Chris While and Julie Matthews are twinkling lights in the British folk firmament.
With a partnership lasting more than 20 years (11 as life partners as well as musical ones) they have notched up an impressive list of accolades, collaborators and releases.
“I think in a funny kind of way all the things we have gone through have made us that much stronger and closer in our friendship and musical partnership,” Matthews reflects. “Once we had endured that difficult first year after the personal breakup, it felt to me like we were both investing more in the duo and all these many layers to our 24 years together has certainly added depth to our music.”
“Our families are entwined and we have become family to one another,” says While. “The way we are now is way less complicated, but as close in a totally different way. Julie is my person.”
The duo’s songwriting process also seems to encompass this philosophical kind of outlook. “There’s a definite ‘sound’ and feel to the songs we write together,” says Matthews. “I tend to write more social comment songs than Chris whereas hers are much more personal but when we write together it’s like a third person is writing and they do seem to be very story-based. We also have a big influence on each other’s arrangements of songs. Sometimes one of us will write a song where it’s obvious straight away that it’s not a duo song and there’s no formula or reason for that, it’s just instinctive.”
“When Julie and I write together,” affirms While, “it is like a third person, I think, because we spend so much time together the process takes longer to get off the ground but once we start, it’s easier. We have different ways of working too. I can take multiple days over a song and it works around my brain while I sleep, that really helps me. Julie, however, can’t leave it overnight, she has to finish. Also, I’m a reluctant songwriter. I dislike and fear the outset, but once I’m in it I’m fine.”
Folk music was not While and Matthews’ first port of call, however. “I was brought up on Carole King,” muses Matthews. “Tapestry was my bible. I stumbled into the folk scene as a way of playing the songs I was writing to an audience, not as a pull to the music that was played there.”
Similarly, While’s love affair with music began with Hollywood musicals, soul music and pop. “I had a fab teacher in high school,” she remembers. “She taught me three chords and I became obsessed for years. I literally sang before I could talk; never shut up. And then I found the folk club…”
It was joining Ashley Hutchings’ illustrious Albion Band (While replaced Matthews as singer/guitarist in 1993) that cemented While and Matthews’ place in the British folk landscape.
“It was an opportunity to be seen by a lot more people,” says While. “I didn’t want to join, I refused three times as I had just released my first solo album and was doing okay but I caved after many calls from Ashley. I did enjoy it a lot, it took me far afield. We left in ‘97 and we have never looked back, really.”
“Ashley is a great facilitator,” continues Matthews. “He has a great ear for rising talent and giving them a platform, that’s why there have been over a hundred members of the Albion band since it began. He is also a realist in knowing that eventually some musicians need to make a mark outside the made and is very supportive when they leave to strike out on their own as he was with Chris and I, he even helped us in that first year get gigs as a duo.”
Their most recent studio album, Shoulder To Shoulder (2016), touched on everything from personal to political subject matter and held true to While and Matthews’ gift for lilting melodies and rich harmonies.
“My writing is very much influenced by the social and political landscape of the time as well as what is happening in my personal life,” says Matthews. “It’s certainly a very challenging and emotional time in both areas. We might loathe our political leaders and the decisions they are making for the world but they do offer great fodder for songwriters!”
In the current climate of increased awareness and discussion around gender equity in the music industry, Matthews has not shied away from the topic either.
“I’ve just written a song called 70 cents,” she says. “It reflects the sad fact that for every dollar around the world that men make, women statistically take home 70 cents. Sadly, I think that’s reflected in the music business too, it’s getting better but the gender imbalance at festivals and on the live music scene is still striking. In a way the noises we are making now in trying to even that up and at least highlight it, is for those that come after us. The wheels of change grind very slowly but we have to keep greasing them or they will stop.”
“I think gender bias is still out there in terms of billing and payment but it’s much better than it was,” maintains While. “Ageism has become less of a concern too. Being ‘older’ gives us a lot more freedom to be who we want to be without worrying about fitting in to a stereotype and being afraid to be ourselves.”
There’s plenty to write about but a follow up album is not on the immediate cards according to Matthews, due in part to the rigorous touring schedule of long-time bassist, Neil Fairclough.
“Neil has a strong influence on our recordings and arrangements and brings not only his brilliant musicianship to them but also his hilarious sense of humour. We laugh for days on end with him in the studio. He is currently touring the world with Queen so we have to wait till he’s back before we embark on the next album!”
In Australia for a run of dates in March and April, While and Matthews feel a special affinity with antipodean shores. “It’s our second home, spiritually and musically,” enthuses Matthews. “We have friends here that we think of as family, the audiences are so enthusiastic and welcome us back so warmly. The exchange of energy between the performer and a good audience is what makes for memorable concerts and the Australian energy is the best in the world. Then of course there’s the sun and the sea, the ‘roos and the Kookaburras!”
And the best part for Whiles? “Vitamin D? No seriously… the awesome Aussie audiences, great friends that have turned into family, the amazing festivals, the beautiful landscape and trees and the ‘no worries’ attitude.”
Chris While and Julie Matthews perform at the Fremantle Workers Club on Friday, April 6. Full details at www.facebook.com/events/415362772220837/