Iain Matthews:
finds comfort in southern folk-rock

An interview by Tom Knapp,
June 1996

Iain Matthews seldom lives up to his own expectations.

Matthews, a British folk-rocker who rocketed to fame with Fairport Convention in the late '60s before transplanting both himself and his musical style to America, said he always sets goals he can't reach. "I have a problem feeling really satisfied with myself, musically, at any given time," he said, during a recent telephone interview from his Austin, Texas studio. "The limitations I set myself are so far beyond what I'm actually capable of, I get frustrated sometimes." That frustration, however, keeps him "groping for the carrot," he added. And he hopes he never gets it. "Does any songwriter ever really find himself?" he said. "I think if I ever really found myself, I'd quit writing songs."

As a founding member of Fairport Convention along with Richard Thompson and the late Sandy Denny Matthews has been forever linked to the British folk rock scene. However, he said that has never really been his style. "I'm not sure whether my albums have ever really been British folk rock," he said. "Maybe with Fairport, because that wasn't something driven just by me. I was more of a passenger than a driver with Fairport. With Southern Comfort, which was the next thing along, I really became identifiable as a British singer-songwriter sounding American. I never planned it, it just turned out that way."

Following his departuer from Fairport, he led a new band, Matthews Southern Comfort, through successes including "Do You Know What I Mean" and a remake of Joni Mitchell's "Woodstock." His stint with Southern Comfort, however, lasted for two years and three albums. Matthews became disenchanted with his solo career in 1983, giving up performing to work as an Island Records representative. "I reached a point where I truly felt that I'd lost myself artistically," he explained. "I'd veered off in some direction and I had no idea where I was going. And I convinced myself, rightly or wrongly, that there was no longer an audience that wanted to hear a new Iain Matthews album."

His warm reception at a Fairport Convention reunion in 1986 along with choice words of encouragement from Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant convinced him otherwise. "I made a couple of deals with myself," he said of his return to music. "If I was going to do this again, I was going to do it a lot more on my own terms, regardless of what the consequences may be."

With his solo career back on track, Matthews found himself spending a lot more time in the spotlight than he did when he was part of a band. "It's always a lot more traumatic working solo," he said. "You have to cover so much more ground. At the same time, it can be so much more satisfying. You don't have to consider anyone else, and mistakes aren't mistakes any more, they're variations on a theme."

He sees a lot more variations cropping up these days, but ultimately he enjoys the direction his music takes him. "Invariably when I'm playing solo, I end up getting in lost in the music ... and I end up with different arrangements than I had the night before," he said. "I don't know why it happens. The more you get into the performance of a song, the less you are into the form of the song."

Matthews confessed some surprise that his old band, Fairport Convention, is still chugging along with so much popularity. "It's incredible, isn't it? It's really amazing," he said. "I don't get it, I don't get what they're doing these days, but there certainly is a following." Matthews left Fairport in 1969. After only two years with the band, he said, he saw a big difference between the band's vision and the direction he wanted to go. Apart from the '86 reunion, he hasn't missed his involvement with the band. "I don't really listen to whatever it is they're doing," he said. "It doesn't really move me in any emotional way."

[ by Tom Knapp ]