If there was an award for the role of Godfather of Americana in the UK, serious consideration would have to go to Iain Matthews as a deserving nominee. An early member of Fairport Convention, recruited for his fine voice and ability to front a band, he was an early advocate of American singer songwriters like Richard Farina and Steve Gillette. Iain sang alongside original Fairport singer Judy Dyble but when Judy was replaced by Sandy Denny and Fairport started to move towards re-arranging traditional British folk songs, his position in the band became increasingly uncomfortable. He was dropped from the band in 1969, quite unceremoniously, but opted not to take it too personally; instead he made a musical point by forming Mathews Southern Comfort, a band built on the sound of American roots music rather than Fairport’s take on British folk, and went on to have a number one hit with his cover version of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Woodstock’.
It’s perhaps his next band that has really cemented Matthews’ position as a cult figure within UK Americana. Plainsong, formed in 1972 with the man who was to become a long term collaborator, Andy Roberts, only released one album with their original line-up, but ‘In Search of Amelia Earhart’ went on to become a classic of Folk/Country/Rock.
It’s all there in Iain Matthews’ excellent new autobiography ‘Thro’ My Eyes – A Memoir’. Written with help from author and broadcaster Ian Clayton, the book covers Matthews’ entire career (to date) in music, from his hopeful beginnings as a young wannabe in swinging 60s London, through his time with Fairport Convention, Matthews’ Southern Comfort and Plainsong, his thirty years as a troubadour working the American singer/songwriter scene, his time as an A&R man, his return to performing and, since the turn of the millennium, his time back in Europe. This has been a remarkable career, much of it conducted outside of the spotlight and that’s what makes this book so compelling. There are plenty of books out there about the big names but precious few about the life of the working musician and this book provides some real insight into what it takes to be a journeyman singer/songwriter in the modern age. ‘Thro’ My Eyes’ really takes you through the highs and lows of a career on the road – one minute being groomed for stardom, the next being dropped from your label and not knowing where the next gig might come from.
Iain Matthews lays it all out with remarkable honesty. He talks about the failed relationships, not just with family but also with friends and colleagues, brought about by a life pursuing his musical dreams. The itinerant lifestyle is also held up for examination – born and raised in Barton-on-Humber, near Scunthorpe, Matthews originally relocates to London to follow his dreams but, in the early 1970s, he moves to California, a move that will see him criss-cross the States for the next 30 years as he searches for the peace and fulfilment that will anchor his life. In a strange twist of fate that doesn’t happen until he discovers the music scene in Amsterdam and finally relocates back to Europe and to the Netherlands.
This is a fascinating book and a thoroughly enjoyable read. Invariably, when a memoir like this is written with a more experienced writer, it becomes a series of anecdotes loosely strung together but Ian Clayton has worked well with Matthews to bring out a coherent storyline that really examines what it means to be a “slave to the music,” constantly searching for great songs and constantly looking at how to raise your own songwriting to the highest levels. Reading this book there is no doubt that Iain Matthews is in total thrall to the making of music, not the pursuit of fame and fortune but the simple desire to record the best songs, whether his own or other writers’ and to get the sounds in his head down onto tape and disc.
This is a book review, not a record review, but it is worth mentioning that the deluxe version of this book comes with a double CD of some of Iain Matthews’ own songs and it’s worth spending the extra money to discover what an excellent songwriter he has become over the years. He’s an astute observer of life and writes simple, but effective, reflections of the world he sees – a skill honed over a lifetime in the business of making music.
This book is well worth your time and money; it’s a great look at the harsh reality of the musician’s life – through the eyes of someone who has really lived it.