Keith Bruce

SINGER Sarah Jane Morris has had a remarkable career that reached the broadest public when The Communards cover of Don’t Leave Me This Way spent four weeks at the top of the pop charts and became the biggest-selling single of 1986. But although you might still catch her singing that song in the company of Glasgow’s Jimmy Somerville at summer retro-festival Rewind, most people are aware that her musical journey – every bit as fiercely politically-aligned as Somerville’s – has been mostly away from the mainstream.

A frequent, if sporadic, visitor to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, she is back this year in the company of guitarists Tony Remy and Tim Cansfield with a show that celebrates Glasgow-raised songwriter Ian McGeachy, better known as John Martyn. Sweet Little Mystery opened at Assembly’s George Square Studios on Wednesday, but Glasgow Jazz Festival had a taste of it a month ago, when she performed songs from it, alongside some of her own, in the City Halls Recital Room.

The Fringe incarnation of Sweet Little Mystery is the first time comedian Mark Thomas has directed a show in which he does not appear, and is the fruit of considerable research that Morris put into the making of her album of Martyn songs.

“I came across dark stories and I came across positive stories, and I thought I’d like to turn my music into a show as well. I got my brother involved, and we went round the country interviewing friends of John’s, family members and other musicians who had worked with him. So we have these videos within the piece as well as the story that Mark and I have worked on. And we also have original footage of John performing, which was found by a friend of mine in Hastings.”

It is the culmination of love of Martyn’s music that goes back to Morris’s teenage years.

“I first heard John Martyn when I was 14 years old and he was on the Old Grey Whistle Test, and he would have been 24. He was incredibly beautiful and the warmth of his voice singing May You Never – I had a bit of a crush on him. His music was the backdrop to my 20s, my 30s and my 40s and when I was 50 he died.

“I met him only once when we were both working in the same studio – I was recording with Thea Gilmore and he was in the studio next door. There were stories about how drunk he was, but it didn’t get in the way of him delivering.

“I am now 60 and that was the age John was when he died, so it feels right to be playing homage to him. I celebrate his genius as a songwriter, I am not making any judgement on his life. I’ve come across a lot of people who wouldn’t have crossed the street to be with him, and other people who hold him in huge esteem.”

Morris came to music via theatre. Although she had dropped out of school when her father was sent to prison, a sequence of fortunate events took her the local drama college, where Ben Elton was in the year above, and then Central School of Speech and Drama, in a year with Kristen Scott Thomas and Rupert Everett. A love of Brechtian theatre introduced her to cabaret band The Happy End, whose political performances made them natural allies of the striking miners in 1984, recording the dispute’s anthem, Coal not Dole.

“And that was how Jimmy Somerville and I met,” she remembers, “because through his band Bronski Beat he was very involved in the Miners’ Strike. And Richard Coles, who formed The Communards with him, went to the same drama college as me four years later, when my younger brother did the same course. They became friends, and Richard brought Jimmy along to one of my Miners’ benefit gigs with the Happy End in Brixton.

“Jimmy was a petite red-headed Glaswegian with a very high voice, and I was a very tall red-headed woman with a very low voice and I suggested we do Billie Holiday’s Loverman together, because we’d both be singing about the same man, and it would be quite a camp affair. The record company was in the audience and heard the audience go crazy and then suddenly I was being asked to go to America to record an album.”

Those three weeks in an apartment in New York were, unsurprisingly, “pretty wild”, and Morris’s jazz credentials were enhanced when she dissed Coles and Somerville’s New Year clubbing plans to go to a jazz club at the invitation of guitarist Hiram Bullock – and found herself singing Joe Zawinul’s Birdland with a band that included bassist Jaco Pastorius, drummer Steve Gadd, and saxophonist Mike Brecker.

“They maybe thought I was a cute pop singer, but I now blush to think that I did that with some of the finest musicians in the world.”

Demonstrating consistent taste in guitarists, she has worked with Tom Waits’ sideman Marc Ribot and Dominic Miller, best known for his work with Sting. Morris’s most recent Fringe excursions have been with the music on her African album, Bloody Rain, and then in the company of guitarist Antonio Forcione, but her first visit was in her 20s.

“My first year was 1980, and I played at Buster Browns as part of a three-hander called Hollywood Dreams, based on that scandalous book Holywood Babylon. I played everything from Fatty Arbuckle to Frances Farmer and we got a London transfer out of it. Then I came up a couple of years later with the Happy End.

“I was performing at the Fringe in the Elephant tent with the Happy End when the Communards went number one and I had to fly back to London to do Top of the Pops. I had to make the decision to see the pop thing through, and although I used to come back and do things with the Happy End they couldn’t see me as their comrade any more, which was a shame because I wasn’t actually making any money with the Communards.”

Nonetheless the group gave her one of her best memories off Scotland. “When we came to Glasgow to play with the Communards at Barrowland it was fantastic. I thought the whole PA stack was going to collapse. That’s the biggest gig I’ve done here, although I also played at the Third Eye Centre and at Mayfest, as an actress in an opera based on Oliver Saks’ Awakenings. I had auditioned for Philip Prowse at the Glasgow Citizens after drama school and didn’t get the part, so when I played the Citz with my own band that felt wonderful.”

Morris describes herself as “a social comment songwriter” and her recent work includes songs about female genital mutilation and in the voice of the Nigerian schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram, so turning to the work of Martyn and his tender expressions of love has been, for her, a welcome break.

“I don’t think he ever sang a song the same way twice, which probably made it very exciting to play with him, because you never knew where it was going to go. And it does mean that when you are covering his work you can chop and slice a bit. From what I know about John Martyn he’d have enjoyed the fact that we celebrate the songs but change them, because he changed them all the time.”

Sarah Jane Morris: Sweet Little Mystery is at Assembly George Square Studios July 31 to August 11.