I can’t remember exactly when or where I first came across the music of the Essex-based singer-songwriter MG Boulter, but it must be getting close to a decade ago during some ill-fated attempt at a night out in Southend on Sea. I was never very good at nights out – but that’s a long, mildly depressing, and irrelevant story probably best skirted. Anyway, I’ve now reached a stage in life where it feels as though my brain cells are dying off rapidly by the hour if not by the minute, mainly through spending every waking minute with a toddler, but I do remember being drawn to the sound of a band thrashing out a curious blend of Essex folklore and Americana through the PA of what I want to say was the legendary Railway Hotel. The band were the Lucky Strikes and I was struck by how they didn’t particularly sound like anybody else from what I knew to be the local music scene, or indeed particularly fashionable. What they did have, however, was a raucous energy and an arsenal of great songs.
Years later, I’m still very much a fan of the Lucky Strikes and in turn a huge fan of the music made by their ever-affable frontman. Since releasing his first LP – ‘The Water or the Wave’ (2013) – under the MG banner, Matthew Boulter has gone on to release a number of collaborative EPs with a range of artists including Samantha Whates, Neil McSweeney and Lucy Farrell, a second LP – ‘With Wolves the Lamb Will Lie’ (2016) and, most recently, the excellent EPs ‘Blood Moon’ (2018) and – again with Samantha Whates – ‘How to Read’ (2020).
When I finally decided to commit some time and energy to this project, Matthew was right at the top of my list of interviewees as he’s not only one of my favourite songwriters but also a genuinely nice guy. (As as aside, I’m sure my wife would tell you she’s lost track of the amount of times I’ve said words to this effect)
With an eagerly-awaited third album creeping nearer to completion I was keen to catch up and discuss a range of topics, from his songwriting process and early recording experiments through to the importance of collaboration and the future of live music in a post-COVID world.
(Just a quick note: In order to make the following exchange as easy to follow as I can, I’ll present my questions in bold and Matthew’s responses in plain text. Hopefully this makes sense!)
• Hi Matthew. Thanks for getting involved with the blog! I’ve been mulling over what I wanted to ask you for a while, and I came round to thinking it’d be good to begin by talking a little about recording as opposed to performing. I think the done thing is usually to talk about influences in terms of what an artist sounds like, but I think that’s a picture that the listener can paint themselves.
I’ve actually been wondering more about how you got into recording and making records. For example, I can remember playing about with the family stereo as a child and figuring out a crude way of double-tracking using the double tape deck and a flimsy old pair of headphones as a mic. It was a very hands-on, practical thing with set limitations that forced you to consider how you were doing things – as every time you bounced the track back across to record another layer you were losing quality on the previous takes. In your formative years, were you interested in the recording process itself and, if so, can you remember your earliest experiments?
Yes, I was really interested in all that stuff when I started out. My earliest memories of it were moving the cassette stereo player around a garage in about 1995/1996 trying to find the sweet spot for capturing the drums and bass amp so they weren’t too loud. The recordings were terrible as were the band. We’d record albums of material and then copy the cassettes and draw album covers. The excitement was in creating the track lists and the packaging and thinking of it as a proper album. I’ve still got those tapes.
In my late teens I bought a digital 8 track (a Boss BR-8) and that’s when I started to explore composition ideas and start experimenting with microphones and the like. A school friend and I would spend hours and hours recording songs and working on new ideas. I remember shuffling out of his house at 2am most weekends. I spent endless hours re-recording guitar parts, playing around with effects and my mate would play the drum settings on his keyboard. There were so many hours lost to that but it was invaluable because you find your voice musically through doing it and you have the safety of making mistakes and recording awful things. I still have the old habits from that time of not looking too much at visuals when recording (I don’t need to see sound waves or bars counting off); I do very little ‘drop-ins’ and the like. If the take is not right, start again from the beginning.
The further I get into recording now the more knobs and lights there are so the less I get involved in the actual recording process. I’m in awe of those who perform and produce. For me it’s turned into a bit of a dark art I would rather keep away from. I need to concentrate on the performance and someone who knows what they’re doing can do all the magic. I have enough to do just writing a decent song.
• There’s a strong sense of character and narrative that drives a lot of your songs – tracks like ‘His Name is Jean‘, ‘Lalita‘ and ‘Frances Forlorn‘ immediately come to mind. Have you always approached writing in this way, and where do you think that it comes from?
