Martin Harley is bringing the blues

British roots artist Martin Harley puts his own spin on classic Delta blues

Paul Tessier

For The Morning Star

He was once a pancake cook at a nunnery. He lived for a year in Australia — in a used station wagon. He worked as a tree surgeon and was hired to be Santa Claus at a mall. Martin Harley has been around.

He’ll bring songs and stories from the road along with his incredible slide guitar chops to Vernon on Saturday at the Spitfire Lounge of the Army, Navy & Airforce Club.

Even asking him where he calls home brings an interesting response.

“Well,” he says after a pause, “I’m a Welshman who only lived in Wales for 12 months of my life. But that’s what it says on my passport. I grew up in the southeast of London.

“I now live north of London but I’ve lived in all sorts of places and traveled for the vast majority of my adult life. So I remain lost — a citizen of the world, perhaps.”

His family was not particularly musical but he has early memories of music.

“We used to travel a lot,” he said. “So I remember being very young and traveling with the family in a green Volvo. My sister would listen to the Smiths. My dad would listen to Bob Marley and my mother was listening to stuff like Dire Straits.”

Harley was 15 when he discovered the blues.

“I remember picking up a cassette tape in a French supermarket,” he recalled. “It was a mixture of blues artists. There was some Robert Johnson on it and also some Texas Flood with Stevie Ray Vaughn. I think music started taking hold then but I didn’t pick up an instrument til I was a teenager.”

He started playing the lap slide guitar almost by accident.

“That came to me living in the car in Australia when I was in my late 20s.” he said. “I bought a 12-string guitar which had been warped from the heat at a pawn shop. I couldn’t push the strings down onto the fret so I started tuning it to an open chord and I started playing it across my lap — which was nothing new. People have been doing that for a long time but it was new to me. I found that learning to play the slide guitar in isolation is probably a very good idea.”

Harley has been to Canada twice but has never been to Vernon, and is looking forward to playing live here.

“People are going to hear a good deal of original music played on a mixture of standard acoustic guitars and something called a Weissenborn, which is a hollow-necked, traditional Hawaiian-style guitar played across my lap. Folks can expect me to tell a few stories of how songs came to be — or they could be stories about anything I suppose, depending on the evening.”

“Performing live is absolutely my favourite thing to do. My aim is to create a really nice, intimate environment and to get the audience on board for a wonderful evening of blues and Americana music.”

The Vernon Folk-Roots Music Society presents Martin Harley live at the Spitfire Lounge of the Army, Navy and Airforce Club on Saturday, May 6. Showtime is at 7:30 p.m., doors open at 6:45 p.m. Tickets are $20, $15 for members, available through ticketseller.ca or by calling 250-549-7649, the Bean Scene in Vernon, the Spitfire Lounge or at the door, if available, cash only. No minors. More information at vernonfolkroots.com.