The art of obscurity… because it is an art… is one that few artists can be said to practice with true enthusiasm. Many have obscurity thrust upon them, and you can hear them grumble about it all career-long. Others snatch it from the jaws of victory, and wear it like a hair shirt.
Then there’s Iain Matthews, who conjured it up as an album title because, he smiles, it fits. And because it’s less of a downer than his original title. “I considered calling it The Art of Fading Away, but it felt too negative.
“I wanted something that said 'you may not realize it, but I'm still here. I may appear to be struggling in the eyes of the world, but I'm fine. Just learning my trade. I guess I'm unlike a lot of artists in that way. I'm not chasing the acclaim, or the awards. I got into doing this because of a deep affection for music and the creative process. She's since become my mistress and I'm not about to bail on her her this late in the affair. It's all about music and the joy it brings, both to me and my followers.”
Of whom, over a near-fifty year career, Matthews has accrued a lot. At the same time, it seems, as almost purposefully going out of his way to avoid the attentions of them all. Most artists… fans discover them once, at a certain point in their career, and stick with them forever after.
Matthews, on the other hand, seems to need rediscovering on a regular basis, so many projects does he juggle, so many band names does he pass through, so many ideas does he need to get out there.
And you know what the best thing is? The fact that he wouldn’t change a thing.
A very quick resume. An early band, the Pyramids, gave way to a spell in the early Fairport Convention, in the days when a joint male and female lead vocal conjured comparisons with the Jefferson Airplane, and the band’s folky future was still some way away. Not, of course, that that in any way precludes Matthews from being termed a folkie, just like everyone else who has passed through the Airport ranks.
It’s not necessarily an accurate description. Born in Scunthorpe, on England’s easternmost flank, Matthews’ early years “were actually spent listening to Joe Tex, Otis Redding and The Impressions. After that, The Hollies and Mike Berry.” A fascination with American country followed, after he moved to London in the mid-60s, “and I suppose it all began like everyone else's country experience, with Hank Williams. From there I began digging. A lot, I didn't care for. I was searching for the ' special ' stuff….”
Fairport were already up and running when Matthews was recruited, singing alongside Judy Dyble in what remains one of the sweetest sounding frontlines of any British band.
“When I joined the band in 1967, it wasn't about labels, or genres. You were either making music, or not. Of course some things never change. If you get up there with an acoustic guitar, inevitably you're labeled folk. Unless of course you're James Taylor. I even heard someone recently call Elliott Smith folk. How absurd is that!”
And he agrees, “most people's reference points for me and my music, are either ‘Woodstock’ [the first hit by his post-Fairports band Matthews Southern Comfort] or Fairport. Usually the latter. Hence, again, The Art of Obscurity. It's amazing how difficult it can be to get one’s audience to embrace the stylistic changes you make. People really tend to get stuck in what they like and where they wont go.”
He downplays his contributions to the band, despite his vocal being so prominent across those two LPs. “Quite honestly, my time with Fairport was more as a glorified hired hand than an active ‘yea’ or ‘nay sayer.’ I joined them in the studio, during the recording of our first single [1967’s “If I Had A Ribbon Bow”] and had little to offer stylistically at that point. Apart from my vocal contributions. In fact, during my time with them, all the stage songs were performed in keys best for the guitar solos.
“It was a different band back then. Far more rock… and I had a wonderful time being in the band. The down side was, we were neither a drinking, or a girls band, like some of the other bands were. Very disappointing. Our idea of the end to a perfect playing day, was to meet up with say.....Head Hands and Feet, at the Blue Boar cafe, on the M1. at 3am, on the trek back to London. Now....thats living!”
He remained on board for two years, “half of that time singing with Judy and the rest with Sandy [Denny]. The hammer came down quite unexpectedly, late in the summer of '68. I turned up an hour early for the ride to the date, only to be told that my services were no longer required, effective immediately.”
It was a shock but not necessarily a surprise. “The writing had been on the wall since the day Sandy joined and the band wholeheartedly embraced her folk leanings. I tried to love it, but electrified folk just wasn't in me… then. I later began to flirt with various folkier material, with Matthews Southern Comfort, but I didn't have the ear for it.
