Iain Matthews

Iain has one of the best and most distinctive voices in popular music, and also one of the most recognizable musical styles. He has written some fabulous songs, and turned himself into a bloody good guitar player. Of all the soccer players turned musicians, he knocks spots off Julio Inglesias.” - Richard Thompson

“I played with Iain in Fairport Convention in the late 1960s, when he and Sandy Denny formed an incomparable and stunning vocal pairing.Since then I've only worked with him occasionally. More's the pity. But what I can say with complete confidence is that his commitment to music has always been total, his attention to detail is legendary and his standards are always of the highest calibre. And his voice, like his youthful good looks, never seems to age. Curse him!” - Ashley Hutchings

“Iain Matthew's is a brilliant musician and an arranger for the ages . Iain's version of my song ‘Seven Bridges Road’ is by far the best.” - Steve Young

Iain Matthews' Story

Matthews came of age as pop music did, making his first records in the cultural hothouse of London in the sixties. His background was working class Lincolnshire, straight out of the industrial heartland of England, where his stepfather--“a man who would put salt on his oats in the morning rather than sugar”--approximated a living by cleaning blast furnaces and applying “his weapon of choice, a thick leather belt” to his sons. As a boy, Matthews was routinely confined to his room at night to prevent fights with his two younger half-brothers. There he would read and lose himself in the fifties pop of Alma Cogan and Johnnie Ray. At fifteen he bungled a tryout for Bradford Park Avenue football club, “a team from Yorkshire, floundering near the foot of the third division north,” ending his dream of a footballing career. From then on it was music that he increasingly turned to for escape.

“Iain has one of the best and most distinctive voices in popular music, and also one of the most recognisable musical styles. He has written some fabulous songs, and turned himself into a bloody good guitar player. Of all the soccer players turned musicians, he knocks spots off Julio Inglesias.”

Richard Thompson

Matthews had already learned to sing harmony, from the Sundays when his parents would leave the three boys in the care of the Salvation Army. Departing school, where only literature classes and football had ever held his attention, he apprenticed to a sign painter and would sing along to the radio in the shop. At the same time he began taking the train to London, going into debt to buy clothes on Carnaby Street, to buy records and see concerts by US soul singers like Otis Redding, Joe Tex, and James Brown.

Back in Lincolnshire, Matthews decided to give singing a proper try. He called up the leader of a local band, the Rebels, “and just went along to a practice. I sang a couple songs with them and I was in, just like that.” Word spread about Matthews’ vocal ability and soon he was recruited by the Classics, and later the Imps, “Scunthorpe’s premier rock band.”

And then in 1966 he left Lincolnshire for good, moving to London and eventually landing a job in Ravel’s shoe shop in Carnaby Street. It was there, in the absolute epicenter of the revolution that was London in the mid-sixties, that Matthews met Radio Caroline employee and future friend, John Hayes.

Matthews at the time was still using his stepfather’s surname and was known as Ian MacDonald. Hayes introduced him to Steve Hiett and Al Jackson, lead singers of the California-style pop band Pyramid, and Matthews joined for two singles, “The Summer of Last Year,” a radio hit in the summer of 1967, and the unreleased “Me About You.” At this point the band’s manager dumped Pyramid in favor of Deram’s other blossoming act, Procol Harem, and Pyramid fell apart in the aftermath.

Nonetheless it was Hiett who played a crucial role in the next phase of Matthews’ career. Hiett was in the Deram offices in late 1967 when bassist Ashley Hutchings phoned, looking for a male vocalist to complement lead singer Judy Dyble in a fledgling band named Fairport Convention. At the time they had a sound that BBC presenter Bob Harris remembers as “a cross between Jefferson Airplane and the Byrds.” Hiett suggested Matthews for the band and the combination clicked.

“I played with Iain in Fairport Convention in the late 1960s, when he and Sandy Denny formed an incomparable and stunning vocal pairing.Since then I've only worked with him occasionally. More's the pity. But what I can say with complete confidence is that his commitment to music has always been total, his attention to detail is legendary and his standards are always of the highest calibre. And his voice, like his youthful good looks, never seems to age. Curse him!”

Ashley Hutchings

Matthews joined Fairport for their first Joe Boyd-produced single, “If I Had a Ribbon Bow,” and their eponymous debut album (1968), which includes the Emmit Rhodes composition, “Time Will Show the Wiser.” As well as Hutchings, Dyble, and Matthews, the band at this time also included guitarist/singer/songwriters Simon Nicol and Richard Thompson, giving it one of the deepest pools of talent in the history of pop music. That pool got still deeper when Sandy Denny replaced Dyble for the band’s second album, What We Did On Our Holidays (1969). This recording, considered by many to be their finest, includes Richard Thompson’s classic “Meet on the Ledge,” and Matthews’ “Book Song.”

