Iain Matthews Biography

Ian Matthew McDonald, 16 June 1946, Scunthorpe, Lincolnshire, England. McDonald left school to work as a painter and decorator but also sang with small-time Lincolnshire bands, the Classics, the Rebels and the Imps. He moved to London in 1966 and was featured as one of the vocalists in a British surfing band Pyramid, who recorded ‘The Summer Of Last Year’ single for Deram Records. To supplement his income, McDonald worked in Ravel’s shoe shop in London’s famous Carnaby Street. He learned of a vacancy for a vocalist in Fairport Convention, which he joined in 1967 before they had recorded (and before Sandy Denny joined them). He appeared on the band’s first single ‘If I Had A Ribbon Bow’, released on Track and produced by Joe Boyd, and on their debut album on Polydor Records. Fairport Convention then moved to Island Records in 1968, and Matthews appeared on their early breakthrough album, What We Did On Our Holidays, but left during the recording of mid-1969’s Unhalfbricking because it had become obvious to him that the band’s new-found traditional folk rock direction would involve him less than its previous contemporary ‘underground’ work.

Matthews (who had changed his surname to avoid confusion with saxophonist Ian McDonald of King Crimson) then signed with starmakers Howard And Blaikley, who had been involved in the success story of Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick And Tich. After making the soloMatthews’ Southern Comfort for MCA, a band, also called Matthews Southern Comfort, was formed around him, and released two more country rock albums, Second Spring and Later That Same Year. The band also topped the UK singles chart with their cover version of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Woodstock’. By 1971, Matthews had left the band, which continued with little success as Southern Comfort.

Matthews signed a solo recording contract with Vertigo Records, releasing two excellent but underrated solo albums, If You Saw Thro’ My Eyes (1971) and Tigers Will Survive (1972), both featuring many of his ex-colleagues from Fairport Convention, before forming Plainsong, an ambitious quartet that included Andy Roberts (ex-Liverpool Scene), Dave Richards and Bob Ronga. Matthews was still obligated to make another album for Vertigo, but was unwilling to commit Plainsong to the label. As a result, he was given a small budget to make a contractual commitment album, Journeys From Gospel Oak, which Vertigo did not release but instead sold to Mooncrest, a label with which the album’s producer Sandy Robertson was connected. Originally released in 1974, it became one of the earliest compact disc releases to feature Matthews’ post-Fairport work.

Plainsong then signed with Elektra Records, and released the magnificent In Search Of Amelia Earhart in 1972, before Bob Ronga left the band. During the recording of a second album (supposedly titled Plainsong III, referring to the membership of the band rather than a third album, and finally released under the title And That’s That in 1992) Matthews and Richards apparently fell out. To continue would have been difficult, and Matthews accepted an invitation to work with ex-Monkee Michael Nesmith in Los Angeles. An excellent solo album (organized and encouraged by Nesmith), Valley Hi, was followed in 1974 by Some Days You Eat The Bear... , which included the Tom Waits song, ‘Ol’ 55’, which Matthews recorded a month earlier than label-mates the Eagles. He then signed with CBS Records for Go For Broke (1976) andHit And Run (1977), which were neither commercially successful nor artistically satisfactory.

By 1978, Matthews was again ‘available for hire’, at which point Rockburgh (which was owned by Sandy Robertson) offered to re-sign him. The first fruit of this reunion was Stealin’ Home, on which the backing musicians included Bryn Haworth and Phil Palmer on guitar, and Pete Wingfield on piano. Robertson licensed the album for North America to a small Canadian label, Mushroom, which had been financed by the discovery of the band Heart. ‘Shake It’ was extracted as a US single and reached the Top 10, but the founder and owner of Mushroom died suddenly, and the company virtually collapsed. A follow-up by Matthews, Siamese Friends, was already contracted to Mushroom, but swiftly vanished with little trace in the UK. 1980’s Spot Of Interference was an ill-judged attempt to climb aboard the new wave band wagon. This also disappeared, and later that same year came Discreet Repeat, a reasonably selected double album ‘Best Of’ featuring post-Matthews Southern Comfort material, but this marked the parting of the waves between Matthews and Robertson. The former formed an unlikely band called Hi-Fi in Seattle, where he lived with ex-Pavlov’s Dog vocalist David Surkamp. Two more contrasting vocal styles than those of Surkamp and Matthews could hardly be imagined, but the band made a live mini-album, Demonstration Record, in 1982, and followed it with a full-length studio album, Moods For Mallards, both of which indicated a willingness to experiment with electronics.

In 1983, Matthews signed with Polydor Records in Germany for the low-key release Shook. Matthews threw in the towel and took a job as an A&R man for Island Music in Los Angeles, but was made redundant in 1985. An appearance at the 1986 Fairport Convention Cropredy Festival in Oxfordshire convinced Matthews that he should return to singing, even though he had just ended a period of unemployment by starting to work for the noted new age label, Windham Hill Records. After a frustrating year during which it became clear that Matthews and the label were creatively at odds, Matthews left, but only after recording a vocal album for the predominantly instrumental label, Walking A Changing Line released in 1988, on which he interpreted a number of songs written by Jules Shear (ex-Funky Kings and Jules And The Polar Bears). While this was his best album to date according to Matthews, it sold little better than anything since Stealing Home.

In 1989, Matthews relocated to Austin, Texas, where he linked up with Mark Hallman, a guitarist and producer who had worked on Walking A Changing Line. A cassette-only album by the duo was made for sale at gigs, and Matthews signed in 1990 with US independent label Gold Castle, to which several comparative veterans, including Joan Baez and Karla Bonoff, were also contracted. Pure And Crooked was released in 1990 (the first album to bear the Celtic spelling of his first name), and later that same year, Matthews reunited with his Plainsong-era colleague, Andy Roberts, for a very popular appearance at the Cambridge Folk Festival.

By 1992, Gold Castle had gone out of business, and Matthews signed a new recording contract with the German label, Line Records. Skeleton Keys marked a return to an acoustic sound after the recent electronic phase. In 1993, Matthews and Roberts re-formed Plainsong with two new members, Mark Griffiths and Julian Dawson. Three albums followed before Clive Gregson replaced Dawson in 1997. In the meantime, Matthews released two albums for Watermelon Records and teamed up with Hallman and singer-songwriter Michael Fracasso in Hamilton Pool, releasing the country rock album Return To Zero in 1995.

In the latter part of the 90s Matthews signed with yet another German label, Blue Rose Records, for whom he released Excerpts From Swine Lake (1998) and A Tiniest Wham (2000) and a collaborative album with Elliott Murphy, in addition to reuniting with his Plainsong colleagues to record a new studio collection. Since 2000, he has been based in Amsterdam in the Netherlands, where he has continued to release low-key solo albums and also a collaboration with singer-songwriters Eliza Gilkyson and Ad Vanderveen. Several demo sessions and live recordings have been made available through the Orphans & Outcasts and The Notebook Series collections.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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