He was a member of The Waterboys, worked with some of the planet’s most famous musicians, and won Emmys for his television soundtracks. Now the world premiere of his first musical is taking place – in York. YorkMix meets Martyn Swain
In all its 650 years, the Merchant Adventurers’ Hall will have seen nothing like it. Next week its hallowed Great Hall will echo to the world premiere of Ruby And The 13th Door, a magical musical by Martyn Swain.
Martyn (pictured right) is not your typical musical composer. A one-time rock star, he is far removed from the master of the art, Lord Lloyd-Webber. They met once, at the Ivor Novello Awards. “I shook hands with him and I thought he’d already died – there was something so clammy – it was a very waxy experience,” he joked.
“I admire him enormously but that’s all so out of date I think.”
The story is based on one of Grimms’ lesser known fairy tales, Fairy Tell True. Ruby is rescued by the Good Fairy, taken to CloudWorld where the weather is made, and warned not to open the mysterious 13th door. She does of course, with dangerous consequences…
“It’s a magical fairy tale for a family audience,” said Martyn. “It’s a morality tale, it’s the spellbinding journey through mystery worlds and clouds, deep forests, and ultimately a love story.”
Ruby is all a long way from his own childhood in South London. Recently he was asked to choose some of his favourite records for BBC Radio York, and among them was Sittin’ On The Dock Of The Bay by Otis Redding.
“I remember lying in bed, I had a little battery radio I used to keep under the pillow. And I heard this sound, I listened to the words, and it was stuff from another world. I knew that this guy was black, I knew he came from America, which might as well have been Mars.
“It had the sound of seagulls on it and whistling. But at the tender age of nine or ten it sounded ridiculously cool.”
The Beatles were like older brothers to Martyn and his sister. “All their various antics and their long hair was ridiculously appealing. Plus the fact the music, as has been proven, is just timeless and they still are the biggest pop group on the planet.
“It was an incredible time to be born in terms of what popular music was doing.”
Being in London he was close to the heart of the Swinging Sixties, whereas York was a long way away. “My only visit in York in the Sixties was to sing at the Minster when I was a chorister at school. We were put up in dorms, something to do with the university.
“We stayed there and mucked about the way you do, sang in the Minster and came home. You just see the middle of it, you know the history of York, so it’s quite a treat.”
After “scraping music on the violin” Martyn learned to play the bass guitar. “I just loved the parts, the way you could move them around, the influence of the bass on a song is quite interesting. Plus the fact you only have to play one string at a time and they’re all nice big strings.”
Playing in bands at school was a distraction from a family life which was “a bit broken”. His father was often absent. “It left me in a position where I was defining myself and music’s quite an interesting way of doing that.”
In the early 1980s Martyn was in a band called Random Hold. “I heard the Waterboys on the radio. I was listening to Radio One and Mike Smith was playing a song called December, and afterwards I thought, what a song that is.
“He said that’s the Waterboys and Mike Scott is currently putting a band together and will be touring in the New Year. I thought: ‘With me!’”
What was so special about them? “It was all of that stuff that, as a child, the Beatles had. Those big, epic thoughts,” he said. “Mike had that lyrically completely sorted out. And I thought the song I heard was a force of nature and I wanted to be part of it.”
Through a friend, keyboard player Karl Wallinger, Martyn secured an audition in front of band founder Mike Scott. He got the job, bass player in The Waterboys.
“It was quite early on in the Waterboys’ life. The next album after that had Whole Of The Moon on it, so that changed things a lot. By that time, I’d found out that being on a tour bus with Mike wasn’t necessarily as much fun as people thought it would be.”
After leaving the Waterboys, Martyn hooked up again with Karl in his new band World Party. Later he was to team up with some of the biggest names in music.
“Working with Julian Lennon was remarkable because working with someone whose father you had come across in your fantasy world before was pretty weird,” he said.
“Over a period of time you strip everything away and you’re in a room with a young guy whose father was murdered. The guy has got a huge wealth of talent, but is scared to give it because of that fear that he always has of being compared to his father and coming off second best.”
“The reason why I wanted to give it to him was I thought it was about as good as it could get, and he changed it in ten minutes and made it better. Which really, really annoyed me!”
While working with Arthur Brown, most famous for the song Fire!, Martyn met another music legend. “We were rehearsing for an album, Iggy Pop was rehearsing next door in one of those fantasy moments. David Bowie had turned up to see Iggy Pop, heard Arthur’s dulcet tones and ran in: ‘Arthur? What’re you doing here?’
“And that was how I was introduced to him, this funny little bloke bouncing around in one of those pilot suits, the things Sting used to wear.”
Fed up of touring, Martyn studied at the Guildhall School of Music and began composing scores for TV programmes. He won two Emmy Awards for his music on the BBC history series Timewatch.
Having taken six months out to compose Ruby And The 13th Door, he has high hopes for the musical – even though its gestation has had its ups and downs. Ruby was originally set to premiere at the City Varieties in Leeds earlier this year but when Ian Sime took over from Peter Sandeman as general manager at the theatre, Ian cancelled the booking.
This caused some rancour and led to legal action, although Peter has stayed on to offer help and advice. But nothing is set to stop the York premiere. From here, who knows – the West End and Broadway, an animated film and a version for schools are all in Martyn’s sights.
It’s a highly personal project for Martyn, who moved to York after meeting and falling in love with North Yorkshire teacher Britt Chadwick – now working as a producer on Ruby.
“I didn’t realise it for a long time – I think Britt realised it before – it’s a story about us. The love aria, when I first played it to Britt, she realised that it was about us.
“The story has so many connections to us, and the various struggles I’ve been through. I never actually got chucked into the Forest of Thorns but I did live in Cloud World for quite a long time.”
Martyn now wants to record an album of choral works. He could perform it at York Minster, and come full circle. “That would just be fantastic,” he says with a smile.
- Ruby And The Thirteenth Door is at Merchant Adventurers' Hall on December 19 and 20
- Tickets for the evening show are sold out but they are still available for the matinee show at 3.15pm on Thursday, December 20
- See the show website for more details