Music interview – Scott Matthews: ‘When I’m songwriting I’ve always got the voices of Paul Simon and Roy Walker on my shoulder’

Scott Matthews releases his sixth album The Great Untold on April 27.
Scott Matthews releases his sixth album The Great Untold on April 27.
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Six albums into his musical career, singer songwriter Scott Matthews has very much found his niche as a recording artist.

The Great Untold, out tomorrow, was made at home, like its two predecessors. “It gives you chance for the songs to take shape and actually form a record,” he says, of his preferred working methods.

“The Great Untold is the next phase, it’s where I am. It’s a brand new set of songs which I hope will have that simple ability to connect with the listener. That’s always the goal with every album.”

Where his last album Home Part II was “such a multi-textural, layered record”, featuring everything from sousaphone to Hammond organ, this time the 42-year-old decided to go back to basics. “I just got to the point where I wasn’t listening to myself. I suppose I wanted to get back to the roots of understanding myself all over again,” he says. “When you get fortunate to make Record No6 in a career I think you have to strip it back to the bare bones of where you’re at.

“It’s very much the case of trying to surprise myself and testing myself in songwriting still. It’s that old cliché that a song will stand on its own with just a voice and guitar if it’s a good one, you don’t need anything else. That’s the mentality I tried to retain throughout the process.

“Sometimes a song doesn’t make it because it’s the wrong idea for this kind of record. Maybe it does need the cellos and things to give it some other avenue. But the goal has always been for this record just to make 10 songs that really stand up on their own with as minimal fuss as possible.”

When you run your own record label you get a real insight into dealing with the artist. That can be a bit of a nightmare.

Scott Matthews

Presenting the songs with just voice, guitar and occasional piano “brings a whole new set of challenges to the table”, Matthews admits, but it was one to which he rose.

“You’ve got to try and be a bit more disciplined. Sometimes I could hear Brian Wilson in my head going ‘Hmm, another few harmonies would be great there, wouldn’t they?’ But you’ve got to give yourself a set of rules. That’s part of the battle – being disciplined with yourself but also serving the song well. You’re a long time gone and those songs will be around in 50 or 60 years time, you’ve just left them and that’s all that remains, so you have to serve them well.”

As ever, every lyric on the record starts form a personal standpoint. “You have to write about something and what better to write about than things you experience and all those thoughts that are like a big vortex and whirlwind in your head?” Matthews says. “You’re trying to put your hand into this vortex and grab words. All the stuff that’s kind of key and that you want to write about is chaotic, it’s in there but we all lead crazy lives to a degree. Me as a songwriter I have to find a balance between grabbing something that’s really constructive and usable for the art of songwriting but also marry that with my experiences in the world and all those emotions I still go through every day.”

The Wolverhampton-born singer reveals he always has an image of Paul Simon on his right shoulder. “He’s my absolute hero so I ask him little questions when I come up with a line – ‘Paul, is that any good, do you think? Is that a keeper?’ Then I’ve got Roy Walker saying ‘It’s good but it’s not right’ on my left shoulder. When I’m songwriting I’ve always got these voices on my shoulder, almost like a marks-out-of-10 scoreboard kind of thing, do they pass the test? But the songs always have a personal reflection and this record is no different to the others.”

The album’s title comes from the line ‘Inside our baby grows/Outside the great untold’. “That was it,” Matthews said. “My wife Sally said ‘That’s quite a nice title, isn’t it?’ And we both looked at each other and said ‘That’s an album title, surely’. Luckily I got that idea early on and it shaped the rest of the album and the content.”

Musically, Matthews says his touchstones have remained constant throughout the years. “Joni Mitchell is the queen and the king, she’s extraordinary. And Paul Simon. But then more recently people like Bill Callahan, Mark Kozalek of Sun Kil Moon. Agnes Obel is another one, I think she’s great. Composers like Jon Brion who did the soundtrack to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, just really great stuff. But then when it comes to the songwriting side of things I’ve still got Paul Simon on my shoulder.”

He already has thoughts about his next album, which, he says, is likely to be a mixture of folk and ambient. “There’s definitely a doffing of the cap to David Sylvian and Brian Eno. It’s understanding the direction, where you want to go. I have to try and walk before I can run in this world, but luckily I’ve got a record which is in good shape already which is unbelievable, because I’ve stagnated quite a lot over the years with the gaps in between releases.

“But I think when you run your own record label you get a real insight into dealing with the artist. That can be a bit of a nightmare. There’s me and my wife running Shedio Records and we understand that you do need some structure, you have to plan ahead. There’s a time to be 100 per cent creative but there’s also a time when you have to make this work as well. You have to go on the road, you have to release a record so it runs parallel with a tour that you’ve got lined up. Timing is the key to make it work.”

Ultimately though he adds: “You have to believe in what you’re doing. There really is no point if you start skimping on the artform.”

The Great Untold is out on April 27. Scott Matthews plays at Brudenell Social Club on May 11. www.scottmatthews.uk