diving Into Small Pools’ was essentially this – why create music, if no one is listening. Is it ‘delusional’ to think, as Bill Bruford suggests in his otherwise excellent autobiography, that making music when no is interested is the act of a person who has lost touch with reality? What if, you have to do it, no matter what anyone says or thinks. What if you know on some level, that what you are doing, has the potential to engage and interest people even if all the evidence suggests otherwise. So, I decided to create an album that was going to take me back to my earliest listening influences and make it my musical autobiography in the music business, my
Once I had my theme, a river of songs just started pouring out, it was liberating in every way, clearly, I needed to do this. I remember sitting on the couch one day, I was alone in the house, the family was out and about, writing about six songs in succession, lyrics first, music second. I had just gotten my first iMac, and Garage Band changed my musical life! I could record at home, no longer worried about studio time, and take, my time, to get it right. I had to get over the ‘horror’ of using drum loops, that didn’t take long of course. The songs took shape as I recorded them, I did a lot of improvising, taking bits and pieces from here and there, it was all way too much fun, except, it was all me all the time. I wasn’t used to that. I loved hearing other players on my songs, it always improved them immeasurably. Gradually I brought in some wonderful Toronto musicians to add their sounds, Allyssa Wright on cello on “Wired For Sound”; Tim Hammel on trumpet for “Miles To Go”; Chris Church on violin on “Thieves and Poets Part 2”; Kevin Laliberte on flamenco guitar, “Thieves and Poets, parts 2 and 3”; Wayne Kozak on “Caves and Cathedrals”! Now it started to sound good. I had so many songs that I ended up with a 2 CD set. Like a lot of
During this period did you just see music as a hobby?
Music was never a hobby, it was something I had to do, every day, always. It kept me sane, can’t live without it. Whether it was playing for the kids in my school presentations, the very occasional solo gig, or recording at home, it was always part of my everyday life. My family was very supportive, and both my daughters, Rebecca and Miriam, played flutes and we recorded together several times. They play on the ‘Bright Weaving’ CD, my musical homage to fantasy author Guy Gavriel Kay.
Gonzo Media reissued ‘The Gardening Club’ in 2016, and it now received critical acclaim. How did the reissue come about and were you surprised at the rekindled interest?
To say I was surprised at the interest shown in ‘The Gardening Club’ after all this time, would be putting it mildly. The thing is, it wasn’t rekindled interest really, because there never was any interest to begin with, anywhere. Two separate things occurred around the same time. Ed Kanerva of Spacewreck Records got in touch, to see whether I would like to rerelease the album, as an LP. I was somewhat behind the proverbial eight ball in realizing that vinyl had made a significant comeback. Someone had put up all the tracks from ‘The Gardening Club’ on YouTube, and Ed loved the art as well as the music, and got in touch. Ed works for a comic/graphic novel publishing house, so he has his fingers on the pulse of the zeitgeist all right! His mission was to promote ‘cosmic Canadiana’, especially if it had been overlooked, and I was a classic example of that. Ed was amazed to find I still had 300 copies of the L P in the basement, the original pressing, unopened, catnip for the uber vinyl collector. So, Ed put a package together, with a second LP, ‘Songs From The Greenhouse’, that was made up of songs that I recorded around the time ‘The Gardening Club’ was originally released. All those songs were archived on cassette tape, that most dreaded of musical formats, but Don Geppert came to the rescue again and digitized and remastered all the songs.
The second thing was Rob Ayling of Gonzo Multimedia, based in the U K, got in touch to ask about the rights situation, re ‘The Gardening Club’ album. I had signed a deal with Spacewreck Records just a few weeks before, and wasn’t sure whether I was free to sign up with Rob as well, but as Gonzo wanted to do a CD version, not an L
This then inspired you to form a band and start recording again, so how did The Gardening Club get together and how did you decide on the line-up?