Fairport’s popularity was soaring, but Matthews--now using his mother’s maiden name, partly to escape associations with his stepfather and partly to distinguish himself from the Ian McDonald who played woodwinds and keyboards with King Crimson--found himself unhappy with the band’s direction. Rather than building on the formidable talents of its songwriters, Fairport was turning increasingly to the revival of traditional English folk music. Matthews contributed to only a single track, a cover of Dylan’s “Percy’s Song,” on Fairport’s third album, Unhalfbricking (1969). Then, in what would turn out to be the first of many similar decisions, Matthews turned his back on Fairport’s success and departed to record a solo album.

“I have to confess, when Iain left Fairport in 1969, I had no idea what he might do with his life and his career. He seemed to me at the time like a pop singer with a good voice, who'd been drawn into a group of middle class folkies, with a completely different set of ideas to his. When he turned into a thoughtful singer/songwriter and bandleader, I was surprised. Shame on me! Iain has always made choices that challenge him and teach him new things. Now listening to his discoveries I learn things I didn't know I needed to.Hearing him this year at Cropredy brought back to me what a great group early Fairport was and what a wonderful singer he is.”

Explore more artists: Tycoon

Joe Boyd

For his first solo project, the country-tinged Matthews’ Southern Comfort (1969), Matthews recruited Thompson, Nicol, and Hutchings from Fairport, along with drummer Gerry Conway (of Fotheringay and later incarnations of Fairport), pedal steel guitarist Gordon Huntley, and others. The hitmaking team of Ken Howard and Alan Blaikley, who’d crafted songs for the likes of the Honeycombs, the Herd, and Dave Dee, offered to produce and write the album, and secured Matthews a deal with MCA’s UNI label. Matthews, who’d begun to play guitar during the his days with Fairport, “but only at home and quite spastically,” wanted to contribute to the writing himself, and was concerned that Howard and Blaikley’s reputation as pop Svengalis might hurt the album’s reception. As a compromise, Howard and Blaikley used the pseudonym Steve Barlby for their songwriting as well as the co-production credit they eventually took. Matthews wrote or cowrote half the album’s material, including the rockabilly “Dream Song,” which he says is “the only track I can still bear to listen to from that album.”

Matthews wasn’t ready to take the spotlight all to himself, and so turned the project into a touring group, retaining only Huntley on pedal steel from the studio sessions. The rest of the final lineup, introduced to him by fellow folkie and lifetime friend Marc Ellington, included American guitarist and songwriter Carl Barnwell and lead player Mark Griffiths, both from the progressive rock band Harsh Reality, and later on, Pyramid bassist Andy Leigh and ex-Marmalade drummer Ray Duffy. The band recorded two acclaimed albums: Second Spring (1970), which featured Ian and Sylvia’s “Southern Comfort” (the source of the band’s name), James Taylor’s “Something In The Way She Moves,”and Steve Gillette and Tom Campbell’s “Darcy Farrow”; and Later That Same Year (1970), including Matthews’ “And Me” and Neil Young’s “Tell Me Why.” As well as contributions from Carl Barnwell, both albums showcased Matthews’ ear for outside talent, as he covered songs by Jesse Winchester, Goffin and King, and others. By Later That Same Year the band was in a groove, and outtakes from those sessions turned up on the 1994 Scion compilation of rarities and BBC broadcasts, among them “Touch Her If You Can” by Rodney Dillard and Mitch Jayne.

It was yet another cover song, a single of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock,” that not only took Matthews Southern Comfort to the heights, but proved its undoing. Matthews was as surprised as anyone when the song reached number one on the British charts and the band found themselves on BBC’s Top of the Pops. From the stage, Matthews pictured the teenage audience wondering, “Who the hell are these guys?” and the success that he had so carefully orchestrated suddenly seemed to be the last thing he wanted, the antithesis of the artistic ambitions that had driven him away from Fairport Convention. As Matthews’ confidence faded, Barnwell was more than willing to step forward, and “it all came to a head after a dreadful soundcheck at Birmingham town hall. I left the building, walked down to the station, got on a train home and locked my door for a week.” Southern Comfort, sans Matthews, went on to record three more albums, with no real success, then folded in the early 70s.

