Grasping for a more emotive, sincere song for his new album, Johnny Marr sourced a tribute he wrote for his daughter on “Hi Hello,” off his 2018 release Call the Comet, and “New Town Velocity,” his story of leaving school with his then-girlfriend, now wife Angie. “Who do I know who writes really simple, straightforward message rock songs?” Marr asked himself. The answer: John Lennon. Sifting through his library of Beatles and Lennon books for inspiration, Marr received an evening delivery—from Sean Lennon and Yoko Ono.
“I was like ‘okay, this is a sign,” laughs Marr, remembering how his musical manifestation was further sealed with their gift of the 50th-anniversary box set of the John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band album, along with a special inscription by Ono. “What she said in the card was that this music was coming from a time when she and John weren’t afraid to strip down and be simple,” shares Marr, “That was exactly what I was trying to do.”
Following the postal sign, Marr wrote “Human,” a heartfelt close to his fourth album Fever Dreams Pt. I – IV. “The thing about being a songwriter that a lot of people don’t realize is that you have to fit words to the tunes,” says Marr. “I used to write a lot of prose, even in The Smiths days, but it was just prose, it wasn’t songs. I find it much easier to get the feeling from the music first, so that’s what I did with ‘Human.’ Then, through persistence and some magic from Yoko, it all worked out.”
“Human” closes a musical spectrum, spanning strands of sounds Marr has been developing through his solo career. Balancing the vivid introspection with some hope for the external state of affairs, Fever Dreams pops open with the pulsing “Spirit, Power and Soul,” offers the anthemic “Tenement Time” and “Hideaway Girl,” and something more cinematic on “Receiver,” partially inspired by his work on the James Bond No Time to Die soundtrack.
Singing Don’t let the good slip away, on “Rubicon,” written during a particularly emotional low point, crosses more personal lines for Marr. “When I was younger in The Smiths days, Morrissey and myself we were so opposite and we’re even more opposite now, I guess, and there was this sort of polarization of ‘mr. misery,’ and this happy-go-lucky kid,” shares Marr. “But there’s a side to me that’s very introspective and you hear it in some of the early Smiths. In the midst, there was some very dramatic music that’s very evocative, and that was me getting that side of my personality out.”
Marr needed a narrative to complement the spoken word and abstract textures of “Rubicon,” and kept returning to a movie scene where a man or woman gets in their car and drives into the night as it’s raining to escape a relationship or the sadness of letting someone down. “I just put myself in that space to get me to the narrative,” says Marr. “I didn’t have to sing about my feelings, because they were in the music, and it would have been too much. It would have tipped me over the edge.”
Fever Dreams is sometimes hypnotic with the thuds of “Night and Day,” featuring Primal Scream’s Simone Marie, which relives the dormancy of life during a pandemic. Though Marr didn’t want a “pandemic album,” momentary glimpses slip in the hazier “All These Days.”
An unexpected benefit of the pandemic was time for Marr to present Fever Dreams differently, as four EPs prior to the full release. “It was a nice artistic part of the process, to work through parts one to four,” says Marr. “Every album I do, I say to my friend ‘next time, I’m going to do it in a different way,’ and he always says, ‘You’ve been saying that for 25 years.’”
Starting to write songs at 11 and 12, Marr insists nothing has changed when writing, but the idea of lyrics just appearing from the ether is not something he believes in. “Sure, if you’re fucking Smokey Robinson, but you’ve got to be totally okay with craft,” says Marr. “It’s like Picasso’s quote ‘inspiration does exist, but it has to find you working,’ You have to be okay with that being the foundation, then the magic happens absentmindedly when those critical faculties are switched off.”
Now 40 years since forming The Smiths and his other musical lives with Modest Mouse, The Cribs, and a solo career, songs continue to arrive from different places.
“I’ve been on this journey from being a kid that’s happy to be in rock music, but when something tells me that I need to dig deep, then that’s what I do,” says Marr. “Maybe it’s my working-class mentality, but I can’t imagine making albums in any way other than going ‘now is the time I need to make a record,’ so I’ve always done it that way. I’m not here waiting until I’m filled with inspiration or some cathartic thing happens in my life.”
Photo courtesy of Johnny Marr/BMG