There is no doubt that Matthew Oldfield's musical prowess is something that runs in his family, being the son of prolific composer Terry Oldfield and nephew to Tubular Bells creator Mike Oldfield, but his own unique brand of folk is bringing him great recognition of his own becoming favourites of BBC Radio’s Marc Radcliffe and Steve Lamacq. Having just released his tenth album, First Aid For The Drowning being the third under the Matthew The Oxx alias, his heady mixture of beautiful instrumentation with strong literacy and poetic influences is wonderful and makes you ruminate over the poignant themes that come across in his albums. I had a drink in a lovely pub in Lewes with Matthew to find out about what drives him to make music.
Have you always been local to Brighton?
I have lived in Lewes for about a year. I was in Brighton about ten years playing in a band called Drookit Dogs but needed a break so went traveling for just under 5 years using Australia as a base. I am originally from the Cotwolds and that certainly influenced me a lot. I studied poetry there, I was into walking and writing big time. Romantic poetry was also my big thing for a while, so I came to Brighton already quite green.
Your family are all very musical, that must have been a big influence growing up?
There has been music since I was a dot (0 years). I would finish school and have a violin class, piano class or singing class. It was good in a way but I had had enough by the time I was twelve and gave up piano, and then didn’t really pick up music till I was about 15/16 years old when I started playing guitar.
What spurs you to make music?
Anything in day to day life, to what I am reading, or what I’m going through mentally or emotionally – growing, learning and living. But it is mostly about the poetry that I write, which is the beginning point to any song really. Sometimes I will be walking and the natural rhythms begin some sort of line and then I will develop that as I’m walking.
Is there a poet or a writer that you admire and keep coming back to?
I have been reading a lot of Balzac recently. I was churning through Tolstoy for a while, which was really amazing. I am working my way through the classics. I have just bought a book by Seamus Heaney which is just an amazing piece of work. They are all very influential in different ways. Wordsworth was huge for me as a youngster, Lenard Cohen as well.
What’s the story behind the name Matthew The Oxx?
It’s through I Ching, which is an ancient Chinese oracle. In English it is call the Book Of Changes. It is combinations of poetry – you could use a stick or coins which land on some poetry which you read as one and that guides the choices you make.
How does Mathew The Oxx’s ethos differ in each releases and each alias?
It’s a finite concept. I think it came hand-in-hand with me deciding to conceptualise the albums. I felt The Polyanna Cramp (2012) was a good introduction into the sound I wanted to make. Elephant (2013) was about the break up with a partner, whilst this one was about death. I’m forming the next ideas now. If you look at a band like The Rolling Stones, their concept has reach the end of the road. Music is so fluid now. I take a lot from say Damon Albarn who is constantly changing the way he approaches music, and that requires a different moniker as well because it represents something new. He has got his finger on what music does these days, which is constantly morphing.
How do you attack the writing and recording process?
I usually write the songs on my own and then start to develop them with others. There is a core in the band of a drummer and bassist, so I start there and then slowly bring in other people. It’s usually based around a session. Tim Bidwell, the producer, puts in a lot from a creative point of view. Between us we have a good mix – I have a more lyrical and folky angle and Tim has a more progressive angle.
You come across as someone who won’t settle for something you’re not 100% happy with?
I have got the songs for the next album, more than enough. Some recently written and some older, but it is always a mixture on the albums. There is so much anxiety around it that I have had to cancel recording sessions, as even though the songs are ready I am not. It’s a weird thing – you really have to be in the right head space to begin with.
Why did you choose the album title First Aid For The Drowning?
I just thought that was such a beautiful sentence. It said so much for the songs I had written and what I was going through. There has been quite a bit of death in the family over the past few years. I think it is natural at my age to start grappling with the ideas of death. The scene it’s taken from in Balzac’s novel The Wild Ass’s Skin is really powerful:– He is standing on a bridge about to throw himself into the river. There is a guy at the side of the river who is paid by the Parisian council to collect the dead bodies out of the river to keep it clean. The guy is about to throw himself in and realises that he’s more valuable as a human being dead than he is alive. He takes afront to this as he thinks how that is possible, so he gives it another go.
You can definitely hear the emotion that comes through in the album…
When I am recording I do get into really dark spaces, particularly if I am recording dark stuff. The album is about death, so for six months when re-listening and re-recording over and over again to these really intense and emotional things I have been through, it puts you in an melancholy state. I feel like the next album could be a bit more positive and a happier experience but the darkness is great as well. As an artist, if you tap into what I call “the river”, there is a core that can resonate with everybody. You take a song like 'Imagine' (John Lennon) which touches everyone – it doesn’t matter what it is about or what it is really, but somehow it has found “the river”. Usually it is a place of melancholy but it’s also a place of hope.
What has been a musical eye-opener for you?
Watching Koyaanisqatsi for the first time, Philip Glass wrote the soundtrack. It was a pivotal moment for Philip Glass, and it was a pivotal moment for soundtracking as well. The work itself is mesmerising, but it really hooked me onto Philip Glass. I have always loved classical music, but I loved the way he was able to bring it into a contemporary environment.
If you could work with anyone, who would it be and what would they add to your music?
It probably sounds crazy, but Phil Spector. I just love his production.
What are you reading at the moment?
I am reading Love In The Time Of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Márquez, an amazing writer. It’s like reading really posh ice cream.
What are you listening to at the moment?
I just discovered the new Lau album, The Bell That Never Rang – it’s blown me away. They are playing in Hastings in November, so I’ll definitely go to that. I listen to a lot of classical music, I like to work with my poetry and writing when I’m listening to music. Especially someone like Philip Glass where you can get into a trance like state.
What are your future plans?
May was a really mental time for gigs, so I’m having a bit of a break at the moment. I should be playing Glastonbury Festival as Mathew The Oxx and in the autumn we will be organising a tour.
There is a video for ‘I Am A Crow’ which we will release at some point.