Iain Matthews: Driven by ‘obscurity’
May 1, 2014
Fans of Fairport Convention and Richard Thompson will have a very special opportunity to see Thompson in a solo acoustic show in Grass Valley, with former Fairport Convention bandmate Iain Matthews opening. However, that will be limited to the fans who jumped on early ticket sales. The show is already sold out.
Named by Rolling Stone Magazine as one of the Top 20 Guitarists of All Time, Thompson is also one of the world’s most critically acclaimed and prolific songwriters.
Having co-founded groundbreaking group Fairport Convention as a teenager in the 1960s, Thompson and his mates virtually invented British folk rock. By the age of 21, he left the band to pursue his own career.
Matthews has an enviable musical legacy spanning 45 years, beginning as a founding member of Fairport Convention.
Since then, he has put out some 40 recordings as a soloist and with bands such as Matthews Southern Comfort and Plainsong, reaching the Billboard top charts on numerous occasions.
Matthews spoke to The Union via email about Fairport Convention, his career and his new album while on the road in Holland.
TK: It would seem you were having a bit of self-deprecating fun by naming your new album “The Art of Obscurity.” Please tell me how you decided on that as the title and what it means for you.
IM: It’s a half truth. Part fact, part fun. In the past 20 years, I’ve seen my album sales decreasing to quite small numbers.
I mean, you have to keep reminding yourself that the reason you do this, is because of that deep, lasting love affair with music.
That’s how it all began for me and it has to be the only touchstone, otherwise, you’ll go crazy wondering what you’re doing wrong.
TK: Please describe the process of making “Art of Obscurity.”
IM: I had a thought last spring, that I’d been somewhat neglecting my roots. I got into my jazz mode about six or seven years ago and everything else fell by the wayside, in my quest to push myself in a fresh direction. I’d become so fascinated by my duo work.
Learning to interpret myself in a new way, that nothing else mattered. One day, I realized I hadn’t made an Iain Matthews solo album for 11 years. I immediately began to formulate songs and make plans to record.
My first thought was that I wanted to work again with producer Bradley Kopp. He made me a deal I couldn’t refuse and within two months, with help from Egbert Derix, my co-writer, I had 12 songs and a plane ticket. I’ve always been quite swift in the studio.
Brad and I decided that three weeks would be enough time and we finished mixing with two days to spare.
The sequencing was interesting. Brad and I took a ride in his car and put the mixes on shuffle, on his car stereo. God’s jukebox kicked in and the sequence that came out of the speakers felt absolutely perfect and that’s what we used.
TK: I always enjoy getting a long-time working musician’s perspective on the “sea change” that’s happened in the music industry over the last decade. What do you think the industry will look like moving forward?
IM: I find it difficult to believe that there will even be a recognizable industry in 10 years time. It’s already changed so much. Record companies funneling down to a couple of major organizations. Record stores all but extinct. It’s like the beast that ate its own tail.
I’m fortunate, because the hit factor has never been my motivating force. I’ve been extremely lucky along the way, by having some mediocre success. Which for me has given my career longevity it may not otherwise have had. I don’t really feel part of the music business. That’s a whole other existence.
TK: I would assume you’ve probably been asked every question imaginable regarding your time in Fairport Convention. What can you tell me that might come as a surprise to our readers and fans of the band?
IM: Yes, it’s amazing how much of my advancement has been due to my fragile tenure in that band. I don’t think there are any of those stones left unturned. But, you know what … I wouldn’t have had it any other way. There is a reason … turn, turn turn.
TK: Having you and Richard Thompson in town together seems a particularly special event. Please describe your long relationship with him; will you be sharing the stage the night you’re both in Grass Valley?
IM: Richard and I have grown closer over the years, regardless of how often we see each other.
It’s more, again, about realizing why we do what we do and how many mountains we try to move to reach our objective.
I think Richard Thompson and I have a healthy, deep-seated respect for each other’s motives. It will be great to see the lad again and we’d be silly to not share at least a song.
TK: How does the songwriting process work for you? How has it changed over the course of your career?
IM: I’ve always been more a word, than a melody man. The musical side of writing has been a constant struggle for me. It was a significant relief for me to meet Egbert and have him carry that load. Together, we’ve written some fine songs, these past few years.
TK: Listening to “The Art of Obscurity,” I was particularly drawn to the tune “Music” and the way you went about lyrically describing your complex relationship to an art form that obviously means so much to you.
IM: I didn’t write that song. I know it sounds like one of mine and I guess that’s why it caught my ear. It was written by my son-in-law. My daughter Darcy’s husband, Nemo Jones.
You’re not the first to presume it’s mine. The moment I heard him play it, eight years ago, I knew I had to record it. It spoke to my soul. Said so eloquently all the things I feel about this life I lead.
It is a truly great piece of writing. As is his entire album, “ Super Fruity.”
TK: In some ways, “The Art of Obscurity” seems as if you’re saying goodbye. Is that how you feel? Does a songwriter like yourself ever reach a point where he is ready to release the muse?
IM: I’m not really sure what it is. I do feel a slackening of pace. There are still a couple things I have to do.
As far as a solo career goes, I think this is probably the last chapter.
It’s always quite precarious saying these things. Historically they usually come back to bite me firmly in the ass.
Tom Kellar is a freelance writer in Grass Valley.