“In my humble opinion, it's a style one either embraces whole heartedly, or leaves alone. The closest I ever got to it were the compositions of Richard Farina. My favorite Fairport album, funnily enough, was Full House, when they once again became a boy band [it was their first following Denny’s 1969 departure]. I thought the writing on that was stellar.” A few years later, a later Matthews project, Plainsong, would record that album’s epic “Sloth.”
Working with Denny, however, remains one of his happiest experiences. “Now, she was a singer and I had to work on chops to keep up. A completely different kind of gal. Spoke her mind, cursed like a sailor and introduced us to the consumption of alcohol. But beneath all that insecurity, she had a big unfettered laugh and the cliche'd heart of gold. I loved her and what a joy to sing with.” In fact, his only regret about the way his Fairporting years wound up was, “we couldn't have developed musically together. But I simply was not ready to take on 'folk ' music. No matter how it was dressed up. I desperately wanted the band to continue in a more contemporary direction, but once Sandy was part of it, they had a vision and were not to be swayed.”
Since that time, of course, Matthews has enjoyed at least one opportunity to see where a longer collaboration with Denny might have led, when he teamed up with his friends Jim Fogarty and Lindsay Gilmour, to record an entire album of Sandy songs, 2000’s Secrets All Told – The Songs of Sandy Denny.
“The Sandy album was made in Philadelphia, right before I moved back to Europe. Some musician friends of mine there, Jim and Lindsay, are very enthusiastic Sandyites. A friend of theirs, Walt, a fretless bassist, has his own very nice home studio. We were talking one time about Sandy covers, and began to get into our own favorites and how few people had, at that time, attempted a full album of her songs.
“We just decided, on a whim, to go for it.”
The result, he modestly ventures, was “a simple album, but very effective.” But unlike so many other attempts on Denny’s canon, it paints its contents in often startlingly different colors. “Autopsy” and “Rising for the Moon,” the latter dating from some six years after Matthews’ departure from the band, are the only Fairport staples in place.
Elsewhere, “By the Time It Gets Dark,” “It’ll Take A Long Time,” “Solo” and “One Way Donkey Ride” are simply a few of the highlights on display, with Matthews explaining,“I’m never one to 'copy' an original, so Jimmy and I worked tirelessly trying different grooves, until we had a dozen songs that worked. It's my recollection that we all did it for free and then shared in the spoils a year later. It came out in Europe on a big Dutch indy, but it never was released in the US. I carried some over to sell on tour and Jim and Lindsay sold them at duo shows.”
The immediate consequence of his Fairport departure, of course, took him far from such pastures. His first solo album, Matthews Southern Comfort (as its name implies), was an something-more-than tentative delve into the wilds of what we would now term Americana, albeit one that was largely self-composed, and recorded with primarily Fairportian accompaniment. But it also gave its name to his next project, and across the course of two albums, Second Spring and Later That Same Year, Matthews Southern Comfort would find themselves being compared with everyone from the Band to the Flying Burrito Brothers.
They scored the aforementioned massive hit with Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock,” and is amazed that he is still called upon to explain to people that he simply sang the song; he did not play the festival itself, and he didn’t play the song there either.
The new group’s countrified leanings were, of course, simply the next step in Matthews’ own continuing exploration of country, although he was soon chancing upon a whole new source for fresh discoveries. “When I first went over to the USA in 1970, [the label] sent me around the country with Paul Nelson, who was my artist relations man in New York. I even met my now manager, Mike Gormley, on that trip. We spent quite a lot of time, in and around the Mercury offices and they had a huge country roster. Consequently, I returned to England with huge stacks of country albums. What I couldn't carry, was shipped.
“Of course, one thing leads to another. People would say, ' that’s good, but have you heard this?’ Then came Mike Nesmith's solo work, and let’s not forget good old Brinsley Schwarz, plowing the furrow for British contemporary country. You have to understand, apart from creating music, music in itself is my life. Be it writing, searching, or listening.”
