Last Sunday afternoon, I had the chance to interview Matt Elliott, the British-born, French-based dark folk musician, who was getting ready to leave for a 26-day European tour. “It would literally be the soundtrack to the last two, five years of my life,” Elliott confided when discussing his new album, The Calm Before (now available via French label Ici d’ailleurs). Check out the interview with the talented singer about The Calm Before, songwriting, and what the future holds, below.
Thank you for taking the time to talk to Beautiful Savage and congratulations on the release of your new album.
Thank you very much.
Can you talk about how you came up with the title?
The title actually was the last thing I did on the album, after all the titles of the tracks. It was originally called Coping Strategies. “The Calm Before” was always the name of the second song. It was only at the last minute that I decided to call it the name of the album as well. The Calm Before is more a reference to a storm which comes into all of our lives at some point, and it can be anything, a person or a situation, and then it can mess things up a bit. But at the same time it’s quite nice to have this [happen] because it’s a way of rolling the dice again.
Do you tend to write the melody or the lyrics first?
Normally the melody comes first or an idea for an improvisation. I’ve got a guitar less than two meters away from me when I’m at home, and I [always] take a guitar wherever I go. “Wings & Crown” and “The Allegory of the Cave” were two improvised ideas that David, the co-producer, rearranged and put together in a way that didn’t sound so clumsy. That’s the way I try to work more now because I’ve quite enjoyed the idea of improvisation. At the same time it’s always nice to write a melody.
The lyrics are normally the last thing that come although sometimes I have an idea. With “I Only Wanted To Give You Everything,” I came up with everything on a bike ride – the main idea of the song, melody, and the chorus. The last project that I’ve done, which is a private project, has been to write a song everyday, and I did that for 65 days, to teach myself to do things quickly and spontaneously. The next album is going to be based on some of these tracks.
Which songs were the hardest and the easiest to write on this album?
All the lyrics were pretty hard to write on this album except for “I Only Wanted To Give You Everything.” “The Allegory of the Cave” was a bloody nightmare. I rewrote the song about 20 times and it’s my least favorite track off the album. But then it’s the most favorite track of the boss of the record company and lots of other people. I think this was the most difficult album I ever had to write the lyrics for. Maybe once you’ve written 40 songs, it does become harder to write things without repeating yourself.
Would you say you are a confessional singer as far as your lyrics are concerned?
Yes, but not everything is always about me. Sometimes it’s about other people. I put a post on Facebook the other day [about it]. For example, Howling Songs was written about a bunch of disparate things. Then I found out some information in my life that was quite important and relevant and suddenly every song made sense in a personal way. That was an amazing experience because it was like my subconscious all along knew what was happening and it was describing in great detail exactly how I would feel in the future. But I also try to leave the songs as open as possible because I like that people can take a phrase and it can mean something very relevant to them in their own lives.
The first time I heard Drinking Songs, it reminded me so much of Russian folk songs. Where does this Eastern European/Russian influence in your work come from?
Well, it’s more to do with my mother. My mother was Estonian. She was separated from her mother when she was very young and it had a very traumatic effect on her. The only connection she had with her is that she remembered that they were in a church together and her mother was explaining to her the concept of god, so she got into the [Uniate] Church in quite a big way. The church was mainly made up of old Polish and Belarusian people in exile that all had traumatic experiences as refugees. When they sung, they sung with all their heart, and it was one of the last things that connected them with their homeland. It was profoundly moving and I remember thinking that I definitely would love to understand why this music is making me want to cry when I don’t understand what they’re saying.
Then when I was 15/16 and learning the guitar, I learned and found [the pentatonic scale] quite easy, but then I had this adverse reaction against it, so I tried to play anything that wasn’t in [that] scale and that was how I found myself on minor chords. I adapted my own scales from gypsy, Middle Eastern, and obviously Eastern European scales. I rejected the blues basis of all rock and started to look east, specifically to Eastern Europe. I’m a big lover of folk music because it’s very pure, made for reasons to purely express as opposed to make money or be cool or some other motivation.
What’s next for you music-wise?
The next project that is coming is a Third Eye Foundation project so that’s having to change my hat and think of things in a completely different way. It’s a completely different type of music and that stops me from getting too bored. The project of doing a song every day will make up the bones of the next Matt Elliott album, so that gives me a trajectory of where to stumble along.
One of my only regrets is not learning how to read and write music. I think it’s a double-edged coin. Maybe if I had learned, I wouldn’t have the music that I’ve made now, because my music is much more instinctive. I’d like to be able to write some proper classical music, but I’m not sure that day will ever come.
You are very active online and accessible to your fans. Was that always a conscious decision?
A couple of things put me in that direction. When I was about 16 or 17, I wrote to a band called Disco Inferno, asking for the lyrics of their songs and how to get their first 7-inch because I couldn’t find it anywhere. They wrote back to me with a handwritten letter with the 7-inch included, explaining they couldn’t give me the lyrics because the singer wouldn’t even share his lyrics with them. I was profoundly touched and moved by this generosity and this wonderful way of treating me, just some kid on an estate somewhere, that I told myself I will do the same if ever I become a musician. It was the same with The Legendary Pink Dots. I saw them and they said you want to write to me, just write and include a stamp back.
I will always answer whenever anyone writes me. And if ever the day comes that I’m not touched by someone saying my music meant something to them, I will stop doing music because it’s pointless. Music is a communication between people. You need someone to receive the communication for that communication to be valid.