Upon acquiring his first guitar at the tender age of seven, it didn’t take long before Scott realised that music was his true calling in life. Scott’s diverse musical taste would lead to experimentations with funk, soul and indie rock, with various local bands, before he finally decided to embark on a career as a solo artist. In 2006, Scott released his ground-breaking debut album Passing Stranger. Shortly after, Scott’s first single, ‘Elusive’ was released which went on to win the Ivor Novello Award for ‘Best Song Musically and Lyrically’ in 2007.
Scott has not only embarked on a number of sell-out headline tours, but has also been fortunate enough to tour with some of the world’s most respected artists, including, Foo Fighters, Snow Patrol, Rufus Wainwright, Tori Amos and Robert Plant, who made a rare guest appearance on Scott’s second album Elsewhere. February 2012 saw the release of Scott’s acclaimed third album What The Night Delivers, which included a guest appearance from the legendary double-bass player Danny Thompson. Scott is currently working on his new album, which is due for release Autumn 2013, so we couldn’t resist talking to him about new music, his love for Guild, and what to expect at the London Acoustic Guitar Show…
You came to prominence partly because your first single got heavy rotation on the radio. We’d all like that; what’s the secret?
I suppose, looking back, it was kind of a rollercoaster of events. I’d released a record with an independent record label, and very early on we got lucky with the radio thing, and it was at that point that the big boys started to sniff round. We did a deal with Island Records, whose history I was impressed with, and a lot of my favourite artists were on Island. We had really good momentum, and that first single, ‘Elusive’, seemed to get people’s attention. We got some really nice support slots with the Foo Fighters and Rufus Wainwright, Robert Plant and Alison Krause.
Listening back to ‘Elusive’, you can hear echoes of Willy Mason and Jose Gonzalez, who were very big the year before, but that doesn’t capture everything that you’re about. Tell us how your music has developed since then.
It’s an interesting one; I’ve released three records now, and I can see why people are still drawn to that first record. I’m fairly eclectic, and I think a lot of reviewers found it hard to pin me down; I’m into a lot of things, and I can’t really pin myself down. I love my country songs, and I also love my desolate acoustic guitar sounds, and I suppose I’m leaning more towards that desolate sound. It makes a lot of space for the songs to sing out. I think I was very diverse on that first record, and it’s not really something that I’ve replicated since, I’ve become more focussed.
I always struggle on the lyrical answer; I get inspired by a lot of things, like most songwriters. I like a lot of art, I do a lot of reading, I’ve got a notebook where I write a lot of stuff down, and things just seem to come together. Sometimes it takes a long time to grasp what the music is trying to tell me; I’ll just get a little nugget, see someone on a bus, or see someone on a film, but just a real strong character, and it’ll grow from that. I have a funny thing, though, where I like to do two contrasting sides of things in my songs, and trying to merge together two things or two people that don’t fit together. I’m never quite sure where the lyrics come from, it just seems to come; I’m not prolific, and I really wish I was, but I can’t force myself to do this. Over a seven year cycle, I’ve only released three albums, and that has something to do with my writing approach. If there were 20 of us in a room right now all looking at a picture, or listening to a piece of music, we’d all hear or see something different. I want people to be able to hear what they want to, and I do tend to leave the lyrics pretty vague and open for that reason. I like the complete piece of work to be open to interpretation, so you can delve into it as you like; I don’t like to discuss what they mean. The song knows what it wants to be about, and after a while, that emerges.
It seems you are an unusual mix of virtuosity, songs, and meaning. Do you think of yourself as a singer, a guitarist, a songwriter? Where is the balance for you?
I guess, looking back, I’ve always been a guitar player, but I didn’t record an album of my songs until I was 29. I’m very much from a generation, who as a teenager was really into shrapnel guitar records, all these LA hotshots, the hairspray and all that was very important to me, but I never mastered the hairspray! It gave me a good grounding, in theory, but in my 20s it served me no purpose at all, and I actually stopped playing for a while. Then I heard John Martyn, and thought: “Oh, wow, who’s this guy?” And that got me thinking about how this one guy, with this amazing drunken sound, could be saying so much. That got me working backwards through people like Nick Drake, Bert Jansch, Paul Simon (who’s my absolute hero), and these guys are just on another level. Some of their things sound like they’re so easy, and yet you know that they’ve had to work so hard to get that. I felt the real urge to start writing songs, and for the first time in my life I felt that I had a direction with the music. I still feel like I want to better myself, shift the message, not repeat myself, and melody is still the king for me. I listen to the likes of Neil Finn thinking: “How the hell did he write some of that stuff?” You start breaking down what he does, and it’s quite a challenge to know what not to play.
Talk us through the new album; what has inspired you in your writing, and how has that differed from previous work?