All these years later, he still recalls the thrill of hearing, for the first time, Obray Ramsay and Byard Ray’s White Lightning album, and how it inspired him to pen the opening cut on Second Spring, “The Ballad of Obray Ramsey.”
MSC parted company with one another in 1970, shortly after the hit single, and it would be the mid-2000s before, says Matthews, he began thinking again about the band - and all it had portended.
“The MSC story is interesting. About ten years ago, I'd been thinking about the original band. About the pros and cons of it, and I decided that I'd gotten more of it wrong than right. I wanted to see if I could make amends, by giving it another shot.
Of course, it couldn't be the same band. The bass player, Andy Leigh, was a teacher. Gordon Huntley, the steel player had died. Carl [Barnwell] nwas back in the USA somewhere. Mark Griffiths, the guitar player, was the only one still kicking it out.
“I invited him to be part of it but he declined. But it didn't matter. The concept was more important and the original concept had beed mine anyway. It's funny because a couple years back, Mark played two shows with us and absolutely loved it.
“So, my concept was, retain the vocal harmonies at all cost. Definitely no pedal steel. I knew, six months into the original band, that had been a big mistake. It’s such a dominant instrument… or as I like to say, ‘a little steel goes a long way.’ I wanted to replace it with keyboard, jazzy edged keyboard; and I wanted a girl involved in writing and vocals. It’s a weird phenomenon, but once you mix a female voice with three guys, it becomes a whole other blend. More sexy. That’s not it, but heading that way.”
A new line-up gelled: Florida songwriter Terri Binion; Dutch jazz pianist Mike Roelofs; Bart-Jan Baartmans - “primarily a guitar player, but on this album he became BJ the bass player. He later overdubbed Mandolin and guitar.
Then there's Richard Kennedy, a New Zealander, living in Somerset, by way of New York. Richard's a lefty who strings his guitar as a righty. All of my downstrokes, for him, are upstrokes and he sways massively as he plays. You have to be careful what you eat, to play with Richard. It can be quite debilitating at times. Funny too.
“No drummer. We hired someone later to overdub. All of it in one day, and I guess the other member, at least in the studio, was Leon Bartels. I work with him a lot. Great ears and patient as a day is long. Leon floated me so much studio time.
“So, we went in there for ten days, with around fifteen songs. Some of Terri's, some of mine. A couple of oldies from the original band and a few cowrites. And by the end of the sessions, I was totally fried and disillusioned. I felt that my concept had fallen completely on its ass. I'd agreed to an extensive UK tour, which I quickly canceled and subsequently I lost a great booking agent. I was experiencing burn out and didn't recognize it. Everything, everything, sounded like shit. A lot of people were very upset with me. But what was I supposed to do? Go ahead and be totally miserable, or knock it on the head. I took my doctor’s advice and canned it.”
It would be three years before he returned to the tapes. “I couldn't bear to even open the archives, in case I saw it. Then, one day, I was searching for some outtakes for another project and there they were. Staring at, daring me to pull them out and play them. So I did, and I was gobsmacked at the total beauty of what we'd created. Very confused, but it made me realize how deep my burnout must have gone and how I'd failed to recognize it. I immediately called all the players, apologized profusely and decided there and then, that I would complete it, by hook, or by crook.”
Which he did. A month of intensive vocal overdubs, some drumming and some fresh contributions from BJ, and “the end result was/ is exactly what I had in mind that day, several years before, whilst analysing my likes and dislikes of the original MSC.”
Released in 2010, Matthews called the album Kinda New. “And I am so damned proud of that record.”
The end of the original MSC was not quite so dramatic, but it was a lot more final. “Woodstock” was a number one hit in the UK, establishing Matthews Southern Comfort as a perennial inclusion in those pub quiz questions about One Hit Wonders, while Matthews returned to his solo career - and signed, some might say surprisingly, to what is now regarded as the premier underground prog label of the age, Vertigo.
