After 20 years in the music business and nine studio albums before their anniversary album Who We Are, Chris While and Julie Matthews are veritable veterans of the UK folk scene. Acoustic chats to them about Fylde Guitars, co-writing, and what’s next for the duo.
Twenty years is a long time for any musicians to work together. For singer-songwriters and multi-instrumentalists Chris While and Julie Matthews – who first met when they were members of The Albion Band – the two decades have brought great success, but it hasn’t always been plain sailing. As well as their musical collaboration, they became life partners for 11 years and admit there was “a lot to get through” when they split up as a couple. However, despite this, they’ve persevered and their creative musical partnership continues to flourish.
In fact, 20 years on, they seem stronger than ever as their latest album, Who We Are, confirms. Blending exquisite lyrics with a peerless blend of acoustic folk, country, pop and folk-rock, it’s a deceptively deep and thoughtful offering. Above all, the album says much about the respect that they have for each other as musicians and friends, with big smiles from them both on its front cover.
Those smiles are much in evidence as the duo chat about their enduring musical partnership. It began when Julie – the daughter of a Sheffield steel worker who had been with the Albions for three years – decided to leave the band to pursue other projects. Albion leader Ashley Hutchings was looking for a replacement, when Julie chanced upon Chris – a solo artist from Lancashire – at a folk festival in 1993.
‘I stood at the back of the room and my jaw dropped,’ says Julie. ‘I thought, “Wow, she’s fantastic.” So I went and got Ashley and said, “You need to come and hear this woman sing, she’s astounding.” He was blown away.’
To help Chris settle in to the Albions, Julie stayed on for a while. ‘I got to work with her on a project and we connected musically,’ says Julie. ‘I remember Ashley coming over with his then partner Julie Dunlop, and she said, “Ashley, we’ve just discovered a new duo” and that was the beginning of it,’ says Chris. ‘We started writing songs together, and performing together outside of the Albion Band, but we were still a part of the Albion Band. We also started a relationship,’ says Julie. ‘We were a couple for 11 years. I rejoined the Albion Band, and it became a solid thing. We became inseparable, we travelled together, we wrote together and realised we had to make our own way without the Albions. We knew that there was a magic in the duo and that’s what we wanted to pursue.’
And pursue it they did, with nine studio and two live albums, a strong following and with their songs covered by Mary Black, Barbara Dickinson, Christine Collister and Fairport Convention.
What do they like about each other’s work? ‘Julie’s songwriting is fantastic,’ says Chris. ‘I’m a singer that’s come from the folk world, who’s learnt to write songs. Julie’s been a songwriter all her life and I love the rock-country crossover that she has. I think of myself as the opposite of Chris – a songwriter who, in order to get my songs heard, sings them,’ says Julie. ‘I believe Chris has made me a better singer. Through her, I’ve raised my game.’
‘My songwriting has also been raised,’ says Chris, ‘so it’s a magical mix, because we give each other what the other one needs musically. Julie is an exceptional rhythm guitarist. I’m a picker, and so the mix is great.’
‘I’m also a pianist,’ says Julie. ‘Chris’s voice lends itself to a piano ballad. One of my big passions is writing piano ballads for Chris to sing.’
They knew Who We Are was going to be an important statement for their 20th year in music. ‘I felt we had to do something special,’ says Julie. ‘The pressure was there to come up with it. It’s your 20th year and you don’t want to disappoint.’
The album features four of Julie’s compositions, three from Chris, and four joint songs. Julie’s ‘If This Were Your Last Day’ – the album’s bright and breezy opener – ponders someone’s final moments.
‘I hit 50 last year,’ says Julie. ‘I wanted to reflect the fact that sometimes we’re waiting for things to happen, and actually it’s about now – you have to take each day and seize it.’
She wrote the song on her gouzouki – a bouzouki with a guitar’s body. ‘It’s what I play when I want something a bit rocky,’ says Julie. ‘And I wanted it to be a hard-hitting song.’
‘Heaven Is Changing’ – an achingly beautiful ballad – was written by Chris, inspired by a visit to Eyam in Derbyshire. The village suffered a bubonic plague outbreak in 1665. ‘The local draper ordered some cloth from London and it was infested by fleas that were carrying the plague,’ says Chris. ‘The pastor got all the villagers together and said, “We have to sacrifice ourselves for the rest of the country. We cannot leave the village.” And they didn’t. They contained the plague.’ More than 270 people died there. It’s an inspirational story and the song has touched a lot of people,’ says Chris.
