Johnny Marr Turns 'Messenger' For Long-Overdue Solo Debut

On the inevitible Smiths-reunion questions: "I learned to shake it off a long time ago. I'm from Manchester, mate; I'm used to shaking stuff off."

After playing in some groundbreaking bands -- starting with the Smiths and including Electronic, The The, Modest Mouse and the Cribs -- and collaborating with the likes of Paul McCartney, Bryan Ferry, Beck, Pet Shop Boys, Beck, Oasis, Pearl Jam and seemingly a zillion others, Johnny Marr is finally stepping out, at the age of 49, on his own. His first solo album, "The Messenger," comes out Feb. 26. What took so frickin' long?

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"The time just seemed right now," Marr tells Billboard. "I've really enjoyed everything I've done so far. All the collaborations have been great. I just think that after the last few years of a couple of bands and touring, touring, touring, and then doing that movie soundtrack (for 'Inception'), I was able to get into a different sort of frame of mind. I guess the important thing is I built up a lot of ideas of what I wanted to say and my impression of how I wanted it to sound. All these things just fell into place at the right time, I guess."

Marr, who's returned to the U.K. last year after living for a time in Portland, Ore., co-produced "The Messenger" with Doviak, recording in his native Manchester and Berlin with bassist Max James and drummer Jack Mitchell as well as Marr's son Nile and daughter Sonny contributing to several tracks. The goal, he explains, was "to make a record to be played like a live band," and while some of the songs are pointed -- including observations about modern technology in "I Want the Heartbeat" and "World Starts Attack" -- it's telling that the album's most autobiographical track, "New Town Velocity," was the last thing he wrote for it.

"I didn't have a burning ambition to bear my soul as a solo artist," Marr says. "I think it's almost ironic that it sounds like 12 singles. I had this idea in my mind about expressing myself in a way that was me at my (musical) home base, really. It wasn't that I wanted to go backwards or get nostalgic or return to my roots, but I found myself playing and thinking in a way that was not unlike the way I did it when I first started out. I stripped away my usual considerations about experiments and going off in tangents and just started to write songs really quickly."

Marr says that doing "The Messenger" "got me on a roll to make another one," thought he plans to give this album its due first. Having received an NME Godlike Genius honor, Marr will take his band and his signature Fender Jaguar guitar on the road starting March 10 in the U.K. and coming to North America in April, which will include two shows at the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival. Marr says fans can expect to hear not only "The Messenger" but songs from throughout his career.

"There's quite a lot of old songs that I like to sing now that just make for a good feeling in a show," he says. "I feel like I've earned the right to look back at those songs, some I've done with Electronic, some I've done with The The, some of the Smiths, of course. If I like to sing them and I believe it just sounds good for the five or six minutes I'm singing them, there you go. They're there to be sung. But it's not like I'm someone who'd propping up their live show with their old stuff. I can play the whole 'Messenger' album live, and it sounds good."

Inevitably a new spate of Smiths reunion rumors will be coming down the pike as well, especially with the 30th anniversary of the group's first album coming next year. But Marr isn't biting. "It comes every 16 days or so, you know?" he says. "I learned to shake it off a long time ago. I'm from Manchester, mate; I'm used to shaking stuff off."