UK country and folk singer/songwriter Quiet Loner (aka Matt Hill)
releases his long-awaited second album Spectrology this month – a
stripped-down, stark and skeletal collection of songs about love,
life, death and ghosts.
Recorded in the depths of winter on a remote farm in the Leicestershire
countryside, it’s a hauntingly beautiful record with an intimate feel.
I spoke to him about how the record – his first for six years – came about.
Sean: So, your new album is finally here. It’s been a long time coming, hasn’t it?
2004, so it’s been six years. There have been various false starts
along the way. I did actually make a second album, but it wasn’t
right, so I left it alone.
I never thought I’d make another album, but then the planets aligned
and it coalesced. I had all sorts of issues – it’s quite difficult
to put together an album when you’re at a bubbling-under kind of level
and there are other priorities in your life.
I’ve got to make a living – I can’t completely focus on music.
It’s quite hard to motivate yourself to pull it together – there’s a
lot of work involved.
What happened this time around was that I had
a lot of songs. Once I decided to work with Mat Martin, who produced
the album, that was a real catalyst – when he got involved, it came
together incredibly quickly.
It hasn’t taken six years to make this record.
In fact, it took a relatively short time. The actual recording took three
to four days. Sean: You recorded the album in January of this year – in the depths
of winter, didn’t you? Quiet Loner: Yes. I always knew it was going to be cold, but I had
no idea how cold it would be! We had a massive freeze and the whole
country ground to a halt under several feet of snow and ice. It was
touch and go whether we’d be able to make it to the studio.
We recorded in a place called Wartnaby – a tiny village in rural
It’s right in the middle of nowhere – near Melton Mowbray,
which is the home of pork pies and Stilton cheese.
The studio was on a farm – down the end of an icy track.
We were properly snowed in and it was freezing cold.
It took a while for the studio to warm up.
Sean: Do you think recording the album in that cold, isolated, wintry
environment shaped the sound of the record? Quiet Loner: Right from the start, Mat had ideas about how he wanted
it to sound – as did I. He wanted it to be a very bare record – really
stripped-down, stark and skeletal. We deliberately haven’t got any
bass on the record, which is quite a radical thing to do. Even though
you’re stripping things down, you’d still put bass on – but we didn’t.
We put a lot of low sounds on it, using other instruments like keyboards
and an accordion, but that means that it sounds quite icy and fragile.
When we got in the studio – and it was so icy and frosty outside – it
did have an influence, but we had a structure before we went in there.
Sean: This record was recorded live – not in-front of an audience, but
as a performance in the studio, wasn’t it? Who played on the album
with you? Quiet Loner: Mat Martin, who produced it, plays on it. Mat plays with one of my favourite songwriters in the world – Kirsty McGee. He’s an
incredible musician – he has a PhD in classical composing, but he can
also play the banjo. That’s quite a rare combination – he can pull off
country music and avant-garde classical composing.
He’s got a very interesting approach to music.
Alan Cook also plays on the album. He’s an amazing pedal steel
guitar player, but on this record we got him to play the Dobro.
Roy Dodds (Fairground Attraction, Hank Wangford)
plays drums on the record and Inge Thomson (Bonnie Prince Billy,
Broken Family Band) made a massive contribution, too.
She’s a great songwriter with an incredible voice.
You can hear her singing on the record. It’s beautiful. Sean: She brings a haunting, child-like quality to the record when she
sings, doesn’t she? Quiet Loner: Yes – I’m not sure what the right word is, but she has a
certain quality about her voice – it’s unique. She’s very
Sean: Did Mat Martin lay down a strict regime when you were in the studio? Quiet Loner: Yes – I needed that. My first album, which came out six
years ago, took about five years to record. I produced that album
myself – I think it’s really hard to make decisions when you’re so
attached to your music. I needed someone like Mat to push me hard –
and he really did. He pushed me towards finger picking [on the guitar].
All the performances are live – I’m singing and picking the guitar all
at the same time, which is technically quite difficult. I felt a bit
out of my depth as a musician, but Mat pushed me to rehearse. We had a
dedicated daily rehearsal routine. There’s no studio trickery – it’s
just me playing as it comes out. We wanted to record the album as live
as possible – and that’s what we’ve got. It does sound a little ragged
– it’s not a smooth record – but what we lose, we gain in the heart,
the feel and the realness of it. Sean: It’s a great record to listen to on headphones – it feels like
the listener is in the room with the musicians. Quiet Loner: We wanted it to sound as if I was sat right behind you.
My voice has been mixed high. It’s supposed to be a little bit
unsettling and spooky. The voice is placed in the centre – it’s not a
conventional way to make a record, but it’s about the words. I’m a
songwriter whose lyrics are important to me. We put the voice in the
middle and everything else just kind of hangs around it.
Sean: Where did the title Spectrology come from?
Quiet Loner: It means the study of ghosts. I actually wanted to call
it Spectralysis, which is a made up word, but when you write it down,
you’re not sure how to pronounce it. Spectrology is a much stronger,
more definite word. Sean:
There are ‘ghosts’ on the record – one of the songs is actually
called There Go The Ghosts, but the whole album is quite a haunting
experience. There are ‘ghosts’ in the songs, as in memories, places,
and the past. There’s an underlying, unsettling feel to the record, isn’t
there? Quiet Loner: It’s supposed to be a slightly unsettling record. There
are lots of themes on there, but the ghost thing was particularly
strong. When I was recording it – the songs that are just me on my own
– we did it at night with the lights out. It was very dark in a
big, beautiful room with wooden floors. I could see the mist in the
countryside – everything was white, foggy and icy. It was very
ghostly. Sean: Do you believe in ghosts? Have you ever seen one? Quiet Loner: I’ve been fascinated by ghosts all my life – I’m particularly
interested in the paranormal. I’ve had some very spooky experiences.