Good question. I think the most interesting songs have a narrative structure so I use the third person in songs because I can build a story, momentum and direction with them. It’s very easy for listeners to switch off during a song and I want lyrics to keep them on tenterhooks, like a good novel can. With characters I can also explore ideas or situations that wouldn’t be believable or compelling if people thought it was me experiencing them. Ultimately behind your song is a feeling or idea you need to communicate so my characters are simply outlining the feeling/idea I want to convey. Bob Dylan once said ‘give a man a mask and he’ll tell the truth’. That applies to my songwriting, whether I am singing about a middle aged woman or a drunk down and out I am telling the audience something about me and my view of the world, maybe theirs too.
• Even though many of the same ingredients are shared between the two, I think it’s fairly evident from the moment you press play that you’re listening to a Strikes track or an MG track. At what point during the writing of a song does it become either a solo or a band thing? For example, if you come up with something that you know has potential to be great, what happens next?
When you are in a band you are working within set parameters. You have a finite number of members and they all have finite musical sensibilities and viewpoints on the whole product – it’s a team and together you produce something you can all sign up to. The alchemy in a band is doing that thing you do and developing it over years of practicing and understanding one another. As a solo artist you still have parameters but you have the opportunity to work with other people and ultimately other ideas. I’ll often have a feel for a song and where it sits but usually if we play a song in a Lucky Strikes practice we will work on it over a few weeks. In that time it will either click or it will fall to the side, so in effect I don’t decide if a song is a Strikes song or not, the band chemistry will decide it. However failure in one camp doesn’t mean it automatically goes to the other camp, it may just be a song that wasn’t meant to be.
• Your previous records have a very cohesive feel. Are you thinking about the project as a whole from the beginning, or is it a case of what songs are hanging around at the time?
The album is a dying art form right? So yes, I think it’s important for albums to have a cohesive feel because you want to encourage it to be received and listened to as a whole. That cohesion can be conceptual (ideas and themes) or it can be aural (one album having a particular set of musicians or instruments) but also situational/envrionmental (recorded in a particular place). I try to have a concept for each album both in terms of a theme and the aural landscape because I don’t want to make the same record over again. In the past I have picked from the material I’ve amassed over a year to construct the concept (I’m unconsciously writing about themes of some kind all the time) but with my new album ‘CliffTown’ I very much had an idea of giving voice to the suburban experience before I had written lots of songs so I was able to direct my writing a bit more. That said if I try and force the concept too much it becomes a bit laboured and false. However there’s so much preparation needed before you set foot in the recording studio you have a lot of time to make those editorial decisions that contribute to the concept. I often start the process with 20-30 songs which get whittled down to 15 or so and then they get cut down to the album tracks. Sometimes you have to serve the album over and above the concept because you want to make something listenable, I don’t want to write a text book.
• I wonder if you could describe your writing process. Thinking about somebody like Nick Cave keeping office hours at the typewriter and churning out reams and reams of lyrics every day, do you find yourself following a particular pattern that works for you? What sparks an idea into life?
You need inspiration first and foremost, if you don’t have that initial desire to say something then it’s hard to get going. I have kept notebooks since about 1998 to capture all the lyrical and musical ideas that flash in my mind in the middle of the night or other inconvenient times. I then use those as a resource when I have the time to write but don’t necessarily have the inspiration. Nick Cave’s approach is something that all experienced songwriters would do in that you have a method for writing and you follow that method. I’m sure some days Mr Cave is writing stuff he throws in the bin but even if he gets one good idea every week or fortnight, it’ll be enough. If you wait around for the inspiration to strike you might be waiting a long time. That said, I do think there is merit in letting the grass grow and I often take a break from writing to let ideas germinate and develop without the rush to capture them. If you don’t take that break I find you write the same thing over and over.
In terms of my approach I get words, phrases and ideas in my head all the time. I get musical ideas when I’m jamming on my guitar and then I try to marry the two and sometimes it works. If I labour too much over a song it generally doesn’t work out. During lockdown I wrote a song called ‘Gospatrick’ which took so much time and now I couldn’t tell you how to play it. On the other hand I wrote a song called ‘Gallows Humour’ in about 10 minutes and it’s going strong! I often find I’ll write a song in about an hour and then play it for a week or two to sharpen it up before returning to it a week later to improve any parts of it when I’m less attached to the original ideas and can see the bigger picture of the song.