Well, for a start, I recorded it at home. I’ve never done that before, and though there’s a danger of being too isolated, I feel like I sing different at home. I didn’t want people saying: “Let’s do another take”, or giving me constructive criticism, I just wanted a looser feel. With my second album (2009’s Elsewhere), I just wanted to step away from the first record (2006’s Passing Stranger), go for something a bit different, channel my inner Smashing Pumpkins, and even though I’m proud of that album artistically, I don’t think a lot of people got it. For the third album (2012’s What The Night Delivers), I went back to John Cotton, the producer of the first album, and if anything, I felt like his approach was even more suited to the songs from the third album, and some of the songs on that are very much highlights of my songwriting career. The fourth one is broader, I think, there are songs on there that weren’t quite ready for previous albums and, because I’m producing it myself, it’s gonna sound a bit scratchier but, you know, look at what Springsteen did with Nebraska? I feel like I need to come away from thinking: “Let’s have some big harmonies here”, and just be happy with one vocal; I feel like I need to capture the relationship between guitar and vocal a bit more. I’ve also got my cellist, Danny Keen, on a couple of tracks, which really works well.
When I first started playing acoustic more, I was just writing songs, and the only thing I’d do experimentally was to go to dropped D tuning. ‘Eventually’ started out as a very standard, four on the floor Strokes type song, but the dropped D brought in some lovely little sounds that you couldn’t get in standard tuning, and soon enough I was doing open D, and finding little shapes and tonalities. There’s something about the guitar, too, like I had an older Yamaha that just sounded horrible in standard tuning, because it was just too brash, but if I dropped it down a whole tone, everything opened up. That made me realise that each guitar has a tension where it’s happiest. CGEGAB is a tuning I’ve been using recently, and it lends itself to certain things; I’ve got this new song, ‘Virginia’, that uses it, and it almost seems like the songs write themselves. In the verses, you’re not doing much, just dictating the tempo, and you’re almost playing the melody of the tuning. On the other hand, I’ve got a song which is just in standard tuning with a capo on the third, and with the top string in D, so I’ve got chords going on, but also that D droning there. I’ve always been a bit of a guitar geek anyway, but I think I get bored easily, and I want to try new things all the time. I’ve got one song on the first album where I tune down to an A on the bottom string, and even my old 1977 Guild, which is built like a tank, can only just hold it, but it’s got a really epic sound, it’s like a driving force. You don’t hear it so much on the record, because there’s the bass guitar too, but when I’m playing it in a room with some people, it’s just such a force. I’ve got one song which is in BEBEBE, which is an interesting and quite resonant one. I love songs using those things where you don’t need to change chords too much, and it almost becomes like a chant, but when it does change, you really feel it, and it really heightens the impact because you’ve been in this mantra for a while.
We’re also guitar geeks! Tell us a bit about your instruments…
This is going to sound a bit daft, but from an early age I’ve always been a big Guild nut, even though I’ve tried Martins and Gibsons. I had a friend who had an old Guild D25, and I loved it, just the weight of the thing made me feel like I had something of value. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve had a guitar and sold it because it wasn’t quite right. I’ve had old Guilds, old Yamahas, old parlour guitars, and I had a 1951 Gibson LG2, which I absolutely loved, but it wasn’t really suited to a lot of stuff I do, so I sold it. I’ve also recently sold a Guild Mark 1, an all mahogany classical that I used a lot for a while. I had a Martin that I wanted to use for the Jools Holland show, but I took it to get it set up, and the luthier pointed out that the neck was twisted, so I took it back, and could never find one that felt right after that. Since then I’ve really pursued the second hand market – I picked up a Gibson L45, which I absolutely loved! Recently I’ve bought a Guild D25 and a Guild Starfire, but I still can’t resist picking up guitars at car boot sales!
You’ve got a solid relationship with Guild now; how did that come about?
I met Neil from Guild last year, but I was already playing lots of Guilds, a couple of D25s, a Mark 1, a Starfire, but Neil came to one of my shows, and he approached me just asking if I’d like to try some new Guilds. As you know, I’m a guitar geek, and I’d just been waiting for someone to say that, so I was down there in a couple of days. I’m a big 12-string fan, and I wanted to try some out, and the new Guild stuff has a real quality to it, it’s really evident that they’re onto a great thing.
That’s a good question! I’m showcasing some of my new songs, but I’m always aware that, playing to a fresh audience, I’ve got to do something from the back catalogue. I’m also very aware that there will be a lot of great guitarists there, and I don’t necessarily feel like I can compete, but I just hope people will come and love the songs, and if they enjoy the guitar as well, great. I’m a bit scared, to be honest, because you see some of these young hotshots, and I’m just there strumming a couple of C chords, so I’m looking forward to having a couple of beers, and listening to everyone else play! It’s just a great privilege; I’ve been to a lot of guitar shows, and I feel very lucky to be involved.
Scott Matthews will play the main stage of the London Acoustic Guitar Show, in association with Guild Guitars, on Sunday September 8. For tickets: lags.blazefuture.wpengine.com