Johnny Marr, co-founder of seminal British indie-rock band The Smiths, is currently out on the road promoting his debut solo album, “The Messenger.” It’s been 26 years since the group disbanded, yet the guitar god is packing venues with crowds reminiscing about their bygone emo days and looking for Marr’s latter-day work with a variety of rock bands.
Marr may be older, but the pick slinger is determined to show his fans he hasn’t slowed down when he takes the stage at Freebird Live. The legend spoke with Folio Weekly while on the road, discussing the difficulties in writing lyrics for the first time and his inability to rest on his laurels.
Folio Weekly: How old were you when you first picked up a guitar?
Johnny Marr: Four or five. The first guitar I ever received was a gift, and I carried that old thing around the neighborhood like it was a toy. My family were all working musicians, and everyone was expected to play an instrument, so every year I would receive a guitar. I began to pick up a chord here and there, and then started to teach myself to play by listening to T-Rex and David Bowie albums, what we called in the U.K. “glam rock.” There was never a time when I felt I wasn’t going to be a professional guitar player.
F.W.: You’ve been known to join bands for short periods of time, perhaps the most famous being your recent work with Modest Mouse, though you were sitting in with other groups even in your days with The Smiths. Do you view those as experiences that helped you grow as an artist, or were these just opportunities to join bands you liked?
J.M.: I have always done that, ever since I was a kid. I would roam around the neighborhood and see if there were any garage bands needing another musician. I have always found it to be creatively inspiring, to join forces and collaborate with another band and grow musically. With Modest Mouse, I really loved working with those guys, and [we] feed off of each other. …
F.W.: On the new album, you’re listed as the songwriter on every track. With The Smiths, you composed the songs, but Morrissey wrote the lyrics. Have you grown as a songwriter over the years?
J.M.: I wanted to write songs about things that I wanted to talk about, and what I found was that I am not interested in writing songs about my feelings; I’m interested in writing songs about the world I live in. I think there are plenty of songs about feelings; there’s no need for me to write more. It’s a very exciting process. Sure, you’ll have your days of long hours without much progress, but I ended up writing 27 or 28 new songs I was quite proud of. It’s been really great, and when someone suggested that I release them as a solo record, it was a very exciting idea. This way, I could be the one singing them, instead of someone else interpreting them the way they wanted to.
F.W.: Will this be your most expansive tour of the U.S. as a solo artist?
J.M.: Yeah, this will be my longest tour as a solo artist. It’s a world tour, in a way, as I’m wrapping up a U.K. run and hitting Australia soon. I’m happy to be coming back to the U.S.; I love touring the States.
F.W.: Have you found streaming services have helped introduce your music to some of those younger fans?
J.M.: Yes, although as an artist, that’s only one side of the argument regarding the digital revolution. … The main concern I have regarding the online availability of music is that we, as a society, tend to not appreciate things that come to us easy; I include myself in that. … You can’t halt progress, though, so I have just attempted to make the most of it. I still sell the albums at my shows, because I believe in physical objects with great artwork on the cover and a sleeve that looks cool.…
F.W.: At the end of the current tour, will you be taking time off, or do you get right back in the studio?
J.M.: I’ll be getting right back into the studio. I’ve been writing new songs ever since I took to the road, and I want to write some more when I’m back home. I’ve got a great band behind me, and folks that come out to the show will see that. I really have no plans of taking a break.