“It was relatively short lived,” he recalls now. “Vertigo was still a fledgling label and I stayed with them for less than two years. [But] I remember going into their offices with my manager, to discuss them signing me. In the foyer, they had a huge picture of Rod Stewart and I thought, ‘yeah, if it's good enough for Rod, it's good enough for me’.”
Two albums followed, the perennial Matthews fan favorites If You Saw Thro’; My Eyes and Tigers Will Survive. A third, however, was to enjoy a somewhat less than effervescent life. A new band, Plainsong, was on Matthews’ mind, so he and his management took their first demos to Vertigo, assuming the company would be interested in signing them.
Or not. “Their response was, 'we already have Ian Matthews, we don't have to sign Plainsong.' Now, there were four people in Plainsong, so that sort of corporate arrogance really raised my hackles and probably marked the beginning of the end for our relationship. God knows, I was insecure enough in those days, without being told I was their property… no discussion. My managers eventually made a deal with them to release me and I made a third, obligatory album for them, Journeys from Gospel oak… which they promptly sold on to some British indy label. It was finally released in 1973, right after my first California album, Valley Hi, causing much confusion. I have to say though, for an album recorded and mixed in five days, I thought it was pretty damned good.”
Plainsong ultimately signed with Elektra, with the In Search of Amelia Earhart album reuniting Matthews with Gospel Oak producer Sandy Roberton; but it was a short-lived affair. The band broke up during the recording of their second album, again under Roberton’s aegis, and Matthews made what now seems like a pre-ordained move out to California.
Sessions with Mike Nesmith, songs by Jackson Browne, Randy Newman, Don Gibson (and Richard Thompson). A new band coming together, a touring party comprised of “guys I'd met during my brief time in LA. Jay Lacy, the guitar player, was in Nesmith's studio band. Jay was working with Hoyt Axton. The rest of them I met through my manager, down in Laguna Beach. Don Whaley on bass. Great player, who loved country music. Tris Imboden on drums. After me, Tris joined Chicago. What was that piano players name. Charlie somebody. Man, he was special. What a great band that was. It reasserted my faith in mankind.
Two albums, Valley Hi and the wonderfully titled Some Days You Eat the Bear… and Some Days the Bear Eats You confirmed Matthews on the edge of that same west coast vibe that was sustaining the rising stars of Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, the Eagles and so forth. But Matthews was never going to lay back and be laid back.
“I made Valley Hi and …the bear…, and then found myself just sort of drifting.
Not working much, but writing a little. I had four new songs that I'd recorded with Emitt Rhodes in his Hawthorn garage and I took them to my publisher, Lionel Conway, who was also a dear friend. He knew I was struggling so he sent a couple of them out as potential covers - ‘Lonely Hunter ' and 'Rhythm of the West.’ Apparently, a later version of The Flying Burritos, with Gib Gilbeau, were making a new album, and he hoped to place them with them.
“Anyway, we waited and we waited, until one day Lionel got a phone call from Norbert Putnam, the Burritos’ producer, who said, ' we tried recording the fast song (‘Lonely Hunter’) but the band simply could not play it. I'd love to make an album with the writer. Between the two of them, they assaulted Columbia into agreeing a two record deal.” And so began what Matthews now laughing calls “the smooth period”… and one which placed him resolutely in Top 40 territory, with a brace of albums that remain radiant today - Go For Broke and Hit and Run.
The latter is Matthews’ favorite… “I love that record, and working with Nick Venet. What a lovely man he was.” But Go For Broke has its supporters too, as much for the sheer exuberance of the performance, as for the strength of the songs - an exuberance, Matthews explains, that was at least partially explained by the fact that “Emitt’s demos ended up on that record. My harp player, Joel Tepp had played on the demo of ‘Lonely Hunter,’ and Norbert brought Charlie McCoy in to redo it… Charlie listened to it a couple times and said, ' na, that dog'll hunt ' and went home.”
Meanwhile, the demo continued circulate interested ears, and one day a call came in from Glen Campbell’s people, who said Glen wanted to record “Rhythm of the West”… but only if Matthews would change the title and give Glen half the publishing.
