Interview: Seafarer Matthew Herd on songwriting and odd-jobbing on his own recordings

Matthew Herd and Seafarer at Cecil Sharp House and in Regent’s Park.

John Martyn’s unique folk-jazz blend influences new 21st Century music.

The Seafarers play a jazz folk hybrid that is the creation of Matthew Herd and while they have been around for nearly ten years, they are only now releasing their second album, ‘Seafarers II’. Additionally, their hybrid music is the result of Matthew Herd’s songwriting and their work in the studio rather than being developed in front of live audiences, and as such, has a purity of vision that is unusual for an emerging band. With the release of ‘Seafarers II’, they believe that they are finally producing the type of music that truly reflects their vision. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with head Seafarer Matthew Herd who explained that while the Seafarers play his music he is much more of a musical odd job man on the recording, something he is very capable of doing given his status on the UK jazz scene, his session work on saxophone and his work in music education. He also explains that the Seafarers’ music was inspired by John Martyn’s mix of jazz folk and why he doesn’t play much of his primary instrument, the saxophone, this time around. While the music reflects Matthew Herd’s musical vision as interpreted by his friends and colleagues in Seafarers he also explains why he wants his music to be given the chance to be heard by as many interested listeners as possible. Finally, he shares his guilty secret that while the Seafarers may be nearly ten years old, they became a different band in 2018 with largely different band members and a different sound, and that folk and roots music have an earthiness and reality that isn’t always their in jazz and classical music.

The Seafarers were formed in 2013 but ‘Seafarers II’ is only your second album?

I know. In 2013 I was 23 and I had just finished music college and the band back then looked a lot different from how it does now. Lauren Kinsella was still our singer but I think that is about it, haha. Back then it was a lot more of an improvised music band and more abstract, and strange even. It was a lot of fun at the time, playing gigs and stuff, but it was all very much part of the London jazz scene, and we then just kind of drifted. I got a job in a school, and that became a huge part of my life, and the other people went on to do other things. It was only in 2018, I think, after five years of that I kind of decided to call up the band, haha, but it was a very different band this time. I guess I just stole the name and gave it to a different bunch of musicians, and I just hoped the previous musicians were OK about it and didn’t ring me up, haha.

Clearly, the other band members have an influence on the music, but are Seafarers really Matthew Herd?

Yeah, I have always written the songs and the music, and the other people are the only people I can imagine playing them. I guess it is a funny thing when you are writing songs and you are not singing them yourself but you are giving them to somebody else to deliver them and carry the story. The people who form the band are people I have very strong musical connections with. When you are playing music I think the musical connections you make with people are a lot deeper the more you get on with them as people, regardless of anything else, more so than if someone can play in a certain way or has a certain character to their voice, or can play really fast, or is really good on the drums, all that is secondary to the question of whether I have a personal empathy with them. The people I asked to make these records are people I have met through different walks of life. Some of them are jazz musicians, some are folk musicians, there is a student I used to teach on this record just because we get on, you know. They are all people who I think understand what I am trying to do musically.

When you write your songs are you writing them for yourself, or are you writing them for the band, or isn’t there any real difference?

There’s not a lot of difference. I think first and foremost I am writing for me, and I think it is that funny thing with songwriting and for me, good songwriting is about songs that make the listener think they are about them, as opposed to hearing someone pour their heart out about their woes, or grief, or whatever. The good songwriter is able to take what is inside them and make it relevant to you, and I think that is a really generous thing, a really nice thing about songwriting. I hope that the musicians can link them, I did write them for me, but I hope they can find a degree of relevance in the music to make it appropriate to them as well.

When you are recording your songs, how much of the arrangements are improvised and how much is structured and thought out beforehand, and who gets to decide what is going into a song?

In the studio, my main collaboration in terms of direction is a chap called Ewan Martin, who is a great Scots musician, and I met Ewan when I was 16 in Glasgow, and he was playing jazz bass and making great albums as a jazz composer. In a similar way to what I have done over the course of the last five to ten years, he kind of drifted from jazz to production work for contemporary songwriters and folk musicians. He is an erudite listener, and he has loads of points of reference, and he is able to take his background as a jazz musician and the directness you get with folk and roots music that I think a lot of jazz artists lack. Jazz can get rather cerebral but there is a real purpose and function to folk and roots music, though I am fond of jazz, and I think Ewan can have both and he can see that a lot of the musicians are really talented and whether they are from a jazz or a folk background they can all improvise and make stuff up. He can see what could be quite useful and he knows how much freedom to give people. This album, ‘Seafarers II’, has bits of improvisation but not lots of it. We did let them express themselves and there was a bit more room on the first album, haha, but here the album is more about the songwriting, it is a little bit sparser in terms of that. In terms of actual solos there are almost none, but having said that I think just being able to play music as an improviser gives you a certain degree of freedom and liberty, just in the delivery. I think improvisers have a certain freeness and flexibility that they carry into every part of their music-making, which is really valuable.

