Home Album Review: Matt Steady – Nawglan, the Sacred Nine
I first heard Matt Steady in 2016. I was immediately hooked on his sound which combines an abundance of instruments (he plays guitar, fiddle, keyboard & more) with his raspy voice and intense lyrics. His latest album Nawglan, the Sacred Nine steps away from his normal structure – this time it is completely instrumental.
PC: Your new album has the title Nawglan, the Sacred Nine. What does that mean exactly?
MS: It’s not a phrase that comes up much in casual conversation I grant you! I actually heard about it first as a teenager when I read a series of books by Stephen Lawhead that were based in Celtic times. I spent a very long time trying to condense the meaning of the phrase, and the reason behind why I was interested in it, into a short elevator pitch. Here it is:
“Legend has it that Celtic Monks used a specially prepared mixture of ashes obtained from the burning of the boughs of nine sacred trees – Alder, Ash, Birch, Elm, Hazel, Oak, Rowan, Willow and Yew. The use of the ash in ceremonies was important, but for the monk, the collection of the individual woods was an act of worship in itself. They believed each tree had characteristics pointing towards various attributes of the Godhead, and they would meditate upon these as they would harvest each in turn. I’ve written each track on the album to do the same, each having a distinct character and embodying different divine characteristics. The finished album is, in a way, the ash, and the unseen creation process is an act of worship and devotion, similar to the gathering of the wood by the monk. The name of this ash was Nawglan, the Sacred Nine.”
PC: It is a departure from your previous releases in that it is completely instrumental. What was the reasoning behind that?
MS: I’ve released a lot of albums in the last few years. Recording is my “thing”. I love it. I gig for fun and to keep my skills up, but it isn’t a major focus for me – even before COVID it never really paid quite well enough to put a release out then gig it for 6 months, and now even more so! But I confess that after releasing Chasing Down Wolves I was tired. I loved that album, and I’m so very pleased with it. But I needed to recharge my batteries, to relax and unwind. And Nawglan was my way of doing that. Instead of driving myself relentlessly in the available time I had every day, making creativity happen by sheer persistence, will power and determination, I relaxed. When I felt in the right mood, or had something going round my head, I would nip upstairs and record it. If I wasn’t feeling it, I didn’t. And while I love singing, writing lyrics and recording them is the most stressful part of an album for me by a long way. So, I just cut that out completely. I literally just picked up random instruments and just played. I recorded most of those improvisation sessions and incredibly a huge proportion of my random widdlings and improvisations made it onto the album. There wasn’t much wastage.
PC: Which other musicians are playing the instruments featured?
MS: Well I was dying to get Terl Bryant back on this record. He’d done some fantastic percussion on Chasing Down Wolves, and I just knew he would be perfect for Nawglan too. He plays brilliantly on a kit, but actually he’s even better with percussion – strange instruments from all round the world. He was very kind to me, working within my limited budget, and he produced some outstanding percussion that really is the highlight of the tracks that he played on. I had to take over on the other tracks … hah!
My good friend John Reed came over for a chat and a jam (remember those days?!) We looked at the clock and realised we’d chatted for hours and only had 40 minutes left to play! So he took his Cittern and I took my violin and we just played. We didn’t discuss what or how, key, tempo or anything. Just whatever came out. Then we both picked up guitars and jammed. And I had recorded it just in case. And after he left, I listened back… and it was magical. About 10 full minutes of those jams went on the album without almost no changes – just some percussion etc. added. I look back and I can’t believe what we did then, completely by accident!
And that’s it. The rest is me. I can play a lot of instruments – some very well, some moderate, and some not all that well really. But I can play them well enough to record what I need!
PC: The artwork is fabulous as per usual. Who does your photography?
MS: Isn’t it just! Well, COVID destroyed my plans of doing a photoshoot. My friend, Nick Tsiatinis, has done pretty much all my photography over the last few years, but it wasn’t to be this time. Or so I thought – he had a rummage through his archives and came up with those photos and gave them to me to use. And they are absolutely perfect. I am so lucky!
PC: Should your fans play the album in the order presented, or does it work equally as well in shuffle mode?
MS: Shuffle mode? What’s that? Hah!
Have you noticed the tracks are in alphabetical order? It started off accidentally. I made some ideas for tracks and named them after the trees that had those characters. And I started listening to them in alphabetical order without really realising I was doing so. As I was listening, I was changing the tracks including the beginnings and ends and transitions – and before I knew it I couldn’t possibly change the order as it flowed so nicely! Isn’t it strange how these things happen.
I think all the tracks work by themselves, so shuffle mode should be ok… BUT I believe the album as it stands is more of an experience in the order it is in. And remember – rule no 1 of choosing track order is to start with a banger to get people’s attention. Well I threw that (and all the other rules) out of the window. It starts with an atmosphere made up of Tibetan prayer bowls and a gentle violin over the top.
My advice is to play it in order, with the lights dimmed and a long glass of something tasty by your side. Get comfy, close your eyes and take an hour to relax as completely as you possibly can.
PC: How long has the album taken to record going back to when it was just a thought in your head?