“‘Change it to what?’ we asked. They wanted to call it ‘The Rhythm of Love.’ Now, the song is about a feeling one gets, living in a particular place and mine was about that very different L.A. vibe. He just didn't get it. ‘We'll have to change all the lyrics to call it that,’ we told them. They said ‘where's the problem?’
“So Lionel said, 'for me, just do it. If he puts it on an album, you could make a lot of money ' So I went home, rewrote it. Hated it. It felt like I'd murdered one of my kids. Then Glen turned it down. Never again.”
Home for Matthews now was Seattle, where he would remain until the end of the century. It was there, in cohorts with producer Sandy Roberton, that he devised the Rockburgh label, “and got back into recording and touring in Europe. With a vengeance.” Three albums followed: Stealin’ Home, Siamese Friends and Discrete Repeat (Matthews’ current label, Omnivore, recently reissued Stealin' Home with a bonus 45 minute live show; there’s also a Japanese version of Go for Broke bolstered with period live material); “Shake It” became Matthews’ utterly unexpected return to chart glory, a #13 Billboard hit in 1979; and then…
“After those albums, I decided to quit.”
Matthews spent the early eighties on the other side of the music business, working in A&R, and enjoying the positively bizarre sensation of not being forced to sing for his supper for the first time since his teens. But deep down… he must have been missing it, else it wouldn’t have been so easy for Robert Plant, catching up with Matthews at one of Fairport’s annual Cropredy festivals in the mid-1980s, to encourage him back behind the microphone.
Since that time, Matthews has maintained a prolificness that might not equal the album (or more) a year routine that sustained him through the late 1960s and 1970s. But there’s certainly been a new project every year, whether it be the on-off Matthews Southern Comfort reunion; a live return, too, for Plainsong - whose long lost second album was finally released in 2003; live collaborations with Elliott Murphy, the Searing Quartet, the Nick Venier Band, Egbert Derix, Julian Dawson, Ad van der Veen… curating a series of archive compilations and live sets, including the three volume Orphans and Outcasts series; the five disc Notebook series…
“So I'm not sitting on my arse, hoping it will come to me. I'm sticking it out there. I've recently reissued my solo album from 2004, Zumbach's Coat; it was released only in Europe. although I say released.....it escaped. Seriously, it was systematically ignored by more press people than I knew existed, but it’s an important album in my evolution as a vocalist, because this was the time I realized my range was being compromised by age, and how it was OK to sing in more unfamiliar keys.”
Even more recent, however, is The Art of Obscurity, a new Iain Matthews album that some people have described as a return to the pastures of his earliest solo material - a point that he agrees with, to a point. “In terms of solo recordings, it's what I do best. But if anything, its far more sparse than even my early solo recordings. No drums.!
“I was initiated on acoustic settings and have tended, in general, to stick with them. Though you may want to listen to my duet albums with Egbert [Derix - That Is To Say and In The Now]. They are a completely different kettle of fish. I guess it's some kind of musical life cycle. I find my recordings becoming more and more minimal. At the close of play, it's all about the song and if the song doesn't stand up to scrutiny, what's left?”
The songs here more than meet that brief, even if Matthews does admit that the writing process seems to take longer and longer, the more experienced at it he becomes.
“It's because I tend to savage lyrics, until they're right where I want them. Saying exactly what I want them to say, and precisely what I mean. I tend to fuss unnecessarily over them, a lot, sometimes spending hours on deciding between simple things, like 'and' or ‘but.'
“But it's important to me. I can become quite disappointed, sometimes disillusioned, when one of my musical heroes tosses off a bad lyric, in the name of expediency. And one can usually tell when that happens. I hesitate to name names but, a songwriter I like, with an extremely high profile and many albums under his belt, released a recording that made me think, ‘man, if only you'd given an extra couple days to those lyrics, this could have been your greatest achievement yet.’