Julie’s ‘Dancing Under The Gallows’ is a tribute to pianist Alice Herz-Sommer, the oldest survivor of the Holocaust, who died last year at 110. ‘I saw an amazing film about her called The Lady In Number Six,’ says Julie. ‘She was a massive influence on me. I wanted to write something that wasn’t maudlin, but reflective.’
‘Drop Hammer’, written by Chris, celebrates the women of Sheffield who kept the steel industry running through two world wars. ‘Julie’s mother used to live in an industrial area of Sheffield,’ says Chris. ‘The drop hammer [a machine for stamping out molten metal] used to hit day and night. It was like the heartbeat of the area. So I thought about this hammer and it being a heartbeat, and about these women working in the factory. The men are all away at war, they’re singing together and working together and keeping things going.’
‘I have to be quiet and on my own,’ Chris says of her writing process. ‘Once I’ve got the tune in my head, I don’t need to go back to it. I’ll sit with the lyrics and do it that way.’
Julie says she’s the opposite, playing the song repeatedly until she gets it right. ‘I’m disciplined. I will go and do a day’s work, and whether I come up with it or not, I’ll do the day’s work. When it gets tricky is when we’re co-writing.’
Fortunately for this album, the co-writes came more easily. Julie had already written half a verse of ‘Gone Girl Gone’, and the pair finished it together in an hour and a half. ‘That’s Not Who We Are’ – reflecting on the break-up of a relationship and yearning for a truce – took a little longer. Going in to the studio adjacent to their house, they completed it in an afternoon.
‘When Chris and I split up as life partners, we kept being musical partners, and there was a lot to get through in that,’ says Julie. ‘That was a big struggle, and some of that is in the song.’
‘Definitely,’ Chris agrees. ‘Thinking back to the time where we were saying, “OK this has all happened, and it’s all shit, but let’s just remember what it was before.” And that’s not who we are now. It’s fine; we can go back. We’ve worked through a lot of stuff with music.’
And what does the future hold for Chris While and Julie Matthews? ‘Another 20 years!’ says Julie. ‘I feel like we’re only getting started. We’re getting to the point where I think we’ve cracked how to record songs, we’re just getting there with writing, we know how to connect with an audience and perform, now I really want to do it!’
‘Each year we look forward to the next year and see what we can do to keep it interesting for people who come and see us, and to draw in new people,’ says Chris. ‘The hardest thing in acoustic music is to get on the radio and to get out to more people. There are few hours where mainstream radio stations play our kind of music. So you have to do it yourself.’
They’ve got a busy few months ahead. Following a live session on BBC Radio 2’s ‘Weekend Wogan’, the duo will be touring Australia in March and April of 2015.
‘Chris and I are lucky,’ says Julie. ‘We’re partners with our record company, so we’ve never had to compromise. We’ve always had artistic control. And I get to tour and travel the world with my best friend!’
Julie Matthews plays a Fylde Falstaff, fitted with an LR Baggs Duet system. ‘She’s like an old shoe,’ says Julie. ‘I bought her secondhand in 1993 and even with old strings on she sounded gorgeous. With her rosewood back and sides she has a great bass response, ideal for my rhythmic style of playing. I’ve tried other acoustics, but always come back to the Falstaff.’
Julie also plays a Powell gouzouki (a bouzouki with a guitar body). ‘It’s a big sound, again suited to my strumming style. Ken Powell is a brilliant luthier. He crafts his instruments with such care and attention to detail. She’s mid-sized with English walnut back and sides and a spruce top.’
Julie’s other instruments are a Kala tenor ukulele, Fylde mandolin, a Weltmeister 48-button piano accordion, and a Kurzweil PC2R module with a Studiologic mother 88-note keyboard.
Chris While plays a 1996 custom-built Fylde Oberon with Indian rosewood back and sides, a cedar top and ebony fretboard. It’s fitted with an LR Baggs Duet system. ‘The Fylde fits me perfectly,’ says Chris. ‘It’s smaller than a dreadnought so it tucks under my arm but still has a big voice. When Roger Bucknall built it for me I thought it was a great workhorse and didn’t adore it, but I’ve grown to love it and it’s precious to me now.’
Chris also plays a custom-built Powell SFG guitar, with cocobolo back and sides, a spruce top and ebony fretboard, fitted with an LR Baggs Anthem system. ‘It sings like a dream,’ says Chris. ‘I can feel the vibrations when I’m playing it, perfectly balanced and big. I use this guitar for all my tunings and keep the Fylde in regular tuning.’
Chris While and Julie Matthews’ Who We Are is out now. For 2015 tour dates, check their website.