“The first time I heard Iain Matthews I sensed a kindred spirit. One who seeks out the really good stuff and suffers fools as little as possible. A restless soul rarely satisfied with his work, ever tinkering with it to keep it fresh both to himself and his audience. A probing songwriter and one of the best interpreters of the songs of others. And more prolific than I suspect either of us anticipated when we first got to know each other over 30 years ago.”

Michael Tearson

On his own again, Matthews hooked up with Vertigo Records and former Yardbird Paul Samwell-Smith, who signed on to produce his next album and in the process introduced him to Andy Roberts, an up-and-coming London musician who’d done an art college stint in Liverpool. After a difficult start, Matthews took over the production himself and created one of the most acclaimed albums of his career in If You Could See Thro’ My Eyes (1971). Armed with original songs like “Desert Inn” and “Thro’ My Eyes” and backed by Roberts, Richard Thompson, Sandy Denny, Keith Tippet (King Crimson), Tim Renwick (Al Stewart, Elton John, Pink Floyd), and other legendary British performers, Matthews seemed, for a moment, to have found a comfortable balance of autonomy, support, creativity, and success. He’d also discovered Richard Farina, two of whose songs (“Morgan the Pirate” and “Reno Nevada”) appear on the album. Shortly after he finished the album, Matthews appeared on a BBC radio broadcast with a band that included Thompson and Roberts, performing Dylan’s “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry,” among others.

Matthews recorded a highly regarded follow-up for Vertigo, Tigers Will Survive (1972), with Roberts and various studio musicians. Again, Matthews’ own compositions predominate, though excellent covers include “Close the Door Lightly When You Go” by Eric Anderson, Farina’s “House Un-American Activity Blues Dream,” and the Phil Spector/Crystals chestnut, “Da Doo Ron Ron,” which became a minor hit in the US. Midway through recording, Matthews toured America with a band made up of Roberts, Thompson (who had just left Fairport), and bassist/keyboardist Bob Ronga. Once again Matthews sensed the urge for something more permanent, and pushed to keep the group together. Thompson bowed out, but the band, now calling themselves Plainsong, switched Ronga to guitar and found a worthy replacement in Dave Richards, formerly of Everyone.

Vertigo was less interested in Plainsong than in another Matthews solo record, and the result was a contractual obligation album, recorded in five days. Musical support came from Roberts and several studio players, and the songs ranged from covers such as Jimmy Webb’s “Met Her On a Plane” to Matthews originals like “Knowing the Game” to outtakes such as the Flying Burrito Brothers’ “Devil in Disguise.” Though the finished product is quite strong, Vertigo sold the masters and Journeys from Gospel Oak didn’t appear until 1974 on Mooncrest/Charisma, a label in which the album’s producer, Sandy Roberton, had an interest.

Free now to start again, Matthews put his energy into Plainsong, who signed with Elektra to produce the landmark In Search of Amelia Earhart (1972). Matthews’ “True Story of Amelia Earhart’s Last Night” is one of two songs about the lost aviator on the album, that grew out of Matthews’ voracious reading, a practice that was having an increasing influence on his songwriting. Matthews was also using his reading to feed the spiritual side of his nature, a side that’s visible in “Even the Guiding Light,” an answer to Thompson’s “Meet on the Ledge.” The album also includes the Matthews original “For the Second Time.” As well as touring, the band did the requisite BBC tapings, collected on the album On Air (1992) and including Gene Clark’s “Spanish Guitar.”

“Thank you for the enjoyment your music has given me through the past thirty five years, music which has become deeply woven into the fabric of my life. Since 1970 our paths have crossed many times. My programmes on the BBC began just as ‘Woodstock’ was propelling you into the charts. I was a big supporter of Matthews Southern Comfort and hosted radio sessions with Plainsong, with whom you released the wonderful In Search of Amelia Earhart album in 1972. We’ve talked at length on the radio many times through the years and you’ve played live on many of my shows.

This collection is testament to the sustained high quality of the recordings you’ve made throughout the past 35 years, as well as being the definitive demonstration of determined personal survival. In both respects it’s a fantastic achievement.”

Bob Harris

Bob Ronga, battling alcohol problems, left just before the band returned to the studio for their second album, originally to be titled Now We Are Three in homage to A. A. Milne. Immeadiately after the recording, Matthews handed in his notice as well. A salvaged version of the album eventually appeared in 1994 as And That’s That, including the Bruce “Utah” Philips song “Goodnight-Loving Trail.”

