UK singer-songwriter Matt Hill’s latest album, ‘Savage Pilgrims’, is the first one he’s put out under his own name – his previous four releases were credited to Quiet Loner. He may no longer be a ‘quiet loner’, but, as his new record demonstrates, Hill will always be an outsider and difficult to pigeonhole – he’s part Americana, part protest singer and part folk artist.
‘Savage Pilgrims’ is his best album yet. A collection of story and character songs, told by different narrators, it takes the listener on a colourful and varied journey that starts with sinister goings-on in a graveyard in the City of London (‘Stone & Bone’), stops off in the hot, arid deserts of New Mexico, where novelist and poet DH Lawrence is dying of TB (‘The Exile of DH Lawrence’), then heads to Johnny Cash’s Tennessee home to listen in on a phone conversation between the Man In Black and a convicted killer who’s on death row (‘Gary Gilmore’s Last Request’), before visiting the rolling hills of the Peak District (‘If Love Should Rise’) and finding time to pop into a Nottingham boozer for a pint of ale (‘Four Corners’).
Musically, it’s influenced by country, Americana, folk, blues, spirituals and Spaghetti Western soundtracks. Hill, who grew up in Nottinghamshire, describes it as: “Americana rooted in British history and his own upbringing in a working-class culture obsessed with America.”
The album was recorded with producer/collaborator Sam Lench in an attic studio above a 19th-century pub in Northern England, where George Orwell used to drink – The King’s Arm, in Salford. Hill and Lench wanted the listener to feel like they were in the room, sat next to the storyteller, with people playing instruments all around them, so the performances were recorded live to analogue tape, using vintage microphones and with minimal overdubs. Guests include James Youngjohns (guitars) and Kirsty McGee (vocals, musical saw and flutes). Hill is accompanied by traditional folk and Americana instruments: acoustic and electric guitars, double bass, banjo, mandolin and percussion. AUK spoke to him about the new album, life during lockdown, the future of live music post-Covid:19, and his role in the early days of the UK Americana / alt-country scene.
How have you been coping with lockdown? Judging by your social media activity, you seem busier than ever – you’ve been playing several virtual festivals and online gigs. What’s it been like?
It’s been OK. I am lucky that I don’t have to go out and work on the front line, like so many people. Obviously I’ve lost quite a lot of income, so that has been hard, but lockdown has allowed me the time to focus on releasing my new record. I have been completely shielding, as my partner is on the NHS list, so I have not been able to go out for a walk, which is tough. This is the longest I’ve gone without seeing live music too.
How has the transition from ‘real’ gigs to virtual ones been? Have you found it hard? What are the advantages and disadvantages?
It has been a tough transition. One of the biggest challenges for me has been getting decent audio when live streaming. Sound quality is very important in how I deliver my songs, so I have spent a lot of time trying to get that right. It’s also hard to give a full-on performance when you’re playing to an empty room – it requires a shift in mindset. It’s actually just as taxing as a real gig. I’m not sure if there are any advantages, but I have heard of musicians making money from their live streams.
As a professional musician, what are your biggest concerns about the effect of the Covid-19 crisis on the live music scene? Will it recover? What needs to be done to secure its future?
People will always want to hear live music. I don’t think that will change, but I’m not sure the live scene can recover and get back to what we have known over the past 30-40 years, but, to be honest, at the grassroots level, it has been dying a slow death for many years. With bigger concerts, people seem willing to pay hundreds of pounds to be part of those kinds of experiences. The flip side is that people are less willing to pay a fiver to see someone they have never heard of. I’m worried for the arts in general and if I were in government I would be advocating for massive state support, like we have seen in Germany and New Zealand, but I suspect that is very unlikely.
What are you most looking forward to doing in the ‘new normal?’
I really miss going to a café for a cup of tea and a butty. I don’t really drink anymore, but I am definitely looking forward to having a proper pint of bitter.
What’s been your lockdown soundtrack? What music has got you through the past few months?
I have been working on a project called the Low Drift with Huw Costin and Emma Thorpe, so I have been listening to their music. Huw’s band Torn Sail have an excellent new album coming out. Through the Low Drift I have become slightly obsessed with three-part harmonies, so I’m listening to the Bee Gees a lot. In the early days of lockdown my anxiety was through the roof and I listened to a lot of Don Williams. He really makes me feel calm and centred. New music I’ve been listening to includes: Lawrence County, Carol Hodge, Alec Bowman, Sophia Marshall and Joe Solo.
While we’re on the subject of new music, let’s talk about your latest album, ‘Savage Pilgrims.’ You’ve dropped the Quiet Loner moniker and put it out under your name. What prompted that move?
The first music I ever released was under my own name, so it feels like I’ve come back to where I started. It was definitely time for a change. The Quiet Loner name came about because, back in the early Noughties, there was a glut of male singer-songwriters who all had fake band names: Will Oldham was Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Mark Linkous was Sparklehorse and Jason Molina was Songs:Ohia. So I became Quiet Loner to fit in with that fashion at the time. Over the years it seemed to suit me less and less. To be honest I’m glad that I’m rid of it now. Although I can always do a Quiet Loner reunion tour if the whole Matt Hill thing doesn’t work out.
It’s ironic that this is your first album under your own name, but most of the songs on it are written about other people…
That’s a good observation. Most of the songs take their shape from the lives of other people, or through characters. But while they are not autobiographical, there is always something of the writer in any song and that’s certainly true with these.
