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Matt Hill - Interview

  by Benjamin Howarth

published: 16 / 7 / 2020

Matt Hill - Interview


After releasing several albums as Quiet Loner, Northern English singer=songwriter Matt Hill speaks to Ben Howarth about his latest album, the folk-influenced 'Savage Pilgrims', which is also his debut LP under his own name.

Twenty years ago, Matt Hill released his first songs as a solo artist. He had been in bands as a teenager, but had largely stayed away from music while in his twenties. But, already a lover of country music, the emergence of the fledging ‘alt. country’ scene in the late 1990s rekindled his enthusiasm – first as a facilitator (booking tours and putting on gigs), before getting back on stage himself. Now, two decades later, he is releasing his first full album under his own name. His previous albums have all come under the ‘Quiet Loner’ moniker – a name that now lives on as the name of a new record label. His career has ranged widely, from introspective Americana on his debut, ‘Secret Ruler of the World’ through to ‘Greedy Magicians’, an album of protest songs recorded in front of a live audience. In 2016, he was the full-time ‘songwriter in residence’ at the People’s History Museum, which resulted in a stage show combining original songs and content from the museum to tell the story of ‘The Battle for the Ballot’. Matt is now a full-time songwriter, leading workshops and songwriting projects across different communities, which has included leading songwriting classes in prisons and making an album with a homeless centre. He was also one of the founders of the ‘We Shall Overcome’ movement. On ‘Savage Pilgrims’, his interest in storytelling and history again comes to the fore – but this time, with more personal material, rooted in his own family and hometown, as well as a few nods to his love of Americana. I spoke to Matt a month or so before the album’s July digital release (those who took part in his crowdfunder had already been sent the album, along with a ‘zine’ with the stories behind each of the songs and the making of the album). Our conversation focused on the new album – we barely scratched the surface of Matt’s many other interests and projects. I’d encourage anyone who wants to know more to visit his website (matthillsongwriter.com), where as buying the new album, you can also download a free twenty track retrospective, covering selections from his albums and previously unreleased tracks. I began by asking Matt to tell me a about the process of writing and pulling together the songs on this album… Matt Hill: Some of these songs have actually been around for twenty years or more. That doesn’t mean it’s an ‘odds and sods’ album – they are songs that I have always really liked, I just have never found the right place for them. When I was planning this, I did write quite a lot specifically for this collection of songs. I was deliberately trying to write a new album – but it was a bit of a happy accident that a lot of the old songs really seemed to fit. It worked together as a whole piece. I really love albums – I’m an albums person – and they are a bit unfashionable at the moment. Technology is kind of pushing them out of the way. But I really like sitting down with a collection of ten or more songs that were designed to go together. It is how I have always worked and I’ll continue to work. So, with this, the songs all had elements of storytelling and history – I see it as a collection of literary songs, though there isn’t a single narrative throughout. PB: Were there songs you had that were rejected because they didn’t fit the theme? MH: Yeah, there were. But there were also songs that did fit the theme, but still didn’t make it. I think I had between twenty and twenty-four songs that were real contenders, so my first process was to pull those together – my best twenty songs – and then demo them. I worked on that with my friend Kirsty McGee, who is a songwriter and she really knows music, so she helped me with the pre-production and she helped me produce an A-List, B-List and C-List of the songs. As you go through that process, it often starts to emerge really clearly what sort of an album it is going to be. And that makes some of the decisions really easy – it is clear that certain songs definitely won’t fit. But there was one, ‘Words Won’t Be Undone’, which we did record and James Youngjohns (Anna Kashfi, Last Harbour-PB) who plays guitar on the record, always said was the best song and a few other people also said was their favourite. But it didn’t make it - it was a first person love song, me talking about a relationship and having my heart broken, and it just didn’t fit. I’m sure it will crop up somewhere eventually. So, for me, it’s never just a case of picking the best ten or twelve songs, it’s about picking a group of songs that work together as a piece. PB: So, you’d gone through that process and had chosen most of the songs before you began to record? MH: Yeah. A lot of the musicians I know will keep working on that in the studio and develop as they go along. I just find that a colossal waste of time, really. I think you should go into the studio and be at the top of your game. But, actually, this was quite unlike how I recorded my last few albums, which were done in the space of a few days. This was done over about eight evenings – but not consecutively. It had to fit in with Sam, who produced it. So, it actually overall spread out over a few months, but before we began, I knew what I was going to record and I had them rehearsed, so I could play them really well. Before I record, there is always another stage – working with Kirsty, where we really went over the songs and she really pulls them to pieces. She is very critical – so some of the songs were re-written, sometimes quite considerably, as she would point out where they had too many lyrics or needed a bridge – she would really sharpen them up. PB: I found it really interesting reading your description of her role in the ‘zine’ you have put together to accompany the album – it felt to me almost like she was more than just a collaborator, but almost filling the role of an old-school record label A&R guy? MH: Yeah. I credited her on the record with ‘pre-production’. She definitely played that role that a producer would play – but she wasn’t actually around when we recorded it, so it wasn’t a full production. I think a lot of songwriters perhaps miss that – a lot of artists are very self-contained, like me, I work on my own most of the time. And then they carry that on when they go into the studio, and I think that is often a mistake. It’s not that you shouldn’t have a clear view yourself, but I think it is really good to have someone else – for me, I had both Kirsty and Sam Lench – who can say to you, ‘I’ve got a different opinion about this song, I don’t think it’s working.’