‘It’s always interesting to see how others perceive your work’ admits Matt. ‘I’ve always struggled to get a foothold in the Folk scene in the UK because what I do is not rooted in traditional Folk songs. Or rather it is, but through the filter of American country, folk, soul and blues. I’ve always gravitated towards Americana. But many of the reviews of this new album have said it is a very much an album of Folk music. It all stems from the same root I guess.’ For my money, the songs on ‘Savage Pilgrims’ are very much short stories – ‘mesmerising tales of life and death and everything in between’ according to my colleague Boff Whalley (in ‘RnR’ magazine), but with rhyme-schemes that actually work, and with the song-construction of chorus and verse as songs are meant to be written. He manages to evoke the ghost of Ennio Morricone with just banjo and electric guitar for “The Exile Of DH Lawrence”, while “Billy’s Prayer” carries echoes of ‘The Leaving Of Liverpool’.
But I’m immediately drawn into “Gary Gilmore’s Last Request”, a death-row conversation between Johnny Cash and the notorious serial killer… is that based on a real incident, or is it conjured from his imagination? ‘The basic premise of that song is a true story’ he explains. ‘I heard about it in Norman Mailer’s epic book about Gilmore – ‘The Executioner’s Song’ (1979). In the grand arc of the drama it was a tiny detail – no more than a few lines in the book. As he was facing execution Gilmore asked for, and got, a phone call from Johnny Cash. He was a huge fan. I have no idea what they talked about but that small detail really stuck with me. I think it speaks volumes about Cash’s ability to communicate, that people really believed him and trusted him to understand their lives, purely on the basis of what he sang about.’
Matt works the link in with the Johnny Cash lyric about shooting the man in Reno, just to watch him die. It’s creepy that when Cash sings that line to the Folsom Prison audience, the convicts all cheer approvingly! ‘Ha ha! I love that moment. It’s so cathartic. Same as when he’s singing ‘Twenty-Five Minutes To Go’. Real gallows humour! When he sings ‘San Quentin you’ve been living hell to me,’ you can feel the tension in the room. Incredible records.’
Seeing through Gary Gilmore’s Eyes also brings up all that issue about the chance consequences of the interaction between art and responsibility, text and fiction, like Charles Manson using “Helter Skelter” as a message from the Beatles to justify his atrocity. ‘I’m a bit of a Manson geek actually. I think as a songwriter you have to accept that people will make their own interpretation of your work. Hopefully not like Manson did! but the greats – like Cash or Dolly Parton or Elvis – they speak directly to people. They have such diverse audiences because they are such great communicators. That’s what I’m getting at in that song – Gary has ‘no time for a priest’ but needs ‘someone who understands the pain of being alone’.’
That’s a case of vinyl standing in for holy writ. And we all know what a mess religion made of history! The Adverts wrote about Gary Gilmore too – in “Gary Gilmore’s Eyes”. Another example of the interaction between horror and Pop Culture. ‘I’ve been learning that Adverts song! Trying to do a cover version is not easy though. Someone told me recently that the Human League also reference Gilmore in their debut single “Being Boiled”. Phil Oakey’s opening spoken words are, ‘OK Ready. Let’s do it’, allegedly the final words uttered by Gilmore before his execution. ‘Listen to the voice of Gilmore…’? Yes, that works.
His life reads like his Press release. ‘I was born in 1970 and raised in the Nottinghamshire mining town of Eastwood, hometown of author DH Lawrence, in fact I went to the same school as him. Both my Mum and Dad’s families originate in Radford – the area of Nottingham made famous in the books of Alan Sillitoe. Music has been with me as long as I can remember. Half a century of songs. My earliest memory is of playing Wally Whyton records. As a child I was obsessed with Elvis Presley, and luckily for me there was an Elvis shop just three miles up the road in Heanor. ‘Elvisville’. I thought every town had one but turns out it was the only one in Britain. What are the chances?’