Interestingly, you describe your new album as: “Americana rooted in British history.” There are songs on it that trace lines between the UK and USA, like ‘The Exile of DH Lawrence’ and ‘Billy’s Prayer’, but there’s also a nod to your own upbringing in a Nottinghamshire working-class coal mining culture that was obsessed with America. ‘Savage Pilgrims’ feels like a roots album – in both senses of the word – musically, with the country, folk and blues, even spiritual, influences on some of the songs, but it’s also going back to your roots. Songs like ‘Bendigo’ and ‘Four Corners’ reference the area where you grew up. Would you call ‘Savage Pilgrims’ a concept album?
I didn’t set out to make a themed album – it just evolved that way. I started out with about 25 songs – quite a lot were political, some were love songs and some were character songs. As I began the production process, that final set of songs seemed to gel together. I think roots music is a good way to describe this album and it definitely delves into my geographical roots. There are three songs all set within Nottinghamshire, like Elvis’s ‘American Trilogy’, but with an East Midlands angle.
The album sounds great. Sam Lench’s production and the arrangements and the playing are brilliant and inventive – particularly James Youngjohns’s guitar. Listening to the record on headphones, your vocals take centre stage – it’s like you’re singing in the listener’s ear. What did you want the record to sound like and how were the recording sessions? Was it an enjoyable album to make?
I’m really proud of this album and especially of how it sounds. I think it’s the best thing I’ve done. As a solo acoustic singer-songwriter, there is always a dilemma involved when making an album. I didn’t want it to be a full-on production that I could never replicate live. But, equally, a simple solo acoustic record can often sound a little thin, so I tried to go somewhere in the middle.
My role was to rehearse like mad and to turn up knowing those songs inside out. The rest was down to Sam’s production skills. We both really enjoyed the process too, so hopefully that comes over. The most important part was in capturing the core live performance of me singing and playing exactly as you would see at a gig. Once we had those performances, we built everything else around it. The King’s Arms was a great place to record, with atmosphere and history, so that really helped make it feel special as we were making it.
You don’t really fit into a scene, do you? You’re part protest singer, part folk artist and part Americana…
I have a foot in the folk world, and I do write political songs, but I don’t really know where I fit in. I just know that the kind of music I love the most is Americana, so that’s where I put myself. I guess it’s up to other people to say if I belong there or not. But I love country-influenced music and that particular kind of storytelling songwriting and, yes, it is often political. Good examples would be John Prine, Tom T. Hall, Guy Clark and Dolly Parton. Dolly is a lot more subversive than people give her credit for. After my ‘Greedy Magicians’ album was so well received, I was a little wary of being seen solely as a political protest-type songwriter. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it will close as many doors as it will open. My problem was I don’t fit some people’s idea of protest songs, as I’m not punk enough. I got a review for ‘Greedy Magicians’ that said it wasn’t noisy enough to be protest – that the music was too nice to be effective.
Some people might not know this, but you played an important role in the early days of the UK Americana / alt-country scene, in the late Nineties/early Noughties, didn’t you? You played gigs with Neal Casal, Joe Pernice, Neko Case, and Lambchop, booked tours for Bloodshot Records, which released Ryan Adams’s ‘Heartbreaker’ album, and you helped to promote Jay Farrar and Adams in the UK. How did all that come about?
The late Nineties was such an exciting time for music I think one of the key factors was the growth of the internet. I joined a newsgroup – most people probably don’t know what that is anymore – but it was like a message board or Facebook Group in the early days of the internet. The one I was in was called Postcard and it was for fans of Uncle Tupelo, but it soon became about the broader and burgeoning ‘alt.country’ movement. The ‘alt.dot’ part of ‘alt.country’, referred to newsgroups themselves, which were listed with an alt. prefix. So the technology of the internet was important in growing that movement. I made a lot of connections and friends through Postcard and one of those people was Mick Spencer. It was with Mick that we started to make moves to bring more American acts over to the UK.
Do you have any good stories from that time?
One of my overriding memories was having to phone Frank Callari in Nashville. He was Ryan Adams’s manager and I was terrified. He was some big shot business guy and there was me in my flat in Manchester, doing it on top of a day job, with absolutely no clue about what we were doing. We’d already had the go-ahead from Paul Fenn, who was Ryan’s UK agent, but it was my job to convince Callari to let us handle Ryan’s tour. I guess the fact that we were working for free probably helped persuade him. I ended up having to do Ryan’s work visa application forms. Looking back now they probably saw us coming a mile off. We never made any money from it, but I suspect they did. But what Mick and I did was to pull together a network of music fans and promoters across the UK and build a touring circuit and hopefully an audience for this new genre of music.
At that point I was more of a promoter and a fan and wasn’t really playing music myself. I’d been in bands when I was young, but I’d lost the confidence to perform. But once I started putting shows on, I had an opportunity to get up and do a support slot. The first solo show I did was opening for Neal Casal in Nottingham. Neal was such a lovely guy and he was very encouraging to me, despite the fact I wasn’t that good at that point. I did quite a few shows with him over the years.
The Bloodshot Records tour in February 2000 was probably the highlight of it all for me. I loved the Bloodshot label and we managed to convince them to send over a revue tour, so we got The Waco Brothers, Sally Timms, Kelly Hogan and Chris Mills on one bill. That was when I first met Chris and he became a good mate and has been such an inspiring person in my life. I loved his music but what really struck me with Chris was every single time he came back to the UK he had improved both as a songwriter and as a performer. He just kept pushing himself and getting better and better and that was really encouraging for me to try and improve.
So, finally: Ryan Adams – where did it all go wrong?
When Ryan was on form there were very few people who could touch him, particularly as a solo performer, but he also had that potential to become so self-absorbed he would do terrible shows. I actually walked out of one of his gigs once it was that bad.
‘Savage Pilgrims’ by Matt Hill is released on July 6 (Quiet Loner Records). Catch Matt playing a live stream of the entire album this Sunday at 8pm on Facebook Live.