MS: I started in the Christmas holidays. Although I wasn’t sure what I was letting myself in for at the time. It might just have been a track or 2 for me to unwind to, or an EP. But of course not – it ended up being an album. It was finished the back end of June and released in July.
PC: Are you pleased with the result?
MS: Absolutely! I’m really, really happy with it. I didn’t really have an aim at the start in terms of sound or content, and I don’t think I would have imagined it turning out like it did. But I love it.
PC: I have been a fan of yours almost since day one and for me this is my favourite album. That’s not to say I prefer it over your vocals. There is just something arresting about it. What has the reaction from your regular fans been, and have you gained new followers since it was released?
MS: I did wonder if anyone else would. It wouldn’t have concerned me greatly if people didn’t like it – I didn’t make it for them. I made it for me. But I could understand if it’s a bit too different from my normal sound (if I even have such a thing!) But actually I’ve had overwhelmingly positive feedback. It’s not easy to market – really to understand the music, you’ve actually got to sit and listen to it. Scrolling down a social media feed and perhaps having a 5 second listen to a track before scrolling on again isn’t going to work with this music! But that’s how a lot of people are these days unfortunately. Have I gained new followers? Unsure – probably not a lot yet! Almost in release week, we had our first set of foster children join the household, taking us up to 8 people in the house at the moment. So it’s been very busy, and I haven’t really been spending a lot of time marketing or shoving it down people’s throats. With this kind of music in particular that isn’t immediately arresting in the first 5 seconds, and with tracks so long that it won’t get a lot of radio play (except for a couple of independent radio stations that have loved it and obviously used the long track times to make a cup of tea or something – thank you Steve Clarke and Rossy Foster-Manning!, I think it needs to grow by word of mouth. On the back of the album, I’ve written “Individuals are positively encouraged to copy and share this music with family and friends.” And I really mean that.
PC: Part of the proceeds from the album go towards a charity. Tell me about how you became involved with that charity.
MS: All of the profits have gone to the Open Hands homeless charity here in Leicester. I took out the money to pay for the CDs and shirts and other costs like that, but I donated my time and was able to give 61% of the money that came in, which is pretty efficient. And then we managed to use our personal tax allowance on it to claim back Gift Aid on it, so that in the end Open Hands ended up with 85% of the money that came in, which is just huge! Once the costs were covered, we were in a position where if someone bought something for a £10, Open Hands actually ended up with £14. Absolutely magic!
Open Hands are very dear to my family’s heart. My wife Abi and eldest daughter Indigo volunteer at the meal night where they serve hot meals to the homeless, poor and lonely of the city. The charity makes up food and hygiene hampers for people in need. They have free English-as-a-second-language classes. They restore old furniture and give it to people that have managed to get a council flat and have none. They have a nursery school. They basically do anything they can to make a practical difference in the lives of people that need it. We know the people that run it and know that every penny goes to the right place.
COVID has affected us all differently. For musicians, we have lost 99% of our gig income, and along with it we aren’t selling CDs and merch at concerts. And because musicians have less money, there is less remote session work etc. The whole thing is in a downward spiral for independent musicians – and frankly it begun way before COVID with the arrival of streaming. [As an aside: I do have my music on the streaming sites, but make almost zero from them. I despise the companies, but I do put my music on there as a courtesy for my listeners. If that’s how they choose to listen, then I feel I have to honour that and make listening to my music easy for them. But seriously? It means music as a product is almost worthless. You have to give them other experiences, not just a CD.]
But as a family, we are still in the game despite some loss of income. My wife works in a special school, and as such is still getting paid every month. So we’re in a better position than a lot of people. Imagine being homeless at the moment. People ignore you most of the time anyway, but I imagine they are literally crossing the street to avoid them at the moment. So as a family we decided to give the proceeds from this album to Open Hands where we know it will make a difference.
PC: How has the COVID-19 pandemic had an impact on your making music?
MS: Ah, see above! Firstly, the kids were at home and I was involved in the home schooling. That made putting any time into the music at all quite difficult! Then there’s the financial aspects. All of my musical income sources have dropped. But fortunately I don’t rely 100% on gigging, so that it hasn’t completely sunk what I’m doing. I know some musicians that have had to sign on to Universal Credit as they just aren’t able to get any work at all. But I think in a way it’s brought out the best in a lot of people, just as it’s brought out the worst in others. I’ve seen a lot of people being very generous, especially people in the arts sector, for instance by giving away music for people to listen to during lockdown. I think that’s brilliant, but it is also storing up more problems for us as it continues to devalue music as a product.
PC: What has been the hardest part overall about making the album?
MS: The music in itself felt easy in all honesty. It just flowed out, mostly improvised and I just captured it and tweaked it. It was a joy to make. Finding the time to do it was the hard part.
PC: For me, many of the tracks are prime for music placement in a blockbuster film. How would you describe the sound to a first-time listener or in a pitch for a film?
MS: I would love to do a full film score! I actually had one of my instrumentals (“Skogr”) used during the end scene of a short independent film and it was spine-tingling. I loved the music, but when I saw it in context, it expanded and became something I’d never heard before.
