Martin Harley is a bluesy British singer-songwriter who has recorded five independent albums. By phone, he discussed his sound, holding the record for the highest-altitude gig, and his love of adventure and motorcycles.
How do you describe your sound for someone who has never heard your music?
It’s a contemporary approach to blues-roots music. I feel I have quite strong songwriting sensibilities with roots in pre-Second World War blues.
Who do you get compared to and what do you think of those comparisons?
I quite often get compared to a lot of the Australian slide players like John Butler and Xavier Rudd. In some respects, I find that very complimentary. They’re excellent players. I think I have a slightly more traditional rootsy approach to the slide guitar than those guys. Especially on the new record. I spent a lot of time experimenting with a lot of different vocal sounds and I have a lot of instrumentation that comes from the Django Reinhardt gypsy jazz school as well. The new record is quite rocky at times as well. I’ve been playing around with a lot of distorted vocals which is a new stage for me. That’s really a nod to those great early recordings of pre-second world war blues. On those it’s more a result of recording as opposed to intentional which is what I’ve done. It’s really a hats-off to that era and having spent so much time listening to that.
What does it mean to you when you get to play an event like Glastonbury?
Some serious nail biting and underwear changing. No. It’s absolutely awesome the amount of attention we got from playing events like Glastonbury. Obviously that kind of publicity brings more people to your music and making enough money is paramount to keep going with musical projects like mine that are fairly independent. You need to sell records to keep making records. First and foremost, that gives me the opportunity to keep doing what I’m doing. On a personal level, I’ve been going to Glastonbury for 10 years. It’s culturally exciting meeting new and established artists from around the world. To be on that bill on a good stage is a great feeling. I’m really glad to be a part of something like that.
I have to ask you about playing the highest-altitude gig in the Himalayas. Tell me about that.
Sadly, I have to announce that the first guy I went to do that with has recently broken that record by about 1,000 meters. We held the record for the highest gig on land from 2005 to 2010. The idea behind that was that a fellow traveler and I started a charity to build a children’s home that was funded by music. We were at a fundraiser to make money for that orphanage and shelter. We set our goals of performing the world’s highest concert, which we did in October 2005 at 5,545 meters on a mountain. It was hard work. It was very, very cold. Very unwisely I picked a song with the most amount of lyrics in it. I was focused on getting up the hill and hadn’t really thought of what I would do once I got up there. I just wanted to get there. On Sunday at four in the morning on the last part of the trek, I sat down to play my song. I got halfway through the first verse and started to turn a bit blue. It was a great experience. It was a lot of fun and it got us where we needed to go in terms of getting construction underway.
What advice would you give to someone who is just getting started playing gigs and going on the road?
Social media have become hugely important. Young, aspiring musicians and artists don’t require a record label like they used to. There’s a lot of noise on the internet for new bands because you can put yourself out there in that sense. It’s very hard to cut through all that noise and find good bands online. The combination of using social media wisely to try and reach people. Just get out there and do it. Recording it is easier and cheaper to do than ever. Getting your music out there is easy. Getting in front of people could be harder.
I would always advise people not to enter talent competitions or to think that things like The X Factor are good for music. It’s a current trend of people wanting to go from zero to rock star overnight. They lack the experience to perform in front of people. You need to grow steadily as an artist. You’re very lucky if you’re talented, but you need to get out there and learn about your business. Don’t stay ignorant to the music business at large trying to learn how useful press and radio are and trying to connect with those people and the music industry at large and not just the artistry of it. it’s been a very long road for me and I’ve stayed independent through this. I’m five albums in and most of those have been small, independent releases. I don’t know if I’ve done it the right way or the wrong way, but I certainly do feel that I know what’s happening to me as I go along. Maybe I’m just a control freak. Other advice: get good at drinking and sleeping in a Motel 6.
What would you be doing if you weren’t making music?
I would be motorcycling around the world. I love travel, I love adventure, and I love motorcycles. If I wasn’t making music, I would be planning a big adventure. It would have to be on two wheels and it would have to be a long one. I haven’t ruled that out as a musical entity yet either.
Martin Harley plays The Troubadour in L.A. on Saturday 1 December.