Matt Owens is a respected singer/songwriter. He first came to our attention when he played bass in Noah and the Whale. He has gone on to carve out a successful solo career. GIGsoup is pleased to share this exclusive interview
Welcome Matt, it’s a pleasure to talk with you.
Take us back to the early days, do you remember the first song you wrote and what it was about
I remember I was about 11 – 12 years old. I was in a band with my best friend from school called ‘The Nuclear Toads’. I think the track was called Gazania. The song was awful, but I totally buy into that thing, the first time you try and write a song, you don’t really know what you’re doing. It’s a skill set you have to build up.
Tell us what the key inspirations were when you sat down to write for album ‘Whiskey and Orchids’
A lot of it started when I inherited my dad’s record collection when I was about twelve. I was a classical violin player but left that behind pretty rapidly. I was really into bands like Credence Clearwater Revival, I heard the ‘Green River’, and ‘After the Gold Rush’, albums alongside Van Morrison and Cat Stevens – that sort of thing. I was trying to write simply, but I kept adding too many chords, and making things complicated as a default setting. That was probably a hangover from being a classical musician. I looked at the stuff I was listening to back then, it stuck with me. When I started writing again post Noah and Whale, I was trying to distill it in to its purest form. I like stuff that tells you something, that surpasses the music. Often, it turns out, the music is two or three chords, it’s really simple and enhances what you want to say.
Rather than being a message, I knew with ‘Whiskey and Orchids’ I wanted it to be suitably varied. Depending on what night it was and how I was feeling, that I had enough songs I was wanting to play for the rooms I was wanting to play, enough songs to fit the mood. If it was a quiet room I could play something sensitive and lyrical, where people could really hear the words. Or if a stag party just walked in, I had enough of a set to play some originals that could carry over that as well.
In terms of narration and subject matter, my favourite songs are like stories. Perhaps someone sitting up at a bar, telling you secrets they probably shouldn’t. You lean in, and your like, that’s a great story. After Noah, going back down to the floor of it, often literally the pub floor, crazy stuff would happen. I would think, that’s a great idea for a song.
An example is ‘Too Far Gone.’ is about being asked to run drugs out in Ireland in a bass amp. £1million worth of drugs washed up on the west coast of Ireland. The Gardaí went to get it, but the locals got there first. A guy came up to us and started trying to broker a deal to get the drugs to London. You put yourself into it, you do the song writing thing and use it as a metaphor; in this case, to what extent do you pursue your dream? I was on a tour that wasn’t making any money. I could have come back to with £2000, as he was suggesting, it would have made life much easier for the next two months, but I didn’t. That’s the kind of thing I go for.
Which song flowed most easily?
‘Whiskey and Orchids’ flew pretty quickly. Sometimes, with songs, when you’ve been thinking about them for a long time, they often come very quickly, and in actual fact, the best ones often do. That’s what happened for me with that song. It is about getting your heart broken and a relationship that went bad. It probably takes the same amount of time to play it as it did to write. Normally, when that happens, I go back over it, and last 5% of the lyric sheet can be like pulling teeth. Don’t think it was like that with that one.
Which song took the most effort to write?
There’s a song called ‘Christmas Eve’. It’s about going to play a show on Christmas Eve. Leonard Cohen had just died and lead singer from ‘Tragically Hip’ had as well. I walked into the venue, everyone was celebrating. They thought I was there to celebrate too and they had lined me up a drink. I was there to gig. There was a lot of stuff going through my head and things going on at the time. I wanted to get it right. The chords were a bit complicated, which probably means there were probably three not two! I knew what I wanted to get to. It was always there, I just had to chip away
What track seems to have connected with the fans?
‘One **** of a Year’ Ironically, I often don’t play it as it’s a piano song and sometimes there are kids at the shows. It did very well on YouTube. It’s weird how a song affects people. The fans that come up to me and talk about that song have often had some sort of tragedy that year. It’s a throwaway line, but it is serious. It’s a phrase you might say under your breath, it might pass unnoticed. As the hook of a song, it flares and stands out. It wasn’t meant to shock, it nearly didn’t make it onto the record. That’s the track that people will often come and say if I don’t play it. ‘I love that song, it’s beautiful and means this to me’. That’s lovely because it means the song served its purpose.
You now live in Bath, at five things should we do if get to go to Bath?
Go to The Bell to hear some live music. It’s a great old pub – I think Robert Plant owns it.
The Wreck – one of the greatest places in the UK to watch live sport, whether you’re into Rugby or not.
Come to Livewired – my music night in Bath!
Go to the Roman Baths
Spend the evening at the Electric Bear
When you look back at your time with Noah and the Whale, what are the highlights?
That sense of it could go anywhere. I remember we were so excited when two people turned up to see us in Leicester or Leeds! They had come to see us. It was crazy – through sold out gigs in Seattle, playing Lollapalooza, the Letterman show, then off to Japan. There was no apparent limit or potential to where it could go. Playing music with your best mates every day was a great way to spend your twenties.
How did you become involved with the Under the Apple Tree?
Probably through Robert Vincent. I was lucky enough to get Rob to sing on that first solo record. He came to the studio where I was recording in Manchester and somehow ended up playing on it. I could not be there for some reason. It was something pretty seismic I had to be home for, like my daughter’s birthday. Rob came in and smashed it. I really wanted to say thanks, we met, had a few beers and it went from there. Since then we’ve toured together and I got him to play on the second album. That’s how I got infiltrated in. I then got asked to do a session by Bob Harris.