“Melody and chord progressions have never been my strong points and over the years, I've struggled and tended to write for my voice, rather than challenging it. My song writing partner these days, is also my playing partner, Egbert Derix, a fine Dutch jazz pianist and he definitely challenges me. I'm very fortunate to have him as a co worker.”
The songs on The Art of Obscurity did begin as Matthews’s own efforts; he took each one, he says, “as far as I felt good about my input, then passed them over to Egbert for fine tuning.” The results, across an album of exceptional beauty and passion, include some of his finest ever compositions, and some of his most thought-provoking, too… and none, perhaps, more than “When I Was A Boy,” a song written implicitly about… when he was a boy.
“I spent a lot of time on that one. Did a lot of research, to make sure I had all my eras correct. Because I wanted it to totally represent my childhood, into my early teens, and give folks an insight into what motivated and excited me as a child.
“I wanted to use interesting vignettes, things that might mean as much to others from 1946, as they did to me. I wanted the song to invoke memories, pull on the emotions and even try to be funny a couple of times, while also drawing comparisons between my childhood and those of my kids. Childhoods are very different these days. Maybe a little darker and driven….”
Another song that strikes an almost universal chord, for its theme if not its precise topic, is “Ode for Jackie Paris” - a lyric that reaches into the soul of anybody who has ever discovered, studied, and become captivated by an artist or a performer that almost nobody else remembers. In this instance, jazz singer Jackie Paris.
“Several years ago, my friend Andy Roberts gave me a DVD of a documentary…called Tis Autumn. The Search for Jackie Paris. I'd never heard of Jackie Paris but it's a wonderful story about music, ambition and the human frailties.
“Jackie worked with some of the jazz greats - Mingus, Parker, Gillespie and for a short time in the 50s, he was a contender. He was Downbeat magazine's 'best new jazz vocalist’ in 1953, and he turned down an offer to tour with Duke Ellington, over money. But Mingus recorded with him and even wrote a song for him, 'Blue Paris' and I have a couple of those albums now. After watching the documentary, though, I tried to track down a copy of his best known album, Skylark [his second, released in 1954], but couldn't find it for less than $300. It's on my wish list.
“Subsequently, I felt a need to write a song about him, using the documentary and sleeve notes as a guide. But more about the mystery surrounding his initial disappearance. Quite a few people, since hearing my ode to Jackie, have bought the documentary, though few of them knew who he was.”
One would hesitate to say you could undertake a similar search for Iain Matthews… rock’n’rollers (or not-really-folk’n’countryers, if you’d prefer) of what we might call the modern era find it a lot more difficult to simply vanish from view than their forebears of the fifties-or-so - even those, like Jackie Paris, who turn out to have been hiding in plain view all along.
But then you remember exactly who we’re talking about. A man whose career included a berth in the single most important band in British folk rock history… without once singing a folk song.
Whose next band scored a British chart topper, then broke up before they could follow-up; and when he landed his second hit, a decade later as a solo artist, he decided to prove lightning could strike twice, and promptly retired from view.
The guy who out-blue-eyed soul Hall & Oates when he got hold of their “When the Morning Comes.”
Who out-sang Sandy Denny when he covered her “Solo” near-solo.
The guy who recorded no prog for the greatest prog label of the lot.
The guy who changed the spelling of his first name because he thought it would make it easier for people, then changed it back when he realized that some things should require thinking about.
Follow the true tangled skein of his career, and Iain Matthews has disappeared more times than many, and more effectively than most. But at sixty-eight, he has just released a new album that’s at least the equal of the ones he started making almost half a century before, and though The Art of Obscurity is a talent he has spent all this time perfecting, it’s an artful talent, too.
One, perhaps, in which the obscurity is not even his to begin with. Or, as he says as another song from the album strikes up, the near-heartbreak of “The Letter”…
“I'm always open to songs coming in from where ever. I don't feel comfortable writing about my own experiences all the time. I wish writers would stretch their subject matter more. There's nothing more tedious than an album full of songs about ‘me,' when there are so many other tales to be told.”
In other words, don’t start the search for Iain Matthews just yet. He’s quite happy where he is.