Six months after my heart operation, I played a concert in Victoria BC at a vinyl record store called Vinyl Envy. The lads in the store loved the ‘Gardening Club’ story, and as I had a 2 LP vinyl package for sale, they were very keen to have me in to play a concert. With me was Norm Macpherson on guitar, and Wayne Kozak on saxophone with Neil Golden on percussion. The concert went very well, and Norm right away wanted to record “Blues For Richard” in his home studio. As we got talking, we both realized that we had something special in the music we had played that night at Vinyl Envy. We had to capture it. Norm had had a studio for many years in Windsor, Ontario, and was a very experienced recording engineer. A few months later we started recording what would become ‘The Riddle’. The main idea at that point was for me to finally record as many of the songs that I had of our friend Cyril
Although my good friend Terry Findlay did not play on the album, he was an integral part of its success, as he was the one who initially had the idea that Norm would sound great on my songs. This really was the first important step, so I can’t thank him enough.
Please can you provide a track by track breakdown of the resulting album, ‘The Riddle’.
The Riddle Overture –
I loved the idea of starting off the album with a rock cliché, if you like, to see whether we could pull it off, but this tune
This was written in the studio, sort of between takes on another song, it was one of the few Cyril lyrics that I had not set to music. I was bubbling over with ideas, just having so much fun. I should add that Norm’s studio is surrounded by forest, deep in the countryside, it is the most inspiring space I have ever recorded in. (Yes, many gifts have come my way recently. I am forever grateful.) My connection to Cyril’s words is visceral, I just know when it works, when the melody marries the words, and the emotion is distilled in a purely musical way. When Norm said, is that a Cyril song and I said yes, he said let’s record it right away, while it’s hot out of the oven.
“A dog on fire / pursued by a dog on fire”. Yes, dark stuff, written by a young guy in search of himself. Essentially, the blues, the human condition, and a song I have had for maybe ten years or so, rattling away asking to be recorded. Norms solo on this song, as far as I am concerned is as good as it gets, digging deep into the changes and the emotional darkness, but what a great release of tension!
Blues For Richard
When I was recovering from my heart operation, I heard that our good pal, Richard Moore, had died from a brain
The slow 5/4 section in this tune was the first thing I played upon hearing that Richard had died. It just came out fully formed. I knew it was for him, but I realized I wanted to go into this homage to Richard with a full-on band riff that he would have enjoyed, with the sadness held back until the end.
Just before we did our concert in Victoria, that set the ball rolling on this new Gardening Club adventure, being in an excitable state, I wanted to write something brand new for the gig, and this song was the result. I have quite a few different versions of this lyric but none that really clicked with me. For quite a while after my surgery, I could not hit all the high notes I used to, so for the first time ever, I used a capo to change the key of a particular song, but not the chord shapes. The guitar does sound different when you put a capo over the strings, no doubt, and I was quite taken with the timbre of the raised string sound. I just started playing a particular chord sequence that I had always liked but had never sung over. (For those with an interest in this sort of thing, it’s actually the first four chords of the sequence I use on the tune, Eddie’s Theme on Diving Into Small Pools. I’m allowed to steal from myself.) With the words in front of
Of all the surprises on’ The Riddle’, this may be the most surprising, because Norm plays the bassoon! He has been a symphony musician since he was a teenager, straddling both the popular music world and the orchestral world. This is why he is so adept at arranging, a deep knowledge of orchestration. It wasn’t clear to us what instrument should play the melody here, we tried guitar, mandolin, voices. As soon as Norm played it on the bassoon it seemed the perfect fit. The most ‘English’ sounding tune on the album.
