Chris Green and Sophie Matthews are two of the most impressive musicians you will ever meet. Their strength as performers of Early, Historical and Folk music lies not in individual virtuosity, though they are extremely well-rehearsed and more than competent on an entire van load of instruments, but in their precision and their professionalism, in everything they do.
This polish was immediately evident in their first response to the 2020 Covid-19 Lockdown – the Keep It Local tour – a daily online video concert tour of their house and garden. The obvious humour in this also appealed, but more of this anon. It was also a Genius Level act of self-promotion, which certainly had this writer well and truly hooked.
From Bitesize Green Matthews, the duo went on to stage monthly live streamed concerts, further cementing a growing fan base. As ever, these were not merely played into a smartphone, but fully miked-up and professionally lit. They do not do things by halves. This comes from a decade-plus of touring and performing as Green Matthews, and even longer experience playing in the Heritage sector, as Blast from the Past, with a regular booking with English Heritage, at Warwick Castle. Chris has also appeared in the BBC television series Poldark and at Shakespeare’s Globe, while Sophie is an accredited lecturer with The Arts Society and an instrument maker.
Rich Turner: One of the things that’s immediately intriguing is that you’re both largely self-taught on your respective instruments. Could you talk a bit about that practical aspect of your musical educations, and whether you feel there are any “lessons,” as it were, for other people?
Sophie Matthews: I took flute lessons, when I was at school, to Grade 4. Now, the thing about me and my kind of usual school music education is that I was really rubbish at music as a kid. I had lots of friends who were really good at music. We did everything together. We were in all the same classes. We did Dance together and there were lots of extra-curricular things that we did, and I seriously fell behind in the music thing. I was pretty rubbish at it. So, when I moved schools and did A levels, elsewhere, I sort of left that friendship group. Then actually I did a lot more dance. I then went to theatre school for a year, after A levels. So I sort of left playing behind. And I really didn’t miss it, ‘cause it wasn’t something I was very good at. But then I met Chris and we started playing again, because, when I was in my GCSE years, our Head of Music decided that she wanted to take up the accordion, because the Deputy Head also played the accordion, and they basically went to Folk sessions in the town, together, up in Lincolnshire. So I had had a small introduction to English Folk music at school. And then I met Chris and we started doing some sessions together, because he was playing, at that stage. We then started running our own Mediaeval banquets and murder mystery evenings, and I sort of started playing as part of that, as well. And then we were at a historical market, and somebody had a second hand set of bagpipes. I picked them up and I kind of found my instrument. And I never really looked back. It turns out that I was always really much better at music as a grown up, then I ever was as a kid.
Chris Green: From my perspective, I started playing guitar when I was about eight. My dad played guitar. My uncle played clarinet, as well, and he played a bit of piano. I never really had formal lessons, but one of my earliest musical experiences was that my dad and my uncle, on Saturday nights, my dad would go round to my uncle’s house and they would drink beer and they would play Trad Jazz on their respective instruments, and that’s what they did. Then, when I was sort of nine or ten, my dad started taking me along, as well. So really, my first introduction to music was social, more than anything else. I had had cello lessons, at school, concurrently with this. At the end of two years of cello lessons, I was still on Book One, page five. Which kind of proves rather well, that there wasn’t much happening, at all. It was kind of quite a useful thing because I do believe very firmly that anyone can play music. It’s just a case of finding the right instrument. I actually had quite an unpleasant cello teacher who was like, you know, basically, “You will never be able to play a musical instrument, because you can’t do this.” And I was like, “But I can play the guitar. I can play the guitar. I can play the piano…”
RT: I think we’ve all had those people.
CG: Yeah, well exactly. I think they are less frequent now than they were formerly. I’m going back to the mid ‘80s, at this point and, in fact, the cello teacher did indeed leave the school, under a cloud, shortly afterwards, so, even by the standards of the time…
RT: [Laughs] Nobody was learning cello!
CG: Yeah, exactly. But I didn’t learn to read music until I was about 18. I taught myself, for the very pragmatic reason that I realised it was doing me out of a load of work that I could otherwise get. I did quite a lot of work in pit bands, for theatres and stuff like that. The deal with that is that you have one rehearsal and then the show is on. So being able to read is really important. I still come across, occasionally, that tension between “I’m an improvising musician and I play by ear.” “Well, I’m a musician who plays by reading.” And I sort of go “Well, why wouldn’t you want to do both? Why does one exclude the other? Surely, the more skills you have, the better the musician you are.” I’ve done quite a lot of work with people who have been to music college. I have a lot of very good friends who went the music college route. My feeling is that music college is a really good way of getting to the point of being a professional musician. They exist for a reason. But it isn’t the only way. There are other ways of getting to do it. So, yes. That’s really kind of where I come from, really.
RT: Your touring stage shows, and your albums, are primarily based around narrative folk songs and themes, albeit often refreshed and enlivened in various ways. Could you tell me about the division of labour, and how you put these together, because you’re quite unusual in being a couple, as well?
[Chris and Sophie both laugh.]
