IT'S NOT SURPRISING that Johnny Marr has played with so many bands, so many people, so many personalities. Simply put—he's an easygoing bloke. He was the yin to Steven Patrick Morrissey's yang for five years in the Smiths. Since that time—1987 to be exact—Marr has had dalliances with the Pretenders and Pet Shop Boys, and anchored stage right for Modest Mouse, the Cribs, and The The. This doesn't even include his collabs with Sir Paul, Beck, and Neil Finn.
And Marr, being the epitome of couth and cool, doesn't take it for granted. "Whatever band I'm in, it's my life," he says by phone from Manchester. "I feel lucky to have been asked. It's been a dream for a lowly guitar player."
That doesn't sound like a guy who's responsible for a stockpile of immaculate pop songs that have affected a couple generations of lost souls. Not surprisingly, Marr has never rested on his laurels. But it has taken him almost three decades to finally record his first proper solo album, The Messenger.
Now 49, Marr says there's no real good reason for the wait. The inspiration for the songs came from his recent return to the UK, after a five-year stint in Portland, a city he still holds dear. "There's a scene in the Pacific Northwest," Marr says. "It's very supportive. And without getting overly romantic about it, there's a shared responsibility. It reminds me of Manchester in the late '80s."
It was Manchester where Marr wrote and recorded The Messenger. He says being in his own studio—and visiting his old haunts—were key to the making of the record. "I felt that if I made it in Portland I'd be lazy and get all my friends to play on it," Marr says. "And it behooves me to be in the place where I started writing songs."
The Messenger doesn't shoot for the stars in ambition; it simply puts an exclamation point on his legacy as a pop-smith and guitarist. Marr—for the first time ever—is the frontman, handling vocals as well. The beauty is that it doesn't sound like a guy who's trying to separate himself from his past. Instead he embraces the jangle and pop he's made a living doing for more than 30 years. "The Right Thing Right" and the title track are about as close as you'll get to hearing new Smiths material, with Marr's guitar in immaculate form.
These days Marr is comfortable playing to the people who have been with him from the beginning. Recently he's even given in to playing Smiths songs live, something he avoided for years. "When you're younger it's almost your duty to kick up dust and not be held in a box," he says. "If you're still harboring some weirdness when you're older, it's not healthy."
Chalk it up to maturity? Maybe. But it's probably more to do with Marr's amicable disposition. As he looks forward, it sounds like his days as a sideman might be over. For now, anyway.
"I'm enjoying what I'm doing now, especially if people are liking it," he says. "I feel like we're in this together."