• Why did you start writing songs?
The pressing need to understand the world and explain my place in it whilst trying to make that understood by others. I’ve not received the answers yet so I’m still going.
• I thought your recent EP with Samantha Whates, How to Read, was great. How important is collaboration to you and how does working with somebody like Samantha differ in comparison to working on your own?
Thank you, I’m glad you liked it. Collaboration is really important to me. I’m not very controlling when it comes to working with others on my music, I really enjoy seeing what others come up with rather than directing them too much. My own music becomes a revelation to me that way. In terms of songwriting collaboration I have enjoyed what I’ve done. Samantha is a really good friend and we have a good method in that we pick a topic that has influenced us both and then write songs in a workshop style, which involves drinking coffee and shouting lines at each other before hacking verses and choruses into some cohesive shape. We’ll live with the songs for a bit and then revise certain things we’re not happy with. ‘How to Read’ was inspired by a trip we made to a bookshop in London years ago and it was such a nice memory that we tried working the ideas of books into observational songs.
The key to songwriting collaboration for me is not to be too precious but to be open minded, throw the ideas out there and not being too worried about challenging an idea if it doesn’t work. Working on my own is a much more personal affair which requires a bit more of my blood to make things come to life.
• Earlier on you mentioned the record that you’ve been putting the finishing touches to recently – once again due for release through Hudson Records. To bring things to a close I was hoping that you could give an idea of what the listener can expect to hear. Is there a theme running through the record, and how do you feel it fits in with your previous work?
My new album is called ‘CliffTown’ and is conceptually about life in the suburbs, a seaside town to be exact. So you have character tracks like ’Nights at the Aquarium’ about a girl who is a cleaner and wants to escape to the aquarium every chance she gets and there are a few tracks with oblique lyrics, something different for me, such as ‘Remnants’ and ‘Icy Paw’. It’s the first solo album I have recorded with the band all playing live together rather than dubbing things onto my initial performances so it was a nice experience to have. I was lucky to have some incredible musicians come and play with me. The main band was composed of my touring band (Paul Ambrose on Bass and Lizzy O’connor on Mandolin/Vocals) plus my long running studio band (Tom Lenthall on keys and Helen Bell on strings) plus Pete Flood from Bellowhead on drums. It’s a pretty full sound and is a bit livelier than ‘With Wolves the Lamb Will Lie’ my previous record but I see it as the sister record of ‘With Wolves…’ . It was due out in June but due to COVID it’s been rescheduled to March 2021. I hope people like it and I can get to gig it.
• Talking of COVID, it was interesting to see your recent live performances over Facebook. I enjoyed the show you did in lieu of the cancelled tour – particularly the way you dedicated specific tracks to different venues, weaving in stories and anecdotes from each. For something presumably so alien – performing alone to a camera in your home – it felt a strangely intimate and personal experience for the viewer. I wonder what you made of it as the performer, and can you see yourself doing more?
During the current situation with COVID-19 it was important for me to support some of the venues who stand by me as a performer. I was due to be on tour in June and I wanted to show some solidarity with them. A lot of artists were rightfully trying to raise money to support their art but the lighting technicians, bookers and promoters were not getting the same exposure so I tried to help where I could. I don’t much enjoy the experience of the online gig and although it is a means to an end I really struggled with the absence of audience participation and I realised that human face to face element is so important for me as a performer. I know a few fellow musicians who haven’t felt the desire to play online shows and to focus their creativity on other things. We’ll see how long this situation plays out to see if I do any more shows online but I think they are here to stay for the foreseeable future. I have a friend who lectures on music business and he was telling me that a number of European promoters had legally blocked an artist performing online concerts in lieu of their shows and I think this demonstrates that promoters and venues are seeing the online gig as a potential alternative to their own businesses. That said I think venues have the opportunity to webcast live shows (when they return) to increase revenue above and beyond their physical capacity.
Well that’s that. Before I wrap up I just wanted to thank Matthew for his time and for providing some great insight throughout. These things are pretty weird to do back and forth through email, but ultimately pretty rewarding too – especially when the interviewee buys in. Thanks for reading too. I hope you enjoyed it. At the moment I’m not able to give an exact timeframe on when the next feature will go up, but I’m already planning for it and very much hope that you’ll stick about to read it.
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