.I feel that really improves my work. PB: There was one song, ‘Save Your Pity’, which you describe as now being your favourite – but that actually was radically re-written as part of that process… MH: I’ve had parts of that song knocking around for about twenty years. But I started working on it a few years ago, I entered a competition where they brought the Bluebird Café over from Nashville and set it up in the Blue Coats Art Centre in Liverpool. Kirsty actually won it – she got to go over to Nashville and play at the Bluebird. But I got into the final twelve and part of the prize was being able to play a song in front of a panel, which included Whispering Bob Harris and several Nashville songwriters. I realised afterwards that everyone else had gone in with their best song, but I went with one I was in the middle of writing – I actually told the panel I wasn’t sure about it, I wanted them to really give it to me straight, but they didn’t really, they were all just super-encouraging. Bob Harris, who was on the panel, said it reminded him of a Scott Walker song, which it did at the time as it was much faster, a bit like his Jacques Brel songs. But Kirsty later said that she really didn’t like the song – she thought the character was really arrogant and she picked up on how the music being strident and bombastic affected how the character came across. So, I stripped it right back, made it slower and changed a lot of the lyrics. And, as I say, I’d had it for years – but after Kirsty really pushed me, I knew instantly after an hour of working on it, "This is it. This is how it’s supposed to be.". That’s what I mean – people miss out on opportunities. They have a song that they quite like, but it could be better. You can do so much if you get the right input from the right people. PB: I know you were in bands when you first started playing music, but all of your releases have been as a solo-act. Have you always had that kind of feedback or is it more of a recent development? MH: That came to me on my second album really. My first album, ‘Secret Ruler of the World’, has been my most successful and did have other people helping me – Mike Harries produced it and we worked on it together (later, Mike Harries also worked on the recording of ‘The Battle of the Ballot’ – PB). But it took such a long time, because I wasn’t prepared to listen. I mean, it went on for years, that album – I would almost get to the point of releasing it and then decide it wasn’t quite right. I drove myself mad with it. What happened with the second album, I worked with Mat Martin and he really did an amazing job on producing it, and I learned so much. I have worked like that ever since – I learned to really spend time on the song choices and the song construction before you ever get into the studio, and then work on the performance so that when you reach the studio, you are really good at playing the songs. PB: I suppose that process lends itself to the way you recorded this album – on tape. MH: Yes, that’s exactly what tape offers you – because you have to buy it and it then has limitations. Sam loves the limitations. With digital recording, literally everything is possible and that choice can be overwhelming. Whereas with tape, you have to say, "Yes or no, am I happy with that performance?!" If the answer is no, you do it again. I have worked on digital, but you can end up with people doing twenty or thirty takes of the same part, because they can. You’ve got to somehow work out which is the best. With tape, you just decide if it is that one or not, then on to the next decision. I want that discipline applied to what I’m doing. PB: Changing the subject slightly, you have a long history with and love of the Americana music scene – I wondered how strongly you still associated with that, because when I first listened to this album, my reaction had actually been that this was a move away from that US-country/Americana influence, towards folk music. MH: I certainly don’t think I am deliberately trying to write an Americana album, and I agree with you that this is more folky – I think I have been heading in that direction on the last few albums. I still do have a massive desire to make a ‘proper’ country music album. And I will at some point. This isn’t it, but I do feel comfortable with the Americana label and this album has those instruments you would associate with that sound, like banjo or mandolin. PB: Perhaps my reaction was driven by the extent to which the stories in the songs are rooted in Britain, particularly around Nottingham, where you grew up. To me, it is an album where the lyrics drive the mood. MH: I think the people I admire the most are the Texan songwriters. I am obsessed with Guy Clark. To me he is the best songwriter that has ever walked and I listen to his albums ridiculously often. And Townes Van Zandt, Kris Kristofferson, John Prine and Dolly Parton, Tom T Hall. I love those storytellers – that’s what I am towards. But I can’t tell their stories – they work because they are authentic. So, I have to tell my own stories. It is really important to me, however important those influences are, that I am writing about stuff that feels real to me. But I am encouraged by your reaction – it sounds like you have listened to the words and they have left an impression, and that’s what I want to do with my songs. I want to be a communicator – like Johnny Cash. He was never the greatest singer, but he got over what he wanted to say. You heard every word and there was never any doubt about his intentions. PB: The other thing that struck me about this album was it felt like a contrast to what you have been doing with your recent work, which has had an explicitly political theme – whereas here, although it’s clear you have some admiration for the characters in the songs, there is a dark element to the tracks and some ambiguity about them. I was just wondering what prompted that move? MH: I think I just wanted a change, to be honest. It’s funny, I did some demos recently and I think right now I have about twenty-five explicitly political songs, about Boris Johnson and Trump. They are very much of now, and I am wondering what to do with them. Some of them were in contention for this album, but I think I wanted to go back to the kind of songwriting that I like to listen to. I do like some explicitly political songwriters. But Steve Earle, for example, has done some explicitly political albums, but he mostly doesn’t. Or Billy Bragg, who everyone thinks of as a protest singer, but that is only a fraction of what he is about. He writes about such a breadth of experiences. I mean, the album he did with Joe Henry, ‘Shine a Light’, it’s absolutely beautiful. I suppose I wanted to make more of a statement about what I can do as a songwriter. For about five years now, I have been making my living using songwriting as a tool, doing workshops and stuff like that, so I just thought that it was about time that I showed what I can do. I mean, when I walk into the room, I am the supposed expert who is there to teach you how to write some songs. I wanted to put out a collection of those kind of songs – based around storytelling. PB: That’s really interesting – I’d had it in mind that this album that this was a release from the day job, but it sounds like the opposite, that this is more of a reflection of what you do on a day-to-day basis. MH: I think it is more about showing people how I want to write my own songs. The sorts of songs we will write when I do workshops don’t come out like this – that depends on the people I am working with. But the workshops have definitely influenced me. Going into prison, or a young offenders' institute or a homeless centre, you meet people that I would not normally come across in my daily life. Really interesting people, and really nice people actually, which is maybe not how people would expect prison to be. Meeting people and learning about their lives, made me think about characters in songs and also made me think about my own family, and about wanting to write songs and give voices to people that don’t normally get heard. PB: The other change on this album is that it is badged ‘Matt Hill’, rather than ‘Quiet Loner’. What prompted that? MH: I had been thinking about it for a long time, actually. I nearly did it on the last album, ‘Battle For The Ballot’, where I questioned using the Quiet Loner name, because that album was a commission, I was being paid to work on it. But in the end, it was hard to let go of the old name. But this album felt like a fresh start – particularly because there is a lot of me in it, with songs about my family. Even when I play gigs, people would introduce me and say, “Here’s Matt Hill…. Oh yeah, the Quiet Loner”. People didn’t seem that comfortable with the name. And I was never that convinced by it myself, really. It came from a time when there were loads of acts, like Smog, Bonnie Prince Billy, Sparklehorse, Songs:Ohia who were all basically singer-songwriters but using band names. It was the fashion at the time, so that’s why I did it and went with it, on the advice of other people as well. I am coming up to an anniversary, it is about twenty years since I got back into this. I got back into music when alt-country first exploded, and I was right in the thick of it, it was such an amazing time, the internet was just starting to make an impact and because of the internet, I met and connected with all these music fans who were into this. It was a democratic and interesting scene – great to be a part of. At that time, it was definitely ‘alt-country’ and then it became known as Americana a bit later on. I suppose I straddled that a bit, my early influences were new-wave pop bands, as a songwriter, but I also loved country music growing up. So I felt at home in alt-country, these were people who weren’t country musicians, as such, but they loved country music. And we all started putting on gigs, I promoted my first show in 1999 and I actually organised Ryan Adams’ first tour of the UK, I did his visa application. And through that, I started playing myself. Neal Casal, who sadly died recently, was a real big encouragement for me. I did quite a few gigs with him in the late-nineties. The first stuff that I put out, in 2000, was under the name Matt Hill. So, it means that I have come full circle, really. PB: One final question – I wanted to ask about your experience of doing an album as a pre-release with crowdfunding. I think it’s the first time you have done a release like this. MH: It has gone really well, I am really delighted with it. I resisted it for quite some time. I had this album finished, for about a year, but I just couldn’t afford to release it. It had cost a few thousand pounds to record, and I had got over that hurdle, but then to actually print it and put it out, would be quite a lot of money to find. So eventually I decided to set a target and it has been great, I would definitely do it again. It’s the first time I have put an album out on my own, I worked with a label on the first three albums and then ‘Battle of the Ballot’ was a project involving other people. But this is my own label and I wanted to do it properly, I have actually set up a label and registered it properly. Because I might want to put some other music out – in fact, I’m going to! There’s an exclusive for you. I’m going to put out, hopefully before the end of the year, of a friend of mine, called Stephen Goodall. Sadly, Steve died – right at the start of the lockdown in March – and it was a real shock. I had been trying to get him to make a record with me for years, we had got as far as making demos, but it just didn’t happen. So, with the blessing of his family, we are just going to put out the demos. It won’t be a proper studio album, some were just recorded on his phone, but I want it released because the songs are so good and he’s such a talented guy. PB: Thankyou.

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Matt Hill - Interview

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Savage Pilgrims (2020)
Compelling fifth album and first under his his own name from former Quiet Loner frontman and 'storytelling singer-songwriter' Matt Hill which finds him moving away from the alt. country of his past recordings and into folk

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