At this point, with Plainsong in disarray, an alternate plan arrived via Mike Nesmith, whose post-Monkee solo albums had met with considerable praise for their adventurousness and musicality. Elektra chief Jac Holzman had recruited Nesmith as producer on Matthews’ behalf, and Matthews jumped at the chance to start over in California, home of so much of the music he loved. Valley Hi (1973) included the Matthews’ arrangement of the traditional “Old Man at the Mill” and a version of Steve Young’s “Seven Bridges Road” so definitive that you can hear the Eagles recreate it on their 1980 live album.

“Iain Matthew's is a brilliant musician and an arranger for the ages . Iain's version of my song ‘Seven Bridges Road’ is by far the best.”

Steve Young

Dissatisfied with the progressive country sound of the album, Matthews once again took back the production reins and chose the musicians himself for the follow-up, Some Days You Eat the Bear and Some Days the Bear Eats You (1974), crack session men like guitarists Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, on his way from Steely Dan to the Doobie Brothers, and David Lindley of Kaleidescope and Jackson Browne’s band. Along with a rerecorded version of Valley Hi’s “Keep on Sailing” (here in a third, live version) the record also includes Tom Waits’ “Ol’ 55” (again beating the Eagles to the punch) and Matthews’ own “Wailing Goodbye.” A fine Richard Thompson number, “Poor Ditching Boy,” was dropped to make room for “Ol’ 55.”

Although Matthews was pleased with the results, Elektra was disappointed with the sales and pushed for more control, matching Matthews with Emmit Rhodes as producer. Unfortunately, Elektra didn’t like the demo they produced, which included George Harrison’s “So Sad” and the Matthews original “For the Lonely Hunter.” After Elektra dropped him, Matthews tried to shop “Hunter” to the Flying Burrito Brothers and instead ended up with the Burritos’ producer, Norbert Putnam, signing him to CBS for two albums. He recorded the first, Go For Broke (1976), in Nashville, using the famous “Area Code 615” session musicians for his cover of Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl.”

One of the most significant aspects of the sessions was the strong connection Matthews made with guitarist Jay Lacy, with whom he co-wrote the majority of the songs on the follow up, Hit and Run (1977). Nick Venet (Beach Boys, Fred Neil) produced, with most of the basic tracks, like Terry Reid’s “The Frame” and the Matthews/Lacy collaboration “Just One Look." “Tigers Will Survive” captures a first draft of the Hit and Run band, before real work on the album began. Both versions of the band included a reed player, Steven Hooks, reflecting the influence of the jazz albums that the musically omnivorous Matthews was devouring at the time (and continues to love to this day). Hit and Run had a sound that was difficult to market, however, and again Matthews found himself without a label.

“For me one of the most interesting things about Iain’s work is that while the records are very much part of the time they were made, they still have the immediacy, vitality and power that blew you away the first time you heard them.

“I’ve got to say at times I find it hard to reconcile this amazing mass of outstanding work with the same guy who’s been part of the life of our family for over 30 years. While the old memory can get a bit hazy at times, the instant I put on one of those early tracks the magic comes storming back.

“Allow me to let you in on something. While Iain might be adventurous and a real risk taker when it comes to music, one mention of the possibility of heading off for a days sailing and it’s amazing the number of seemingly credible excuses he can come up with: ‘The dog needs clipping,’ ‘I’ve got to wash my hair,’ ‘I need to meditate.’ This from a man who instructed us all, in no uncertain terms, to ‘Keep on Sailing.’

“This anthology has been a long time coming - thanks, Iain, and by the way what are you doing next weekend? The forecast’s great and we’re thinking of taking the boat up to Cromarty.”

Marc Ellington

Eventually Sandy Roberton came to the rescue and offered to sign Matthews to his new Rockburgh label. The majority of the songs on the resulting album, Stealin’ Home (1978), were covers, and one of them, Terence Boylan’s “Shake It,” became Matthews’ best selling US single, cracking the Top 10. Robert Palmer’s “Gimme an Inch” also charted; Matthews’ composition “Stealin’ Home” and John Martyn’s “Man In the Station” were also highlights from this set.

With Matthews poised for even greater US success, trouble appeared from an unexpected quarter. Roberton had licensed the North American rights for the album to the small Canadian label Mushroom, who’d launched the band Heart. When Mushroom’s founder and owner, Shelly Siegel, died suddenly, the label stayed in business but lost all momentum. It released Matthews’ next record, Siamese Friends (1979), but failed to provide the necessary support. With Mark Griffiths from Matthews Southern Comfort co-writing, as on “Heatwave,” and with superior Matthews originals like “You Don’t See Me,” the album deserved better exposure than it got.

