River Matthews, the British singer-songwriter who’s been making waves with his soulful tunes, is currently making his way across the United States to open for Good Old War and Justin Nozuka. The crew will be stopping off in Chicago tonight for a show at Bottom Lounge, and will wind up on the East Coast next week for shows at D.C.’s Union Stage (3.13) and NYC’s Le Poisson Rouge (3.14). I was able to grab a few minutes on the phone with Matthews yesterday to talk about how the journey’s been going so far, both in the short term sense of touring, and in the long term sense of pursuing a musical career. (Seeing as he’s just released his debut LP, Imogen, I’d say the latter is coming along nicely.) You can internet-eavesdrop on our full conversation below, and be sure to snag tickets to any/all shows that apply to your geographical location. You can also grab Imogen on Catherine Records right now.
Have you been hitting a lot of new US cities for the first time on this tour?
Yeah, mostly new cities. I’ve been to America a couple of times before. I’ve been to New York and LA, and San Francisco when I was really little with my folks, but most of these cities are totally fresh.
Awesome! I also saw on Instagram that you broke a necklace recently? Looks like it might’ve been a favorite?
[Laughs] Yeah, I did. It’s my favorite one.
Did you glue it back together? I think someone suggested that in the comments.
I think I threw it away. It was in pieces, and I was just like, “Man, there’s no way I’m gluing this back together.” I’m going to have to start a new necklace chapter.
Well, hopefully that’s the only casualty of this tour. Now, I’m going to backtrack for a minute since you brought up your parents a second ago. I know you’ve said they played a big role in the development of your interest in music, and your taste for it, and part of that was to do with listening to what they liked. Was there anything they played for you that you remember just absolutely hating, that maybe you like now? Or still hate?
[Laughs] You know, I don’t think so. That’s a good question, but I don’t think…well, I remember there was one Christmas when my mum bought a Cliff Richard Christmas album. We were really little, and that song “Mistletoe and Wine” I think I really liked, but the rest of the songs…I didn’t really love them.
You didn’t connect.
No, I didn’t connect with Cliff. But I think that’s the only thing that I can think of that I didn’t like. I’m sure after this I’m going to think of a couple of things, but I really liked it all, you know? My mum was really into Cat Stevens and The Beatles, and my dad was into The Rolling Stones and The Beach Boys, so it was all good.
That’s very fortunate. And I know that you started out playing guitar, but when did you realize that you not only could sing, but also wanted to sing? Was that always just sort of inherent, or was there an aha moment?
It think it was always there. We’d sing a lot in the house, and I remember singing a lot when I was little. I remember really wanting to join the choir at school, just because I wanted to sing. So it was always there, really. The guitar was kind of a separate thing. I asked my mum if I could learn, and she found a local teacher. It was classical guitar, and I was at an age where I didn’t really care or think about what type of music it was, I just wanted to make some noise on this thing. So the two were quite separate for a long time. Then I got to a certain age where my taste started to develop, and I wasn’t really into the classical, so I laid it down for a while and then picked it back up and started learning chords inspired by The Beatles and bands like Oasis and stuff like that. Then I started singing on top of it. It kind of felt like a natural thing, you know?
Well the reason I asked is just because you have this really amazing, really soulful voice. It’s kind of undeniable. Do you have to like, tone it down at birthday parties and stuff when they bring out the cake? So you don’t blow everyone else out of the water during the song?
[Laughs] Well, I never want to be that guy that’s like, “Look at me!” I’ve never been that person. If anything, I’d say I probably shy away from being the center of attention. So at birthday parties I generally don’t have any problems. [Laughs]
And when it comes to your own songs, I think you’ve said that it’s almost always the melody that comes before the lyrics. Does that mean you’re not consciously thinking about any sort of theme or narrative while you’re figuring out the melody? Or are you thinking about those things, you just hold off on articulating them until you’ve got the sound down?
That’s right, I won’t necessarily have anything that I want to talk about in particular. Or I won’t be conscious of it, anyway. The melody comes first always, and then some kind of feel will come from singing, and that will probably move into the words coming out. From that I’ll realize what the song is about, although sometimes I don’t even know straight away at all. The theme might change depending on what the words feel like. But yeah, melody first. Always.
Have you been thinking about any new ideas in terms of songwriting while you’ve been on the road? Or do you try to keep the creative side of things tethered to a studio or home environment, as opposed to while you’re on the move?
On this particular trip there have been so many things that have happened, and so I’m really excited – I’m definitely going to try to write songs about particular events and people. I’m really looking forward to getting back to start writing.
And do you prefer the writing and recording part to the performance part? You said you don’t like to necessarily be the center of attention, although I do know that those feelings can change when it’s in the context of being on stage as opposed to being in the middle of a party.
I’ve always liked variety and change in my life, so I really like aspects of every part of this. I really love writing, I enjoy writing with other people sometimes, and I enjoy writing by myself, but I also love singing. I really do. And there’s a feeling that comes with singing behind the microphone, especially, that I really love. That kind of tops any feeling of maybe not wanting to be the center of attention. I try not to think about it too much, really. I think if I thought about it too much I’d probably freak myself out a bit. Singing live to people, you really get caught up in the moment as well. That’s one of the things I’ve always loved about singing. You’re in the moment.
Catch River Matthews in the moment tonight in Chicago, Tuesday in D.C. and Wednesday in NYC, and download Imogen in the meanwhile.