When Mark Morriss pays his annual Christmas visit to the city he can only hope – given that it’s indoors – that it will be a more pleasant performance experience for him than last time he was here.
Mark was here with his band, Britpop heroes The Bluetones for the final day of Victorious Festival, or as the singer-songwriter puts it: ‘The day that washed away…’
With gale force winds and practically horizontal rain for the early part of that Sunday, several stages were called off. But the main stage, where the band were due to play, was one of those kept going.
‘It was surreal,’ Mark recalls. ‘It was a situation where in all honesty, it wasn’t the best for anybody there. The crowd aren’t getting much, and the bands aren’t able to give that much – the stage was under an inch of water - that’s why we we’re all stuck playing in a corner – it was the only dry area of the stage. The wind was blowing in like anything.
‘It wouldn’t have been my choice to go out there.’
But later this month he’s back on drier ground at The Wedge for his Happy Holidays gig, where he performs songs from the band’s back catalogue and his own solo work. And this year marks 10 years since the first one, which used to be based at The Cellars in Eastney, until its closure in summer 2015.
‘It’s become quite a thing hasn’t it? Obviously we’ve moved it on from The Cellars – I drove past there recently – that was pretty depressing, it breaks your heart.’ The pub venue has since been converted into flats.
‘It’s a different sort of crowd I get coming to these shows now, it’s become its own thing – a separate entity, the Christmas show. This is the only Christmas show I do with any regularity – it’s the only show I’ve done with any regularity! But that’s all down to Stef [Arnold, the promoter], she’s the one who’s kept it going, it was her brainchild.’
The shows have become renowned for Mark’s shaggy dog stories and some interesting choices of cover songs. Last year the audience was treated to East 17’s 1994 Christmas number one Stay Another Day joined by his regular supporting foil, local solo act Andrew Foster.
‘It sticks in the memory, for better or for worse,’ Mark laughs. ‘Of course there will be a Christmas cover version again this year, it would be a missed opportunity not to.
‘Good old Fozzy’s very amenable – I can tell him what I want and he learns it very quickly.’
It’s been a little while since Mark released an album to the general public. He recorded a new album, Look Up in 2017, which was released via an online pledge campaign, and he had planned to get a conventional release for it this year, but this was derailed by events in his private life.
‘It will come out at some point,’ he promises. ‘It just hasn’t happened yet. I lost my focus on a few things for a while.
‘I have been working on other music since then, but I’m not sure what I’m going to do with it yet.’
He has however been kept busy with another project – he writes and performs the music for the audiobooks of comic, actor and writer David Walliams’ mega-hit children’s books.
It has led to his music being available through some outlets he’s not used to.
‘That’s funny. I was at my friend’s house to watch the football match on his giant television the other week. Now he’s a Daily Mail reader, and on the table was a copy of a CD the Daily Mail had given away with the previous day’s paper [Walliam’s World’s Worst Children] – and it featured my music. I was free with the Daily Mail – I was a bit upset to find that one out!
‘I’ve done all of his audiobooks since the first one – that’s been 10 years too, that started in 2008.
‘I’ve known David for a long time, for about 20 years. When he got the book deal and they wanted to do the audiobooks, he asked me if I would care to do the music for them, the theme music and stuff like that. It’s something I enjoy, it’s so different from making music for myself – it’s like playing with all of your toys.
‘He’s become quite a phenomenon.
He’s also been working with charity that aims to improve mental health through music called Rethink Your Mind.
‘I was approached by them about four years ago. Initially it was because a group of musicians wanted to get their music out to mental health wards, psychiatric wards at different health trusts around the country.They wanted me to help just as a mentor with their songwriting, a coach for their songwriting and their arrangements, just to run my ear past it and give them my thoughts.
‘Over the years I’ve got more closely involved and started doing some recording with them and doing some shows for them.
‘It’s basically one man’s vision, Pete Hirst, who put the whole thing together. He’s been on the other side – he’s experienced life in a psychiatric ward as a young man. He found that music was a great comfort and a great leveller – it brought him out of himself, and it brought others in the ward out of themselves. It was therapy through music, and he’s very passionate about it.
‘He’s got it to the stage now where they’re regularly taking it around wards and health trusts are recognising the benefits of the work that they’re doing. After about four years of struggle, he’s achieved something – his vision has come to fruition.
‘And it works. Music taps into a part of our brain which we can’t really deny or fight – it’s something very primal and very childlike that brings people together.
‘It’s the first step on the path to healing themselves.’
And as ever (worth bearing in mind for that Bluetones’ fan in your life you haven’t yet bought a Christmas present for...), Mark is offering fans the chance to buy a handwritten lyric to any one of his songs. It's something that’s become increasingly popular for artists to offer in recent years.
‘I started it! I’ve had a few other artists get in touch and asked me if I minded if they do it as well. That’s very sweet of you to ask, and yes, I do mind,’ he laughs. ‘Send me your lyrics and I’ll write them!
‘I do it all year round, but at Christmas people like to give them as gifts.
‘The rare songs are more challenging, I find myself going online to reference my own lyrics and to make sure I get them in the right order.’
‘The main struggle is my failing eyesight. Since I started doing this about four years ago, it’s been like a chart of my declining vision – every Christmas when I start getting the orders in I’ve noticed how much harder it is than last year!’
The Wedgewood Rooms, Southsea
Sunday, December 23