Misery loves company, and for many songwriters, it just comes with the territory.
At least that’s how Iain Matthews sees it.
The founding member of Fairport Convention and Matthews’ Southern Comfort uncovers deep-seeded anger, pain and frustration over relationships and career ups and downs in his latest solo album, “The Dark Ride” (on Watermelon Records).
For the 48-year-old English-born singer-songwriter, it has been a long dark ride.
“It’s probably unfair to say songwriters have an exclusive right to it,” Matthews said recently from his home outside Austin, Texas. “But I think for anyone that is artistic in any way, as a career, there’s a lot of soul-searching going on because you’re constantly looking for something better.”
Matthews wanted something better after his solo career waned in the ’80s and he had moved to Los Angeles, working as an A&R man for the Island and Windham Hill labels. The title track addresses that period in his life.
“What better place to be miserable?” Matthews said. “My answer was to go into therapy. I did that for four years. I fought it like a terrier. People would suggest (therapy) to me and I would say, ‘Naw, I can work it out.’ Therapy was the best thing that I ever did for myself.”
When going through his mother’s things after her death earlier this year, Matthews found a high school report card from 1961. Pictured in the disc’s liner notes, the report card contains a teacher’s comments on the restless youth: “Must learn to think – concentrate”; “Must get that chip off his shoulder”; “Has ability, fails to use it; bone idle & a nuisance to himself & other people.”
“I just wasn’t interested in school. It was just one big putdown,” Matthews said. “All I wanted to do was play football and write short stories.”
He dropped out of school, then joined a South London surf-music group. Born Ian Matthew MacDonald, he used his middle name professionally to avoid confusion with King Crimson’s Ian McDonald. (He now goes by the Gaelic spelling of Iain.) He then established himself in the folk-rock movement by forming Fairport Convention with Richard Thompson and friends.
Weary of the folk scene, Matthews left the Fairports after two albums and formed what would become the country-flavored Matthews’ Southern Comfort. Just as their second album was released, a track never intended for the album – a version of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock,” first recorded during a BBC appearance – took the nation by storm. It quickly rose to No. 1 on the British pop singles chart, staying there three weeks, and later charting at No. 23 in America.
“That wasn’t what I wanted … that was the last thing I wanted,” Matthews said. “It created all this peripheral stuff that took up my time. What would’ve been time learning to be a songwriter, it became time spent doing interviews, photographs, tours and appearances.”
Matthews bailed out at the peak of the group’s success in 1971. “I still have people who hate me to this day for leaving the band,” he said. “… I kind of pulled the plug on them.”
Matthews still has a fondness for “Woodstock” and the early music he made. And even though he went on to score a No. 13 hit with “Shake It” in late 1978, he never matched the impact of “Woodstock.”
Only recently has he even considered himself a true songwriter.
“I have a terrific attachment to ‘Skeleton Keys’ (1993), the one before this album,” Matthews said. “It was the first record I had done where it was entirely my own material, and the beginning of my sort of openness and soul-searching is on that record, stuff about my career and my home life.
“I still have an emotional tie to that record, but people keep telling me that (‘The Dark Ride’) is my best record yet. … I’m coming around to believing them.”
BWF (before we forget): Matthews’ follow-up album, “God Looked Down,” was released in 1996.