Every so often, a musician does something so stylistically off-the-wall that you can’t help but sit up, take notice, and ask questions. Such was the case the first time I heard English artist Matt Steady. As you can read in my review of his debut album, I was more or less awed by how masterfully he’s able to capture and synthesize numerous musical styles into his own brand of virtuoso excellence. Now Matt’s back to talk a bit about what makes his musicianship what it is.
Q1: There’s a lot about your music that sounds quintessentially American, both stylistically and lyrically. That combination of rock, blues, and folk isn’t something I would naturally associate with Britain. How did these influences find their way into your work?
I think my blues playing is more reminiscent of English guitarists such as Clapton and Gilmour than American blues, although I do love the music of Stevie Ray Vaughan, B.B. King etc. However, the overall feel of the songs is often a little more American. The lyrics for “The Roamer” are meant to conjure up images of vast wind-swept deserts, and I consciously went for an American Western sound for that, as we don’t have too many deserts in England!
“Blood is Thicker than Gold” is based around a long night journey with a destination that I was dreading. The feel of the quiet, the dark, and the empty roads all led to a sound with a lot of space, with a feeling of waiting for something (which eventually resolves itself with the raucous second half). I think there are a lot of American songs that have a similar theme, as long journeys are perhaps more part of their culture, and this may mean that the track appears American – but it certainly wasn’t conscious.
Q2: Do you find it easier to get the attention of American listeners?
I’ve never thought about it before, but I can certainly confirm I am actually being played more on American radio than English. I find it mind-boggling that I can record a blues song at my house in Leicester and then hear it on a Chicago radio station a few months later – they’ve got the “real thing” right there!
Q3: Let’s talk more about your style. There’s a pretty clear Celtic background that you wouldn’t find in a lot of music today. Where did you pick that up and how does it make songwriting different?
One of the best British bands I’ve had the pleasure of following over many years is Iona. Their musicianship is superb, and the sounds they produce are unique. This band introduced me to the Chapman Stick and the Uilleann Pipes – instruments that I wouldn’t really have ever come across otherwise. I’ve since started to learn the Uilleann Pipes – as far I can see there’s no-one playing this instrument even remotely near Leicester, so I’m having Skype lessons with Martin Nolan (playing with Iona) from Dublin! Sometimes the internet makes the impossible possible…
Anyway, I digress. A friend of mine, Caz Grayson, had written a poem entitled “Romulus and Remus,” and I liked it and wrote the tune as a background to be played behind it being read. I have no experience in Roman music, so I went with Celtic with the excuse of “the Romans invaded Celtic Britain”, drew on what I’d been listening to for so many years and wrote a slow tune with the pipes, synths, guitars and big drums. It is almost an Iona tribute really!
“Skogr” is a little different – a little more Viking perhaps? This came from finding a really nice Bodhran sound and combining it with a big bass drum to give a massive sound like a log drum. The rest just flowed from that elemental beat. The fiddle solo was improvised on the spot and recorded in one take. I left the whole track incredibly raw – you can hear me breathing in it, the timing is quite loose, etc. Sounds lead to other sounds, which lead to other sounds. The songs seem to go where they want to rather than me forcing a box around them.
Q4: One of the aspects of Blood I’ve talked about most often is the fusion of musical styles you’ve developed. Is that a conscious choice or more of something that developed on its own?
I love so many kinds of music – I think people really miss out when they religiously only listen to one type. Musicianship transcends genre. In terms of the combination, I think that actually comes listening to a wide variety of music. I do go through phases of listening to certain artists or sounds, be it the blues, or rock or classical. I went through a big English folk phase with Seth Lakeman, Show of Hands (both brilliant live), and I generally play rock when I train (Pink Floyd, Foo Fighters, Marillion).
Q5: So when it comes to putting together a full album, do you envision a bigger concept behind it, or something more like a compilation of tracks you want to share with the world?
As much as I’d like to call this is a concept album, I’ve got confess that each song was written completely individually without any kind of plan. However, saying that, I spent a lot of time molding it all together. The order in which the tracks play is absolutely critical and underwent quite a bit of change. It had to start with something punchy to get people listening, and had to end on something a little haunting to give them something to go away with. Although all the songs are essentially very different, they have been placed in that order so that there is a flow between the finish of one and the start of another, without any jarring. And yes, somehow as this process took place there appeared a shape and a flow across all the tracks – I think (hope!) the album feels like a solid entity rather than a compilation of songs.
Q6: What role do your lyrics play in keeping that flow alive? I’m thinking of how different “July of ’69” is from, say, “Jack O’Kent.” How do you tie them together thematically?
As a rule I don’t generally explain the lyrics of my songs. If you do, you nail down the song to only mean that one thing. If it is open to interpretation, then the listener will make assumptions and mold the lyrics to fit important events or feelings in their life and they will have a much bigger emotional response to the music, which after all is one of the big things a song-writer is after. I’ve had people say to me that they love “that space one” (“July of ’69”), and I’ve have to bite my tongue and not try and explain what the song really means to me – if a superficial ‘space thing’ floats their boat and fires their imagination, then who am I to take that away?
Jack O’Kent is completely different – there really isn’t any possible ambiguity! I was inspired by the way Seth Lakeman would write narratives of old folk stories and I did approach this lyrics first (although they required a fair amount of massaging at a later stage). Being a folk story with an appearance by the Devil, it just had to have a folky fiddle and a driving rhythm, and the rest came out.
They do look different, but in a way they are actually really quite similar. Both songs talk about striving to make a change, remarkable triumphs, and yet somehow things staying the same. Maybe that’s just me having to put that melancholic note at the end!
Q7: Excited to finally have your hands washed of Blood, if you’ll excuse the pun?
I’m a Dad, work full-time, and train a lot. As much as it would be nice, I don’t really have time to record and perform. The album took the majority of my free time for months on end, and while I thoroughly enjoyed it, I’m looking forward to getting back to some gigs. I have a few private ones lined up and a couple of charity events, and I’ve got some fingers in pies regarding some other gig collaborations. I’m consciously developing a few more acoustic songs purely so I can fit more of own my material into gigs. I love performing what I call ‘extra-ordinary covers’, putting a twist on other people’s work, and it certainly adds a lot to a performance, but I recognize that it isn’t easy for me to perform a lot of my songs without a band. I love playing for people and feeling that connection, so I can’t wait!
Q8: And what about your next album’s themes? Do you see it being much of a departure from this one?
I don’t really think through themes in advance, but I do have 3 or 4 songs that I’m really happy with that should fit on another album, and looking at them now I can see they are all loosely based around conflict of one kind or another. That doesn’t sound very cheerful, does it? Conflict can resolve itself, of course, so you never know at least one of the songs might end up being happy… maybe!
Q9: Last one, but most importantly… What random facts would you most want your American audience to know about you?
Yes – I drink tea. Lots of it. My teeth are fine… honest!
My daughter Indigo sings better than me… grrr.
I’m very good at hitting people with sticks.
I like cats! Always have spares people, always have spares.
If you want to buy me a drink, make it a single malt.