‘My love of Country music was seeded early, listening to Don Williams and Dr. Hook tapes in my Dad’s Ford Capri. By the early 1980s I was borrowing my sister’s vinyl to hear bands like Squeeze, the Pretenders and Elvis Costello. When I was fourteen me and my mates formed a band. Within a year or two we were out playing covers of fifties-sixties Rock ‘n’ Roll on the local circuit of Working Men’s Clubs and Miner’s Welfare’s. I left Eastwood Comp in 1988 and went to Liverpool University. I was singer and songwriter in an indie band called the Bellis and did a couple of demos (one of which was recently featured on a vinyl compilation put out by Record Collector and Rough Trade). We lived in this huge ramshackle slum house called Brucklay. Our downstairs neighbour was John Power from the La’s and they used to practice there sometimes. After Liverpool I moved to Nottingham and for five years worked for the Independent Living Fund, providing funding to people with severe disabilities. I had a short stint with Nottingham folk-punk-country-cajun band Seven Little Sisters who introduced me to Bluegrass and taught me a lot about traditional music.’
‘In 1996 I packed in my job and took an extended road-trip across America. I went to Nashville, Memphis, New Orleans, Austin, Roswell, Truth or Consequences, the Rockies, Utah, Las Vegas, Area 51, San Francisco. I was becoming really interested in the new alt.country music that was happening like the Jayhawks, Whiskytown and Wilco. When I got back to the UK, after a brief spell of homelessness, hostels, bedsits and sofa surfing I ended up in Manchester. In these early days of the internet I joined the alt.country ‘Postcard’ newsgroup and connected with like-minded people across the UK. Through ‘Postcard’ I met music fan Mick Spencer and under the name ‘Cosmic American’ we began to build a network of promoters and venues to start offering UK tours to American acts. My claim to fame is that I did the visa paperwork for now disgraced superstar Ryan Adam’s first solo UK trip!’
‘My proudest achievement from those days was in 2000 when me and Mick put together the hugely memorable revue tour with Chicago’s legendary Bloodshot records. I promoted a lot Americana gigs in Manchester and was inspired to start playing music again. I would get up and do the support slots. Playing solo acoustic after a lifetime of playing in bands was a steep learning curve but I was given support and encouragement, particularly from Chris Mills and Neal Casal, who were both masters of the solo performance. Soon I was performing around the UK, opening shows for artists such as Joe Pernice, Richard Buckner, Neko Case, Slaid Cleaves, Kim Richey and Lambchop. Things were looking promising. ‘
‘I self-released some EPs, got some great reviews but attempts to release an album were seriously curtailed by an unexpected heart problem in 2002. My debut album ‘Secret Ruler of the World’ (Circus65 Records CIRC65CD006) eventually came out in 2004 on Circus 65 records who had released albums by the Guthries, Chris Mills and the Havenots. It was at this time I decided to adopt a stage name and so Matt Hill was renamed ‘Quiet Loner’. The album got widespread acclaim and was even voted Americana UK Album of the Year. It remains my most successful album. It would be six years before I released another one. Life moved on. I moved to Essex. My day job career with charity Carers UK started to get interesting and amazing. I got to go on the radio and TV. I went on the Jeremy Kyle show. I was often in Whitehall and Parliament or at the Party Conferences. I regularly met MPs and Ministers. I even met Jimmy Savile. But best of all I travelled the country meeting carers – those inspiring amazing tenacious people who keep our country afloat. I made some lifelong friends and I learned a huge amount about people, about family, about hardship and about love. I didn’t know it at the time but it would all serve to enrich my songwriting. As I turned forty I was living in London and really getting back into music. Music promoter Rory Carlile showed some faith in me and gave me a residency at the Gladstone pub in Southwark which I called ‘Quiet Loner’s Journey to the Netherworld’. It was a real confidence boost, as was meeting a whole load of brilliant songwriters like Dan Raza, Greg Rees and Ben Folke Thomas. I released ‘Spectrology’ (November 2010, Little Red Rabbit Records LRR 021) and worked with some top British folk musicians like Inge Thomson – she’s played with Karine Polwart and Will Oldham, plus Roy Dodds (Fairground Attraction/Eddi Reader). It got four-star reviews from the likes of ‘Uncut’ and ‘The Daily Mirror’ and radio play on BBC6 Music. In 2011 I left London and moved to the Peak District.’ A pause, ‘fortunately, I can talk for England. I need to be careful… that’s probably how Ramblin’ Jack Elliot got his nickname!’
