Dave Woodhall talks to Wolverhampton singer-songwriter Scott Matthews.
You’ve had a lengthy recording career and your latest album, New Skin, has been out for a couple of months. Most reviewers have used words like ‘varied’ and ‘a departure’. Would that be a fair description?
“Absolutely, yes. It’s intentional because of the restrictions. The initial plan was very different, it was going to be recorded on my own in a church but that got locked down last March so I had to have a rapid rethink. It felt like an overnight decision; I’d just finished some music for a film which gave me a bit of a gee up into doing my own music again. Then I couldn’t do any remote recording with anybody else, so I had to think how I could make a record with the songs that had my blueprint.
“I feel these songs have been dressed up in a different way because of circumstances, and I’ve also learned a new set of tools. That’s the biggest surprise. I started to sample, make my own noises, play them back and there was all kinds of fumbling. I was recording a single line vocal and then playing it back on the keyboard so I could make a pattern of voices. I had a great time discovering a whole new sonic palate that I was directed into. If it wasn’t for Covid I probably wouldn’t have come up with this record.”
It’s interesting that you talk about having to learn new aspects of making music, because New Skin has an eighties vibe to it, and that was the time when technology was coming into music.
“It really was. It was the death of the drummer in some respects because of samplers and drum machines kicking in. I’m 45 so it was a nostalgic trip but almost like rediscovering the eighties and all those wonderful bands like the Cocteau Twins, This Mortal Coil, some David Sylvian stuff, all that ambient world music I was into. I played more keyboards then and it took me into the direction that I’ve been enjoying. You’ll notice the drums are intentionally straight as well, there’s no pads and fills. The old drum machines were meticulous about filling in but I wanted it straight ahead to make it sound as though there was some character.”
Even writing songs most have been a problem during lockdown, with no real outside influences to draw on.
“Fortunately I’d written about half of it before lockdown kicked in. I’d been rehearsing for twelve months, going down to the church every week, strumming away and listening to these walls echoing back. I did get inspired by different walls of sound, which is important. Listen to Brian Eno and we all hear something different in our minds. I think New Skin has got that quality, it’s more cinematic.”
You’ve played a few gigs and done some online shows, but now comes the big one – you’re touring with another singer from Wolverhampton.
“Robert Plant. I’ve been fortunate enough to know him since 2008 when he sang on my second album. He’s been super supportive over the years and he’s really taken to the new record. I can remember those days in the eighties when he was quite experimental himself.”
And he’s always changed, he’s always changing
“That kind of restlessness, he’s always searching for the next song or the next inspiration. It’s really refreshing to see that approach.”
The tour includes Brierley Hill Civic Hall on July 24th and Dudley Town Hall. They’re not exactly the sort of venues that come to mind when you think of one of the all-time greats.
“It’s great that he’s trying to support the local venues. There’s been a massive struggle to exist and we can only hope they can stay in business and get bums on seats. In the Midlands we’ve got some great venues. One of my favourites is the Newhampton Arts Centre where Chris Brown puts on some great music. I had some fantastic nights at Birmingham Town Hall, we’re playing there on August 2nd. I got a standing ovation there once, which was mindblowing. It’s going to be pretty surreal to play to an audience again.”
A lot of people must now know Robert not as the rock god from Led Zeppelin but as this nice, approachable guy who does play the small venues.
“That’s right. Funny isn’t it? I read something about how when he looks at himself as a 21 year old he doesn’t know that kid. It was all guns blazing back then, I suppose. You look back at that time when you were a kid, Jimmy Page’s guitar playing playing, the thunder of John Bonham. It must have been an inspirational time to have all that adrenaline going through your body and then writing music. It must have been electrifying.”
At least you won’t have an audience expecting that full-on Zeppelin sound now.
“I don’t know. I was with him and Alison Kraus on the Raising Sands tour in 2008 and that was pretty wild. But obviously his voice has changed, like Johnny Cash’s did, and there’s a baritone quality to him now, which is fascinating when you hear Raising Sands.”
Was that look into the future for you?
“I was playing a festival in Ireland and Roy Harper was there watching and afterwards he said ‘A word of advice – write songs you can sing when you’re in your sixties’. Make sure the keys are smack on so you can hit the pitches and the notes. When you hear the Zeppelin O2 shows you can tell they had to drop the key a few times. But they pulled it off an he’s going to get inspired by these shows again with some great musicians in the Saving Grace band.”
Scott Matthews’ album New Skin is out now and he begins the Robert Plant Saving Grace tour tonight. More information can be found at scottmatthews.co.uk.