What artists inspired you while you were writing and recording Fifty Five Stories Down?
When I first pitched the idea (one voice, one guitar, live, no overdubs) to producer Daniel Wright he asked me if anyone had done an album like this before. Other than Billy Bragg (Life’s A Riot With Spy vs Spy) I had no idea! So I did some research and found a few. The most influential were Dylan – of course! – (The Times They Are A Changin’), Willie Watson (Folk Singer Vol. 1), Ani DiFranco (first album), Anais Mitchell (Xoa), Loudon Wainwright III (A Live One) and Joanna Newsom (The Milk Eyed Mender).
What inspired you to pick up the baritone guitar? Is that your regular axe nowadays?
The baritone is my main guitar now, at least for singer/songwriter stuff. Daudi Matsiko inspired me as he plays in what is essentially DADGAD but tuned down to Bb. He explained to me how it was helpful in covering more of the bass frequencies when you’re playing as a solo performer. At the same time I was listening to bands like Cleft who play without a bass player and detune to an extreme degree. I considered doing the same but knew all the intonation problems that brings. So I hunted down a Danelectro baritone on eBay. Playing all my old songs was difficult in B so I tuned it down even further – 7 frets below a normal guitar. The lowest string is tuned to A=55 htz which is where the title of the album comes from ‘Fifty Five (Stories) Down.’
Having this guitar has had an effect on my playing – guitar heroics, wild string bends and giant stretches are pretty much off the table. It makes you play ‘dumb’ – I like it!
Where’d you record the album?
In a rehearsal room belonging to Nottingham singer/songwriter Daudi Matsiko in a derelict police station. His ‘neighbours’ were a painter who played religious music while re-enacting 50 Shades Of Grey with ‘lady friend’, a math rock trio and some Vikings. It was hard to get enough quiet to finish the record.
What gear did you use to record?
Pretty much the Danelectro baritone straight into a Fender DeVille amp. Hardly any effects. A Boss chorus on Brave, an auto-wah on See You Dance and I used a TC multi-effects unit for tremolo on Can’t Hang It On Love and chorus/pitch shift on Architects. That’s it apart from some sleigh bells!
Anyone you’d like to acknowledge for their help in the making of the record?
Producer Daniel Wright really helped in selecting the songs and then suggesting edits and tweaks till the material was as strong is it possibly could be. He also let me cover one of his fantastic unreleased songs called Black Sky.
Ralph Barklam (photo) and Michael Wong (design) really captured the moody ‘Blue Note/Verve’- style image I wanted for the cover. And nearly every song on the album was premiered at The First Tuesday Songwriter’s Group who gave invaluable feedback and encouragement every step of the way.
Where were you when you got the idea for “John Lennon Blues?”
In my studio writing songs for February Album Writing Month! I had a really bad cold when I made the first demo, I knew my voice wouldn’t hold out so I had to capture it in one take. As I got to the end I started coughing and had such a bad ‘episode’ I coughed till I pulled a muscle. That version was more strummy standard tuning song, influenced by Lennon’s Yer Blues. Later I took a riff I’d been playing on the Baritone and sang the vocal line over it instead of the chords.
But to answer the question properly I’d written a song called ‘Guns’ which was a humorous take on America’s obsession with the right to bear arms. One section that didn’t make the final cut became the chorus of John Lennon Blues. It’s a sad fact that violent men seem to be most threatened by people who are committed to non-violence. And the irony that if those men had been able to violently defend themselves they would have survived to continue preaching the gospel of peace, but then would have discredited that very message.
Were these songs all written on bari guitar, or did you transpose some of them down?
John Lennon Blues (version 2) and See You Dance were written on baritone. Architects, Mistletoe and most of Brave were written on piano. The rest were originally standard tuning guitar songs. Pretty much all of the songs stayed in the same keys (as it relates to concert pitch) as I moved them to baritone, so I had to relearn them in new positions on the fretboard for baritone. I don’t have a big enough vocal range to sing ‘em in different keys!
You play some very complex guitar parts while singing, “Architects of Our Unhappiness” being one example. Did you consciously work on that or has this coordination come with experience?
The last verse of Architects is something I had to work on endlessly. I was trying to get inversions and counter melodies that reflected the lyrics (“an upside down place, gold buried deep...” etc) and gave a hint at what I’d tried to do originally on the piano.
The ‘chord-melody-without-the-melody’ style of Mistletoe was another one that took a lot of work. I was aiming for Joe Pass and Carole Kaye play a Burt Bacharach session, but I think I missed it by a mile!
What’re the keys to a cozy Christmas song, Matt?
C major of course! On Kiss Me Beneath The Mistletoe I wanted to get that warm comforting christmas vibe which I think comes across in songs like Mel Torme’s Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire) and he uses things like harmonising the ascending major scale and using lots of close voice leading, lots of major 6 and 7 chords and the occasional 11th. So that’s what I did! I especially wanted the music to have that kind of vibe to lull the listener into a false sense of security with where the story goes. I initially started writing the song as a very stiff kind of Victorian hymn – which would have been funny – but after coming up with the first line I felt that musical direction would lose a lot of people. (Not that that’s ever stopped me before!).
Which songs were the toughest to write/record?
Can’t Hang It On Love was the hardest to record – I did numerous takes trying to find a way to interpret the song that did it justice and then completely rerecorded it at a later session. Tonight was the toughest to write and went through a lot of changes. It started out sounding like The Mouldy Peaches but then I dropped the key a few times, took out the bridge and generally tweaked it into the near-spoken word piece you hear on the record.
Which are your favorite tracks?
[Inserts standard ‘choosing between my babies’ speech] As ridiculous as it sounds for someone with no hits I planned this album as a kind of ‘greatest hits’ compilation and shortlisted the songs that I’ve had the most positive reaction to from others. So as songs, I like them all.
But as a recording Architects is very special to me, because after all the reworking, arranging and practice I captured it in one take/first take, which I struggled to do on the easier songs. I’m very happy with Black Sky because I find it very difficult to make cover versions ‘mine’ but I felt I inhabited that one. I was at the first ever public performance that song when Daniel played it at the First Tuesday Songwriting Group, and learnt it from the video I shot on my phone.
And I have a special place in my heart for the live recording of Sweet Baby Hand Grenade because it sums up the album with mistakes and missed chords still in place but the magic of a pub crowd spontaneously singing along as well.
Magic and Mistakes. Maybe that’ll be my next album!