When I was a child, I think I saw a ghost in a farmhouse in Wales.
Who knows? It could have been my vivid and powerful imagination. Sean: Several of the songs on the record, like Lucifer and Counting
The Days, deal with relationships and love. And death crops up, too.
The First To Fall is set at a funeral. Quiet Loner: A lot of the songs are about people. I don’t think I am
morbid and depressing, but there is a death theme. There have been a
couple of times in my life when I’ve been seriously ill and when
you’re facing up to your own mortality, you can’t help but dwell on
it. You get a sense of how precious and wonderful life is – and I
wanted to convey that as well.
Sean: You do that on the first song – About As Precious As Life Gets.
It’s a circle of life song.
Quiet Loner: It’s a very common motif. Funerals are on the record, too
– as you say, The First To Fall is a funeral song.
Sean: You’re the protagonist of that song and you’re at a funeral – as
a pallbearer. Quiet Loner: I wrote that song a few years ago. I’d never played it to
anyone – it’s really personal. It’s based on a true story – one of my
best friends committed suicide and I was one of the pallbearers at his
funeral. It was a very intense experience and I wrote a song about it. Sean: As well as ghosts and death, there are lots of physical
references on the album –particularly on the song Tourniquet,
but elsewhere there are mentions of flesh, bones and earth.
Quiet Loner: Anyone who has been through an illness, had an operation
or been in hospital becomes acutely aware of the physical body – you
get used to giving blood and having people stick things in you – all
kinds of intrusions. That’s happened to me a lot. I suppose it comes
through in my writing. Tourniquet is a song that dwells a lot on
physical illness – that kind of imagery. Sean: There is a sense of hope on this album, too, isn’t there? Quiet Loner: I’d hope so. I think there is. I don’t think it’s depressing.
My first album was quite intense and all about the breakup of a relationship.
Although there are moments of that on this record, I think, overall,
it’s a much more gentle, hopeful and human record.
Sean: All of the songs were written over a long period of time – at
different stages in your life – but they all seem to gel together and
have common themes. Quiet Loner: I wanted it to be a record that hangs together. I have a
lot of songs. Again, I have to give Mat Martin credit as a producer –
prior to recording this album, I’d make some great recordings of what
would have been my second album, but the choice of songs was all over
the place. It was a deranged pop album. What Mat did was to get me to
pick the five songs that I definitely wanted to do and then we pulled
everything else in around those songs.
Sean: The song Hide and Fear stands out for me,
as it’s more political than the other tracks on the record.
It deals with the infringement of personal liberties
and the idea of a Big Brother society watching our every move.
Quiet Loner: I do have a lot of overtly political songs,but I didn’t want those on this album.
The reason I put Hide and Fear on the record is because it’s a bit more subtle in its imagery. It is about being watched and a sense of intrusion,
but I felt that it fits well with the other themes we talked about earlier,
like illness and physical intrusion while you’re in a hospital.
Even in a relationship, when someone’s inside your head, it can feel invasive.
Sean: You’ve been tagged as a UK Americana artist,
but the new album doesn’t sound like an Americana record, does it?
Quiet Loner: No, it doesn’t.
My first album was very much classed an alt.country/Americana record,
but I’ve tried to avoid writing songs about desert highways and coyotes.
The new album has got Dobro and banjo on it, which are
very American-sounding instruments, but I think it is a folky album.
But, then again, it doesn’t really sound like folk music.
Or maybe it does!
Sean: Do you have high hopes for this record?
Quiet Loner: I don’t know. I really hope that people like it,
but being realistic, it’s not an immediate record – it’s a bit of a grower.
There’s no big hit on it and it’s not catchy. There’s no obvious radio song on it. You’ve got to listen to all of the record.
Sean: It’s very much a complete album – by that, I mean that it’s meant
to be listened to as a whole body of work, from start to finish.
Quiet Loner: It’s a record of two sides – side one and side two.
You have to listen to all of it.
I worry that in this current climate a lot of people don’t have the patience – people don’t listen to music in that way anymore. Sean: Is that due to the download culture that we live in?
Has it killed the concept of the album? Quiet Loner: Yes – I think it has.
I’ve made a deeply unfashionable record and it’s not particularly immediate.
I don’t really have any ambitions for it – I’m glad I made it.
Whether I’ll ever make another one on this scale again, I don’t know.
Probably not, but I’ve definitely got the mania back for making records.
The next one won’t be as nicely produced as this one, but I’m certainly going to knock out some records in the next couple of years.
I’d like to make a much more political one next. I’d very proud of the new album.
Sean: Finally, are you a quiet loner? Quiet Loner: No, not at all. If anyone comes to see me play live, then they’ll see that I’m neither quiet or a loner.
Quiet Loner’s new album Spectrology is released on November 8 – on Little Red Rabbit Records.
For more information, tour dates, etc, go to: http://quietloner.com/
Listen to Ash Ballad, a song from the new album, here: http://quietloner.bandcamp.com/track/ash-ballad