Since leaving the ranks of the Albion Band in the ’90s to concentrate on their own career, Chris While and Julie Matthews’ output has been marked by a consistency few other songwriters can match. Recently nominated for the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards (Best Duo), their latest release, the 11-track Who We Are, sees the pair officially mark their 20th anniversary with an album that reaffirms their strengths.
“It felt not only like a reaffirmation of how we’ve grown together over those two decades but also a celebration of what we’ve achieved and created musically as a partnership,” says Julie of the album that crosses the borders between contemporary British folk and Americana.
“Twenty years is a long time to work together, for the most part of that time we have also lived in the same house, our families an extension of the other’s,” adds Chris. “We know who we are and who the other is too. Musically, we also know who we are and can push each other to grow as musicians so that our musical landscape can keep changing.”
Who We Are features songs that explore a range of subjects including a village decimated by the plague in the 17th century (Heaven Is Changing), a survivor of the Holocaust (Dancing Under The Gallows), and the women working in Sheffield’s steel industry during wartime (Drop Hammer).
Says Chris: “Heaven Is Changing was literally inspired by walking through the village and drinking in the wretched history of Eyam; Drop Hammer was a song that I’ve been meaning to write since I first met Julie’s mum, Edith. As a young wife and mother, she lived near one of these things and it pounded all the time. The kids went to sleep to it and this made me think of the Drop Hammer being the heartbeat of the city. I also love the tradition of the working song such as sea shanties. I worked in a woollen mill for a few years when I left school, and we used to sing, so I made up these sisters singing through their days in the steel mill while their men were fighting in the war.
“I do fall upon songs rather than seek them out.”
The two are accomplished multi-instrumentalists, yet Who We Are sees them calling on a variety of guests including Chris’ daughter Kellie While, Urban Folk Quartet’s Joe Broughton, and O’Hooley and Tidow.
“As well as our regular band who we adore playing with (Howard Less, guitar, Neil Fairclough, bass and Bryan Hargreaves, drums) we always like to bring in guests, as much for our enjoyment as the listeners,” says Julie. “Kellie has been on practically every album we’ve made and that’s not nepotism, she’s actually our favourite singer so we’re lucky to have her. We’ve worked with Joe Broughton lots over the years, he produced Chris’s solo album Rosella Red and has guested on several of our duo albums. He’s a brilliant string arranger as well as player so when we’re looking for a string quartet as we were on Heaven Is Changing, Joe is always our first port of call. We asked Belinda and Heidi to sing on Chris’s Drop Hammer as we were looking for good strong Northern women to sing on the factory girl chorus and along with Kellie, Kit Bailey and Mel Ledgard, they make a formidable sound.”
Continues Chris: “The core band are like family. They care about the arrangements as much as we do, the album becomes the family baby as it were, and we are so lucky to work with people with such talent, loyalty and integrity. Kellie is part of that core band really, she’s always there to add some magic with her beautiful voice. We have to have Joe Broughton on every album, Joe is ‘out of the box’ talented and we are very close and an album just doesn’t seem complete without him.”
As the twosome head into the summer, there’s a new album from Chris and Kellie (which is being engineered by Julie) and several songwriting projects, plus their Towersey Festival debut.
“It’s our first time and we can’t wait!” cries Julie, who says she’s specifically looking forward to catching Joan Armatrading and Martin Simpson, Andy Cutting and Nancy Kerr. “Everyone tells us what an ace festival it is and I can’t believe it’s taken us 20 years to get [there] but we intend to enjoy every minute.”
The summer will also see the duo tentatively start work on album number 10 (penciled in for 2016), and both confess that even after two decades writing and playing together, they’re still very much in awe of each other’s talents.
“I’m still constantly blown away by Chris and never lose the buzz I get from playing together,” says Julie.
“I’m still super impressed with Julie’s songwriting output,” interjects Chris. “She is so dedicated to her craft, it shames me. Someone told me years ago to take at least risk in every concert, something I adhere to religiously. This inspires Julie and I love it when she takes a risk too on stage.”
Interview by: Dave Freak
They will be performing at that Towersey Festival runs from Friday 28 to Monday 31 August 2015 and features Bellowhead, Joan Armatrading, Stornoway, Show Of Hands, Chris While and Julie Matthews, Keston Cobblers’ Club and more.
For their full tour dates visit: http://www.whileandmatthews.co.uk/tour.php