Johnny Marr is touring after the release of his album ‘The Messenger.’
He’s one of the world’s most employable guitarists, as well as one of our most distinct songwriters. But because Johnny Marr has spent most of the 26 years since the breakup of his beloved band the Smiths contributing to projects rather than dominating them, some have seen him as an underachiever.
“Believe me, I haven’t been just marking time all these years,” says Marr, 50. “People who’ve worked with me know whatever project I’m in, I’m in full-on.”
And those projects haven’t exactly been low-profile. Since the collapse of the Smiths, Marr has collaborated with the Pretenders, Talking Heads, Pet Shop Boys, Modest Mouse and others. He also co-led the hit band Electronic with New Order’s Bernard Sumner in the 1990s and spirited the short-lived act the Healers in 2003.
But only this year did Marr do what many hoped he would for eons — release a solo CD. The new release finally puts front and center his bright guitar parts and clean songwriting. Titled “The Messenger,” the disc came with a tour during which, for the first time in decades, Marr performed songs from the sacred Smiths catalogue.
On Saturday, he’ll bring that show back to Webster Hall.
When he last played the city at Irving Plaza in May, Marr offered no fewer than five Smiths classics. Why allow these previously banned songs just now?
“Because my band plays them so well,” Marr replies. “Then there’s the joy of making everyone happy — and making myself happy, too.”
Even so, the guitarist can be defensive when dealing with his legacy. Before our interview, Marr’s publicist warned me not to ask if the Smiths will ever reunite, or about Marr’s thoughts on the acidic new autobiography from his co-leader of that storied band, Morrissey. The book, published last month in the U.K., won’t come out in the U.S. until early December, but advance word says it’s not at all friendly to the other Smiths.
Despite warnings, I asked Marr about his feelings on the book. “I haven’t read it,” he says. “I’ve got other stuff going on.”
But surely he’s heard it’s hostile to him. “It’s not a big deal,” he says. “Good luck to him.”
The brilliance of Marr’s new music makes the high road easier to take. In his classic style, the guitars jangle around the tune, stitching fine elaborations while adding nuance to the rhythm. The songs show just how many textures and hues his axe can command. Better, Marr somehow found a firmer voice to sing them with. It’s a huge improvement over his wobbly work with the Healers a decade ago. Marr credits the change to “learning to write for my voice, and also knowing what kind of singer I wanted to be.”
That is an exuberant kind, suited to the rousing material. “This isn’t an album for kicking back,” Marr says. “It’s about energy.”
He has long favored a high-spirited style. But it’s odd that it took so many years for him to harness that mood for a solo CD. Marr says he didn’t feel a burning need to do one. He just found he had time between projects and “started getting all these ideas that led me into the studio. I followed where the music took me.”
One place the music took him was back to his native Manchester. For the previous five years he’d been living in Portland, Ore., drawn there by his work with Modest Mouse. He didn’t return to the U.K. out of nostalgia. “I learned my musical values there,” he says. “And I wanted to sharpen those.”
While Marr recorded the CD as a one-man band, he has since formed the group he’s now touring with. Marr expects to keep that band for a future CD, but don’t look for him to commit to one thing for too long. He’s already writing songs with Hans Zimmer for an upcoming “Spider-Man” movie, and is open to wherever inspiration and opportunity take him.
“I was always in different bands before the Smiths,” Marr says. “I always wanted to go where I can learn and do the best job I could until the flame dimmed. Then I go wherever I can keep that flame going. I just carry on.”
Sat., 8 p.m.
Kanye West’s show is coming to Barclays Center and Madison Square Garden.
LIVE FROM NEW YORK:
Tues. and Wed., Barclays Center; Sat. and Sun, the Garden; all 8 p.m.
Kanye’s tour has been plagued by technical problems, but hopefully Yeesuz will rise again for these local dates. If so, expect him to show up ready to rant and rage.
Thurs., 8 p.m.
The best power-pop melodists in the last 20 years will spin their classic tunes here — and some fine new ones, too.
Wed., 8 p.m.
Neo-soul singer Leela James has lately connected to the genre’s original reference point, delivering the songs of Etta James with her own hip-hop spin.