Roberton and Matthews produced two more albums in 1980. The first, Spot of Interference, was new wave-influenced and backed by the latest incarnation of Matthews’ touring band, known at the time as the Insults, and consisting of Mark Griffiths and Bob Metzger on guitars, Dave Wintour on bass, and Argent’s Bob Henrit on drums. Most of the original songs were collaborations between Matthews and Griffiths, but “The Hurt” was Matthews writing solo, and “She May Call You Up Tonight” is by the Left Banke’s Michael Brown and Steve Martin. The album was not a success commercially or critically, and Roberton and Matthews followed it with a double album of the best of the post-Matthews Southern Comfort era, Discreet Repeat. By 1981 Rockburgh had disappeared.

It was the beginning of a new decade, and a darker, more materialistic mood took hold of America as Ronald Reagan moved into the White House. Matthews had been struggling for nearly 15 years now and was still living hand to mouth, with nothing to show for his efforts but a string of out-of-print albums, and the loyalty of those musicians and fans who shared his vision. More or less on a whim, Matthews abandoned LA for Seattle, where he met vocalist David Surkamp, late of Pavlov’s Dog. The two formed Hi-Fi, an 80s guitar band that included Bruce Hazen on guitar, Garey Shelton on bass, and Bob Briley on drums. They produced a live mini-album, the Hi-Fi Demonstration Record (1981), as well as a full length studio album, Moods for Mallards (1982), on which they covered Prince’s “When U Were Mine.”

“Iain’s voice and music have been with me since my teen-aged years, long before we became friends. I first heard his voice on a pirate radio station late at night, broadcast from Little Rock, singing ‘Meet On The Ledge’ with Fairport. I was staggered by the beauty and soul of the performance. I even drove to Illinois a few years later to see Southern Comfort, only to find Iain had already left the band.

“After I relocated to Seattle, we became acquainted, and then fast friends. Our diverse talents melded (most say oddly) in a wonderful guitar band we christened Hi-Fi. It remains one of my favorite musical experiences, a raw blend of guts’n’glory rock music. Although there were few hints of Iain’s folk-rock past, or my progressive rock leanings, I think something special happened each time the band took stage. We shared lead vocals, and I would get shivers every time I would turn stage right and see Iain (eyes closed) singing the living daylights out of every lyric that came his way. Absolutely the most gifted singer I have ever heard up close.”

David Surkamp

Hi-Fi recorded “I’d Better Not Stay,” co-written by Surkamp (who’d left the band at this point) and keyboard player Doug Rayburn (who’d replaced him), as well as three other songs toward a third album, but it was clear that Surkamp had been vital to the band and it simply could not continue without him.

“I first met Iain when Hi-Fi was formed in 1980 . I was thrilled by his voice and savvy song selection. Hi-Fi is still remembered by contemporaries as the best group of that time and place. To this day I get approached by folks who say ‘Didn't I see you at Astor Park with Iain and those other guys?’

“I learned important lessons from Iain. Some of the time I was with him, I'd be frustrated by his occasional reluctance to go with something that would get us in the pop charts...but I know now that music, and your muse, are more important than that. They say it's the song, not the singer; in Iain's case, you can safely reverse this.”

Explore more music: Fairport

Bruce Hazen

Every downward trajectory has a lowest point, and Matthews reached his with Shook (1984). Roberton was clearly still trying to break Matthews to a larger audience, and had brought him back to England for another try, but Matthews himself seemed to have lost his spark (despite the evidence of “Wish,” which Matthews co-wrote with friend Joe Hadlock). Polydor’s German division released the album, but with no label in the US or the UK interested, Matthews went back to California, sold his guitars, and got an A&R; job with Island records.

Two years passed.

In August of 1986 Matthews agreed to appear at Fairport Convention’s annual Cropredy Festival in Oxforshire. On the flight over his emotions were chaotic: excitement over playing again; nerves due to his long layoff; and underneath everything else the fear that the trip would end in yet more disappointment. It proved the opposite. The audience reaction to his set with Fairport, and to the climactic acapella version of “Woodstock” in which he blended his voice with those of Christine Collister, Clive Gregson, and Richard Thompson, made it overwhelmingly clear that Matthews’ voice had been missed.

