Cover photo © 2023 Laura Carbone
Steve Marriner seems to be everywhere lately. Whether it’s joining Canadian Blues-rocker Colin James, playing with his own band, MonkeyJunk, or featured by himself as a solo guest artist, you are likely to see him at major blues festivals, on music cruises, and at the Big Blues Bender.
Marriner is instantly recognizable in Canada, as he has repeatedly won Maple Blues Awards as Harmonica Player of the Year, and his band, MonkeyJunk, won Juno Awards in 2012 and 2018 for Blues Album of the Year. But his popularity in the United States is also spreading rapidly, and fans want to know more about this extremely talented multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and producer, who also has a great singing voice. Blues Blast Magazine had the opportunity to catch up with Marriner in-between his performances at the Big Blues Bender.
Marriner first caught the blues “bug” when he saw the Blues Brothers movie just before his eleventh birthday and came away from the film with a desire to play the harmonica. He received a harmonica for his next birthday and was fortunate enough to be able to study with Larry “The Bird” Mootham for two years. Then, when Marriner was fourteen, he won the Ottawa Blues Harp Blow-Off Battle.
“At age twelve I started sitting in with Larry’s band. It was super fun, and it was the beginning of a very long, deep love affair I have with the blues. I did a lot of homework, listening to primarily Chicago blues at first. I researched Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, James Cotton—all the heroes. I spent my entire teen years listening to blues and playing.”
Marriner’s musical talent is evident not only on the harmonica, but on both acoustic and electric guitar, upright and electric bass, piano, and vocals as well.
“Harmonica was my first love and I really do enjoy playing it, but at some point, I wanted to know how the whole picture worked rather than just one part of it. I found that learning to play guitar helped me with my understanding of the music. I never had formal instruction on the other instruments but learned from watching others. For example, I played with Johnny Russell, who was a great piano player, so I watched his hands, and he showed me a bit, and I started to learn a bit about blues piano. And Tony D (Tony Diteodoro from MonkeyJunk) taught me a lifetime worth of guitar.
“I was such a sponge at that time—I wanted to know about everything. I’ve played with great musicians, and everyone is very generous and happy to share their knowledge. It helps to understand what their role is. It is like a conductor knowing how to play every instrument. I believe it also helped my writing. Learning the other instruments helped my understanding of music as a whole. Plus, I’ve never been a fan of playing harmonica just because I can. I like to serve the song. Just because I can rip harp solos doesn’t mean I should, where they don’t belong, according to me. Playing various instruments helps me create the music I want to create.”
Marriner has played, and continues to play, with several bands. In 2000, he began recording and touring with the JW-Jones Blues Band, and from 2004 until 2007 he toured with Harry Manx. He and Manx released an album together in 2019 titled Hell Bound for Heaven. In 2008, Marriner formed the very popular band, MonkeyJunk with Tony D and Matt Sobb. Marriner currently plays with MonkeyJunk, with the Colin James Band, and as a solo artist.
“Manx and I did a bunch of gigs in 2019, but then everything shut down. He’s been touring solo recently and his son accompanies him. He’s one of my closest friends and we still talk all the time, and we threaten to make another recording one day. I’ve been really fortunate how the scheduling with the other bands has worked out, with so few conflicts. MonkeyJunk’s and Colin’s schedules have just magically worked around each other, and I fill in any gaps with solo gigs. Matt and Tony are angels and let me go do my own thing. It keeps things fresh and keeps me interested.
“Sometimes we have great luck where MonkeyJunk plays the same festival as the Colin James Band, so I can double-dip. Colin’s camp has been very accommodating and has allowed us to open for their tour. It’s a good deal for MonkeyJunk because it means we get to play in bigger rooms to more people and build our audience.”
Marriner recently released his second solo album, which has a very inspirational title: Hope Dies Last. This album explores a wide range of musical styles and includes fifteen other musicians and some magnificent harmonies with female guest background singers.
“Women’s voices are amazing, and I had Samantha Martin, Mwansa Mwansa, Roxanne Potvin, and Moa Blucher on the album, which is something I don’t often get to have when I’m doing a live performance. I’ve been a fan of so many different genres of music along with the blues and always noticed when artists are singing harmonies.
“I think it’s one of the most moving things in music. I’ve always been drawn to the harmonies of gospel singers, like The Staple Singers. That seems less of a thing in the blues, but I tend to explore it more and more. I love vocal arrangements. But I couldn’t sing for shit as a kid. I was kicked out of choir and encouraged to do arts and crafts instead. I didn’t learn to sing until I was 15 and started playing with JW-Jones, and he said I had to sing.”
Hope Dies Last, like Hell Bound for Heaven, was released on Holger Petersen’s label, Stony Plain Records.
“Stony Plain is great, and Holger may be the only person in the entire music industry who has done everything he said he would, and if he can’t do it, he won’t say he will do it. There is so much fickleness and sometimes there are shady characters in this industry, but Holger is one of the truly great people in the business. And he still has this childlike love affair with music and the musicians. Every time we hang out, I hear a new epic story about him and other artists—everyone knows him. And he is a huge champion for MonkeyJunk.”
Petersen spoke equally highly of Marriner noting, “Steve has been on Canada’s blues radar since he was a teenager. He has it all; a multi-instrumentalist, a distinctive, soulful singer and songwriter, and an imaginative producer. He’s a pleasure to work with and a great friend.”
Marriner is a gifted songwriter, and frequently fans approach him to tell him how meaningful his original songs are to them. A few songs seem to stand out as particularly powerful, such as “Hell Bound for Heaven,” which notes “Tired of dragging these old bones around. Love and loss have worn my body down. The sun is low and fading from the sky. Close my eyes and let my spirit fly.”
