As a Springsteen fan I often feel surrounded by mediocre, lack lustre versions of his songs. Pale imitations. Clumsy forgeries of masterworks.
But not always. One Welsh singer-songwriter has spectacularly, and very successfully, nailed it. Recording an album of covers can be one of a musician’s most challenging tasks: how do you remain true to the original while making it you own? Martyn Joseph would appear to have the answer. His album of Springsteen tracks Tires Rushing by in the Rain – replanting the American highway into Britain’s roadmap – has generated what the modest Joseph labels an ‘overwhelmingly positive reaction.’
Initially a little sceptical, I caught a one off London performance of the album earlier this year. Within minutes I was converted by a humble, hugely talented and passionate acoustic performer, who managed to put his own spin on some of my most cherished Springsteen tracks.
So what is it about the songs that inspires him? ‘It’s about his connection to the male narrative,’ explains Joseph, in a recent phone call. ‘There’s not many artists who have made such a personal impact on me. Springsteen’s work shows strength and emotion at times when many would bottle it up. The man’s a genius.’
The formidable back catalogue has kept the singer company throughout his life, and he still admires Springsteen’s ability to combine fun and serious issues, and intense emotions with commercial success. ‘I feel a real kinship with him,’ he admits. I seem to bring his songs to life for some people.’
That’s a huge understatement. The reaction at the London show was rapturous. I’ve noticed that over the months, as I force Tires on family and friends, Joseph has the impressive and unique knack of making casual Springsteen fans appreciate the originals even more. Of throwing new light on old favourites. ‘I think it’s the way I articulate my words,’ he concludes. ‘It enhances people’s love of his music, drawing them deeper into his lyrics.’ It’s something I’ve experienced first-hand. Joseph’s rendition of One Step Up in London turned a glaring spotlight on the song’s poignant tale.
He doesn’t take this rare talent for granted, counting his blessings for a positive reaction within the Springsteen community. But at the same time, he confesses he’s not particularly keen on many other versions of the songs. ‘Oh God,’ he comments, when I mention Barry Gibb’s recent cover of I’m On Fire. ‘I’m a big fan of the Bee Gees, but Barry Gibb covering that particular song? Oh God.’
He knows, however, that reworking globally adored music is no walk in the park. Some songs have proved tricky. ‘Badlands was a challenge,’ he sighs, ‘especially covering it acoustically.’ But Tires’ 17 tracks weren’t a calculated selection of what worked and what didn’t. ‘I just went for ones I thought a few people would know,’ he reveals. ‘Then added in few more obscure choices.’ He also followed the raw, instinctive approach Springsteen used for Nebraska. ‘I recorded them all in three days because I knew them inside out already. My Hometown is the only song that didn’t make it.’
One that does stands out above all the others when you see him live: The Promise, ‘one of my favourite songs of all time.’ His sensitive rendition is pretty spectacular, shining with respect and admiration.
Like many fans, Joseph’s love of Springsteen started with Born To Run. ‘I was a teenager and my neighbour played me the album, I thought “yeah, I like that!”. Born In The USA didn’t do much for me – it was Tunnel of Love that really got me interested.’ Going through changes in his own life when the album was released, he realised life is not always as simple as you’d like. ‘It’s an honest, open, expressive and really drew me in musically. What attracts me, again, is the male narrative. It’s hard as a writer to write songs as a guy that seep into the soul. Music should make you feel like you are not alone in the world….’ It’s a philosophy that has underpinned his own albums – he has released more than 30 – winning numerous awards and signing to Sony in the 90s; steadily building his career whilst maintaining control, shaping his direction.
Many fans have loyally followed him to shows over decades, and he embraces the road, playing over 160 shows last year in the UK, US and Canada. Preferring small intimate gigs and quirky locations, he drives himself to each venue. ‘I’m not chauffeured or flown by jet like Bruce,’ he laughs. ‘Some of my best nights have been at local village town halls; I love playing the small regions.’ A different level of touring perhaps, but the two men share a philosophy. ‘Springsteen plays like it’s his last gig,’ he stresses, ‘and that’s my theory too.’ Joseph never sticks to the same set list or performs two shows in the same way.
His strong social conscience is reflected in his own writing – he recommends Evolved as a good starting album for new listeners – and in his own touring schedule. In June 2014 he will play at a festival in Bethlehem, and support a children’s refugee camp in Palestine. After that he’ll be touring to support an orphanage in Guatemala. ‘As an artist I never really stop,’ he admits. It’s something he doesn’t appear to mind.
During our conversation Joseph recounts how he had the chance to meet Springsteen a few years back but, like most of us, wasn’t sure where to even begin. So he didn’t. ‘Whatever I would have said would have been wrong,’ he believes. ‘I knew I’d regret it for a long time.’
Yet in future, if the opportunity arises, ‘it would be astonishing to play with him,’ he admits, with almost schoolboy enthusiasm. For now however he’s more than happy to be part of the audience – always avoiding the pit ‘I like to stand at the back and watch the crowd, observe and reflect during his concerts’.
Of course I somehow bring conversation round to burgers. ‘Ahhh,’ he laughs, ‘I had a feeling this might come up.’ In Wales he recommends the Gourmet Burger Kitchen in Cardiff Bay. And abroad? ‘I took my son Stefan to an NHL hockey game in Canada and we went to a bar in Calgary and sat and ate burgers together. I remember thinking at the time that it was a really great moment.’ I can believe it.
As we wrap up for Joseph to get back on the road to his next gig, he finishes with a sentiment that any Bruce fan will relate to. ‘I’m just glad he’s in the world and that he’s playing, bringing hope and joy to millions.’
Amen to that.
Martyn Joseph is currently touring the UK before heading to the US and Canada. Visit his website for date and venue details. See you there.