At the time he was working for new age label Windham Hill, an association that would prove increasingly untenable. Nonetheless, at the end of his A&R; stay he convinced them to sign him for a vocal album that would include electronic overlays by various keyboard players and arrangers such as Van Dyke Parks, Fred Simon, and Patrick O’Hearn. After considering several other candidates, Matthews decided to make the album a tribute to the comparatively unknown songwriter Jules Shear (Jules and the Polar Bears), and worked up an extensive demo tape with producer Mark Hallman in Austin, Texas, that featured “Lovers By Rote,” among others. The finished album, Walking a Changing Line (1988), also includes “Following Every Finger” and “On Squirrel Hill.”

Clearly Windham Hill and cover tunes were a way to make a comeback, but hardly a long-term career path. Collaborating with Hallman, however, seemed to hold considerable potential, and the two (with Craig Negoescu on keyboards) toured in 1988, recording a live album at New York’s Bottom Line, Nights in Manhattan, that appeared on the German independent label Taxim Records in 1991. The tour and the working relationship with Hallman went so well that in September of 1989 Matthews relocated to Austin.

“I am still hazy about how he found me and, I must admit, I was flattered as I had worn out several of his records during the early seventies. He must have had a hunch about me, because he took a plane to Austin from Los Angeles to check me out. It was quickly obvious that we had found kindred spirits in each other. We immediately began recording demos for what was to become Walking A Changing Line. We had a blast and, I think he would agree, got some wonderful musical results. From there, we journeyed to Los Angeles, recorded the record, did some tours, recorded some more records, did some more tours and developed an enduring friendship in spite of it. I am proud of our musical endeavors and happy to have become a part of Iain's musical history.”

Mark Hallman

What seemed at the time to be just one more restless move proved the beginning of the most fruitful phase of Matthews’ career as a songwriter. He began playing live with Hallman, and the two of them recorded a cassette-only album that Matthews sold at shows. Landing a deal with the independent label Goldcastle, he began work on Pure and Crooked (1990), a classic album chock-full of Matthews originals like “The Rains of ’62,” “Like Dominoes,” and “Perfect Timing.” To fill the lead guitar slot, Hallman brought in Austinite Bradley Kopp, whose superb tremolo-bar inflections were a mainstay of Matthews live shows and recordings throughout the nineties. Also on this album Iain returned to the Gaelic spelling of his first name, completing his transformation from the introverted footballer Ian MacDonald to an artist of his own creation.

“I met Iain Matthews in 1987. In the hundred thousand plus miles that we've traveled together since then, I've come to know Iain as one of the all time great male vocalists, possessing an uncanny ability for finding and recognizing great songs and making them his. I've watched Iain go from being an excellent interpreter of songs to an excellent writer of songs who unabashedly addresses his most personal experiences musically and lyrically--which, in my opinion, makes him the writer of real songs.”

Bradley Kopp

Matthews’ songwriting continued to flower on Skeleton Keys (1992), which came out on Germany’s Line Records after Goldcastle folded. For the first time in his career Matthews was appearing on stage alone, and this new confidence and maturity are evident in songs like “Living in Reverse,” “Timing,” and “God’s Empty Chair,” a tribute to Miles Davis. Hallman suggested the more acoustic instrumentation on the album, the first made up entirely of Matthews originals.

Later that year Matthews appeared with Andy Roberts at the Cambridge Folk Festival, and the collaboration led almost inevitably to thoughts of reforming Plainsong. Mark Griffiths was an obvious choice for the new lineup, which was completed by English singer/songwriter Julian Dawson, whom Matthews and Roberts had met at another English festival. Matthews was the major contributor of material for Dark Side of the Room (1992), remaking his own “And Me” as “Say a Prayer,” and writing “Towie” with Griffiths and “Unusual Girl” with Dawson (heard here in a dance mix that Line records vetoed as a single).

“I was sixteen the year that Matthew's Southern Comfort’s haunting version of ‘Woodstock’ was a hit - I loved the sound, bought it right away and soon after the album Second Spring too. Though it was an English record, I think it qualified as the first ‘West Coast’ sounding music I'd heard - pedal steel, banjo and those lovely layered harmonies. I stayed a fan of Iain's California albums and was a very happy man years later when he asked me to join Plainsong. Singing with him is like dancing with Nureyev (without the tights, of course). I'm proud to be a small part of the story....”

Julian Dawson

During this period Matthews began to release various small-label collections, including two volumes of Orphans and Outcasts (1991 and 1993), made up of outtakes and rarities, and two volumes of The Notebook Series (1992 and 1993), consisting of demos recorded directly to digital tape. In addition Elektra issued The Soul of Many Places (1993), selecting highlights from his years at the label.