CG: Yes. I mean, that is the thing. Generally speaking, the way that Green Matthews was set up is that, if it is possible to do it in-house, we do it in-house, because we worked out, quite a long time ago, that paying other people to do things – and, actually, you should pay other people to do things. It’s not reasonable to expect someone to design your album cover for free, or anything like that. That costs money, and when we started out with doing this, we didn’t have very much money. Learning how to do these things yourself costs time. And we had a lot of time. So we were time-rich and asset-poor. So I, mostly, write and compose. I also, mostly, design our albums and posters, and maintain our website.
SM: And I am Admin Queen. So the deep, dark, Winter months, for me, are spent on the telephone, and at the computer. I do rather often flippantly answer, if somebody says what’s my first instrument, my reply, usually, as a professional musician, is “The telephone.”
So we have a big database of venues. So January, February, for me, is usually spent ringing people, saying “Will you give us a gig?”
CG: We’ve looked, at various points, at getting an agent to represent us. We’ve always come up against the fact that we can’t find an agent to represent us who will do as good a job at representing us as Sophie does. It feels a little like keeping a dog and barking yourself.
SM: Certainly for the theatres and the arts centres. So a lot of the shows that we do go down really well in the soft seat venues. And we’re really too small for a theatre agent to kinda take us on. And, although we play a lot of Folk music, actually we play venues that most Folk musicians don’t play. So the traditional Folk agent wouldn’t usually explore the sort of venues that we play. We sort of straddle these lines that we manage to kind of – I think we manage quite well, ourselves, but we don’t sort of really fit into any one camp for anyone else to manage us.
CG: I mean, actually, our two big models, role models, for putting this together were Show of Hands and Blowzabella, who are two completely different acts in terms of the music that they play. I spent some time, ten or so years ago, hanging around with the Show of Hands axis, and came away with this utter admiration for Show of Hands as a business plan. It’s just superb. They literally set themselves up from scratch and, from the word go, they said “We’re going to have proper light. We’re going to have proper sound, even if we have to pay ourselves thirty quid at the end of the night and sleep in the car, if we want to get large venues, we have to look as though we belong there.”
And actually, again, Blowzabella. I mean, Paul James from Blowzabella is a really good friend, actually. His whole thing was that, in the early Eighties, Blowzabella, for one reason and another, felt as though they didn’t quite fit the UK Folk circuit, or that the UK Folk circuit didn’t quite fit them.
RT: They were a bit radical, to be fair.
CG: Well, yes. I suspect that is the case. And, basically, they decided to create their own circuit. When he told me that, I was like “That’s really obvious, actually, but quite an amazing thing to do.” So we very much kind of try to – It’s not that we have a problem with the UK Folk circuit at all. We absolutely don’t. It’s just that, for one reason and another, we’ve never spent that much time there, because that hasn’t been where the gigs have been for us.
RT: That’s a surprise, because I thought that you would be adaptable to both your own shows and doing some Folk club gigs, as well.
SM: It’s never really been out of choice. It’s just sort of that’s been the way it’s panned out. If anybody’s listening, we’re available for Folk festivals next Summer.
RT: The Keep It Local tour was one of the early highlights of Lockdown – if you can have highlights of Lockdown – when it was all rather surreal and frightening, initially. You cheered everyone up, and must have gained many new fans and followers, as a result. What was that series like to make, and how was the reaction, from your perspective?
SM: Oh, we had a wonderful reaction. Even before Lockdown, we had a sort of really depressing fortnight, where basically every morning we would open our computers to a barrage of cancellations. Every day was just more and more cancellations, pushing further and further into the year.
CG: And this was also before any kind of government support had been announced for the self-employed. It was a month before that happened.
SM: A long time. So we had a pretty low couple of weeks, and lots of uncertainty about what was going to happen. Would we actually get locked down, or would it just be this kind of weird limbo, forever? Then we did get Lockdown, and everything sort of stopped. Obviously lots of people took to putting music online. We really wanted to do something. We really knew that it was important to kind of keep us out there, to sort of remind people that we were still here. Lots of people were putting loads of music online. It was fantastic. So much difference, from all over the world. We were really conscious that we wanted to do something different. So I came up with the idea of playing in the loft, and doing a tour of the house.
CG: The idea was that we’d normally, in happier times, tour. We see no reason to stop touring, just because we’re stuck at home.
SM: Initially I counted 13 spaces in our three bedroom house, that we could play in, and we were really pleased to find that we’d missed the car. So we managed an encore, in the car.
The response was amazing. So many people sent us amazing messages of compliments and solidarity. It was really nice to hear from our audience, going “We really love what you guys do. Please keep doing it.” That was so important at that stage, because we’re still not quite sure when we’ll get in front of real people again. That was really, really nice. Also we found that we could reach a much more international audience, than we ever could. In terms of silver linings, we’ve managed to reach different parts of the World that we couldn’t ordinarily get to. So we now have a handful of really amazing fans in Canada, in Madrid, in Brittany. That’s been really cool, to start talking to people in other places and say, again, “Maybe we will see you, one day.”
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