Gosh, what can I say. My music evolves. I don’t box it in by using particular instruments. I don’t time box it to fit nicely on the radio. I let it expand and grow, then die back down as it requires. I use dynamics – instead of 100% volume all the time (just listen to the radio), I let it ebb and flow. You could have the album on in the background to relax to, pray to, meditate over, revise to. But if you listen, it’s full of little intricacies and so much to discover. Nothing is played the same way twice.
PC: I notice you have a worldwide fan base. How important is being active on various social media platforms in order to get the word out?
I wouldn’t say it was just important – I would say it’s the only way that I’ve managed to gain a following. My first album, Blood is Thicker than Gold, was a rude awakening. I got a whole bunch of CDs done and naively thought people would buy them. I’ve no idea why I thought that – why would they? It takes a lot of time and work to get your music actually into someone’s ears. But I should explain – just posting up on social media does next to nothing. That part of social media doesn’t really do very much for me. But making friends with people on social media, genuinely being interested in them and making relationships – that’s where it does work. Social media is just the mechanism used. I shy away from the word “fan”. For me it has negative connotations. I feel like I’ve got a whole bunch of friends who just happen to like my music and like it (and me) enough to support me. It has paid dividends for me, but I am becoming aware that this isn’t the most scalable of approaches. There’s only so many people you can be genuinely friends without it becoming fake, and I don’t want to do that. The next level really would be for more of those friends going a step further and giving the music to one, two, three of their friends and really getting them involved as well.
And yes – worldwide. It’s fascinating isn’t it! I have listeners literally all over the world. We had people from 21 different countries pre-order the new album. How amazing is that! But of course there’s not that many in each individual country, and even fewer in each individual city. I doubt I’ve got enough listeners almost anywhere to be guaranteed a big concert – they’re all so spread out!
But it’s great – we have such a lovely mix of people with different looks and sounds and hobbies and thought processes and lives. I am very careful not to exclude any groups from my Facebook group, even if they have different opinions from me. I try and use my music to bring different people together, not just to reinforce my own views. Other musicians have different approaches to this, and I applaud those who champion some political causes etc., but for me that’s my way.
PC: In a previous interview with us I am sure you were asked about your influences and inspirations. Have you added more recently? Are you liking any new music? Anyone in particular you think we should be listening to?
MS: I’ve got to confess I don’t seem to have much time actually just to sit and listen to music these days. I do try and listen to Steve Clarke on Skye FM on a Thursday night because I know that there will be a fantastic selection of songs that hit the spot. I’ve tried lots of stations over the years, but this is one of the very few that does it for me. I recently heard a song on there called “To the Horizon, Sir!” by Iain Morrison, and straight away went and bought that album. Fabulous. And I’ve got my eye on Siiga – I went to buy the album for the song I heard and realised it’s not actually out yet … drat!
And at this point I will also big up my partners in crime – check out John Reed and Sam Jefferson. They are both independent artists on a similar journey to myself – both fantastic musicians that I would love to play with even more.
PC: You are on a road trip to visit me in Scotland, what are you listening to?
MS: And yes – we will do this at some point! Although we might be turned back at gun point at the moment? Well, one of my favourite bands ever is Iona (Celtic prog rock I guess you might call them). I saw them at loads of gigs when I was a teenager and pretty much all their albums are magical (I still haven’t quite got to grips with their last one before they split up though!) They’re in the process of releasing a 13 CD box set of their albums and unreleased music. I pre-ordered that and am patiently waiting for it! But that would be a perfect soundtrack to the epic scenery coming down the East coast. Yes – I’d have to go the long way home.
PC: Tell me about Patreon which I know you are part of?
MS: Patreon is brilliant! I post up there as I’m writing my music – bits of lyrics, guitar parts, recording my violin or whatever instrument. I post up there really quite a lot, demonstrating exactly how I go about making my music from scratch right through to a finished album. There’s an absolute stack of material on there now from the last 3 albums. I find it so much fun to share what I’m doing with people who “get it”. And they get to see me behind the scenes, warts and all. There’s an almost free tier at $1 per month, and you get to see and hear everything. There are higher tiers that give you perks like being able to download the music that I post up rather than just listening on the website, or having your name in video credits or on the album art etc. It’s great fun for everyone involved, and what’s more it’s an important part of my income. Without it I think I’d have had to have given this up a few years back. To me it’s the replacement for what would have been CD sales a few years ago before streaming became what it is now. You can’t really go wrong as it’s $1 a month and you can cancel at any time. If anyone fancies giving it a go, then get stuck in at https://patreon.com/mattsteady . I’d love to see you in there!
PC: What’s next for Matt Steady?
MS: I’m obviously spending a lot of time bedding the new children into the family and making sure they have good quality time and attention, whilst making sure I’m still spending enough time with the existing children! It’s wonderful, but it’s a big job and takes a lot of time. But all life experiences come out in your music somehow. In the small snippets of time available to me at the moment, I’ve recorded a cover of the old spiritual, “Wayfaring Stranger”, and Sam kindly played some stunning slide guitar on it. I could see myself doing some old-school blues/gospel just to change things up a bit. Unless that big film score turns up!
You can connect with Matt on the following social media platforms.