Are you a structured songwriter, do you set time aside every day to write, or is it as and when the muse strikes?

It comes in fits and starts. I play a lot and I read a lot, and I listen to a lot of music, and I think about it all the time, so I am never too far away from something that might trigger something that might develop into a song. In terms of actually working at it, I’m not very structured, even as a person haha, historically there are writers like Cole Porter and George Gershwin, the Great American Songbook writers, or people like Randy Newman who talk about writing as a job, you know, you turn-up, you sit down, and by the end of the day, I will have three songs. That is amazing, but I struggle with that a bit, and I remember reading about Neil Young where he talked about being a hunter with a shotgun down a rabbit hole, and he has to wait for the rabbit to run past before he could pull the trigger. The point was that you have to be there, you have to be ready and waiting, and you must put yourself in the position for the song to strike. As long as you are doing that, and you are listening a lot and you are noticing things in the world then you hope the rabbit will at one point come past and you will be ready to pull the trigger. I probably fall into the latter category, if someone said, “Write a song right now.”, I would find that quite tough. I  could probably do it but it would be very tough to like the song I had written, haha.

Matthew Herd of Seafarers
You play sax, organ, and keyboards on the album, what is your main instrument and what drew you to it in the first place?

I’m a saxophone player really, but I don’t play a lot of sax on ‘Seafarers II’. When I’m doing sideman stuff and playing as a session musician it tends to be all playing saxophone, but I just don’t really hear the sax on this and I don’t think it needs much of it, there are bits here and there but that is it. My other instrument is piano, and I started piano before I played sax, and whilst I never took it as seriously and professionally as I did the sax. I can work it but I’m a bit ham-fisted on it, I can’t play Rachmaninoff and you won’t see me at concert halls, haha. I always write on the piano, and I do all the string arrangements and whatnot on the piano just because you can hear everything for control. So, I can play a little bit of organ here and there, I can try and sing some backing vocals when needed, I’m sort of the odd-job man in this band when it comes to actually playing music. If something needs doing and I can do it, then I do, but it is more I write the songs and then let other people play, haha.

Jazz and folk roots music mixed well in the ‘60s, were you influenced by any of that, or did you just come to the mix naturally?

There are songs I really love from that period, but I find the crossover thing quite hard at times. There are some albums that are just stunning, and there are other albums that have nice ideas but don’t quite do it for me. I love John Martyn, and ‘Solid Air’ is one of my favourite records, and he is able to capture the essence of the folk singer-songwriter and also some more of the freer and more liberal expressive things that Miles Davis was doing in the ‘60s with ‘In A Silent Way’ and John McLaughlin. From that period I’m probably more drawn to either one or the other. I really love Shirley Collins, particularly those records she did with her sister playing organ which are gorgeous, I listen to Nick Jones a lot, Paul Brady and Andy Irvine who are more Celtic folk singers and songwriters.  With jazz, it is obviously Miles, Coltrane, and I’m a huge fan of jazz singers, I love Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday who was earlier. ‘Solid Air’ is the one I keep coming back to as the archetypal jazz-folk crossover.

You have your career as a music teacher and session musician, does that mean that what you record as Seafarers is really your musical vision without too much regard to commercial viability?

When we made the first album a couple of years ago, that was because I was writing tunes and the pile beside my piano was getting bigger, but as I said, I didn’t have a band to play them it was just a case of I love writing tunes and it is something I do, for therapy as well, it is just a nice way to pass the time. I had made it to my late twenties, I was like 27, and I thought teaching is going OK, I’ve got some gigs, I’m finding my way in the world, maybe now is the time to see how these things sound. It was really just an experiment, I just wanted to put those tunes to bed. I then really enjoyed making that album and while I’m happy being a teacher and I don’t have any grand plans, I like recording my music and trying to make it sound as good as I can. I’m nearly thirty now and while I wouldn’t have minded touring the band and playing those places with sticky floors and that if I was 19, Tom the piano player is my boss in school, and most of the band are teachers. I’d love to get out and do a couple of gigs here and there, and I will definitely keep writing songs and  I’m doing it for me. It is lovely when people listen to the music and respond to it in whatever way they do and I love that, but it is a bit of a holiday, a bit of a luxury, a very nice thing to do but it is not my income, working with teenagers takes care of that, haha.

