Since the release of 2006’s sleeper hit ‘Elusive’ and debut album ‘Passing Stranger’, Scott Matthews has carved a distinguished yet somewhat understated path through the UK music scene. His compelling voice, fraught with emotion and delicacy, has won him fans of all ages, yet the down-to-earth Wolverhampton-born guitarist would be the last to congratulate himself on his vocal talent. With three albums now to his name and work beginning on a fourth, Circulation caught up with Matthews during the York leg of his current tour to ask about the direction in which his music, and his industry, is going.
Have you had any particular inspirations when writing your new album ‘What the Night Delivers’?
Not really, it’s just been a natural progression after five or six years making records. I can look back on the first record and think of frantic feelings and insecurities, I wasn’t really sure where I wanted to go. The second was quite specific and I felt it had a really strong identity and was a step up from the first. This third one just feels like a natural progression of everything I’ve learnt over the last few years now, and I’ve been trying to play to my strengths and weakness like you do naturally.
You gave a recent interview in York Vision in which you said something similar, and to me ‘What the Night Delivers’ sounds gentler and subtler overall to your previous albums. Is there any truth in that?
With ‘Elsewhere’ I was conscious of trying to do something that was different to that first record so it wasn’t going to pigeonhole me easily. So I intentionally turned things up a bit and got some electric guitars going on, but still coupled with the subtle stuff as well. I think it was more of a words-driven record. ‘What the Night Delivers’ plays on the strengths of that, but also creating some pure mood, something I can imagine driving in the night to. Something that doesn’t distract you too much by going super diverse, and tries to keep it together from start to finish. Something that has a very definite identity to it. I guess also it was just the songs I was writing at the time; there’s one song on there called ‘Myself Again’ that was one of the first songs I ever wrote back in 2002, and I finally got it right on this one, it felt like it was in its rightful place. A couple I didn’t quite finish for the ‘Passing Stranger’ sessions, which just feel right on this one. I’ve been fortunate enough to juggle the certain songs I’ve got and hold stuff back. Who knows, the fourth record might have something even more diverse. I think you learn so much about the songs from being on the road as well. In an ideal world I’d like to write the songs and then road test them for six months just to get a reaction, and then come into an album. But with these promotion cycles you don’t really get the flexibility to do that. Getting something from the audience is absolutely integral to getting a good night as well, and what people are getting from the music rubs off on your ideas. It’s a good gauge of how good the song is, I reckon. I’m in the process of trawling through old Dictaphone tapes at the minute, stuff from as far back as 2003 to ideas that have come up on the road. I’m trying to dissect everything and make something of it. What’s been interesting on this third record is that we’ve cranked things up a bit on the outros of songs live, wheareas there’s quite a subtlety on the actual recording of it.
You also mentioned that 80% of your songs are written on the guitar, and you’ve been commended for your intricate playing, but you also have a mesmerising voice. Has your singing style been developed over a long period of time? Where do you start from when writing lyrics?
I still don’t feel the desire to sing naturally. I’m still trying to work out exactly what’s suited to me, and the strengths and weaknesses in my voice. There’s some stuff I’ve done in the past that I think ‘that’s a bit weird there, I won’t do that again’. I guess you just naturally tailor your voice to what works. You get somebody like Tom Waits, who has so many voices to his repertoire that you start to ask the question ‘Who’s the real Tom Waits?” I think that could go against you sometimes, but personally I think I’ve weeded out lots of the not-so-good bits. Of late it’s been more of another way of expressing myself than just a guitar, so naturally you just spill that out. But starting to write words is another thing altogether, man, that’s where you get all kinds of inspiration. I do a lot of reading. Films, and just generally life as well, see what that throws up. I’m definitely one of these people watchers as well. There was a B-side to ‘Elusive’ called ‘The Wasp and the Jar’ – even now I still see that character that I wrote about and they’re in the same state. I can just see him again, it’s weird. I’ll get a really interesting couplet or something, a cool little turn of phrase, and sit with that for a long time before I do anything about it. I’ll write lots of nonsensical stuff most of the time, then suddenly one little line will just tie it all together. With the new album, the title came and gave a real focus for everything that was unfinished. Having a deadline for something creative is good for me as well.
You use an eclectic range of instruments throughout your albums – tabla, sitar, theremin etc…
I want to create something that sounds a bit unusual. I’m still a bit lazy when researching instruments. I love the simplicity of Bob Dylan, who can say exactly what he needs to with a guitar and a voice, but I also love having these extra ideas, a bit of ear candy, creating this sonic landscape… I think there’s somewhere in the middle where I sit quite comfortably. I’m always keen to find out what happens when you put this harmonium through the spring reverb and do something extra weird with it. I like re-amping things and sending the signal out through corridors and stuff. If someone canplay it on their car stereo or whatever and just get something from it, man, that’s what it’s all about. I kinda see it as job done then. Classic escapism. That’s how I see gigs as well. We all have an hour and half where we just forget the world, man, for a bit. Sounds are a big part of that, cause you get a vibe from them. For my fourth record, I want to create something that you can get something from after the first ten seconds. I like making two-minute songs with pop sensibilities, but you can’t beat the odd eight-minute wig-out, can you? Just with a super landscape that’s going anywhere. I’m still finding a balance, I think that’s where the exploring comes in when it comes to sounds.
How do you feel about the label ‘singer-songwriter’?
There are all kind of weirdo genres out there at the minute – I think ‘sadcore’ is the new one or something, don’t know where that’s come from… But I guess I’m a singer and I write songs, so you can put it together if you want. Some of my favourite artists were billed as singer-songwriters, John Martyn, Elliot Smith… you look at your iTunes genres, you’ve got to put something there, haven’t you?
It’s been five years since ‘Passing Stranger’ was released. How do you feel that the industry’s changed since then?
Massively. It’s deteriorated rapidly. I think record sales are at an all-time low. It’s a funny time to be in the industry, I think everyone’s looking for different ways to promote themselves and for where they fit. The internet’s been a bit weird for me, as well. I’m still a bit old school, you can’t beat word of mouth and just doing a good gig, man. You look at someone like Joanna Newsom who doesn’t get any radio exposure at all, yet she’s doing the business live cause she’s a fantastic artist… It’s hard to sustain where you are. As long as people get to hear the music… you’re looking to inspire some reaction from somebody, and whatever we’ve gotta do to make that happen, I’ll do, man. Thankfully I’ve been able to make a third record, and release it on an independent label. I’ve always had a creative decision on anything I want to do, so I’ve got to be grateful in that respect. Artistically I can’t ask for any more than that.
Do you think some people don’t have that sort of freedom?
I think some get steered towards a certain direction. When you start writing knowing it’s gonna tick the box for a radio plug, you might as well pack it in, I reckon. We’re drawing our little army up of followers, and I get the impression that everyone that turns up are loyal fans and I couldn’t ask for anything else.
Any advice for any budding guitar-playing singers?
The old cliché, man, do exactly what you believe in and don’t get swayed too easily by anything. The internet’s great for creating a mini-buzz now, and there are no rules. Unsigned is a great position to be in because you can get music out there easily, and that’s all you can ask isn’t it? With the way technology’s developed as well, you can get people listening and get feedback quickly. Having somebody that believes in it really makes a difference as well. If you can get those people on board, man, it just spurs you on to take it to the next level.By Benedick Gibson