The story behind this tune is that at one time I was asked to create illustrations for a novella by JRR Tolkien called ‘Farmer Giles Of Ham’. I went to England to talk to the publisher, and while in the
Notes On The Affair
There is no doubt that Cyril’s lyrics are often dark and intriguing, and maybe that’s why I like them, nothing is spelled out clearly, there is a mystery at the heart of it all. Here, the chorus, “the light in her life / will be the light in my own / and I will not know the difference …” is perhaps his most positive statement, and I couldn’t resist going into a major key for this one, which is unusual for me. The jazzier verse sequence came about as I was exploring a new Taylor guitar, sometimes a new instrument will inspire new sounds, no doubt! Once again Norm shows his amazing fluency on the gut string guitar, an improvised solo here that he arranged for marimba and other
The Original Sleep
This poem is by Robert Priest, a quite brilliant Toronto poet who I have known for many years. I always found this poem so intriguing, and as
When I started working on this song, I realized I was now in a position to write for a
Tears At The Matinee
This is the oldest tune on the record. I must have set this at least twenty years ago, but as much as I liked it, it didn’t really fit any other project I worked on. The original title was Tears At the Matinee 1971, so it’s the only poem in Cyril’s book, ‘The Upside Down Blackbird’, with a specific date. This is very much a portrait of our young years, and I always loved the words and was thrilled to have found just the right setting for it.
Having Wayne Kozak and Sean Drabitt on the song was a gift worth waiting for. Their combined harmonic knowledge and musical story telling are a perfect fit.
When Norm and I met again after many years, we had
The tune is from some years ago, the lyrics written as we recorded. This was not meant to be on the album, it was just an exploration to see whether it worked, just a bunch of chords and me trying to sing! I was still having problems hitting high notes that I used to reach fairly easily. However, I was determined to meet this challenge, but it would have been foolish to push my voice if it sounded strained, so we left this one on the back burner. We worked on all the other songs then came back to this, and by that time, just by having done all that singing, I was now comfortable with the melody. After I came up with the words, I realized that it tied all sorts of threads together; you don’t always know what you are up to until it’s finished. You take the journey, but the destination is often hazy.
Just a little echo of my love for composers like Eric Satie.
The Riddle Overture Reprise
I wanted to write something where everyone in the band gets a solo, and we tie a musical ribbon around the whole thing. I think we go out here in a celebratory mood. We felt so good that what started as a tentative idea to see if we could do anything ‘interesting’ turned into ‘The Riddle’, a complete and sustained musical journey, with important musical and emotional touchstones for all of us. Truly a band effort, everyone contributing their best work, and enjoying it all so much.
One word on the order of the songs. As I was designing the CD package, I realized that I had to make that decision, as I was determined to have a lyric booklet, this was essential as Cyril’s words were so important in the genesis of the album and its outcome. I was working on the back cover of the CD package. I placed the image I had decided to use, one of ‘The Three Riddles’, that I had created after coming home from the hospital. The album did not even have a name. I looked at the list of songs. It seemed to me that ‘The Riddle’, short and to the point, even if the point was a mystery seemed to be the perfect title. Also, it lined up with the art. I had always assumed it would be a Cyril song as the title, not one of mine. Obviously, the Overture would come first, then the opening lines of Whirled Away “About to laugh / about to be let in on a secret…”
Have you surprised yourself with your enthusiasm for getting back into the studio?
All of this has been a surprise on so many levels, I let go of this musical dream many years ago when ‘The Gardening Club’ album “died”. To have it all resurrected in this way has been completely
You have already been back in the studio working on a follow-up album, ‘Boy On A Bike’. Is this in a similar vein? When do you expect this to be available?
‘Boy On A Bike’ is you might say a continuation of our musical explorations, the difference being the lyrics apart from two songs are all mine, so the emotional themes are quite different, plus James wrote one of the tunes on the album, “
What is next for Martin Springett in both your artistic and musical endeavours?
Right now, I am putting together the lyric book and CD package for ‘Boy On A Bike’. I will actually be glad to park the bike, very soon, it’s been a rather long ride, but I am so happy with this new album, we went to new places and landscapes for sure.
Recently having performed with Syrian violinist Sari Alesh, we are adding his sound to our band, and Norm and I will be performing with Sari as a trio this coming November and recording some new tunes as soon as we can. I have a feeling the next project will be very different. Which is as it should be. We just go where the music and emotions take us. Our lives are wrapped up in all this. That’s the true joy of it all.