Are you just going to take 2022 as it comes?

I think so. We are planning a trip to America to do some gigs on the East Coast which is really exciting. It does feel a little bit ridiculous going over there before we have done a gig in the UK so hopefully, we will have one sorted out before we get over there, haha. A gig in London, I grew up in Glasgow so a gig there would be nice, and if we could pick up a couple more around the country I would love that. That and the American thing is a work in progress. I will just see what happens when the album comes out, and enjoy it as much as I can. It is a lovely distraction from school, which can get very internal if you are not careful.

I was quite sheepish about releasing music before, but now I think regardless of your aspirations or whatever if you have made something you should let people hear it and give it as good a chance as anything. It is selfish otherwise, it is always that battle between self-promotion and all the nasty things that come with it, and then trying to separate that from the fact you have taken a long time to make something. Put it out there and give people the opportunity to love or hate it, so the least you can do is release it and try and make sure it reaches interested ears.

Has your songwriting influenced your session work?

That is interesting, they are kind of two separate things and they don’t really mix. My work in the jazz world is not really affected by this, a lot of my musical colleagues know I do it and they are very supportive. There hasn’t really been much crossover. Oddly what has been really nice about doing Seafarers is it has got me out of the jazz world and has got me meeting other songwriters, and people from other musical spheres, photographers and animators, and lots of artists that I wouldn’t have otherwise have met.

That has been really fascinating. There is an odd thing with jazz and classical music is that they are institutionalised whereas songwriting isn’t, yet, and I hope it never is. There is a big leaning on classical training, on being proper and on practicing lots and tuning, and all the nitty-gritty stuff. It is good in away, but I think it often detracts from what makes a John Martyn great, and as we have talked about it is the fact he is imperfect that makes him so great, so human and so fragile. Flaws, that’s what I love about him, and he’s not a bad guitarist, which really helps, haha. He has lived a life that doesn’t feel clinical or institutionalised, it is born of pubs, of family and friends, and sharing. All that stuff is quite different from what goes on in the jazz and classical worlds. So I am delighted to be meeting people who have learnt in a very different way, and in a way, I think music should be taught, orally. You don’t learn from a book, you learn from living your life and going to gigs and listening, checking on records, and just playing because you love it. It has been really refreshing getting out of the jazz scene.

You sound like a very happy man.

I have my days, but we get there, haha. Yeah, I love talking about this and it is an interesting thing and something that keeps me engaged, making music like this and making albums. It is not always easy, but it is always very rewarding, and it is something I will feel very comfortable doing for quite a long time. It is hard though, really hard, haha.

We like to share new music with our readers, so currently what are your top three tracks, artists or albums on your playlist?

I have been going back and listening to stuff that I was introduced to eight years ago. I have been listening to a lot of Gillian Welch, ‘Time The Revelator’ is just a fantastic record, particularly the last song, ‘I Dream A Highway’, which is 15 minutes long but not really long at all. I could take 7 hours of that song, easy. Fiona Apple as well and an album called ‘Extraordinary Machine’ which I just love. More recently I was listening to this on repeat today, was Big Thief’s new album, and there is a song on there called ‘Simulation Swarm’ that is great. I think Adrianne Lenker who writes for Big Thief is quite genuinely one of the greatest songwriters I’ve ever heard, and it is really lovely when you hear somebody pushing against the mainstream today with a loyal following who is a true artist, someone who has done it all under their own steam. He is just an incredibly talented and empathetic individual voice, so yeah, I love the Big Thief records and they are so prolific there is always something new, and it is always really good.

Is there anything you want to say to Americana UK readers?

I will be very grateful if they have managed to read to the end of this interview, haha, thank you. Also please listen to the album and thank you again.

The Seafarers’ ‘Seafarers II’ is out now and is an independent release.

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About Martin Johnson 389 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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