All stages great and small.
Matt Woosey has made a career of defying expectations. His albums break down the confines of genre. His performances span from eyeball-to-eyeball solo sets in fans’ front rooms, to thundering full-band explosions that shake the most prestigious venues in Europe. He’s an artist who slips the creative handcuffs of the industry, a trailblazer with no reverse gear, a guitar visionary whose palette bleeds into folk, rock, ambient and electronica. “You’ve got to keep progressing,” reasons the British singer-songwriter. “Like John Martyn. Like Robert Plant. Like Radiohead…”
Energised by the response to 2016’s breakthrough Desiderata album, and plotting both a new live release and a UK tour with his crack-squad German band, this year finds Matt with his eyes on the road ahead. Yet all the great artists come with a backstory, and there’s no doubt this artist was forged by an early career that took in passion, hardship and redemption.
Rewind to the late-’90s, then, and as the son of forces parents stationed in Germany, Matt found himself packed off to a Bristol boarding school with a rudimentary cassette player and a stack of dubious tapes. He had little use for ABBA and Simply Red, but was spellbound by the souped-up, shape-shifting power-blues of Led Zeppelin’s debut and II. “That’s when I fell in love with music,” he says. “When I knew it would be part of my life.”
That early taste for Led Zeppelin quickly spilled over into blues-rock heavyweights like Rory Gallagher, Paul Kossoff and Peter Green, with Tim Buckley and John Martyn also stirred into the mix (“I always loved the way they used their voices as an instrument”). Soon, passive enjoyment alone no longer enough scratched the itch, and Matt duly pinballed through a string of local bands that included a Thin Lizzy covers outfit. “I had guitar lessons at school on nylon-string acoustic,” he recalls. “I played electric guitar in other people’s bands, and did a few backing vocals. Then I started writing my own material and singing, going out on my own to open-mics and folk clubs.”
“When I listen to Stevie Ray Vaughan, Rory Gallagher or Roy Buchanan play electric,” he reasons, “I just can’t add anything to that. For me, playing acoustic guitar in an inventive way that’s different to anyone else is the most powerful thing I can do. I like to do things that turn heads, but at the end of the day, it’s all about the songs.”
Indeed, by the time he came to record his solo debut in 2008 – an album released independently and flogged at gigs – Matt had established his ethos of all-original songs, whatever the cost. “I’ve never performed many covers live,” he says, “and my studio albums have all been my own material. As a gigging musician, that’s made my life ten times harder.”
Right now, Matt stands at his most fascinating creative crossroads to date. It’s two years since the release of Desiderata: the groundbreaking eighth album inspired by Max Ehrmann’s 1927 prose-poem, with music that pinballed between piano, pedal-steel, upright bass and electronica. Capturing the most daring music of Matt’s career, it was toasted by Classic Rock as “one of the year’s most ambitious and electrifying releases”, and the ripples spread far beyond his early fanbase. “The reaction was great,” he nods. “Desiderata picked up people who aren’t necessarily blues fans, because it was a much broader album than anything I’d done before.”
But even as the rock press clamoured for Matt’s attention, he refused to play the game. Instead, following Desiderata’s impact, the songwriter relocated to the remote 1000-inhabitant town of Münchweier, in Germany’s Black Forest. Fatherhood brought a new focus, but music still soundtracked this new life.
Back in 2016, when Matt was soundchecking in Bern, Switzerland: “I was playing The Rain Song by Led Zeppelin, before the venue was even open. And this guy walked in off the street to see what was going on. We got talking, and he invited me to a jam night. This guy – Ralph Küker – got up onstage with another guitar player, Michael Oertel, and their bass player, Lukas Steinmeier. And I was like, ‘Right, I’ve got to nick these three people’. I’ve been doing this 15 years, I’ve seen a lot of music, and I’m quite hard to impress. But I saw something really special in them.”
Along with long-standing drummer Dave Small, it’s this outfit that will flank Matt as he writes his next chapter: a live album recorded at Gallagher’s Nest in late-summer. “We really want to show people the sound of this band,” says Matt. “I’ve not recorded anything with them and there’s not really any videos of us online. By rights, they shouldn’t even playing with me, because I can’t afford to pay them what they’re worth. But they’re just such fantastic musicians, and we all share a vision. When this group plays my music, I just get lost in it. There are at least a few songs on the live album that people haven’t heard before. They’re very much about my life. They don’t try to hide anything.”
Release in 2019, the live album captures the thrill of this world-class lineup performing at full-throttle. "It’s very different with this new band. When we play together, we travel to a lot of different places in the set, from moments of tension to something more light-hearted. It’s moody, ambient at times, branches out into atmospheric folk, and rock, and all sorts of styles. There’s something about my shows that you just can’t put your finger on.”
The same might be said for the twist-and-turn career of Matt Woosey. In a world where mainstream musicians make all the obvious moves, here is one artist who travels without a map. “I have a real fear of repeating myself,” he says. “My music has to be creative and artistic. It has to keep pushing things forward. I just want people to come with me on my journey, whatever changes I take.”