“That song is one of my favorites I have ever written, and everyone seems to respond well to it. That’s usually not for me to decide. Sometimes you feel strongly about a song but it’s not the one that resonates with the audience. That’s the funny thing about your relationship with your own music—you don’t get to control how it’s perceived.
“Anyway, I wrote that song when I was working with Harry Manx, we were supposed to show up with six songs each, but I only had two. I had this musical progression that I was playing, and he said his mother had just passed away and he said she had gotten tired of dragging those bones around. So, I quickly scribbled some lyrics and used those words, ‘tired of dragging these old bones around.’ My grandmother was also close to death at that point, and I had that on my mind, and that song became one of my favorites.
“The title song from my latest album, Hope Dies Last was a line I had held onto for a long time. I was going to use it in another song I intended to write, but it never came together. Then the line finally found a home. We were right in the middle of the pandemic, and I felt like I wanted people to know that even if everything goes to shit, we still have hope. Sometimes that’s all you have but it can be enough to keep you going.”
Marriner’s composition, “Somethin’, Somethin,’” is another powerful song that audiences find quite moving. That song was inspired by the homeless people that Marriner observed while living in Toronto. It notes, “I’ve got somethin’ somethin’ inside my head. Somethin’ that’s telling me it should be me instead. Look inside my weary soul and you will see. I’ve got somethin’ somethin’ that’s wrong with me. My mind has enslaved me. I need someone to save me.”
“I’ve always wanted it to be ok to discuss mental health openly. I think, more and more, we’re getting there as a society. But it’s still stigmatized. People are afraid of what they don’t understand. Whether we want to admit it or not, everyone has times when they struggle or have a bout of depression. The world is a crazy place and we’re not made of stone. You realize some people just had a couple of things not go their way and the bottom falls out. It’s a slippery slope and they’re not far from you.
“Two years ago, I had lost a brother-in-law to suicide. I was playing a solo show at the Cabaret and about to go into that song and I just lost my shit and started crying on stage. The room was so silent and then I realized that everyone else was crying too. Afterwards I had about 20 people lined up wanting to tell me about their experiences. A couple had lost their daughter to suicide and an older African American man told me that his father never let him cry and seeing me on stage let him know that it’s ok.
“It’s a very powerful thing. A lot of parents teach us to keep a stiff upper lip and swallow it. I would like to be part of something that shows that it’s OK to feel and show your feelings. When I play with a band I like to get people dancing. But when I play solo shows, I try to hit people in the heart and maybe I can be that emotionally vulnerable guy so other people know it’s OK. If my music can be a vehicle to heal people, then that is the best possible outcome for me.”
Marriner made good use of his time off during the pandemic and taught himself sound engineering.
“I’ve been producing records for a long time, but before it was always with an engineer, mainly Ken Friesen. But during the pandemic I found it was a really good time to dive into a project I had wanted to do for so long. And when I get interested in something, I really get into it. I’ve always been an all-or-none type of character. So, I just poured myself into learning all about engineering. I’d spend all day trying to get a good guitar sound or all day trying to get the piano or vocal sound I wanted. I would spend weeks and weeks, all day trying to get one sound. I also watched YouTube videos and made calls to engineers. That was my big pandemic project.”
Marriner and Jimmy Bowskill have a recording studio near Toronto called The Ganaraska Recording Company, named for the river that runs through the town. The duo has produced many records for other artists.
“Jimmy and I moved the studio into this wicked old farmhouse, with bedrooms upstairs. And we have a lot of vintage equipment. We have vintage microphones and equipment that can help capture the sound we want, and Jimmy has amazing vintage guitars. We have an Ampex 351 mono tape machine, like the one used at Sun Records, with five microphones and five channels. So, we’re set up to make music in a more traditional way than a lot of modern recording studios. It’s all live off the floor, and it sounds like 1956. Even the aesthetic of the place lends to the vintage sound.
“We have made close to forty records of all different genres. We will get a solo artist to come, and we have a house band that is killer. Jimmy and I work together on engineering. We work very quickly and well together. He has the brightest mind of anyone I’ve ever met in the music industry. He is lesser known in the States, but he is so fabulously talented. My talent is my ear. I have perfect pitch. I didn’t realize that at first. In my teens band members would tell me the key the song was going to be in, and I thought they were being condescending. I thought everyone could hear the key.”
Marriner hopes to continue to produce albums for other artists, especially now that he plans to tour a bit less, given that he and his fiancée, Jacquie, are expecting their first child.
“We just found out that it’s going to be a girl. We’ve been together for eight years and have been engaged for the past two years. We wrote the song “Enough” together. It was about a breakup we had for a couple of months. But she has a whole notebook of lyrics that we need to mine through, and we fully intend on doing more writing together. She has incredibly keen ears and is sort of my compass for what is cool. She has just enough knowledge about music, but not too much that she is biased. She is a great sounding-board.
“And I am ready to tour less for a while. I’m lucky that I don’t have to do every gig just because it’s offered to me. And I’m grateful that now my phone actually rings– I don’t have to hunt quite as hard and can be selective. I want to be home more now that we are expecting a child, and plan to focus on producing for other artists. I just finished producing a record for one of Canada’s most senior statesmen, Big Dave McLean. He’s been playing blues in Canada since the early 1970s and was friends with Muddy Waters. I had always wanted to produce a record for him, and it’s almost done, so that’s exciting for me. He has been a hero of mine for a long time, but I always felt that his past recordings have never quite done him justice. We have a good capture of what he is, and we’re excited for people to hear it. We’re also producing David Gogo’s next record, which we’ll start in February.”
Fans can only hope that the birth of his child doesn’t lead to Marriner limiting his touring too extensively, as they would certainly miss seeing this phenomenal musician perform live. You can learn more about Steve Marriner, including seeing his tour dates, at www.stevemarriner.com.