The next project was called ‘Greedy Magicians’ (November 2012, Little Red Rabbit Records LRR034), a live collection of political songs seething with disgust and shot through with melancholy recorded at Sacred Trinity Church in Salford. Songs that combine protest at the excessive force against dissent with “The Ghost Of Oswald Mosley” and “Days Of Surveillance” with historical stories, such as letters written by Matt’s great-grandfather from the Somme, sent to his wife. ‘This led to an invite from Billy Bragg to perform on the Leftfield stage at 2013 Glastonbury Festival where I found myself in a songwriters circle sandwiched between Billy and Amanda Palmer. Almost as strange as being on Jeremy Kyle. I started to meet other musicians who wrote political songs. In 2015 I helped set up ‘We Shall Overcome’ an anti-austerity movement that uses live music to offer support and solidarity to those hit by cuts, poverty and homelessness. I started the ‘Defiance Sessions’ one of the few regular music nights in the UK dedicated to songwriting with a political or conscientious aspect. After a lifetime of playing music I finally became a full-time self-employed musician aged forty-six. Since then my work as a community artist has included an album co-written with people at a homeless project and a stint as a resident musician in a prison. More recently I’ve been teaching protest songs to toddlers and co-writing songs with people living with dementia.’
Matt uses an Arthur Conan Doyle poem as source material on ‘Savage Pilgrims’, and there’s a cool groove of 1950s guitar on “Four Corners”. Another song on the album that stops the listener in their tracks is “Chains”, a concise history of imperialism and human inhumanity to humans which – of course, ties in exactly with the eradication of statues depicting Slavers, but expands the dialogue out. That slavery is present in all civilisations since the dawn of time. ‘That’s the song’s premise’ Matt explains. ‘That wherever you find human achievement you invariably find some form of slavery. Recent events have shown that we find it hard to grasp the complexity of it. Sadly history is told in the form of myths and stories, but the truth is often gloriously complex. All our heroes are flawed and myths unravel quickly.’
In an album-launch promo-gig from his front-room with just acoustic guitar, he explains the background to ‘those stories of great men and gods. We are great storytellers, as human beings. We tell ourselves stories about our lives, and some of them become almost self-fulfilling.’ And for that front-room gig, yes, ‘that was quite an experience. It’s such a strange thing to get yourself in performance mode but in an empty room! I had to visualise an audience and imagine their responses. Weird. But it kind of worked.’
As we’ve mentioned earlier, the songs on ‘Savage Pilgrims’ tend to be third-person short stories. Where do we locate the real Matt Hill within their narratives? ‘That’s a very good question. My first two albums were very first person and very drawn from my own experiences. As I’ve moved away into more third-person stories, I’m still drawn to things I can identify with. I have to have something of myself in it, even if it’s not about me. It might just be one line but I need something I can connect to emotionally when I sing it. For my first big pro-music job a couple of years ago, as ‘songwriter-in-residence’ at the People’s History Museum in Manchester, I had to research the story of the fight we came to have for the right to vote. I knew a bit about the suffragettes but the story is a lot more nuanced and complicated and actually really interesting. I wrote a song in the voice of a suffragette called Hannah Mitchell. I could have picked many other incredible women from that era but I chose Hannah because she grew up a few miles from where I live. So my route into that song was in the landscape and knowing that I had trod the same paths she did. That show – resulting in a touring show and a ‘The Battle For The Ballot’ album, played in venues and festivals across the country and led to me being invited to showcase at the English Folk Expo.’
‘In 2020 I turned fifty. It seemed the right time to ditch the Quiet Loner name, so I released this album under my own name. Finally, I’m Matt Hill again.’
BY ANDREW DARLINGTON