“I think that rock music made with guitars is a great art form,” says Johnny Marr, minutes into our conversation about his first solo album, The Messenger. He pauses for effect before laughing. “Yeah, I said it! I’m fine with it. I say it, because it does move people, and it can change, if not your life, it can change your day. I was a kid who used to walk around all day wearing invisible headphones. If it was a record I heard before going out to school, it would affect the way I would feel and behave all day.”
Over three decades in the industry have transformed Marr, who always possessed a romantic’s view of music, into a pragmatist. Over the years his sprawling resume has been overshadowed by his most successful and first public endeavor—The Smiths. However, since the group dissolved in 1987, Marr has gone on to perform as a studio musician for everyone from The Pet Shop Boys to Talking Heads to Beck. He’s also logged time as a member of sonically varied groups: The The, Electronic (alongside New Order’s Bernard Sumner), The Cribs and Modest Mouse. Of course, there’s his first foray into composition, the Inception soundtrack, for which Marr received an Academy Award nomination. It comes as somewhat of a surprise then, that his first solo album wasn’t another attempt at reinventing the musical wheel that he’s kept rolling since forming his first band while still in school at 13.
“I’ve done that or tried to do that a few times, and I can’t do that now,” says Marr. “I wouldn’t sound the way I do naturally. When tunes come along that sound like people think I’m supposed to sound, as long as it’s still authentic, I go with it. If I like it, and people around me are whistling it, that keeps it fresh.”
Written and recorded in Manchester and Berlin, The Messenger was used—in part—as a way for the globetrotting musician to revisit the inspirations from his life before becoming a full-time musician. “I came back to Europe, and particularly the UK, to connect with what excited me when I was living there,” he says. “I just kind of played with things the way I did when I was starting out. The record is half what I did before I started getting around and half of everything I’ve done since then.”
The result of the sessions is 12 blustery, feel-good rock songs. From album opener “The Right Thing Right,” which kicks off with a cascade of Who-like guitar licks, to the melodic meditation of the title track, there’s a world of subtle, sophisticated tonal variations as the past and present knit themselves together.
“I had a whole load of ideas for new songs,” says Marr. “I felt that I could do them all myself, or at least with somebody producing me rather than getting into someone else’s band. That all happened. And when I started writing songs I just got on a roll. It’s not like I had any inspiration to go off on some tangent and be particularly experimental or weird. I think the record is the most fun collection of band songs I’ve maybe ever done. Some people say it just sounds like 12 singles. That makes me happy. It isn’t me going off and doing some classical guitar in the middle of it. Or some electronic exploration. Ironically, I do a solo record and it’s quite a band sound.”
Marr discovered that finding his way back to the sound of his youth wasn’t as hard as he had anticipated. Not much has changed.
“As a schoolboy, a lot of my friends liked music and the idea of being in a band,” he recounts. “But no one got as serious about it as I did. Certainly there weren’t many people around who would sleep on a stranger’s floor to make a demo. But that’s what I was prepared to do. So in some ways, I could hang out and have plenty of friends, but there always came a time where I would have to peel off and write a song no matter what I was doing.”
For someone who is apt to name-check visual artists David Hockney and Robert Rauschenberg alongside musicians Ennio Morricone and David Bowie when reeling off his influences, it seems almost an equal likelihood that Marr could have ended up a celebrated painter instead of a guitarist.
“There was always many reasons why I was attracted to the idea of being a musician,” he says, citing music’s accessibility as the ultimate trump card. “Like with many people, it was about an escape from situations you were in. Mundane situations. The oppression of schools and teachers and fighting with your parents. All of that business. There was just the simple fact that being the guitar player in a band is cool. Aside from that, it was a way for me to be able to be an artist.”
The word artist or musician, Marr makes clear, isn’t meant to indicate a stodgy or elitist rank.
“In my case the records are the best and purest thing to hang artwork on and make visual artwork for, and the greatest thing to put poetry on,” he says, a hint of self-deprecating humor hanging around his words. “I love all kinds of poetry, but poetry in the form of rock and pop music is punchy and catchy and can also be informative or funny or emotional.”
When it comes to his previous work, Marr admits that it all still packs an emotional punch, even though he doesn’t make a habit of strolling too far down memory lane on his own time. Hearing an old tune can be fun. Nothing, not even The Smiths—in all its divisive glory—is exempt.
“That can be cool because everybody has a good time,” he says, thoughtfully. “I suppose that’s what pop music is about.”