The real action, however, was with Plainsong, and Voices Electric (1994) showed the band at its finest. Matthews contributed four songs, including “Voices” and “Christophoro’s Eyes,” the latter again a product of his eclectic reading habits. The band came to Austin so that Mark Hallman could produce.

Fully energized, Matthews then created what may be his masterpiece, the brooding and confrontational Dark Ride (1994) on Austin’s Watermelon Records. Blending originals like “I Drove,” collaborations like “Girl With the Clouds In Her Eyes” (with Austin songwriter Michael Fracasso and Hallman), and covers like “Morning Glory” (by Larry Beckett and Tim Buckley), he achieved his goal of creating a deeply personal yet musically powerful statement.

One of Matthews’ most impressive characteristics is his enthusiasm for other artists. He was so taken with the work of Michael Fracasso that the two formed the nexus of a new band, Hamilton Pool, which also put Hallman in a featured role. After a long period of discussion and demos (like Matthews’ “Restless Wings”), the band released Return to Zero (1995?), which includes two other Matthews’ originals, “Imperfect Angel” and “On the Inside.” A lack of national attention combined with the pull of individual careers put massive stress on the band. Though they reconfigured themselves as a four-piece, adding Austin songwriter and guitarist David Halley. With producer Hallman now playing bass and drums as well as guitar, the band only succeeded in recording a handful of songs toward a second album (like Matthews’ “Horse Left In the Rain”) before breaking up.

Despite conflicts with the dying Watermelon label, Matthews next solo album, God Looked Down (1996), is much of a piece with his other Austin work: excellent writing from Matthews (all songs are originals) on tracks like “The Beat I Walk,” “Alone Again Blues,” and the outtake “Something Mighty”; pristine production by Mark Hallman; and tasty playing by Kopp, David Grissom,(Joe Ely band) drummer Chris Searles, and others.

And finally there was Plainsong again, though the fire had gone out of the new lineup on Sister Flute (1996), which included Matthews’ compositions “People’s Park” (a tribute to Woody Guthrie) and “Spirits,” heard here in a solo version left over from the Live Wham taping. Dawson departed to concentrate on his solo career, and Clive Gregson (of Any Trouble, Gregson and Collister, and Richard Thompson’s band) stepped in. “Back of the Bus” is from the limited edition Live in Austria EP (1998). This same lineup went on to record New Place Now (1999) in Austin with producer John Wood, leading off with the Chip Taylor/Al Gorgoni hit for the Hollies, “I Can’t Let Go.” Another cover song, one of four ultimately dropped from the album, was Boo Hewerdine’s “Your Own Way of Forgetting.”

"I was still at school (sorry, Iain!) when I first heard Iain's voice. My mate lent me the Best of Matthews Southern Comfort album and I played it to death. I was instantly taken by the the sheer quality of Iain's singing, the inspired choice of songs, the subtle arrangements and the high standard of musicianship. These are all things that have stayed with Iain throughout his career and he has a discography that most artists would kill for. Back in school, I never thought for one moment that one day I would be on stage with Plainsong, standing next to the owner of that glorious voice. A privilege!"

Clive Gregson

Somehow Matthews found time during all this to record a children’s song, “Jacques and Tambo,” backed only by Hallman and Kopp, for the album The Remembering (1997), and to do a version of “Flower Lady,” with Kopp, for the Phil Ochs tribute album What’s That I Hear? (1998).

Iain’s next solo album, Excerpts From Swine Lake (1999), began to take shape in Clive Gregson’s basement, where he recorded the demo “Even If It Kills Me.” This album was the first on which Bradley Kopp handled production, and the transition was seamless, as “Dance of Fate” clearly shows. Kopp also produced the anagrammatically titled follow-up, A Tiniest Wham (2000), which employed the driving acoustic sound of much of Matthews’ previous Austin work. Using yet another new conbination of session players, with dynamic standup bass work by Jude Weber and magnificent mandolin and slide accompanyment by longtime east coast friend, Jim Fogarty, Matthews drew inspiration from the likes of Django Reinhardt and the Louvin Brothers. This outstanding album includes a collaboration with Fracasso, “Like Mercury,” and Matthews’ originals “Our Secret Storm” and “Funk and Fire.” His voice has a rougher edge on these songs, and the reason is not hard to pinpoint. After over a decade of peace and productivity, the time had come for Matthews to leave Texas and return to Europe.

The move had economic reasons as well as personal ones. Matthews’ core audience remained on the Continent, and he was no longer able to support himself by touring the US. As if to drive home the point, the German and original UK releases of Tiniest Wham included a bonus live CD, A Live Wham, recorded during a successful tour of Germany and featuring superb renditions of songs like “Cover Girl.”

Relocating to Amsterdam, Matthews began playing numerous live shows with talented Dutch multi-instrumentalist, singer, and songwriter Ad Vanderveen. “Ballad of Gruene Hall,” commemorating a South Texas institution, comes from a self-released live CD, The Iain AdVenture (2000). Matthews also played a few shows with newfound friend Peter Slager and the hugely popular Dutch band BLΨF.

I came so far for beauty I left so much behind: My patience and my family My masterpiece unsigned (“Came So far For Beauty,” Leonard Cohen)

“Leonard Cohen lyrics that to me characterize Iain Matthews.

“I’ll try to explain why. We met at a party in Gorinchem. I knew that Iain Matthews was a songwriter, but that was about it. That night we had a long conversation about music, including ours. I knew that Iain had played in Fairport Convention and Matthews Southern Comfort, but with his impressive series of solo CDs Iain Matthews most of all is Iain Matthews. I understood this was not just another musician, but a real one: To Iain music always comes first.

“For the past 35 years he travelled the whole world with his guitar to play and sing his songs. A sort of wanderer of the soul, which appealed to me, and we stayed in touch. Iain is an Englishman (and an ardent Manchester United fan), but for years he had been living in the United States of Fucking America, as he called them. Something told me he wanted to leave, which proved to be right as he came to live in the Netherlands not much later. BLΨF, my band, asked him to come along on a tour. He would play on his own with his guitar, which to me still is the purest form of making music. Often I was on the side of the stage watching him play for young people that mostly never heard of him before and silence them with his songs.

“Except for that one night in Delft, must have been June 16th. After having played 3 songs, people in the audience were still talking through his music and he walked off the stage. ‘Fuck it, it's my birthday, and I’m not gonna do this,’ he said. A man after my own heart. “For the encores of these shows we used to do a song together: ‘Something Mighty.’ It was an honour and a privilige to play together and I hope one day I’ll accompany him again. It has become clear to me that musicians and songwriters like Iain Matthews are of a dying species. He’s made dozens of records and, if I know him well, he’s going to make lots more.

“It’s hardly his own choice, I think he just has to. Nowadays, who goes that far for the beauty of a song? He came so far for beauty...”

Peter Slager

Collaboration has been the theme of the last two years. Matthews formed the Sandy Denny tribute band No Grey Faith with Jim Fogarty, who played on Tiniest Wham, and singer Lindsay Gilmour. The resulting album, Secrets All Told (2000), includes Denny’s “Rising For the Moon”; Two Matthews originals, “Stranded” and “Fading Fast,” were demos for the project.

Matthews and Roberts tested the Plainsong waters once more in 2001 with a six-song mini-album, A to B, which includes his controversial take on racial issues, “To Be White.” A collaboration with American rocker, (now Paris resident) Elliott Murphy resulted in the commercially successful album La Terre Commune (2001) and the songs “One Cold Street” and “Close to the Bone,” a Matthews original that pays tribute to one of his favorite writers, Neil Young. Later that same year, from the “Song Island” workshop on Samso Island in Denmark came six new originals, including a collaboration with Pete Droge, Rasmus Hedeboe and Frank Birch, “Cartwheel Avenue,” performed by the authors with the workshop’s house band.

“Iain Matthews’ music is pure, rooted in truth and honesty. there is no trickery in his work. No smoke. No mirrors. No fat. His guitar, voice and writing are unaffected and real.”

Pete Droge

And finally, Matthews and Vanderveen joined with legendary Texas songwriter Eliza Gilkyson for the More Than a Song project, yielding Matthews compositions “Meaning To Life” (here in a live Dutch radio version) and “Sing Sister Sing” from the album More Than a Song (2001). The group also has a live album, Witness.

Between the No Grey Faith project and recent appearances at the Cropredy Festival, it might be tempting to see Matthews’ career as having completed some kind of circle and returned to his beginnings with Fairport. In fact his path is more like that of the sailboats that he would rather sing about than actually venture out on--changing direction only to deal with the prevailing winds, pressing steadily toward a single goal. In Matthews’ case that goal has always been the perfection of his craft.

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